Low Enrollment At Some Campuses Spurs Revamp Strategy for Dallas ISD

Dallas ISD

Dallas ISD Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde and ACE executive director Jolee Healey update the board of trustees Thursday night.

It was a busy and productive monthly meeting of the Dallas ISD board of trustees Thursday evening, with much of the night centered on the creation of two new choice schools and an update on the Accelerating Campus Excellence program.

The district’s ACE program has been partly responsible for the turnaround of several Improvement Required and/or at-risk campuses. Its results have been so impressive that other districts are beginning to adopt the strategy as well.

“The ACE model is being replicated in districts around the Dallas area, including Plano and Richardson,” Chief of School Leadership Stephanie Elizalde told trustees.

“We’ve gone from 43 Improvement Required schools to 13,” she added, saying that much of that can be attributed to Dallas ISD‘s ACE program and to the district’s Intensive Support Network.

Elizalde and ACE executive director Jolee Healey explained what would be next for the program. First, Elizalde said, would be the task of combining both the ISN and ACE into one department — the Office of School Improvement. That department will be led by Healey, beginning next the school year.

And, as the district continues to reduce the number of IR campuses, she said, the district would likely also see a reduction in staffing needs at the district level.

Currently, ACE schools are in their own separate category. Just as each feeder pattern has its own executive director, schools with the ACE distinction have their own oversight as well.

Healey said that some ACE schools are at a point where they will go back to their original feeder patterns. The original ACE schools —  with the exception of Pease Elementary — will rejoin their feeders next year.

ISN, which has been a campus-specific program, will now focus on supporting fragile feeder patterns with closer supervision and additional supports.

New ACE schools will receive more supports, the opportunity for extended school days for some students who need more interventions, and more oversight. In schools where teacher staffing has been difficult to maintain, the priority will be putting a good teacher in every classroom, Elizalde reassured the board.

“At the heart of ACE is the idea of equity, and distributing our resources equitably,” she said. “Our most important resource is teachers.”

Because of budget constraints — and for efficiency — the district will retool the program a bit to make it more sustainable.

“Along the way, we’ve learned some lessons — it’s expensive to do this,” Elizalde said, explaining that teachers and administrators need a lot of time for the extensive training required to lad an ACE school, and the extended school days and other activities that are key to ACE’s success can eat into that time to provide training, as well as to document and track the data the school generates to chart success.

Because of that, the district’s ACE 3.0 is a “hybrid” plan, Healey said, that will not require an extended school day for all students, but instead will target specific students identified as needing extra supports. Also changing will be the stipend program, which will now only offer stipends for lead teachers and administrators, mostly because Elizalde said that with “the right lead teachers at those schools,” a complete restaffing (which was the model in the original ACE program) would not be necessary.

ACE schools had higher teacher retention at those campuses than the district average, Elizalde added.

Pease, Chavez (which will be absorbing current ACE school J.W. Ray next year), Dunbar, King, JJ Rhoads and Hotckiss elementaries will be included in the revamped hybrid.

Trustees praised the program, but also voiced regret that it had to be retooled because of budget concerns.

“I think Ms. Healey was a little modest when discussing those gains,” board president Dan Micciche said, calling the gains ACE schools have had “just astonishing.”

”“This program has been so successful in its current form,” he said. “I’m regretful that it has to be modified because of budgetary reasons.”

District superintendent Michael Hinojosa said that he’s proud that suburban districts are adopting the program, but added that the benefits aren’t just academic.

“What people often don’t say is that these phenomenal gaines also translate to better behavior,” he said, adding that the data has shown that ACE schools ultimately end up having less disciplinary issues because students are engaged and learning. ACE schools also have an increased emphasis on social and emotional learning as well.  

But it was the last two agenda items for the evening that produced the most discussion. After demographers projected that the district would lose nearly 2,000 more students next year because of encroaching charter school operators and declining birth rates, district officials said they’re ready to ramp up the creation of more choice schools.

Earlier decisions to create choice schools for next year garnered massive amounts of applications, Hinojosa said, prompting staff to look for other ways to serve communities with low-enrollment schools.

Last night, the board voted to consolidate Sam Houston and Onesimo Hernandez elementaries with nearby Medrano and Maple Lawn elementaries, respectively. But they also voted to create new specialized schools. Hernandez will move to Maple Lawn and become a Montessori elementary, and Sam Houston will become a personalized learning school.

Initially, the new programs will serve students from pre-K through second grade, and current third through fifth graders at both schools will be allowed to stay until they have all cycled out to middle school.

Both Sam Houston and Hernandez had low enrollment — combined the schools had maybe 500 students. The move allows the district to offer its largely popular Montessori and personalized learning programs in an area previously underserved by choice schools.

But the discussion received some pushback from some board members, including Audrey Pinkerton, who questioned whether the district could simultaneously predict that they would lose 2,000 students next year and say that two more choice schools would have record enrollment.

“To make this investment, we have to be highly confident now,” she said, pressing Hinojosa for a guarantee.

“I’m not going to give you a number tonight,” Hinojosa said. “What we are asking for is a vote of support for the Dallas Independent School District.”

Trustee Edwin Flores argued that the Oak Lawn and Love Field communities deserved the same opportunities students in his district are getting.

“I can tell you that families are moving into District 1 so they can attend District 1 schools,” he said, mentioning the numerous programs, including Spanish immersion, available in his area of North Dallas.

Those innovations need to exist in other areas, too, he said.

“We do need to make the investment in the district,” Flores said. “We have to, or else we can just throw up our hands and say, ‘oh, let the charters have them.’”

He acknowledged that there were costs associated with starting the revamped schools, but that the interest from the community is there.

“It’s right for the community and right for the kids,” he insisted, pointing out that the communities Hernandez in particular serves have been underserved when it comes to choice.

“There are no options currently in that part of town,” he said. “We’re saying, ‘You know what, we’re FINALLY going to bring some good stuff to this community.’”

“Both of these schools have had serious declines in enrollment,” Micciche said. “The administration has come up with a good plan to demonstrate a real commitment to this community.”

When pressed, Elizalde put the potential new enrollment at 1,400 students.

“We think we can successfully have 1,400 more students that will come to us,” she said, confirming later that projection was for students that are not currently attending Dallas ISD schools.

Trustee Joyce Foreman repeatedly pointed out that the district’s original plan was for one new choice school per year. Elizalde said that they’ve had to pivot from that plan because enrollment is declining more rapidly.

“If we continue to do nothing, we are going to continue to do the same result,” Hinojosa told the board.

Earlier in the meeting, Hinojosa said that other urban districts are experiencing the same declines in enrollment.  Of the nine urban districts that belong to the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, he said seven lost more than 1,000 students from October 2016 to October 2017.

And even some suburban districts are feeling the pinch.

“Arlington lost 1,000, and Plano lost 600,” he said.

“Hope is not a strategy,” Hinojosa said. And while he’s not as certain the district will gain 1,400 new students from its newest choice schools as Elizalde is, he’s also certain that the staff’s strategy of creating choice schools can be a way to stem the exodus, and even attract new families to the district.