Dolphin Heights Works to Close Achievement Gap

October 14, 2011  

BEYOND THE BUBBLE

By Ashley Withers
awithers@smu.edu

Backpacks cover the wood floor and the sound of laughter fills the air. The endless energy of children just released from the confines of school has taken over the little house on Silver Avenue in East Dallas.

Then, little bags of animal crackers appear in the hands of the afterschool care teacher, Anna Hill.

“What do we say?” Hill said.

“Thank you Ms. Hill!” the kids chimed in unison.

For the past three years, Hill has run an afterschool tutoring program through the Dolphin Heights Neighborhood Association, an organization that she founded back in 2004.

Dolphin Heights is a low-income neighborhood in East Dallas bordered by Dolphin Road. When developers decided to build more houses in the area a few years back, the city suggested they start a crime watch group with the area’s residents.

The first meeting took place in August 2004 with only two people—Hill and one other elderly woman. But the group quickly grew.

“The next time more people came and we took votes on who was going to do what,” Hill said. “I talked too much and I got to be the president. From there I have been a busy retired person.”

A feisty woman with a melodious, warbling voice and an easy laugh, Hill has defined and created the community that Dolphin Heights residents enjoy today. One of the most positive changes for the neighborhood came in the form of her after-school tutoring program.

“I would be sitting on the front porch and I would see these kids playing in the street and all. I thought ‘now I know they need to be doing homework’,” she said. “At that time I had a really good community assistant and I said something to her about it and she said ‘Go for it.’”

According to Hill, around 300 people live in Dolphin Heights. Over the past decade, the area has become predominantly Hispanic.

Hill has lived in Dolphin Heights since the mid 1980s, back when the neighborhood used to have a reputation as a drug-dealing hotspot of Dallas.

“This neighborhood just kind of hit bottom,” Hill said. “I’m honestly surprised I survived because people knew I would call the police on them [her neighbors] if I saw them doing something wrong.”

Today the police come around for a different reason—to check on the progress of Hill’s “kids.” Dallas police have been working on their own afterschool initiative to help kids in high-risk neighborhoods and admire Hill’s work in Dolphin Heights.

“The thought is that we should get them off the streets and do something productive,” Lieutenant Kevin Campbell said. “She saw that way before we did and started her own program.”

Once she had the idea, Hill set out to find some volunteers and within a few short weeks she launched the Dolphin Heights afterschool tutoring program. Around 20 kids showed up for the program, ranging from four to 13 years old.

“It’s like the old lady teaching the kid and the kid teaching the old lady,” Hill said with a laugh. “They give me a fit, but I love them.”

Though Hill runs the program by herself, she relies on dedicated volunteers to help tutor the dozens of children who come in each day. The entire program is funded by private donations of both time and money.

“These kids, even though sometimes they are hard-headed, really are all sweet,” Woodrow Wilson High School senior and volunteer Alexandra Lopez said. “They just look like they needed somebody to help.”

Lopez has been a program volunteer for about a year. Although she is there to help the kids with their homework, it is the connections she has made with some of the younger students that seem to have really made the difference.

According to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who live in poverty often fall into achievement gaps and fall through the cracks of the education system. Latino and poor students are four times as likely to attend a school that ranks in the bottom third of the state as a white child. The study also showed that on average, Hispanic students trailed white classmates by more than 20 test-score points in both reading and math.

First grader Isaiah Martinez is learning how to write the alphabet. The capitol “A” is easy for him, but he starts to struggle on his “B.”

“Let me show you something, let me show you something!” Martinez said pulling on Hill’s arm. He proudly pointed to his row of “B’s” before asking if he could play a game.

Six-year-old Ivan Montoya-Gomez is in the 2nd grade at Dunbar Elementary. For the past three years, Ivan and all five of his siblings have been attending Ms. Hill’s afterschool care.

“My mom takes us here to do our homework every day,” Montoya-Gomez said. “I like it because they give us snacks!”

When Ivan first started in the program he couldn’t read and had a hard time speaking English. Now, he is consistently one of the first students done with his homework and teachers tell Hill that he is rapidly developing.

“I saw improvements on their grades and that made me feel good,” Hill said. “I’m going for it.”

A sign on the door reads, “As you walk through the door always look to see if you can hold it open for someone else.” This sign serves as one last lesson for Ivan and his siblings as they take what they learn from Hill back into their world.

“It’s amazing seeing them grow up,” Hill said. “I’m seeing that some of what I’m saying is sticking in their heads.”

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