Rufus C. Burleson Elementary School, a DISD school located in Pleasant Grove.
While it may be true that there are poor schools, bad principals, unruly children and rotten teachers, I certainly did not see anything remotely resembling those characterizations during my day at "Burleson," as the students refer to the school.
The building is old, but immaculately maintained and cared for.
The atmosphere conveyed a sense of calm, quiet order.
Students were well-behaved, teachers well-prepared.
I visited classes from Pre-K to 6th grade (E. B. Comstock, the middle school in the feeder pattern is too crowded to accept this oldest class at Burleson). In every setting the students were attentive, actively engaged in their learning activities and very respectful of their teachers and one another.
I sat in on band practice.
I visited a great computer learning classroom where students worked hard on math skills.
The PE class was fun.
The art teacher a real creative sort.
As I left the building, I ran into Yolanda Knight, the real Principal of the school. She was walking the property with DISD planning officials who were evaluating the property for improvements. Ms. Knight was lobbying hard for her kids.
"Give this lady anything she wants," I counseled as I left. "She knows what she's doing if what I just saw is any indication of her effectiveness."
What a great experience. . .except for one defining reality with which every one of these students must struggle: poverty.
Burleson's atmosphere couldn't be better. Tweaked maybe, but not made substantially different or better. The school reminded me of my elementary school experience. Caring teachers. Attentive students. All of it.
Then, I took a moment to look at their test scores.
On the TAKS scale of "met minimum requirements," the older students seem to have improved slightly over the past three years, likely a tribute to the Principal and her team.
The younger children who continue to use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (I took that test!) and, in terms of performing at grade level, under-perform badly in math and only 61% read at grade level.
Among older students (3-6 grades) 43% are college ready in math; 34% in reading; 40% in science and 65% in writing skills. In terms of involvement, 93% attend classes 90% of the time. Only half of the 5th graders are on track for middle school.
What's going on here? I had to ask myself that question.
I think I know.
It's not the school.
It's not the kids.
I don't think it's the parents or families, though I know popular wisdom would lay blame at their feet almost exclusively. While parents must share in any blame game scorecard, they too are trapped in the same web of enduring difficulty.
It's the entirety of the social milieu, the oppressive fabric of life lived in a complex community of urban poverty that stands behind the test scores, the limited expectations, the shortened personal possibility horizons and the realistic prospects for change.
The parents of these children work very hard to keep their families housed, clothed and fed. Most don't really make it, always playing catch up to keep things moving. Burleson serves breakfast and lunch to its students, an indicator of both the income levels of their households and their persistent struggle with "making ends meet."
I saw bright-eyed children in very worn clothing.
Several years ago a candidate of DISD School Board asked me what I thought was the number one issue facing Dallas schools.
My one-word reply surprised him. "That one is easy: poverty."
My experience as a principal reconfirmed my idea.
To improve public schools we'd better get serious about eliminating poverty.
And, our ideas need to be larger than the enormity of the challenges we face in this regard.
Who's up for the battle?