George W. and Laura Bush visit Fort Worth elementary

Hushed whispers among fourth-grade students hinted of an important day in Jouét Dotson’s reading class at Edward J. Briscoe Elementary.

After a few long seconds, the class was greeted by special guests: former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. Questions about literary terms and gearing up for college soon followed.

The students gave all the right answers.

“This is very good — teaching them about similes and metaphors,” George W. Bush told Dotson as the fourth-graders watched. “I just asked them if they knew what they were, and all of them did. You are doing a fine job.”

It was not a routine morning at the elementary school, a campus tucked in a working-class neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth. The Bushes talked to pre-kindergarten and fourth-grade students about the importance of reading, college and coloring before digging deep with Fort Worth education, community and philanthropy leaders about how to improve schools.

“I think reading is the new civil rights,” George W. Bush told participants of a round table before the discussion turned to how to bring strong principals to struggling schools.

Among key leaders in attendance were Mayor Betsy Price and Superintendent Kent Scribner. Improving schools has been the focus of much attention in recent weeks as Price and Scribner announced that they have joined forces to help fight childhood illiteracy.

The event, coordinated by the Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, coincided with the institute’s release of major studies on education leadership. The institute’s work included a report titled: “A Framework for Principal Talent Management.”

Bush and institute leaders said they hope to work with districts in Texas and nationwide to help strengthen schools through supporting a push for programs that help train strong principals.

“Principals are second only to teachers in their impact to student achievement,” said Anne Humphrey, director of education reform at the Bush Institute.

‘Good leaders hire good teachers’

Educators said the focus on school principals builds on current efforts to help students become strong readers. Fort Worth schools and the city have joined forces to fight childhood illiteracy.

Scribner, Price and Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway, are leading the Fort Worth literacy project, which aims to have 100 percent of the school district’s third-grade students reading at grade level by 2025.

In Fort Worth schools, only 3 in 10 third-grade students are reading at grade level.

Scribner and Price welcomed the support from the Bush Institute.

“Good leaders hire good teachers,” said Scribner, adding that in schools that are succeeding there is always a strong principal.

Scribner said he wants to work to find creative ways to keep top principals in schools.

Price said while they are working on helping students from “zero to grade 8,” the community needs to raise schools for all students.

“Having the president here, and this research on principals, just adds fuel to the fire and begins to get more people’s attention,” Price said.

‘A once-in-a-lifetime experience’

Briscoe Elementary is described as a school focused on getting students to the next level despite the social and economic hurdles that often characterize struggling urban schools. Students are performing above the district average in reading on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

For the 2016 reading assessment, 66 percent of Briscoe third-graders met the standard compared with the 61 percent districtwide. The state average was 74 percent.

Education and community leaders said getting a visit from a former president can motivate students.

“Isn’t it amazing? For a child to have that opportunity to meet the president and the first lady,” Price said. “It’s incredible. It should inspire them greatly.”

Micaiah Tate, a 9-year-old in Dotson’s class, was star-struck.

“I was about to say, ‘How does it feel like to be president?’ she whispered to classmates after the former president left the room.

Asked how she felt about the visit, Tate said: “Like amazing, and it is kind of scary.”

Dotson, who shook hands with Bush, won’t forget the visit.

“That was amazing — it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1