FORT WORTH -- Fort Worth school district trustees boast of academic gains and new, innovative programs, but challengers voice concerns that improved ratings at schools do not reflect the true performance of the district.
Four seats are being contested in Saturday's school board election.
While budget matters are of major concern -- the district is facing a $20 million shortfall -- both the incumbents and challengers have made academic performance a priority in the race.
Incumbents say that test scores have improved across the district, even as the passing standards have gone up. They say that changes have been made to help teachers make sure each student is on track and that routine assessments have been developed to help identify when a student is struggling.
Programs implemented at the district's most struggling schools are helping to pull up scores, they said. And new "gold seal" programs that will revamp or create special-interests programs at each high school will further drive improvement, they said.
But the challengers note that of the district's 144 schools, 58 have improved academic status because the state applied waivers, exceptions or projections that gave those schools higher ratings than they would have earned on test scores alone.
The district has three high schools -- Eastern Hills, Dunbar and South Hills -- facing severe state sanctions that could include closure if poor performance continues.
And for the past two school years, the percentage of students passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in Fort Worth has been lower than in the Austin, Dallas and Houston school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Challenger Tobi Jackson, an assistant director of education at ATI Career Training Center, is running because she is concerned about the high number of low-performing schools on the east side. Eastern Hills, Polytechnic, and O.D. Wyatt high schools were ranked in the bottom 25 of 1,018 high schools in the state last year, according to the Houston-based nonprofit Children At Risk.
Jackson said she wants to make sure all schools are staffed properly. She also wants to establish mentoring programs that would bring retirees into schools to work one-on-one with students. She'd also like to see more programs target childhood obesity.
"As an educator, I understand these issues and the 21st-century skills that the students will need to be successful," Jackson said.
Jean McClung, who has represented the area for 20 years, said the district has made great improvements through innovations such as the Public Educators Accelerating Kids program, which started in 2008 at 15 struggling schools. PEAK offers financial incentives to teachers and additional support, such as mentoring and clerical help, to the schools.
Through PEAK, Principal Dian Korman came out of retirement to led Eastern Hills once again, which McClung said has improved discipline and performance at the school.
McClung has pushed for single-gender schools for years, and the district plans to open an all-girls academy in August. She said it is a priority for her to work to establishing an all-boys academy as well. She said work still needs to be done to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, which has long been a priority for her.
"We're well on our way," she said.
Trustee Christene Moss, who has been on the board 20 years, said PEAK helped Poly make dramatic double-digit gains that helped save it from state closure last year. She said Dunbar also made enough gains to reach the acceptable rating based on test scores but missed the mark because of its low completion rate.
Moss said the new gold seal programs will help schools like Dunbar because the updated career paths that will be offered will keep students interested in school.
"That's going to increase our graduation rates at all schools," Moss said.
Challenger Dennis Dunkins, who oversaw the district's magnet program for 20 years, said he hasn't yet seen the details of the gold seal programs but isn't so sure new ones are needed. He said that Fort Worth has good programs across the district but that some schools don't get the resources they need to keep students interested.
He said he wants to make sure special-interest programs are done right and would like to have art, music and other such programs expanded in schools because it is the "extras" that often keep students on track.
He also wants to make sure that the district focuses more on math in the early elementary grades.
"If a child doesn't learn their multiplication tables in elementary school, they become very fearful of numbers and it affects their success in the long run," he said
Challenger Linda LaBeau would like to see more principals trained on how to identify and work with students who have special needs. She also wants to work on improving ways teachers and parents can work together to keep track of student needs. She is concerned that poor academics will make it hard for future boards to approve tax increases if needed.
"Why would voters vote for a tax increase for a district who cannot meet the acceptable, recognized or exemplary status without going to the state for a waiver?" LaBeau said.
Trustee Judy Needham, who has been on the board since 1996, said that in recent years, a framework has been in place to make sure that students are on track. She too credited PEAK and other initiatives for improving passing rates at schools. Needham also wants to continue to work on closing the achievement gap and to see more students reaching the commended level on TAKS tests.
"We're well ahead of ... other cities in having fewer numbers of low-performing schools, but there's still much work to be done," Needham said.
Challenger Ann Sutherland is concerned that South Hills High School has been rated academically unacceptable for three consecutive years.
"Taxpayers need to know that the progress they are saying is good is not very good," Sutherland said.
Sutherland has been working to get money for South Hills students to visit colleges, which she said will increase their interest. She said she supports a recently passed state law that prohibits districts from giving students a minimum grade, such as a 50, even if actual performance is lower. That law is currently being challenged in court.
Trustee Chris Hatch said new leadership at South Hills has helped increase passing rates, and he noted that it has been recognized by others in the state for its turnaround efforts. He said South Hills seniors who had to retake the TAKS math test showed the highest improvement of any Fort Worth high school.
New programs like the petroleum academy at Southwest and the future gold seal programs will drive further improvement, he said.
"We're doing all the right stuff, but it just takes a while for them all to come to fruition," he said.
EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700