Held back to get ahead; Some say school success is a question of timing Critics warn delaying kindergarten doesn’t guarantee advantage

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Sarah Nelson, 4 years old and resplendent in a pink Barbie dress, has been asked to name all the animals she can.

“Zebra! Um … lamb! Pigs! And … crocodiles!”

Her eyes scan the room’s plain walls in search of inspiration. She sticks out her tongue, tilts her head and bites her lower lip.

“Dolphins. Whales! Sharks!”

Sarah probably thought she was simply strolling through an imaginary zoo. But she was actually helping to determine whether she’ll be a member of the Class of 2017 or 2018.

Sarah was taking the Gesell Developmental Assessment, a test that many schools use to determine whether a child is ready for kindergarten. And across Texas, more parents seem to think their 5-year-olds aren’t.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of state enrollment data found that a growing number of kindergarten students start the school year at age 6 instead of the standard 5.

Their numbers are still relatively small statewide – only about one in 20. But in some school districts – particularly well-off suburban districts – waiting until 6 is becoming the norm for kids with summer birthdays. In Highland Park ISD, for instance, one in five students starts kindergarten at 6.

“These are kids who are not just going to college – these are kids going to MIT, to Harvard,” said Victoria Pursch, executive director of curriculum and instruction in the Comal schools, based in New Braunfels, Texas. “And their parents want to give them every advantage.”

There are as many reasons for the decisions to delay kindergarten as there are parents who make them. Some say their child is smaller than her peers. Some say their boy can’t sit still in a classroom chair. Some want Junior to be captain of the high school football team.

But not everyone agrees that an increasing number of 6-year-old kindergartners is a good thing.

“The ones we’re holding out are the ones who need school the most,” said Cami Jones, who has been director of early childhood education at the Texas Education Agency since 1987. She is an active opponent of holding children out of kindergarten.

“Whatever reason you give – they’re socially not ready, they’re emotionally immature, whatever – those are the children who need to be in school. The solution is not to keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Parents’ choice

Texas law states that children who turn 5 before Sept. 1 are eligible to enroll in kindergarten. (Schools can make exceptions for younger kids.) But unlike in later grades, kindergarten enrollment is not required by law. So parents have leeway to keep their 5-year-olds at home if they choose.

“I just couldn’t send her to school that early,” said Stacey Townsend, a Hurst mom whose daughter Victoria has a late August birthday. “Her level of maturity and all that is so different from the others who would have been in her class.”

That’s one way students reach kindergarten older than average – parents hold them out a year. The other is for students to spend two years in kindergarten – often with the second year spent in an in-between program called “pre-first grade” or “transitional first grade.” (The Texas Education Agency doesn’t recognize such programs as a distinct grade; the agency counts them as a second year of kindergarten.)

“I deal with intellectually bright, chronologically young children,” said Louise Golden, a pre-first teacher in Comal ISD outside San Antonio. “It’s for the child who is so shy she won’t open her mouth all day, or who has motor skills so weak he can’t form letters correctly on paper.”

Each spring, many suburban preschools and kindergartens use the Gesell test to judge whether students are ready. The test doesn’t attempt to measure a child’s intelligence. Instead, it measures mental maturity and a variety of motor skills. Kids who can’t stay still or focus on a task don’t fare well.

Such was the case with Johnny Ramsbottom of Grapevine.

“We were at a restaurant, and Johnny had a hard time sitting still,” said his mother, Helen. “He was curious about the things on the wall. He wasn’t being disobedient – just being a 4-year-old boy.”

At first glance, he seems a likely candidate for kindergarten. His birthday is in early May, three months before the start of school. His mother (though she admits her possible bias) says he’s one of the smartest kids in his peer group, and he’s not a discipline problem.

But he was only borderline on the Gesell. Ms. Ramsbottom also said he’s an inch or two shorter than average and can get fidgety.

“He’s on track to be right at age 5, developmentally, at the start of school,” she said. “But some people might be ahead of him.”

Ms. Ramsbottom said she doesn’t plan to send Johnny to kindergarten until 2005, after he turns 6.

One reason for such decisions, educators say, is that kindergarten has changed as Texas has moved to higher academic standards. As test pressure has increased, schools have pushed more academic content earlier in a child’s schooling. That means more time sitting still for lessons and less time playing.

