Fort Worth has a $5.5 million plan to fix failing schools. Will it work?

Thelma Isabel Luna’s first impression of Mitchell Boulevard Elementary School was not good.

She and her family had just moved from the city’s north side to east Fort Worth, near the school, and as she talked to neighbors she became uneasy.

Parents felt their children weren’t learning. There was a sense of desperation, as if their child’s chance to succeed was slipping away.

When Luna, who speaks primarily Spanish, went to the school, she wanted to leave, even as she looked for someone to connect with her.

“I felt strange,” Luna said. “I didn’t know who to talk to.”

Then came news of a sweeping makeover at Mitchell Boulevard.

The school was going to be reinvented and school district leaders promised the change would be more than window dressing. The school would get a new name, new leadership, new teachers and a new focus, part of a $5.5 million plan to fix five low-performing schools in the Fort Worth school district.

Students arrived Monday morning at the Leadership Academy at Mitchell Boulevard and the four other schools — Como, John T. White, Maude Logan elementaries and Forest Oak Middle — have also been transformed into leadership academies.

Students will be wearing new uniforms. Their school day will be longer than most, and they’ll eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Teachers will be required to engage better with parents and students, including through home visits.

“It’s going to be magical in this school,” said Vanessa Curenta, who was hired this spring as a new assistant principal at Mitchell Boulevard.

Luna and other parents are hopeful their children will benefit from the changes.

Shaniquia Johnson, whose children Dynasti, 6, and Destiny, 4, will attend Mitchell Boulevard, said she was impressed with the new uniforms and programs now being provided. She said the school appears more organized.

“I hope that they can learn and get a better understanding of what they are learning,” Johnson said. “A lot of schools have been bad in the past. It’s never too late to make a change.”

Fort Worth school district leaders know that change is not just needed, it’s imperative.

Mitchell Boulevard, Como, White and Logan are not just among the lowest-performing elementary schools in Fort Worth, but the state. They have been handed a wide range of labels over the years, including “academically acceptable” but most recently these schools have received state ratings of “improvement required.” Mitchell Boulevard last met the state’s standard in 2014.

Logan and White are described as chronic low performers and, under state law that went into effect this year, could face closure if they don’t make academic gains this school year.

School board member Tobi Jackson represents District 2, which includes Mitchell Boulevard and Forest Oak, said the reinvention plan is mindful of the societal woes — poverty, hunger and child abuse — that many of the urban district’s students live with daily.

She said it’s critical to improve these failing schools, not just for the kids, but for the residents of Fort Worth.

“Even if you don’t care about our kids, you care about the cost to the taxpayers,” Jackson said. “All of these children are in a school that is not preparing them for success in life. It is preparing them for less than mediocre, so we have to do something to change to their outcomes.”

‘It is very concerning’

When the state released the latest set of accountability ratings last week, 23 Tarrant County schools failed to meet passing standards, including 14 in Fort Worth.

The four reinvented elementary schools were among those 14, but Forest Oak Middle, which has been low performing in past years, received a “met standard” rating and earned a distinction in student progress.

The leadership initiative is not new, especially in large, urban school districts.

Dallas is using a similar strategy and the Houston school district is starting a similar focus at low-performing schools this school year. Houston schools, with 10 low-performing campuses that could face closure if they don’t improve this year, has a $24 million plan aimed to impact 32 schools. Among Houston’s targeted campuses is Kashmere High School, which hasn’t met standard for eight consecutive years.

In Dallas, the Accelerating Campus Excellence program or ACE, began in 2015 with seven schools that were rated “improvement required.” The program, which includes hiring strong administrators and teachers — stipends included— now has 13 campuses. Of those schools, six received “met standard” ratings this year while seven were rated “improvement required.” In 2016, six of the original seven schools in the ACE program moved from “improvement required” to “met standard.”

Fort Worth has reconstituted campuses in the past, but district leaders say the new Fort Worth attack plan is more comprehensive and data driven.

“We are very optimistic. This has worked in other cities and we believe that we will be changing the direction and the trajectory academically, and really the destiny of these students,” said Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner said.

Over the years, the Fort Worth district has used a variety of strategies to try to improve student performance, spending millions of dollars — from taxpayers and federal and state grants — but schools still failed.

Andy Canales, director of research at Children at Risk — a statewide advocacy group for disadvantaged students that issues it own school ratings — says the five reinvented Fort Worth schools received “Fs” under their grading system.

