A fresh voice is coming to the Fort Worth school board. Here’s the message

It’s election season in east Fort Worth and the political message is equity in schools.

Three candidates are running for the Fort Worth school board District 4 seat in a Nov. 5 special election that will usher a new generation of representation. Johnny Cook-Muhammad, Terry D.T. Miles and Daphne Brookins each maintain he or she is the right person for the job.

This post, an unpaid four-year term, became vacant with the recent retirement of T.A. Sims. The retired pharmacist represented District 4 for about 35 years.

“Dr. Sims’ tenure is fairly remarkable,” said Emily Farris, an associate professor of political science at TCU, explaining that school board trustees are not typically posts held by one person for decades.

Sims, who was first elected to the school board in a special election in August 1983, is well-respected as a long-term incumbent who pushed for equity in schools. He leaves a legacy and an opening for a new voice to emerge, Farris said.

“I appreciate the three individuals who have stepped up,” said Trustee Tobi Jackson, who represents District 2, which also sits in east Fort Worth. “It takes great courage to fill the shoes of a legend in public service, who so selflessly served on behalf of children.”

The school communities in District 4 have long tried to solve the social and education issues that are barriers to academic success. They have supported literacy, focused on struggling schools, engaged low-come families and tried to keep children out of gangs.

One enduring election theme echoes Sims’ efforts — ensuring that every student living east of Interstate 35 gets the resources needed to earn academic success.

“His resignation presents an opportunity for new leadership to grow and fill the space he created,” Farris said.

A special election

Farris said school board elections are important in the daily lives of parents and teachers who care about children.

“These are the races that really shape the future of the community,” Farris said.

The Fort Worth school board includes nine single member district seats. In recent years, the board has approved resolutions and programs aimed at making sure there is racial equity in schools.

That work included addressing racial inequities on several fronts, including curriculum and school culture. Last year, the district celebrated its first Cesar Chavez/Dolores Huerta holiday for students. The district also established a racial equity committee and policy to target institutional racism.

When immigration policy continued to fuel national debate, the district reminded immigrant students through a resolution that all learners are welcome in Fort Worth schools, and it added more Latino and Latina history to lessons.

“I think the school board should be praised for its innovation,” Farris said, adding that not all school districts are taking these types of actions.

Inside District 4

The boundary map for Fort Worth’s District 4 seat on the school board moves north to south.

Up north, near Sylvania Avenue, sits Versia Williams Elmentary. District 4 moves south just east of Interstate 35 to include the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and Visual and Performing Arts, which was originally the city’s first black school during segregation.

As District 4 continues south, it includes Morningside elementary and middle schools and Wyatt High School. The district stretches south to Everman Parkway and east to Loop 820 South.

District 4 also includes portions of the 76104 ZIP code, which made headlines earlier this year when a UT Southwestern study listed the area as having one of the shortest life expectancy in Texas at 66.7 years. That age is far lower than the state’s 78.5 year average, according to the study.

That statistic has emerged in the election discussion too. Candidates said they worry the area is a food desert. They said children from single family households sometimes lack role models and mentors that help guide success.

“I grew up in a single parent household,” Cook-Muhammad said. “My mother was a very strong disciplinarian. I knew my father, but my father was never around.”

Muhammad said this experience helped him focus his social service efforts on young fathers and fatherless students.

Bookins, who has experience working with youth programs, said constituents have outlined some of their worries in the ZIP code and how it flows into education.

“Some of the issues I have heard from the community are about the food deserts,” she said. “Also, lack of opportunity for our young adults before and after school.”

Miles, fine arts liaison and parliamentarian for the O.D. Wyatt Alumni Association, said he too wants to work to lift the schools in the 76104 ZIP code.

“I want to bring a balance and fairness,” Miles said. “A ZIP code should not matter.”

School board candidates

The candidates are reaching out to voters at a grassroots level by building on relationships formed in their neighborhoods, schools, churches and community groups.

Cook-Muhammad, 54, a family program manager who works with young fathers and children from single family homes, said he want to keep equity a top issue on the school board. He is also focused on special education.

“I feel like in our district we have to be more hungry for education,” Cook-Muhammad said. “In the process of being more hungry for education we have to start seeing the value of education and bring that back to our community. Bring that back to our district.”

Cook-Muhammad grew up in Fort Worth schools and describes himself as part of the District 4 community. He ran for the District 4 seat in 2017 against Sims.

Cook-Muhammad said he was a cafeteria worker and a custodian who relied on these salaries to pay for college.

Cook-Muhammad said he was moved to get involved in schools by the innocent questions young students asked.

“When I worked at Manuel Jara (Elementary), the Hispanic and Latino children would ask me, ‘Was I Emmitt Smith?’, but when I moved to Meadowbrook Elementary, the black and African American children asked me, ‘Are you my dad?’ That’s what got me more involved in wanting to be more involved in our schools and helping out our children.”

Brookins, 51, is a former city council member and mayor pro tem from Forest Hill.

“I believe the number one issue in District 4 is that we want to make sure that working class families have the resources they need in order to help their students be successful in school. We want to make sure that there is stability in the schools with our teachers and our administrators. We also want to make sure that they have those resources and they know how to utilize the resources in order to help their students be successful.”

Brookins, a youth administrator for Workforce Solutions For Tarrant County, said she wants to bring back the village concept that involves communities taking care of children.

“I believe I have a lot of experience in education and social services,” Brookins said. “I believe those skills I can bring to the table and help our young adults become successful future leaders.”

Brookins said she wants to ensure there are strong after school programs to support students in struggling schools. She said she also wants to support day cares so they can build an educational foundation for early learners before they start classes in the district.

“How can the ISD work with them?” she said.

Miles, a gospel singer who graduated from Wyatt High School in 1986, said he wants to focus on mental health and suicide prevention programs for students.

“We want to make sure these kids are able to come to safe environment knowing somebody actually cares,” he said.

Miles, who volunteers at the high school, said the Wyatt community has been touched by suicide.

“We are like a family and that impacts everyone from the teachers to the kids. They had a friend who was there one day and the next day he wasn’t there anymore.”

Mile said the high school community wants to shed misconceptions about their campus. He said the school has embraced its diversity which includes languages from all over the world spoken by refugees who found new lives in District 4.

“People want to focus on the negative, but there are more positive things here,” Miles said, adding that many students get labeled at-risk. “No one is at-risk. It is a lack of opportunity.”

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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.