“We’ve moved the curriculum down a year over the last 20 years,” said Maggie Hanna, principal of Comal ISD’s Rahe Primary School, where the pre-first grade emphasizes reading and hands-on, exploratory learning. “What used to be covered in first grade is now kindergarten. The kids who are ready for it do fine, but not everyone is ready.”

In Comal ISD, the popularity of the pre-first program has exploded in the last few years. In the mid-1990s, about 5 percent of Comal district kindergartners started the school year at age 6. Now, nearly 20 percent do.

“I think it’s the advent of that third-grade test,” said Victoria Pursch, Comal ISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. She’s referring to the TAKS reading test, which third-graders must pass to advance to the next grade.

“We have very savvy parents who pay attention to what’s coming and how it’ll affect their kids,” she said. “They think, ‘I’ve got this young child who’s doing OK. But I want to set them up now to be successful. I don’t want them to worry about success down the line.'”

Educators divided

While parents are the main drivers, in some cases a single principal, counselor or teacher can advocate a later start.

“Parents want to quit paying the day-care fees because it’s a burden on their household income,” said Beth Briscoe, principal of Needville Elementary in Needville, southwest of Houston. “We all understand that. But the child shouldn’t be in school until he’s physically ready.”

Needville has had one of the state’s highest rates of older kindergartners for more than a decade. Last year, 28 percent of its kindergartners started at age 6. Ms. Briscoe said she shows a brief video to all parents of prospective kindergartners before it’s time to enroll. “The film makes parents realize that you can’t make your child learn until they’re ready to learn,” she said.

But some educators warn that holding children back could put them at greater risk for dropping out later. A large body of research indicates that being older than average for your grade is a major risk factor. Some researchers say it’s the single greatest predictor of who will drop out.

Ms. Jones, the state director of early childhood education, said older kindergarten students were a growing issue in the 1980s, when many Texas school districts adopted pre-first programs. But in 1990, the State Board of Education encouraged schools to eliminate the programs, in part because of the dropout issue. Most districts followed suit, and the number of overage kindergartners dropped.

In the late 1990s, their numbers began to climb again. In 1995 in Texas, 9,718 students started kindergarten at age 6. By 2002, 17,039 did.

Many parents don’t want their children – often ones with summertime birthdays – to be the youngest or smallest in their kindergarten classes. But someone has to be the youngest and smallest. Ms. Jones said it’s not fair to other children to have summer-born kids cutting to the start of the line.

“If we’re filling up our kindergarten classes with big 6-year-olds,” she said, “then the 5-year-olds who enroll are going to be looked at as being behind when they’re really not.”

There’s some anecdotal evidence that this is happening. Ms. Ramsbottom said that one of her reasons for holding back Johnny was that other parents in her neighborhood often hold back their kids. That means that if Johnny started kindergarten at age 5, some of the kids in his class would be older, making the age gap between them and Johnny seem even wider.

It’s also a class issue. Children in better-off families are much less likely to drop out of high school, so parents are probably less worried about their being older than peers. And families that can afford a stay-at-home mom or a high-quality preschool are more likely to consider holding a child back.

“Money is a factor,” said Ms. Ramsbottom, who works only a few hours a week and has time to volunteer at her son’s preschool. “If you’re not a stay-home mom, that’s a lot of child care you have to pay for. I’m sure some people say, ‘I’ve just got to get this kid off to school.'”

Of course, Ms. Jones said, those families – generally suburban and well-off – are often the ones least in need of an extra academic boost. “It leaves the poor 5-year-olds even farther behind,” she said.

And in Texas, where football is king, athletic prowess is sometimes a consideration. An extra year of growth could, down the line, make the difference between a third-string bench warmer and a starting quarterback.

“The hardest thing to be in school is a small, young boy,” said Margo Clark, a counselor at Johnson Elementary in Southlake.

Older kindergartners eventually turn into older, bigger high school students. Some of the school districts with the highest kindergarten retention rates are also, perhaps coincidentally, home to top-notch football programs.

