Can you imagine the enormity of such a challenge? To move into our school district, so riddled by poverty, economic and educational disparity, high drop out rates and very low outcomes on producing college-ready graduates--talk about a challenge.
I agree with those who identify poverty as the biggest challenge facing our district, its students and our next district leader.
What would I do if I were the next superintendent of DISD? Here's my short list of action items to plant in the school culture over the first 5 years.
1. Identify "master teachers" already at work in the schools. Every school has them. Everyone knows who they are. But how do we leverage their success to benefit other faculty members, as well as students who will never benefit from the experience of their classrooms? There is a way to infiltrate and inject the attitude, methods and commitment of master teachers through and into the rest of the teaching team. Call leading teachers into the leadership mix of each campus. Then, keep track of outcomes.
2. Establish an on-the-ground, at-the-campus, working relationship with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, as well as other public agencies. In short, move the offices of public benefits to the schools, or at least establish certification or enrollment days for parents from low income families to be able to register for various benefits that can help stabilize poor families for the benefits of students. Make things easier to access and more customer friendly. If poverty is our biggest challenge, then let's decide together to attack it systematically! Why should eligible parents have to go to an office located somewhere else, to deal with strangers regarding CHIP registration, or Food Stamp enrollment, or assistance with childcare, or housing, or EITC filings? Those at the top benefit from financial counselors. Why shouldn't those at the bottom enjoy similar services from benefits counselors. The key to this campus transformation would be to let parents know that enrollment in benefits is not only for them and their children, but also for the entire school and its success.
3. Position principals to function as campus leaders with clear expectations linked to individual student improvement and progress, rather than to the next standardized test. Each student learns at a different pace and in a different way. Measure student improvement and index school leaders' performance to the creation of a culture of excellence that encourages students to grow and excel in their own styles over a longer course of evaluation.
4. Don't shortchange the extra-curricular. One of the reasons low-income students don't achieve more readily has to do with what I call "experience disparity" when compared to more affluent students. Learning must take place outside the classroom, as well as inside. Vocabulary is developed in a process of discovering life both in books and in the laboratory that is our world. Poor kids need more experienced-based educational opportunities. Let's provide them what they need. Then, let's tie what is discovered "out there" to what we are doing "in here." Restore music, art, theater and PE in every school no matter what it takes to fund excellence in these important developmental areas of study, expression, performance and curiosity.
5. Incentivize learning performance and parent involvement with some sort of value added benefit. Parent involvement with PTA or volunteering at school should be rewarded with something of immediate value, like discount coupons to local stores or gift cards that can be used to buy books, groceries or school clothes. We make a grave error if we take our eye off the wicked curve ball called poverty. Reward performance by returning something of real value.
6. Form a closer working relationship with the City of Dallas, Dallas County, surrounding ISDs, businesses, corporations and universities. Find ways to engage these other, huge institutions for the immediate benefit of our students today.
7. Develop a clear communications strategy for challenging students again and again regarding the importance DISD's mission and vision. Repeatedly invite every student into the battle. Rehearse and re-imagine the success that awaits us all if we learn to work together.
8. Initiate a comprehensive evaluation of middle level administrators to the end that more resources find their way to the classrooms, the teachers and the students. Schools should not settle for being a job factory for adults. Streamlining away ineffective efforts, programs and departments should be top of the list for any new leader. This means our new leader must be tough, proven and ready for battle!
9. Partner with community based non-profits like Avance and The Concilio here in Dallas to organize, train and equip parents to become the primary advocates for their children and for the education of their children. Community organizing to ensure quality public education should never be considered a threat, but rather an expression of partnership and cooperation. Getting parents and other community leaders involved will be a key component of any successful administration.
I suppose my ideas are too simple. And, I admit I enjoy the luxury of not being in the position of leadership. But, I care about these children, and I understand the powerful negative impact of poverty on families and school systems.