Canales said school data indicate that only 5 to 7 percent of the elementary students attending Como, Logan, White and Mitchell Boulevard are reading at a mastery level. At Forest Oak Middle, only 5 percent of students are reading at a mastery level.

Canales said those Fort Worth statistics cast light on a larger issue facing Texas — 60 percent of the state’s 5 million public school students are economically disadvantaged and only 10 percent are reading at a mastery level.

“It is very concerning for the students and for the future of the community,” Canales said.

Mitchell Boulevard’s Curenta, who grew up in Compton, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles, is passionate about education and said a ZIP code should not determine whether a child gets an education.

“Every teacher, every staff member, every administrator believes that the children deserve a high-quality education,” Cuarenta said. “We believe every child can learn.”

‘We didn’t get here overnight’

The school district’s 2017-2018 budget includes about $4.5 million earmarked for the leadership academies. The district also received $1 million from the Rainwater Charitable Foundation to help pay for after-school programs, teaching assistants and parent engagement support, among other initiatives.

Over the summer, the schools were spruced up, receiving maintenance upgrades, and a new coat of paint where needed. New signs were installed.

“We spent all of the summer preparing the building, preparing the physical plant, focusing on great curb appeal. The philanthropic community has provided brand-new uniforms for our students,” Scribner said.

But many of the changes go beyond cosmetic.

The school district actively recruited principals and teachers who are difference makers. Data was used to identify teachers whose students surpassed and outpaced expected levels of success, Scribner said.

The district offered healthy stipends: $15,000 for principals, $13,500 for assistant principals and $10,000 for teachers.

Three of the campuses have new principals. The five campuses all have at least one new assistant principal. Almost 140 teachers were hired.

The academies offer after-school programs that build on academics and let children explore interests, educators said. Students at each campus filled out surveys so schools could identify enrichment programs that meet their interests.

“We will be serving dinner and sending the kids home after dinner around 6 p.m.,” Scribner said. “It will be very, very different. I think it will be an exciting experience for the students who have not had the kind of success they deserve.”

Canales said the Fort Worth plan is sound because it focuses on strong educators offering quality education while giving students more time to focus on math and reading. He said the community needs be patient for improvement to materialize. He said many of these students are entering their grade levels several years behind.

“We didn’t get here overnight, so it is important for us to be patient and give these initiatives time,” Canales said.

A positive school culture

Scribner said communities have to realize that struggling schools can’t be ignored.

“I think we have an obligation — a moral responsibility — to serve all campuses and to serve all students,” said Scribner. “I believe strongly in the concept of equity and providing resources and in some cases more resources to students who are in greater need.”

When parents entered the Leadership Academy at Mitchell Boulevard in early August, they found information, new uniforms and smiles. Helpful staff guided them to booths located in hallways identified by street signs with names like “Success Dr.” and “MVP Blvd.”

The school’s mustang mascot was depicted on a hallway wall with the words: “Home of the MVPs. Mitchell Blvd. Where our students are motivated, valued, powerful.”

In the days leading up to the beginning of school, educators worked to help connect parents on social media. Teachers were trained to conduct home visits and campus staff held community walks to welcome families to the academies.

Curenta welcomed parents, answering their queries in English and Spanish.

Curenta said they have to change the culture at the school, including the hiring process. Teaching is a art, she said.

“We looked for teachers who knew their content, but who also believe relationships with students are important,” Curenta said.

Parents and students have noticed.

“I think it is going to be good for the kids,” said Maria Delgado, mother of Santiago Delgado, 8. The younger Delgado said he practiced his multiplication over the summer and was ready to start third grade.

Ronald Davis, the father of two young students, said while he’s encouraged by the changes, he also knows that parents play a vital role in their children’s success.

“It starts with us,” Davis said. “We have to be more involved.”

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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

Fort Worth Leadership Academies

State accountability ratings for the five campuses in Fort Worth that have been reinvented:

Leadership Academy at Como Elementary

“Improvement required” in 2017, 2016, 2015

Leadership Academy at John T. White

“Improvement required” in 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013

Leadership Academy at Mitchell Boulevard

“Improvement required” in 2017, 2016, 2015

Leadership Academy at Maude I. Logan

“Improvement required” in 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013

Leadership Academy at Forest Oak

“Met standard” in 2017

“Improvement required” in 2016, 2015, 2014

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