“It’s an unintentional benefit,” said Comal’s Dr. Pursch. Comal’s Smithson Valley High School has made the state football playoffs for the last eight seasons and has gone 24-4 over the last two years.

Chris Nelson, father of giraffe-lover Sarah, also has a son, Jake. He and his wife, Lori, decided to keep Jake out of kindergarten until age 6 because they felt he might not have been emotionally ready. But Mr. Nelson acknowledges sports were a factor.

“I hate to say it, but I’m like any other dad with a son,” he said. “You want your son to do well in sports. Size gives you an advantage.”

Academic effects unclear

But research has been unable to find much evidence that being older gives students much of an academic advantage. A University of Colorado analysis of 16 studies found that pre-first programs had, on average, no significant impact on student performance.

In the 1990s, Irving schools had a pre-first program. But it was eliminated after the district did a study in 1997 that indicated pre-first graduates fared no better academically than similar students who went straight to first grade.

Pre-first graduates were even slightly more likely to later fail a state test, be placed in special education or repeat a grade.

“We found many of the same things that national research has found: While there may be temporary effects, those effects are not lasting,” said Whit Johnstone, Irving’s director of evaluation, planning and research.

Last year, there were fewer above-age kindergartners (52) in Irving than there were in Highland Park (77) – even though Irving’s total enrollment is five times greater than Highland Park’s.

Sarah: Ahead of the pack

Back to Sarah Nelson, the lip-biting 4-year-old. She won’t turn 5 until May, but her list of animals scored at a 6-year-old level.

“Kids who are younger developmentally will usually just say ‘doggy, kitty, horsey,'” said Sarah Bentz, director of the First Presbyterian Church preschool in Grapevine, who administered the Gesell.

Sarah had a strong, confident grip on her pencil and built a block tower without difficulty – both signs of good motor skills. She answered questions with ease. (Her favorite indoor activity: jumping on her bed.) Despite a few problems, like a few backward numerals, she passed with flying colors.

“She’s definitely ready for kindergarten,” Ms. Bentz said.

School officials are angling for more nutritious meals; Some South Texas districts may soon fortify fatty lunch fare with healthy fish oil to lure kids, but critics aren’t biting

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Forget “Would you like fries with that?” In some Texas schools, the question might soon be: “Would you like fish oil with that?”

Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs announced new rules aimed at making school lunches healthier – in part by cutting back on fatty fare such as french fries.

But a group of South Texas school districts isn’t planning on getting rid of old favorites like pork tamales, bacon-laced breakfast tacos and gooey nacho cheese. Instead, the districts are considering injecting the food with oil taken from a small, herringlike fish. The oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which research has linked to positive health effects, including decreased risk of heart attacks.

Fish oil advocates say it’s a chance to make lunchtime healthier without getting rid of children’s favorite foods.

“I’d say this is a milestone,” said Margaret Lopez, who leads the child nutrition program of the Texas Education Agency’s Region I, which includes districts in the Rio Grande Valley.

But some critics aren’t sure that the fish oil isn’t a sort of snake oil.

They say the quantity of omega-3 added to foods is too small to have any health benefit. And others say they’d rather put their energies into teaching kids how to eat better than adding a bit of nutrition to fatty tamales.

“To add a healthy fat to an unhealthy food, I don’t know if that makes the food better,” said Stacy Kennedy, a clinical nutritionist at Boston’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Why do we need to disguise and manipulate it? Why are we sneaking it in?”

This fish tale highlights a bigger issue: How much meddling should schools do with the food they serve? And how difficult is it to get kids to eat healthier foods?

The story began with two Texas companies: Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., one of the nation’s largest fish oil producers, and Mercedes-based H&H Foods, a meat processor that is one of the Southwest’s largest school lunch suppliers. (H&H is owned by the Hinojosa family, including U.S. Rep. Rub?n Hinojosa.)

Omega Protein Corp. gets its fish oil from menhaden, a small filter-feeding fish that resembles the herring and lives in Atlantic and Gulf waters. (Menhaden are also used to make swine feed, marine lubricants and lipstick.) The company saw H&H – which already produces much of the meat for school lunches in Texas – as a potential partner.

The idea: Take the foods that H&H produces for schools – among them the aforementioned tacos, tamales and cheese sauce – and juice them up with fish oil, one of the best sources of omega-3.

