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Commit CEO Todd Williams: "Our Children Are In Urgent Need"

Since its formation in 2011, the Commit Partnership has let data drive its actions for two reasons. First, you can’t help improve what you can’t measure. Second, data often represents the voice of marginalized students and adults who aren’t adequately heard or represented. Their voice is critical in determining what we as a community prioritize.

As an organization consistently advocating for greater educational equity and excellence, that means closely tracking and working collectively to improve key indicators linked to lifetime success such as 3rd-grade reading and college enrollment. It also means looking hard at a myriad of systemic disparities, ranging from the under-identification of students of color in gifted programming to inequitable access to internships and mentors. And, increasingly, this means analyzing data that on the surface might seem disconnected from the education system.

The fact is, our students don’t attend schools in a vacuum. We know that our city’s concentrated areas of poverty, food insecurity, housing instability, toxic stress and trauma all conspire against a child’s ability to thrive. Our educational outcomes, upon which a still-expanding labor market is increasingly reliant, are the result of a constellation of issues, including criminal justice reform, that have to be attacked holistically if we want to succeed.

With this in mind, data recently provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice represents another clarion call for our community. Today, our state incarcerates ~145,000 adults. Our per capita incarceration rate, the seventh highest in the nation, reflects a taxpayer cost approaching $3 billion annually.

Analysis shows that the zip code with the highest population of incarcerated residents in the entire state of Texas (out of 3,800 zip codes in total) is 75216 in South Oak Cliff. The second highest zip code is just immediately to its east, 75217 in Pleasant Grove. Indefensibly, seven of the Texas’ thirty highest inmate zip codes are within the boundaries of Dallas ISD, representing ~3,500 inmates at an annual cost of over $70 million.

This data is not a judgment on the residents of these neighborhoods. Instead, it is the compelling voice of our neighbors highlighting the stark impact of what decades of systemic inequities can collectively create. These include the unequal provision of school funding and city services; discriminatory mortgage and small business lending; the inequitable distribution of effective teachers; the lack of equal access to quality affordable childcare, healthy food, recreation centers, libraries, internet, public transportation… the list goes on and on.

Education and incarceration have, sadly, become inextricably linked. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to experience financial instability, social stigma, and post-traumatic stress, and these Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) are, in turn, linked to lower educational attainment. Moreover, high school and postsecondary graduation rates have been shown to directly impact crime rates. When you combine this data with the recent data produced about the concentration of poor health outcomes in these exact same zip codes, you quickly get the sense that a child’s chance for life success, if born within certain Dallas communities, is incredibly impaired through no fault of their own.

Let’s be clear. This is unequivocally, morally wrong. We cannot be justifiably outraged when immigrant children are held inhumanely at the border, but remain relatively silent in allowing tens of thousands of children within our own city to grow up in the toxic environment of deep poverty that we collectively aren’t working fast enough, nor investing deeply enough, to solve.

As two of the primary economic mobility institutions within our city, Dallas ISD and DCCCD have taken bold steps to do their part. Pre-K enrollment for four-year olds is now up to 95% in the Dallas ISD while 3rd grade reading scores are up by 12%. We now universally provide breakfast in the classroom and meals during school holidays. We have early colleges in every Dallas ISD high school, and the Dallas County Promise is now offering free tuition, fees and coaching support for up to 22,000 seniors per year within our community college system. The recent passage of Texas House Bill 3 should provide significant, additional support.

But it is absolutely imperative that all of us accelerate our efforts. For example, our teacher and principal preparation programs must commit themselves to consistently training their candidates to avoid exclusionary discipline practices. Our business community should significantly expand relevant work-based learning opportunities to our high school and community college students. Our philanthropic community needs to continue to expand its meaningful contributions to human capital development, modeled after the great work already being done by Toyota in West Dallas and United Way’s "Southern Dallas Thrives" initiative founded with PepsiCo in South Oak Cliff. Our state lawmakers must continue to work to increase postsecondary access to all students to substantially increase to living wage jobs.

The people living in historically marginalized zip codes in Dallas are our neighbors. Their children are our children, and their futures are inextricably linked with ours. Let’s act with a sense of urgency that this data - this voice of our neighbors - demands. We have the talent and resources; we need to put them to work in the places they are needed most.

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