One in a series of articles on Tarrant County’s top newsmakers in 2016.
On May 10, Superintendent Kent Scribner came to the Star-Telegram to talk about a daunting problem: Only 3 out of 10 third-grade students in the Fort Worth school district read at grade level.
The discussion, however, quickly shifted to guidelines that had recently been adopted by the Fort Worth school district regarding transgender students, a much more divisive topic that was becoming more controversial by the minute after news reports surfaced on social media and local and national news outlets.
Those opposed to the guidelines, which offered protection for transgender and other students — assuring that they can use a restroom where they “must feel comfortable and safe — said it was opening the door to safety issues.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for Scribner to resign, saying , “Every parent, especially those of young girls, should be outraged.”
Patrick showed up later that day in Fort Worth, where the school board was meeting, continuing to go after Scribner. Hundreds of others showed up at the meeting, both in support and opposition to Scribner.
Through it all, the superintendent held his ground; he knew it would eventually pass and he could get back to the business of education.
“That story had a life cycle like every other story and we have moved beyond it,” said Scribner, one of the Star-Telegram’s top newsmakers in 2016.
Scribner, whose contract was recently extended for five years, started working in October 2015. He promised to “hit the ground listening” to learn . The first year provided high-profile challenges, he said, but he emerged knowing that Fort Worth is the right fit for him. Mayor Betsy Price and many community, business and education leaders have stood behind him, promising to help him try and transform struggling schools into strong academic campuses.
“It has certainly been an interesting first year for him,” said Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association, which represents more than 23,000 public school employees. “He has proven he can take a punch and he is strong. He has shown his commitment to Fort Worth and this says a lot.”
A controversial episode
The transgender guidelines were widely interpreted as allowing students to use bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identity. Some described the controversy as “bathroom politics.” Critics also worried that parental rights were being diminished.
“Superintendent Scribner adopted an illegal policy that wasted valuable district money to defend, brought division to our city, promoted confusion among our children, told teachers they could no longer call children boys and girls, and violated parental rights,” said Zeb Pent, a spokesman for Stand for Fort Worth, an organization that fought the guidelines.
Pent said his group continues to be watchful of the superintendent and how the school district is operating.
“What’s newsworthy is local elected officials thought that was worth giving him a five-year contract extension,” Pent said. “Parents and taxpayers are disappointed by our local elected officials failing to hold him accountable.”
Scribner said the controversy distracted from a safety concern. In the end, mindful of parental rights, the district revamped the guidelines.
“Our focus is on classrooms and not bathrooms,” Scribner said: “At the end of the episode, we were actually were applauded by Attorney General Paxton.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s statement issued about the new guidelines said: “I applaud the Fort Worth Independent School District for revising its guideline to ensure it complies with state law and my recent attorney general opinion. This guideline now allows school officials to consider the needs of students and their families on a case-by-case basis while considering the health and safety of all students.”
‘Focused on student learning’
With “bathroom politics” on the sidelines for now, Scribner is pushing forward with the district’s fight against childhood illiteracy. He also wants to improve middle school math scores and college/career readiness. He said this is key to a contributing to a strong workforce.
Moderate gains have already been made. When the state recently released it’s annual Public Education Grant list of struggling schools, Fort Worth decreased its number from 51 schools to 47. But Scribner said that achievement is not nearly enough.
“I am not interested in incremental improvements,” Scribner said, explaining that he wants to build a strong academic foundation. “Our students are assets to be invested in, not problems to be solved. We need to invest in them in the long haul. This is a snapshot.”
Poole said many are willing to give Scribner’s changes a chance.
“He is visible in the community and visible in the schools,” Poole said. “He’s accessible to people. He is constantly, constantly, constantly focused on student learning.”
Mayor Price called Scribner innovative, creative and data-driven. She also points to his “collaborative spirit” in including the city’s input in school district decisions.
“He’s not afraid to make changes,” Price said. “He’s passionate about education and he loves Fort Worth. He knows the school district is poised to move forward in a very positive direction.”
After the transgender issue simmered down, Scribner’s push to help more youngsters read on grade level continued. He unveiled a plan called 100X25 FWTX, which sets a goal of having 100 percent of Fort Worth third-grade students reading on grade level by 2025.
Price, Scribner and others are working with Matt Rose, executive chairman of BNSF Railway, to lead the Fort Worth literacy project.
Scribner, who also found time to get married this year, said he’s with Fort Worth students for the long haul.
“If you are going to build a house, you have to have a strong foundation,” Scribner said.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this report.