A substantial body of research has said omega-3 can improve heart health, cleaning clogged arteries and lowering risk of heart disease. But Omega Protein also argued in promotional literature that the fatty acids can fight learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. Some studies have shown such a link, but that area of research is less well-developed, dietitians say.

“I call it the preventative maintenance solution,” said Harold Goode, Omega Protein’s director of food service. “It’s very good for brain development.”

Once the idea was hatched, H&H started mixing the products, which are made by replacing some of the saturated fats in the regular foods with the fish oil. The first results were not encouraging. “I’m not going to tell you we hit the nail on the head first time out of the box,” said Ruben Hinojosa Jr., H&H’s vice president for sales and marketing.

The cheese sauce, in particular, had consistency problems. “We told them it didn’t work,” said Mark Wallace, a purchasing specialist for Region I. “It was too oily.”

But company officials kept working at it, and after a few more tries, the taste problem faded. The foods’ “flavor profile,” to use the food service term, reached a point where the fish-oil infusions were indistinguishable from the old favorites, according to taste-testers.

The 38 school districts in the lower Rio Grande Valley buy much of their food via a cooperative run by Region I. Last month, the fishy foods were formally added to the list of foods schools could buy through the co-op.

Now all that’s left is for schools to decide to serve them.

The idea of fortifying foods to improve health value isn’t new. Adding iodine to table salt has largely ended the threat of goiter and its affiliated mental retardation in America. Federal regulations require that folate be added to most cereals to fight spina bifida.

The federal government sets nutritional requirements for school lunches, so a niche industry has grown to provide nutrition-spiked foods for campus cafeterias. H&H, for instance, already produces hamburger patties made with cherries to lower the fat content.

“We’re not saying it’s an apple. We’re not broccoli,” said Franco Harris, the retired NFL hall-of-fame running back who now owns Pittsburgh-based Super Bakery. The company produces the Super Donut, a vitamin-packed cake doughnut served by schools in all 50 states. “But if someone is going to eat a bakery product, there’s not one more nutritious than ours.”

Conflict for dietitians

But boosted foods such as the fish-oil tamale or the Super Donut cause an internal conflict in many dietitians. On one hand, there’s little doubt they’re healthier than the foods in unaltered form. On the other, though, they encourage students to think of doughnuts and nacho cheese sauce as good things to eat. Even if the cafeteria’s cheese sauce has some nutritional merit, do schools want to encourage kids to make it part of their regular diet?

“I’m not a big proponent of adding additives to any food,” said Tom Cunningham, director of food services in Garland schools. “Are we going to spoon-feed them for life, or do we teach them self-responsibility and how to eat well on their own?”

But kids’ palates don’t always crave the right foods. The Texas Department of Agriculture’s new rules require cuts in the amount of fatty food put on children’s plates, starting Aug. 1. But schools that have tried switching from deep-frying to baking or steaming have sometimes faced student backlashes.

Grilled fish, walnuts and flaxseed are hard sells for an 8-year-old. Tamales and tacos aren’t.

“If they’re going to have tamales regardless, they may as well go with omega-3 tamales,” said Priscilla Conners, a University of North Texas professor and registered dietitian.

So far, South Texas school districts aren’t sold. Several districts are still weighing whether to dive in.

Dora Pena, food services director for the Weslaco school district, said she was considering a pilot program for the new tamales. “It’s the way of the future, supplementing,” she said. “But I’m not quite sure yet. I need to study it more.”

Not unexpectedly, the boosted foods cost more. Breakfast tacos, which cost 31 cents apiece normally, cost 33 cents with omega-3. The price of a tamale goes up from 19.3 cents to 20.3 cents. But Cynthia Cardenas, director of child nutrition services in Mercedes school district, said that small increase wouldn’t be enough to affect her decision.

FDA allowance

Several officials said they’re waiting for a sign from the federal government before jumping in. The Food and Drug Administration has never set a recommended daily allowance for omega-3, as it does for vitamins and minerals. If the FDA sets a standard, it’ll be easier to support boosting omega-3 in the lunchroom, they say.

“It’s something I’m very interested in,” Ms. Cardenas said. “But we’re not serving it right away. I would like to see a seal of approval from someone else first.”

