For decades before she arrived, many of Dallas’s white residents had been furiously fighting all but token integration. In 1971, when a federal judge introduced a modest busing plan, he noted that more than 90 percent of Black students in the DISD still attended schools in which less than 10 percent of classmates were white. Busing placed most of the travel burden on Black students. Even so, white flight accelerated. Between 1970 and 1975, the number of white students in the district declined by 43 percent. When the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that district courts couldn’t recapture white students by busing them across district lines, judges sought other means to achieve integration. In Dallas and elsewhere, they turned to magnet schools like Booker T.
In Dallas, the hope was that a high-caliber arts program could attract white students voluntarily to a diverse school. Enrollment was divided roughly in thirds through increasingly competitive auditions. “We’d take the top 30 percent white kids, the top 30 percent Black kids, and the top 30 percent Hispanic kids,” Cogdill said. “Those days under the court order were the most diverse we were—and the best, as far as I’m concerned, for that reason.”
Then the era closed. In 2003, as part of a broader trend, the court in Dallas lifted its desegregation order, declaring it no longer necessary. At the time, just 6.7 percent of students in the district were white. Then, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for school districts to achieve or maintain integration—even voluntarily—by taking race into explicit account to create diverse enrollments. By the next year, only a quarter of Booker T. students were Black and 42 percent were white. (In more recent years, just under a quarter were Black and 39 percent were white.)
When Guinea Bennett-Price, a Booker T. alum, returned as a theater teacher in 2013, she was shocked by how few Black students, especially Black males, were in the theater conservatory. “I was already teaching in the DISD, and so I knew the situation,” she told me, “but seeing it in my classroom, my hair almost caught fire.” Theater tends to attract “more girls, period,” she said, but she recalled that in her first year at Booker T., there wasn’t a single Black male in the theater department’s senior class.
At the same time, Booker T. is more integrated than most American high schools; Black and Hispanic students still make up more than half the school. At LaGuardia High School, the specialized performing-arts school in New York City, roughly two-thirds of students are white or Asian in a city where Black and Hispanic students make up two thirds of the school system. Competitive auditions, which tend to favor students whose families can afford years of voice, music, or dance instruction that hone talents, contribute to the disparity.