Dallas Public Schools: How Does Your School Work?

IMG_3389The Bridge Fund has passed, as I noted previously, but what I appreciated in the days leading up to the school board’s vote on it was that it began a serious dialogue about the challenges schools face in providing an education to students of all backgrounds. I think (I hope) that the ensuing and continuing conversations will be about how each school has its own unique set of challenges, and addressing them has to be uniform yet individualized.

But how do you do that?

I got a glimpse into that premise and how Dallas public schools are working toward that a few weeks ago, when I attended a panel discussion on Dallas public schools hosted by the First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas as part of a series on public education.  It was moderated by former Dallas Morning News scribe (and current Bush Institute editorial director) Bill McKenzie. Two principals and one assistant principal – Dionel Waters of Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center, Richard Castl of Bryan Adams High School and Heather Holland of L.V. Stockard Middle School – spoke about the challenges their schools face, as well as the measures they (under district leadership) are taking to address them. In addition, Leadership ISD executive director Patricia Arvanitis relayed some of the issues her group is looking at in hopes of advocating for the district, as well.

It was an interesting insight into how a Dallas ISD school works. Even as someone who has covered education for several years, and has plenty of friends who are teachers, this inside look into the nuts and bolts of running a school in an urban district left me impressed and reassured. If every administrator and teacher in DISD is even half as invested in their kids as the three I met, I am even more sure of our family’s decision to send Tiny to public school.

Arvanitis kicked off the discussion by providing a statistical breakdown of the biggest challenge the district faces. “One in three kids in Dallas lives in poverty,” she said. “What does that have to do with education? In Dallas, almost everything.”

“If we are not linking poverty to education,” she continued, “then we are missing a significant part of the puzzle. Poverty creates an opportunity gap. Educators cannot expect to close this gap alone.”

Spending directed at early education, Arvanitis said, pays off in spades. Each dollar spent on each child before they reach kindergarten is returned sevenfold. “It means less money spent on intervention,” she said. For instance, in 2013, it was revealed that 16 percent of low income fourth graders in Dallas can read at grade level. Early learning opportunities could change that statistic. Volunteers, she added, can also help through opportunities to help struggling students with reading. “Just one hour can change the outcomes for those kids,” she said.

Also important? Leadership at the individual campus level. An effective principal can be a significant determiner in the successes or failures of a school. “Studies show that a strong, effective principal can have as much as up to 20 percent impact on school achievement on his or her school campus,” McKenzie said in his opening remarks, adding that while everyone loves the stories about the “superheroes” who come in to a struggling school and turn it around ala Jaime Escalante, with a district the size of Dallas, “you just can’t wait for a Jaime Escalante to show up, you have to have the conditions to attract and retain those folks.

McKenzie outlined what a Wallace Institute and Bush Institute joint study found made for good principals, and well, some of it may sound familiar. Aligning goals and strategies (as DISD superintendent Mike Miles has, with his five goals for the district); have collective responsibility, balanced autonomy and continuous learning for educators; effective management and support systems; and systems and policies that allow principals to manage their talent.

As the panel discussion began, all three administrators said the educational opportunities for their positions are ongoing and plentiful. With coaching from their respective degree programs and through the district, the resources, it seems, are readily available. Castl said a lot of the practical training is on the job, where he gets the opportunity to put the theories he learned in school into practical use. He also mentioned that there is also training that helps schools form leadership teams that help avoid that potential leadership vacuum that can occur if a principal leaves.

Hollands mentioned that she was actually a product of DISD herself, graduating from Bryan Adams before going on to the University of Texas, planning on a career in advertising. After being recruited by Teach for America, she encountered a student at the DISD elementary school she was assigned to that couldn’t read when he walked into her third grade classroom.

“He couldn’t read the word ‘the,’ but by the end of third grade he could read at a second grade level,” Hollands said. “After that, I thought, ‘I can’t leave this.’” She moved on to teach at Stockard Middle School, and after getting her Masters, she became assistant principal there.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking, yet inspirational story came from Waters, whose school, he said, falls into a zip code where pretty much everyone is well below the poverty line. In fact, in the 75210 zip code that Dunbar students are in, according to a UCLA study, 97.3 percent fall into the poverty category.

“The only reason we aren’t at 100 percent poverty at my school is that three teachers bring their kids to campus,” Waters said. And with that statistic comes its own set of challenges. Waters has children that come in on Monday that haven’t eaten all weekend. Those snow days most children enjoyed earlier this year? They caused Waters some real anxiety, since no school meant no food for some of his students.

“We are maybe the poorest school in the district, but our expectations are still high,” he said. And those high expectations seem to be producing results already.

But how do you teach under those conditions? And how do principals make sure their teachers are up to challenges like this?

Castl said that it is difficult to achieve and monitor the goals with an eye to improving student learning. Castl and Holland said their schools utilize a summer planning period two weeks before school starts so teachers can work on curriculum alignment. Holland said they also build in two planning periods to the day, one for teachers to plan on their own, and another for collaborative planning with other teachers.

Since many of their teachers are new, Holland added, they also utilize lesson rehearsals, where newer teachers practice teaching their lessons in front of other teachers to get feedback. “We always tell them that their practice shouldn’t be with the kids. The kids should get their very best.”

Since Dunbar is an Imagine 2010 Madison High School feeder school, they get an additional hour each day, Waters explained. It’s mandatory for teachers, and optional for students, who can get tutoring and mentoring. They also take an hour on Thursday to examine trends and issues at the school, and provide professional development for specific situations for specific teachers.

“Our best resource is the teachers in the building,” Waters added when asked about how much his school relies on research to determine courses of action. If a teacher is having problems with a specific subject or student, often other teachers can provide the advice and pointers. He also allows some teachers to have leadership opportunities to mentor and lead professional development.

My take away from the discussion was this: Contrary to what you might glean from the “sexy” stories the media might provide that are rife with misused and misunderstood data and barely-contained zeal for firing district leadership, the real stories are at your local schools. They aren’t flamboyant, they aren’t going to get a WFAA reporter camped out in your parking lot, but the miracles and magic are there every day.

Get to know your local schools.