She said she’d have no problem with eating the new tamales and tacos herself. “But when you’re feeding the masses, it’s a different matter.”

Nutritionists said even with omega-3’s established benefits, a few tacos and tamales won’t be enough to make a difference. In Mercedes schools, for instance, tacos and tamales are served only about twice a month. The small amount of omega-3 in H&H’s products won’t be enough to make a difference if they’re served that rarely, Ms. Kennedy and other nutritionists said.

No matter what districts decide, it’s unlikely that any positive results would be visible in the near future.

After all, the most concrete benefit of omega-3 is a decreased risk of heart disease. While some teens have high cholesterol, heart problems generally don’t show up until much later in life – long after the South Texas fish oil debate will have come to a close.

School ratings tougher; New system to winnow top-ranked campuses, but flexibility added

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Schools have a new set of hoops to jump through.

The Texas Education Agency announced a preliminary version of its new school ratings system Friday. It outlines the new set of standards schools must meet to earn the state’s coveted ratings.

The bottom line: It’ll be much harder to earn a top rating than before, and the number of highly rated schools and districts is certain to drop statewide.

But the new rules also include more flexibility than some educators had expected.

“I appreciate that they’ve built in some options for schools,” Plano Superintendent Doug Otto said.

Texas first started rating schools and districts in 1994, primarily on how their students performed on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests. The ratings are the centerpiece of the state’s education reform record and have proven to be a strong motivator for schools to improve.

Over time, parents and community leaders adopted the labels – exemplary, recognized, acceptable and low-performing – as signifiers of quality. Real estate agents used them when talking up one neighborhood over another.

For starters, say goodbye to the dreaded “low-performing” tag, the state’s lowest under the old system. It’s been renamed “academically unacceptable.” The old “acceptable” tag got a subtler rechristening as “academically acceptable.” The state’s two highest grades, “exemplary” and “recognized,” remain the same.

The ratings will be determined primarily by passing rates on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the test that replaced TAAS last year. To be exemplary, a school must have a 90 percent passing rate in all subject areas: math, science, social studies, writing and reading/English language arts. In addition, it must meet the 90 percent standard in all its student subgroups: white, black, Hispanic and poor.

To be recognized, the cutoff is 70 percent. Under the old system, it was 80 percent.

The complication comes at the academically acceptable level. The state has set different cutoffs for each test: 50 percent for social studies, writing and reading/English language arts; 35 percent for math; and 25 percent for science.

That’s in part a recognition that science has historically been the forgotten element of the state’s testing system. Science has never counted toward a school’s state rating before.

“Social studies and science are now receiving the same prominence as reading and math have in the past,” said Allen Superintendent Jenny Preston. “That’s a new component of the system.”

Rewarding progress

Also new this year: Two ways for schools to earn higher ratings with lower test scores. Schools whose scores are improving rapidly will be able to avoid the academically unacceptable tag even if their scores miss the mark. And some schools will be able to miss cutoffs in up to three student subgroups and still get a higher rating.

“That says to me that they’ve listened to what educators have been asking for: ‘Please stop and look at the improvement we’re making,'” said Irving High School principal Carolyn Dowler.

The system has two other requirements, one regarding special-education students and one on high school completion rates.

The end result of all these changes will be lower ratings across the board.

“It’s going to be tougher,” TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “We probably won’t see as many exemplary districts and campuses as we used to see. But we firmly believe our schools can reach these new bars.”

She pointed out that in 1994, only 22 campuses statewide earned the exemplary title. In 2002, the old system’s last year, 1,908 schools were exemplary.

Particularly hard-hit in the transition: suburban areas that have gotten used to exemplary schools. Many will see their neighborhood campuses drop to recognized or worse.

“We’re expecting a downshifting of scores until everybody can ramp up with the new system,” Dr. Otto said. “I think everybody’s going to be affected.”


The system is far too complicated to project how area schools will fare, but here are some examples of how last year’s test scores would have affected a few:

*Highland Park’s McCulloch Intermediate has been exemplary every year since 1996. But if its students don’t improve their TAKS performance from last year, their science scores could drop the school to recognized.

