DISD Elections

This is not a blog about DISD.  I was in fact thinking of how I should write more today, but came up blank.  THis email from Dallas Kids First, however, was in my email inbox (from last week) and I thought it was worth posting.  Hopefully I can remember to be slightly more active with this site…  We shall see.

Regardless, if you live in DISD, please vote in the elections next week.  Why?  See below.

Friends — The Dallas public school system is embarrassingly deficient, and although most of us care a lot about great public schools, it’s hard to know how to plug in and make a meaningful difference. I’ve learned a lot about DISD over the last year or so, and I thought you’d want to know about three specific opportunities that are easy to fulfill, timely and actionable. They give us all a chance to play a meaningful role in the progress that’s about to sweep over Dallas, and I hope you take advantage of them.

Why get involved?

…some “lessons learned” about the Dallas public school system.

1) The stakes are high

The future of Dallas depends on our ability to generate productive graduates, and there’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that we are failing miserably. Only 10% of DISD’s students are college-ready, and with an average SAT score in the mid 800s (bottom 25% of all U.S. test takers), we simply aren’t generating the human capital needed to compete against other cities. Dallas ISD significantly underperfoms other Texas districts like Houston, Austin, El Paso, etc. And more importantly, low-income kids in Dallas are trapped in our worst schools. Dallas ISD has some “pockets of strength”, but we can’t hide behind a few bright stars. As a community, we can do better.

2) You can add a ton of value

Many of the anchors in the Dallas ISD debate are woefully inadequate. I’ve interviewed every person running for school board right now, and there are huge opportunities to increase the caliber of people on our board. Want an example? Bruce Parrott has been on the board for three years, hasn’t sponsored a single student-related policy, can’t remember much less explain why he has consistently supported the status quo, and has conflicting positions on key board issues like staffing and evaluation. Check out his voting history: http://www.dallaskidsfirst.org/uploads/9/2/0/2/9202227/supplemental-and-source-material-d3-2012.pdf  Another candidate, Damarcas Offord, is a 20 year old who’s never had a job and has consistently refused to explain or even outline any positions on school board issues. Wouldn’t be a big deal if both candidates weren’t endorsed by the largest teacher ‘union’ in Dallas, but they are, and each of them has a decent chance of winning with only 1% voter turnout and margins of victory often around 200 votes. My point is: Reasonable people who genuinely care about the future of Dallas and the kids that live in our city can make a huge difference. By taking easy steps like the ones outlined below, we can show these people that the stakes are too high to allow Dallas ISD to be a sideshow.

3) Most important: DISD’s problems are solvable

Dallas ISD is a tough place to work. No wonder it’s hard to get great staff members to stay. Want to know why? There’s no functioning human resources department. What organization with 20,000 staff members can function without an HR department? And since there’s no functioning HR department, great teachers and principals aren’t rewarded, promoted or developed. Poor teachers and principals aren’t developed either, and it can be difficult to get them out of a district since our evaluation system is a total joke. Ask any DISD teacher about their last PDAS.

This is just one example of how broken fundamentals are incredibly obvious to anyone who’s genuinely trying to solve problems.We’ve made a lot of progress recently thanks to a handful of great board members and an effective interim superintendent. All signs suggest that the new superintendent is a rock star who will drive progress in areas like HR, but it’s important for all of us to appreciate that our issues are totally fixable. This isn’t a hopeless situation. DISD can consistently generate students who are ready for college and/or the workforce, but it’ll take a community that demands more and some good leaders.

Opportunities to get involved…

1) Vote in the election next weekend

If you live east of White Rock, in Downtown, South Dallas or North Dallas, please take 15 minutes to vote in the Dallas ISD school board race next Saturday (May 12). DallasKidsFirst has summarized and scored the candidates based on their voting records, interviews, etc. to make it easy to quickly get up to speed on who’s running, what they stand for, and if they’re good or bad.  http://www.dallaskidsfirst.org/disd-board-election-packets-and-candidate-scorecards.html

2) Come to tomorrow’s canvassing event (see attached flyer)

A big group will be walking in East Dallas neighborhoods tomorrow to “get out the vote”. If enough people come, there will be a drawing for a free ipad, followed by an after party at Good Friends. …a perfect opportunity to get a lot of mileage out of a Saturday morning.

3) Help us raise awareness through social media and email buzz

Like, follow, share and comment on DKF’s activities to increase awareness across Dallas.

https://www.facebook.com/DallasKidsFirst

http://dallaskidsfirst.tumblr.com/

https://twitter.com/#!/DallasKidsFirst

All three of these opportunities are extremely easy and would require minimal effort and resources. I’d love to plug you into deeper opportunities if you have the time, energy, passion, money, etc. but regardless, I hope you’ll consider taking advantage of the three opportunities above.

From the outside looking in: DISD

I have never met someone who does not hold the belief that education and success are directly related to each other.  Take that a step further: an educated population is successful… Therefore grows in sustainable ways, nurtures, and takes care of itself.  The largest surges of progress in mankind have been the products of a new level of education for the population.  You would think, in that context, that education of the population would be a priority as a civilization.

Last week I had the opportunity to take a look at the Dallas public education system.  As far as quality of life goes, the biggest problem with Dallas itself is the school system.  Around here, if one has a choice, I see typically people do one of two things: move to the suburbs or choose private school (or both).

