Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Dallas 'Interdependent' School District

At some point, in a tour of some new found friends from the east coast, I mentioned 'DISD'. I, do have a habit of using acronyms and phrases that I think are universally understood. It can be embarrassing when you find out they are not. As in this case.

What's 'DISD'? One of they 'tourists', a preacher from Virginia, asked. "Dallas Independent School District"? I replied, patiently. "Independent?", he asked. "Independent, from what?" As I fumbled through the an explanation, I realized it was something I had just taken for granted. Aren't all school districts 'independent'. Those of you who know better are probably laughing me to scorn. I don't blame you.

But the idea, that school districts in Texas, operating as independent government bodies, is something I've always taken as a matter of course. But, over the past year or so, what we have really seen, is something that those of us who just 'assumed' the independent nature of public education, have often suspected: they appear to be independent of accountability.

After the $84 million financial debacle last year, inadequately funded inner city schools. A reputation for education that has families, black and white, running for the nearest (or farthest), suburbs one wonders how much longer DISD will earn the right to remain 'independent'.

Just how do we fix this mess anyway? A new superintendent? That idea seems to have gone out the window. A new school board - uh, please...they just voted add an extra year onto their term of office. Without much public outcry, and without much in the way of legal opinion as to whether or not such an action is lawful.

Meanwhile, our children are not being educated. And more and more adults whom we trust, are trying to syphon dollars from campuses and classrooms.

Everyone of us can point to exceptional students and great teachers. But neither grow on trees. Education is not just for 'exceptional' students, nor is the teaching profession just for stars. Every advancement we can think of, in arts, science, the economy, education, religion and government, depends upon developing life long learners out of those young boys and girls in our cities classrooms today.

So what do we do?

More and more people are talking about two rather creative proposals. One proposal is to break up this large unwieldy 'independent' district into several school districts. They would be smaller, more manageable and more accountable to the communities in which they are located. Each one could be more innovative in their approach to education. I not only have some affinity for that idea, I think there are circumstances under which it could work. But only if tax revenue could be shared equally among all districts. However, even then, the income disparity between communities would still result in rich school districts and poor school districts. And while I like this idea in a romantic, best of all possible worlds scenario, it doesn't seem to be working all that well in a state like, say California.

There is another conversation that is starting. Have Mayor of the city, run the school district as well. Again, another interesting idea. The Mayor could appoint or hire the superintendent, the councilpersons can appoint the school board. It has some merit because cities have a large stake in whether or not public education is successful. It impacts the ability to attract business and it affects housing patterns.

On the other hand, we are adding quite a bit on the plate of elected representatives who we sometimes suspect are inadequate to perform their current duties. Are we willing to pay them more? If not, aren't we relegating the pool of city council candidates to a pool of citizens who can 'afford' to run for and hold elective office?

No plan is perfect. All systems and configurations of those systems are vulnerable to corruption, abuse and mismanagement. But it is clear that we need to do something, because the current system isn't working. And its no longer acceptable to brush away Dallas' education problems by saying its a national problem. At some point, we should want to be the exception rather than prove the rule.

What's really great is that people across the city are thinking. They are thinking, debating and asking difficult questions. Not enough of them, but some are beginning to think and deliberate. They are thinking creatively and passionately about a deep problem. And maybe the one thing we should take away from this, whatever system emerges or even if we manage to fix the current one, is that the 'I' in 'DISD', should really stand for 'Interdependent'.


Bill Betzen said...

Rev. Britt, like most folks I am lost in the tragic fog our political system too often becomes. I'm simply a concerned DISD teacher worried about that majority of my 7th grade students who are projected to drop out before graduating.

Political "solutions" are long term. I am worried about THIS years DISD students. You may have read my Community Opinions column in this Sunday's paper at http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/city/collin/opinion/stories/DN_central_betzen_22edi___.365ed26c.html .

If we could start such simple Archive Projects in the other 34 middle schools in DISD we would immediately begin to focus our current 8th graders onto their own futures. It could be done with less than $2,000 per school to purchase and install the 400-pound vaults needed. They function as 10-year time capsules.

This would do something right NOW for the students we have NOW. It would start an "enrollment bubble" working its way through DISD and would lead to the class of 2013 being the largest graduating class in DISD history!

Focus our students onto their own futures! They must do the work needed. You and I, nor anybody else, can do the work for them. Yes, we must provide the resources for the students! But too often the resources are there and are not being well used by the students. We can change that. It is their future! They need to focus on it.

Political solutions take too long for the students now at risk.

Gerald L Britt said...


Thanks for your response. I agree with you that we need to respond as best we can now.

But I think you also prove my point. Innovative techniques like the one you propose happen more easily, when there is a system and a culture in place that encourages them. Whether you want to call that politics, and whether those politics are campus, district or statewide, you need a supportive atmosphere that allows teachers to use a variety of methods.