*Plano’s Shepton High School has been exemplary since 1995. But last year’s math and science scores were only good enough to earn an academically acceptable rating under the new system.

*Apollo Junior High in Richardson was exemplary in the last TAAS ratings. But math scores for minority students could drop it to academically acceptable.

In general, high schools and middle schools should see the biggest rating drops because they have lower TAKS scores than elementary schools.

In Dallas, only one high school, North Dallas, is currently rated low-performing under the old system. But if last year’s TAKS scores are repeated, 12 high schools could be academically unacceptable.

The ratings system was originally supposed to be released in December. TEA officials have attributed the delay to the effort required to meet federal requirements under the No Child Left Behind law – which created another, separate rating system for schools called adequate yearly progress.

It will be possible under the new system for a school to get a thumbs-down from one system and a thumbs-up from the other. For example, a school could be exemplary but miss adequate yearly progress, or academically unacceptable and make such progress.

TEA officials will be accepting public comment on the plan until March 27. The plan will be finalized in early April.

The first ratings based on the new system will be released in October.

Storm pelts North Texas, causes damage; Wind makes most trouble, but no serious injuries reported

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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For about half an hour Thursday afternoon, North Texas was under intense aquatic assault.

Sheets of rain pelted anyone foolish enough to be outside, wind gales slammed into buildings, and creeks ran angry and full.

But like March’s own cliched path – in like a lion, out like a lamb – the storm’s narrow band passed into calm quickly, leaving behind scattered minor damage and no reports of serious injuries.

Winds reached up to 80 mph. The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for 47 Texas counties, including the entire Dallas metro area.

But most of the damage came from straight-line winds, a weather service official said. Across the region, several roofs and power lines were lost.

The storm’s timing – when school buses were preparing to take children home or to after-school events – forced changes at some area schools. Evening sporting events were canceled in Fort Worth and Lewisville. Denton schools delayed the normal dismissal time, and the Carroll school district didn’t allow students and faculty to leave their campuses for two hours. In Forney, winds blew a school bus off the road, but no children were injured.

Dallas police recorded more than 60 road accidents within three hours, including one involving more than a dozen cars on Interstate 35E at Marsalis Avenue.

Several families were displaced in Ellis County when their homes were damaged. The American Red Cross opened a temporary shelter Thursday night at Bowie Elementary School, 501 Jetter Drive in Ennis.

“We try to provide for their emergency needs in the first 72 hours, but we also set people up in hotels and long-term shelters,” said Dwain Elliott of the American Red Cross Dallas Chapter.

In Collin County, a gymnasium wall collapsed and the roof blew off at Farmersville Intermediate School. Officials said classes in the Farmersville district would be canceled Friday.

Some mobile homes were damaged or destroyed near Copeville, also in Collin County.

Jessie Strayhorn called it a “miracle” that his brother-in-law and nephew were spared when winds lifted their mobile home from its foundation and shattered it.

“I’ve been in tornadoes before, so I know how devastating they can be,” said Mr. Strayhorn, who lives in Caddo Mills, about 15 miles east of Copeville, where severe winds knocked down power lines, lifted roofs off homes and scattered debris. “I’m just happy they’re alive.”

At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, officials halted takeoffs and landings for about 30 minutes, forcing about 40 flights to seek other places to land.

The rainfall – up to 2 inches – hit an already saturated ground. The airport is 3.25 inches above normal for rainfall this year.

In Irving, Fire Department rescuers were called to a creek when a girl was reportedly swept away by a burgeoning creek. A neighbor pulled the girl out before rescuers arrived, fire officials said.

The storm caused significant damage as it swept through areas west and south of Dallas-Fort Worth. A small tornado overturned mobile homes in Jones County and winds ripped off awnings in Stephens County.

A greenhouse in Montague was destroyed, and a Killeen restaurant lost its top. Other damage was reported in Erath, Archer, Mitchell and Baylor counties.

Winds knocked out power in scattered areas around the Dallas area, including parts of Fort Worth, Kennedale, Rowlett and Seagoville.

But by 4 p.m., the sun was shining brightly over downtown Dallas.

Staff writers Gretel C. Kovach, Lesley T?llez, Stella Chavez, Jennifer Packer and Jeff Mosier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.