Dallas Public Schools: A Chat with Miguel Solis

Photo courtesy Miguel Solis

Photo courtesy Miguel Solis

A conversation with Miguel Solis will leave you pretty freakin’ pumped about education in general, and Dallas ISD in particular.

A few weeks ago, before the holidays, I met with the Dallas ISD school board president for coffee and a frank discussion about the public perception problems DISD has. One of the first things I told him was a personal anecdote that kind of, in my opinion, illustrates the problems the district faces.

When my son was born, I found myself up a lot late at night, trying to amuse myself during feedings. I drifted to Babycenter, which is basically a virtual mom’s group where you can find moms with kids the same age as yours, kids with similar learning difficulties or allergies, people who are facing infertility, etc. I found myself eventually entrenched in the mom’s club for my son’s birth month, and when some of us got closer and migrated over to Facebook, we stayed friends.

Flash forward two years or so, and someone in our group says they’re moving to the Dallas area, and asks about neighborhoods and schools. I relay the nascent information I’ve gathered about DISD, and pertinent links. Almost immediately, the dogpiling began. “You don’t want to send your kids to DISD. There are gangs there,” one person said. “You can’t send your kids to DISD, they won’t be able to go to college,” said another. “You can’t send your kid to Dallas public schools,” still another chastised. “The schools are just no good.

As I told this story to Solis, he nodded, not unfamiliar with the things I had been told. “When I asked them to show me concrete proof of that,” I concluded, “Nobody could. They couldn’t tell me why they thought the schools were bad – they just did.”

Solis gave me a big old grin, and with that, we settled in for an almost two-hour discussion about where Dallas public schools are going. We discussed how nobody ever talks about how education is just as vital to the infrastructure (and attracting corporations) as water lines, roads and electricity. We talked about people actually being discouraged by their real estate agent from buying a certain home because it was in Dallas schools – even though the schools in question were consistently receiving high rankings by the TEA. We discussed his hope (and mine too, really) that people could look past the political wrangling that sometimes marks the coverage of the district’s board meetings, and look at (as I have suggested in other posts) the schools in their feeder pattern, where the real magic happens.

How do you address all that? Well, jump with me, won’t you?

For DISD to be successful in getting everyone (parents, students, teachers, the community) to buy in, “You have to say you’re going to be innovative,” Solis said, “and you have to make it appealing.”

The district has a goal of 35 new schools of choice by 2020, Solis said. For instance, he said that Foster Elementary in Midway Hollow, which is a short walk from my house is applying to become a fine arts school.

The district is aiming to expand the number of schools of choice, and to increase early childhood education.

“We need to reach out to parents who aren’t partaking in the early childhood education offerings,” he said.

But more importantly, Solis said, the district needs to look at what makes the current schools of choice so desirable. If the methods (Montessori, for example) are working and are helping students learn better, maybe the true answer is making those methods available to more students.

“If we know these things are true,” Solis said, “why don’t we break the mold? We are going to invest money in research-based options. And it doesn’t always have to be a competitive process. We really think we should make it more accessible to more kids.”

“What if we give those kids a chance – regardless of whether they can pass a test?”

The prime example in that philosophy is Mata Elementary. Long a neighborhood school, DISD switched it to a Montessori to see if the methods that worked so well for years at Dealey and Harry Stone would translate to that arena. Registration was open to the neighborhoods that traditionally fed into Mata, and then to students at Lakewood and Stonewall elementaries, and then to DISD students in general.

As a result, Solis said the school has seen an uptick in parental engagement. People want to send their child to their neighborhood school – and they want to be involved in its successes.

Another way Solis says the city and district can overcome some of the public perception issues comes from a solid assist from real estate agents, he said, among other sectors in the community that help people find the infrastructure of the city.

“What can we do to bring in those critical people?” Solis said. “If you did a poll of real estate agents, for instance, and asked them what was going on in DISD, what the district’s plans were, not many would probably know those answers.”

“We need to provide that to them.”

Part of the way, Solis acknowledges, that the district can get more critical people like the real estate community involved is to “create schools that speak for themselves.”

“How are we addressing the ills and communicating the good things?” he said. “I think if anything, we need to over communicate.”

Selling the district is a daunting task, with the laundry list of challenges that face most urban school districts. “Our poverty rate is growing,” he said. “If we fail this generation of kids, it will only continue to grow.”

He agreed that not every child will want to go to college. The district’s goal, he said, is to not just provide an education that will lead to college, but also to “provide an education that will prepare a kid who is ready for the workforce.”

Another way to make education accessible? Address the summer learning gap. With school out for the summer, regression is the norm – ask any teacher. Without summer enrichment of some kind (even if it’s just in the form of an incentive-based reading program), many teachers will tell you that they spend the first month (at least) of the school year re-teaching concepts.

“The summer learning gap is one of the biggest obstacles,” Solis said, adding that the agrarian-based calendar that has become the standard for most schools isn’t really as necessary today. Summer reading initiatives and summer enrichment are starting to take a foothold in Dallas, but he’d like to see more.

“Summer school doesn’t have to be for kids who fail a class,” he said. “Currently, our summer school offerings lack rigor.”

That can be addressed, Solis said, by pairing master teachers with new teachers, and really challenging students who take summer classes. Some of that is in talks now. Other things being talked about? Testing schedules (as in, how many are truly necessary) and the ongoing discussions about home rule.

But all in all, Solis said he can’t help but be upbeat about DISD. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re at the forefront of some exciting changes. Fiscally our fund balance is in very good shape. We have so many good things to point to.”