Really good teachers - the great ones - find a way no matter what. There are others who have a real problem slogging through the beauracracy and are impacted by morale killers embedded in the academic culture.

I think you prove my point in another way - whether you talk about a new construct for public education in Dallas (and elsewhere), people are talking, there are educators who are trying hard to innovate and that will have an immediate and long term impact.

By the way, I had trouble with the link. Can you send it to me by email? I'll see if I can go to the column then.

Janet said...

Mr. Betzen~
With all due respect, I think it's great to have kids write letters to themselves and have them sent back to them when they least expect it. I also think it's great to ask the kids who attended the school to come back and speak to classes below them.

But that it will lower the dropout rate??? I have a hard time believing that.

I'm glad that Pinkston and Sunset have raised their graduation rate this year. That's exciting. But I have a real hard time believing it's because of a 350 lb. vault sitting in the middle of the school.

When I talk to kids and parents, the frustrations I hear is that kids aren't academically prepared. Even when they graduate, some of them still can't read and write well enough to be successful in a good job...so why continue school once you've fallen behind?!

Parents are frustrated because schools don't communicate with them and aren't helping their children. The parents I know experience a learned helplessness because what they think they know to do for their child doesn't work and the schools aren't listening or assisting them in figuring out what will work.

Many teachers are disconnected from the community...many even fear the community where they teach. I've heard many stories of teachers telling kids things like, "You need to go to trade school. That's good for someone like you." Why continue school???

The other thing is, the children I know aren't equipped to handle the highly technological world we live in. They don't get opportunities to use technology in meaningful ways and they are taught testing instead of critical thinking.

I say continue the idea with the letters to themselves. Continue asking the kids to come back and speak to future classes. But also recognize that the political solutions must happen, the education stimulus money needs to come down the pike, the DISD system needs to change. And, while the big shift is taking place, we have to work from a belief that all of our children have the capacity to achieve great things and our job is to push them to that level.

If we believe that (and too many teachers don't), we will teach to that high standard.

High standards, quality education, belief in the children, and relationships with the community is what will decrease the dropout rate.

Bill Betzen said...

Rev. Britt,
The link to the Dallas Morning News column is item number one in the list of links at the bottom of the web page at http://www.studentmotivation.org/. I will also email this to you, as well as the following.

This week I spent three days lobbying in Austin for the Archive Project and two other bills. I had contacted Representative Deshotel from Beaumont/Port Arthur, Texas regarding his HB 3449, the bill giving $50 for A's to students in low performing schools. I had recommended the Archive Project as a much lower cost program working on the same goals with proven results. He had emailed me back and asked that I visit him while I was in Austin. So I did.

When I went into the office Wednesday he immediately met with me and grilled me for 30 minutes on the Archive Project. Then he asked his Director of Legislation to step in and asked that I go over the project with her so she could write it into the bill he was working on to amend it! I am recommending that $500,000 of the $285,000,000 from the Federal Stimulus money going to education in Texas go for Archive Projects. That would allow the first 100 schools who apply to have $5,000 each to install vaults to start their School Archive Projects. Preference would be given to low-performing schools.

Such a bill will immediately make the School Archive Project idea visible across Texas and other schools would quickly explore the alternative. Can you see the headline: "Texas stimulus money putting gun-vaults in school lobbys"?

Nothing could do more to lower our dropout rate in Texas that to have our students focusing more often on realistic personal goals, developing them and changing them as they go though school. Changing life goals is never an issue, but not having any goals is a disaster! We see it in evidence every day in the crime, drug use, gang war and school dropout news.

Many things are now in process that I hope will make School Archive vaults in school lobbies much more common.

Sorry I did not respond sooner.

Bill Betzen said...

The 40% reduction in the attrition rate happened between the 9th and 10th grade. That is when DISD has historically lost about 36% of the students. The two schools our students go to had historically lost from 42% at one, to over 37% at the other during the 9th to 10th grade transition. The year before our Archive Project started they had a combined average promotion rate for the 4 preceeding years of 60.9%, therby loosing or retaining 39.1% of their 9th grade students. With this years enrollment they have together enrolled what amounts to 23.5% of last years 9th grade class into their 10th grade classes. That is a reduction of 40% in the percentage of students lost between 9th and 10th grade. If you look at the Excel spreadsheet you can download from http://www.studentmotivation.org/PinkstonSunset.xls you will see that the 9th grade enrollments at both schools are level or going down while the 10th grade numbers are at the highest levels in history. This benefit decreases as students get further from middle school. That is one reason Sunset is now in the process of starting their own Archive Project this year. That will continue the goal centered focus, and hopefully the benefits we saw.

We have not yet had an Archive Project class graduate. This years seniors are the first. The enrollment numbers look very good as you can see on the spreadsheet. We think it will be the class with the highest graduation rate on record. We will know for certain at the end of May.

We cannot lose by helping our students become more realistically focused onto their own goals.