Fort Worth school district principals to be trained as 'turnaround' leaders

FORT WORTH -- To turn Daggett Middle School around, Principal Erin Deel knew she needed some "visible wins."

So this summer, weeds were pulled and fresh flowers planted to help bring new life to the school. Students helped paint the interior, creating their own designs in a "rock star" cafeteria. Then Daggett secured a $10,000 grant to revive the school's band program.

"It's all about those little things that make a big difference in keeping students interested in school," said Deel, who went to Daggett this year.

The efforts -- combined with an aggressive academic focus -- are paying off, Deel said.

Discipline referrals are down 62 percent. And more than 70 families showed up for open house this year compared with four last year, she said.

Daggett has long been one of Fort Worth's most struggling schools and has missed meeting federal academic benchmarks for six of the last seven years.

Now Deel is among Fort Worth principals being trained as a "turnaround" leader for the district.

Outside the box

It takes a special principal to lead a struggling school, said Samuel Monge, assistant superintendent of human capital management.

"We have to have leaders who are truly able to think outside of the box," Monge said, noting that they must be able to make quick and dramatic changes at a campus in months, not years.

Eleven principals will be trained in such strategies through the Texas Turnaround Leadership Academy. The principals were selected from schools with a history of low performance or because they were identified as potential future "turnaround" leaders, Monge said.

The program involves schools from five districts statewide working with specialists from the University of Virginia, which created a turnaround program in 2004 through its Darden School of Business and Curry School of Education.

The program helps principals and other educators identify systemic problems in struggling schools and develop ways to address them. The university has worked to improve schools in Virginia, Louisiana and Philadelphia.

'Whole new leadership'

Besides the training, the district is also receiving $19.5 million in school improvement grants through President Barack Obama's efforts to turn the nation's lowest-performing schools around.

The competitive, two-year Texas Title I Priority School Grants were given to campuses in the bottom 20 percent of schools in the state.

Fort Worth schools received the grants to make improvements at the International Newcomers Academy, O.D. Wyatt High School, and T.A. Sims and Versia Williams elementary schools.

The academy, an intensive English immersion program for first-year immigrants ages 11 through 19, is the only campus considered a Tier I school, meaning that it is in the bottom 5 percent of the state's Title I schools. The academy has not met federal accountability standards for four consecutive years because of poor performance on state tests.

As a condition of the grant, the district must replace Carlos Ayala, who has been principal for eight years. The change does not reflect his performance, and Fort Worth school officials want Ayala to remain with the district at another school or in another role, said Tracy Marshall, who oversees the district's grants.

"They basically said, 'If you want the funding you have to do this.' They're saying that they want a whole new leadership," Marshall said.

Ayala said he understands the reasons for the change.

The bulk of the changes at the four schools receiving grant money will take place in 2011 after a year of planning.

"We are going to use the recourses to give professional development to teachers and do a better job of following them to their next school," Marshall said.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700

Jessamy Brown, 817-675-5356