Issues with the school district seem vey amorphous. The city government has no bearing on the school districts (however, in this afternoon’s city council meeting, they proved they have reaching arms in zoning and other secondary means); the district receives funding from all levels of government, but remains pretty much autonomous.  Term “Independent School District” really is true.  The leadership is made up of elected officials called trustees.  Each of those trustees manages a number of schools based on their district.  Other than meeting set levels by the state, that’s pretty much it on the oversight of the school district.  I’m oversimplifying, but that’s not the point of this post anyway.

We saw two schools of the extreme opposite, but two that are headed in the right direction.  One extreme was an urban school with strong leadership.  The principal had made numerous changes that would be simple in the private world: identify a problem (soda and candy machines causing problems in the hallway), and fix it (remove them!). This practice filters down to the staffing of the school – she kept only the better teachers, weeding out the ineffective ones.  The result?  Grades are up.  Test scores are up.  Morale is up.  The students like being there – in fact, they treat the school as a safe haven for what goes on around them.  The district gives the principal so much control over a school that they have the ability to make a real difference.  That’s great – when you have a great principal.

The other school we visited was an elementary school nestled in a more upscale area of Dallas.  This school is nationally recognized and has made a huge turn around in the past five years under the direction of their principal.

Click on the image for some interesting statistics.

The main difference between the schools was this – the elementary school had great support of the parents.  The leadership of their PTA actually came to talk to us!  Again and again, the point was proven that the school did well because of the parental support.  Budget gaps were being mitigated through parent volunteers, needs were met by reaching out to parents through email and social media, and the group in front of us were dedicated to the education of their children, which showed in the pride of their school.  The high school, on the other hand, was turning around despite the lack of support of the parents.  During the principal’s presentation there, she made no mention of parents (other than the fact that many of her students were being raised by grandparents).  As a matter of fact, she repeated the point that the school was a “safe haven” for the kids.  You could tell by her demeanor she was doing a lot more heavy lifting than the elementary school leadership.

A trustee member came and spoke to us as well; I had met her a few years earlier when she had applied for a grant for a summer school program she leads.  She drove the parent support factor home to me during that first interview.  She told me a few stories of how clueless the parents were about how to simply behave around their kids, much less support them In school.  One story that stuck in my mind was her having to tell parents, as they were dropping off their kids to a summer program – “hey!  Don’t smoke weed in front of your kid!”.   Quite a big contrast from the PTA group we met at the elementary school.

Click for notes on the search for a new superintendent (also source).

The trustee discussed some of these issues from her side of things.  Unfortunately, her primary issues revolved around budgets.  Again she would circle back to the kids, and her main task at hand was dealing with a dwindling population (people are fleeing the school district for the ‘burbs), heavy overhead, lower local tax revenue and lower support from the state and federal levels.  This will involve closing schools in certain areas of Dallas, which unfortunately makes sense – the population of south Dallas has dwindled 5% in as many years. She said the district had done it before, and maintained the schools until the population rebounds.  However, huge emotional issues arise with mothballing schools, and the district is running into public pushback for such actions.  However, even by saving $10 Million per year closing these schools (the cost of each child in a low population school rises exponentially), they are still dealing with a $30 Million shortfall all while trying to maintain their current programs and services.  They are still quite far from closing that gap.

We touched on bilingual education as well.  Apparently, the state gives more funding per student for a bilingual education; however this education does not prepare kids for college at all.  In an entrance survey, a parent has to check a box for their “home language.” if that box is checked anything but English, off they go onto a different track, one the school is incentivized to use since the state provides so much more funding.  However, the trustee brought up a great point: the SAT, ACT, LSAT, MCAT…  they’re in English. Putting children down a non-English path does simply not prepare the child for college.

The school district is supposed to do something that seems fairly obvious: focus on the child.  Recently DISD has made many changes that are apparently considered “anti-teacher” but seem fairly obvious to me, such as trying to change compensation from seniority (how long have you been there) to performance (how well are your children doing).  That seems, from the private world, fairly obvious.  That sounds harsh, and I’m sure there is a valid opposite argument… but that is what many people from the outside see.  The trustee gave an example of a confrontation she had with someone when a teacher was released.  She turned to the fellow teacher and asked; “do you want her teaching YOUR child?” the other teacher went silent.  This rift sounds so conflicting to me: apparently pro-child means anti-teacher.  I don’t get it.  It seems like we should all be headed in the same direction.

The district has many amazing programs: the magnet schools, the prototype schools, new ways of teaching teachers, and charter schools.  They have some amazing stuff going on, and yet mostly we hear about the negative.  Look at this post!  Perhaps eventually I will talk about the positives.  One has to dog to find that, and I have just scratched the surface.  That, and recent events in my life keep my mood down.

What does the high school principal want?  More teachers.  She has only one teacher for several subjects that cover entire grades – she says that is very dangerous.  However, there’s no money for it.  What can up I do to help your school?  An easy thing would be to buy the class a set of books – a paperback novel for them to study.  What a great gift.  Contrasting that, the elementary school said to get on Facebook and see where you could volunteer…  They seemed to be doing so well.  The high school principal, on the other hand, was a proud, proven, success story who carried some battle scars.  As she talked about teachers you could see passion in her eyes, but a resigned sadness as well.  When someone asked if she saw any relief in sight, she sighed, met his eyes, and said “no, sir.  No I do not.”

So much to carry on about, but this post has gone too long for one.  Until next time.