Will a partnership with Texas Wesleyan create high-achieving schools in Fort Worth?

Students at John T. White Elementary School, Tuesday, January 29, 2019.
Students at John T. White Elementary School, Tuesday, January 29, 2019. Fort Worth ISD

A new education partnership between Fort Worth schools and Texas Wesleyan University aims to sustain academic gains made at five campuses that long struggled with low ratings.

If the project gets final approval, Texas Wesleyan will operate and manage five Fort Worth campuses under the new Leadership Academy Network starting next school year. But the five schools will remain Fort Worth schools, will be staffed by district teachers and will serve about 3,000 students who live in the district.

“We firmly believe that all students can succeed and thrive, given the right learning environment,” said Kent P. Scribner, superintendent of Fort Worth schools, in a press release. “Between the demonstrated successes of the Leadership Academy model and the institutional resources Texas Wesleyan will bring to these campuses, we expect strong results going forward as we prepare these students for college, career and community leadership.”

Even though the project is still in negotiations, the school board voted 7-0 Tuesday night in favor of allowing the district to pursue a contract with Wesleyan. Board members T.A. Sims and Jacinto Ramos were not present for the vote.

Scribner said he will return to the board later with a formal contract, which has to be submitted to the state for approval.

Frederick G. Slabach, president of Texas Wesleyan, said the university is the ideal partner for the project because it can bring its education curriculum, instruction and other resources to help continue and build on successes at the academies.

“It fits in with the mission of the entire university as well as the mission of the School of Education,” Slabach said, adding that they can help create a “pipeline of future educators trained in innovative methods.”

The school district is taking advantage of Texas Senate Bill 1882, which aims to help turn around failing schools. That law, established in 2017, allows public school systems to cooperate with outside entities to revamp campuses that were listed as “improvement required” by the state multiple times.

The campuses included in the five-year partnership are Leadership Academy at Como Elementary, Leadership Academy at John T. White Elementary, Leadership Academy at Mitchell Boulevard Elementary, Leadership Academy at Maude I. Logan Elementary and Leadership Academy at Forest Oak Middle School.

The schools rely on local general funds and philanthropic dollars to operate as academies, Scribner said. This proposal will allow the schools to rely mostly on state dollars, he said.

“We all want to see it be successful,” Scribner said.

A partnership school

The district’s partnership with Wesleyan creates what Scribner has described as an “1882 school,” which uses additional state dollars to reinvent a low performing school, create a new school or replicate an innovative school model.

Districts receive funds based on funding formula, according to the Texas Education Agency or TEA.

Scribner said the district reallocated general fund dollars and obtained philanthropic dollars to recreate the schools into academies. The project costs about $5 million, or about $1 million per campus.

Scribner said SB 1882 partnership will cover the cost of running each campus. The schools would receive about $1,800 per student to support the programs. That’s in addition to the average daily attendance dollars each student already gets, he said.

This will free up local dollars to use in other areas of the district, he said.

The partnership also allows schools that have received “improvement required” accountability ratings in 2017-2018 to get exemptions from some interventions.

Other Texas districts have been exploring use of the bill to reinvent schools. For example, this week the Dallas school board is scheduled to receive a report on using SB 1882 to create preschool partnerships.

Eligible partners are nonprofits, including high education institutions, state-authorized charter schools and government entities.

Building on successes

The new effort comes two years into a $5.5 million plan to reinvent five struggling Fort Worth schools into academies. It aims to build on current successes.

“This is no longer a turnaround intervention,” Scribner said. “These schools have already been turned around.”

In 2017, Scribner announced a complete overhaul of the five schools by turning them into leadership academies and staffing them with teachers and administrators from a pool of “highly qualified district employees.”

About 200 teachers and five principals, many of them recruited from other district schools, were hired as part of the plan, which also included extending the school day to 6 p.m., providing uniforms to students and upgrading school facilities.

Employees at the new academies received a financial incentive in exchange for a three-year commitment. Teachers received an additional $10,000 per year and campus leaders $15,000.

Before the transition into leadership academies, these schools faced chronic issues. For example, in August 2017 Maude Logan and John T. White elementary schools were tagged as “Improvement Required” campuses for the sixth and fifth straight year, respectively. Under a state law that goes into effect that year, the TEA could appoint managers to run the Fort Worth school district in 2018 if just one low-performing school fails to meet passing standards for five consecutive years.

Last fall, the district received good news — all the leadership academies came off the TEA’s “Improvement Required” list. The schools “met standard” for the first time in many years and made gains in reading and math.

Scribner said past efforts to reinvent struggling schools were diminished when the schools improved and leaders didn’t remain committed to adding funding and resources to those campuses. This project is trying to keep the academic gains, he said.

“This is an effort not to repeat history,” he said.

Parent meetings

Leadership Academy at Como Elementary, 4000 Horne St., Fort Worth: Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Leadership Academy at Logan Elementary, 2300 Dillard St, Fort Worth: Feb. 18 at 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m.

Leadership Academy at John T. White Elementary, 7300 John T White Rd, Fort Worth: Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m.-7:15 p.m.

Leadership Academy at Mitchell Blvd. Elementary, 3601 Mitchell Blvd, Fort Worth: Feb. 19 at 5:30-6:15 p.m.

Leadership Academy at Forest Oak Middle, 3221 Pecos St, Fort Worth: Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m.-7:15 p.m.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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Diane Smith, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin, has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 1997. Smith, who has covered municipal government, immigration and education, has won multiple awards for reporting, most recently as part of a Star-Telegram team recognized by the Headliners Foundation of Texas for coverage of child abuse and Fort Worth’s Las Vegas Trail area.