How did one of Dallas ISD’s chronically lowest-performing and most economically disadvantaged schools beat out the surrounding area’s most affluent school in test scores?
This is a story about turnaround schools, but it’s so much more. It’s a story about opportunity, about equity, and about the possibility for meaningful change. In a world inundated with bleak news and unpromising politics, this story gives me hope, and I’d like to share that hope with you.
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It starts with an idea
In 2015, Annie Webb Blanton Elementary School had a dismal five-year streak of missing state student achievement requirements. Only 20 percent of its students met state standards on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) fifth grade reading test. For math, its numbers were even more alarming: A mere 15 percent of Blanton’s fifth graders scored at or above the “meets grade level” standard.
Blanton wasn’t the only Dallas ISD school that consistently failed to meet state standards. In fact, by the 2014-2015 school year, 37 Dallas ISD campuses were on the Texas Education Agency’s “Improvement Required” (IR) list.
In order to raise student performance, Dallas ISD launched its Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE) Program in the 2015-2016 school year with a cohort of seven IR campuses, one of which was Blanton Elementary.
Among other reforms such as an extended school day and free after-school enrichment programs, the ACE program also entails staffing designated ACE campuses with some of the district’s most effective teachers. These teachers are identified using Dallas ISD’s Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) rubric, which assesses teacher performance, student achievement and student experience.
In Dallas ISD, a teacher’s salary corresponds with his/her evaluation score, and an effective teacher could potentially earn up to $90,000 a year. Dallas ISD also offers additional stipends ranging from $8,000 to $12,000 to teachers who work on ACE campuses.
Teachers are the difference-makers
What did this mean for Blanton Elementary?
At the start of the 2015-2016 school year, more than 85 percent of Blanton’s teachers were new to the campus. Inviting the district’s best educators to turn around its lowest-performing campuses is an uncommon practice, and while seeing a campus full of new educators is rare, emerging data about student achievement on ACE campuses indicate outstanding results that no one can argue with.
Since adopting the ACE model three years ago, Blanton has demonstrated tremendous progress.
This past April, a whopping 82 percent of Blanton’s fifth grade students met the state standard in math, and 58 percent of students met the reading standard—almost ten percentage points higher than the district average.
For a historically underperforming school where over 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, this is an incredible achievement. On the math assessment, Blanton Elementary students even outperformed the students at nearby Highland Park ISD’s McCulloch Intermediate School, where not a single student is considered economically disadvantaged.
Jessie Helms, one of the turnaround educators invited to teach at Blanton, led her fifth grade math class to an incredible 94 percent passing rate this past year. Ms. Helms believes that although the growth in her students’ test scores is certainly celebratory, it is their changed mindset towards themselves and towards education that has been most rewarding during her time at Blanton Elementary.
“Our students ... felt the energy, love and dedication from our staff and started to believe in themselves. [They] developed a love of learning and a determination to succeed ... and that is what will impact their futures the most.”
Although there is certainly much work left to be done, Blanton’s success story serves as a powerful testament to the impact educators have on student achievement.
We need more educators who believe in students at high-needs schools
Dallas ISD Teacher of the Year Josue Tamarez Torres, who serves as a fifth grade bilingual math teacher at Blanton, firmly believes that teachers have the ability to change students’ lives. “Because of [the] teachers who inspired me, I am who I am,” Mr. Tamarez said in an interview with The Commit Partnership.
Born in the Dominican Republic to a father who didn’t make it past the eighth grade and a mother who wasn’t able to attend college, Mr. Tamarez has personally encountered the hardships that accompany growing up a minority in a poor home. This helps him understand the struggles of his students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged and either Hispanic or black.
Mr. Tamarez believes that his race and socioeconomic background give him a unique advantage in building connections with his students and their families.
However, in relation to the U.S. student population, more than 50 percent of which is of minority descent, racial and ethnic minorities remain largely underrepresented in the teaching profession.
“We need great teachers, and we also need people who can relate to the students,” Mr. Tamarez said.
"I tell [my students] all the time, I’m one of you. I know how you feel. Your story is my story; your parents are my parents."
Mr. Tamarez hopes that his close relationships with his students can motivate them to become “an inspiration for other students in the future.”
You're our only hope
With the ever-persistent achievement gaps among races and socioeconomic groups in our nation and within DFW, there is an increasing sense of urgency in the need for an effective, passionate and diverse body of educators like Ms. Helms and Mr. Tamarez.
The students who have been underserved for far too long desperately need and deserve our best teachers to guide them to success. The data tell us that these students are more than capable—they just need equitable access to the right educators to help them along the way.
Blanton isn’t the only success story of Dallas ISD’s ACE program, which has since expanded to more campuses. Remember how there were 37 Dallas ISD campuses on the IR list in 2015? As of today, Dallas ISD has just three IR campuses in the entire district.
The ACE program has demonstrated so much promise that neighboring districts, including Fort Worth, Garland and Richardson, are adopting it as well.
For the students of DFW, there is great hope—a hope that stems from the teachers and school leaders, just like Ms. Helms and Mr. Tamarez, who expertly devote themselves to the success of their students. Learning about the incredible role that educators play in shaping their students’ lives has inspired me in my work in education this summer. Teachers have the opportunity to address the inequalities of our world and the ability to change the trajectories of individual lives and entire communities.
Mr. Tamarez’s words remind me of the importance of educational equity:
"Your zip code should have no bearing in how successful you are in life. The educational revolution we want to see in this country starts in the classroom."
And that revolution starts with you, future teacher. What are you waiting for? Consider a career that puts you at the forefront of positive social impact.
It’s easy to take the first step:
- Not sure you're a fit for the career? Take our roadmap quiz to assess your strengths.
- Want to learn from someone already in the classroom? Sign up for Talk to a Teacher. (It's free!) ☎️
- Ready to get your teaching certification? Head over to Understand Certification.
About the Author
Emily Chung is an intern with Best in Class, an organization that supports TeachDFW, for the summer of 2018. She is a sophomore at Harvard University studying Applied Mathematics and Economics. As a native of the DFW metroplex, she hopes to contribute to the equitable education of all students across DFW and the nation.