Editorials

Fort Worth ISD leaders all business on enrollment challenges. Here’s how

Inside a Fort Worth ISD’s Gold Seal School of Choice

Students at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM pursue high level math and science courses to prepare for engineering and computer science careers. Those in the academy's visual and performing arts program learn from professional artists.
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Students at the I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM pursue high level math and science courses to prepare for engineering and computer science careers. Those in the academy's visual and performing arts program learn from professional artists.

The word “customer” never came up in the Star-Telegram Editorial Board’s meeting with Fort Worth’s top public school officials this week. But Superintendent Kent Scribner and Board President Jacinto “Cinto” Ramos Jr. sounded less like bureaucrats and more like businessmen competing for clientele.

In point of fact, they are.

Because the city’s population growth is mostly occurring in outlying school districts — as well as increasing competition from private and charter schools — Fort Worth ISD has seen a 3% enrollment drop in the past three years.

Scribner and Ramos are more kindled than concerned. They’re attacking the district’s challenges as opportunities to be better. And while the challenges for any big urban district are daunting, one word that does come up early and often while talking with district officials is “choice.” Public education can no longer have the attitude of “you’ll eat what we serve you.” And Fort Worth ISD certainly doesn’t.

“Gold Seal” courses in the district’s high schools, according to its website, include “rigorous” courses such as those in “engineering, agriculture, business administration, fine arts, government and law, health science, hospitality, marketing, public safety, technology, visual and graphic arts ...” At some elementary and middle schools, “Programs of Choice” offer “a more intensive curriculum in such fields as math, science, communications, art and foreign language.”

The district’s Gold Seal Choices Catalog for 2019-20, in both English and Spanish, can be found at fwisd.org/Page/345.

Success stories abound. Trimble Tech, a vocational high school in central Fort Worth, was so important to Noemi Barrios Ramirez that the oft-homeless teen would wake up at 4 a.m. for the long commute during her stays in North Dallas and Irving. On Saturday, the aspiring nurse’s walk across the stage to clutch her diploma will be much shorter.

As proud as the district must be of her and her attachment to her school, Scribner says the district is open to partnerships with worthy charter or private schools in an effort to provide high-quality options in every part of town. Meanwhile, after a visit to see the results in hard-bitten Chicago schools, Scribner is even more determined to create a larger pipeline of top-notch principals who make a difference — first by hiring quality teachers.

The Board of Education has wisely delegated principal hiring to the superintendent.

One of Fort Worth ISD’s biggest challenges is the fact that about half of its 84,000 students speak a language other than English at home — the bulk of whom, 39,000, speak Spanish. But if done right, that can be the basis for a bilingual future workforce. Moreover, Barbara Griffith, senior communications officer, says the district’s commitment to equity in education is an integral part of its image.

Another challenge is navigating the choppy social issues that a conflicted society imposes on schools, while those schools deal with a huge and diverse customer base. Although the district ran afoul of many patrons in its transgender-student policies in 2016, it modified those policies as a result. And when talking about outreach to various district constituencies, Scribner pointedly mentions business, philanthropy and faith communities.

Whatever the trend in enrollment, Fort Worth ISD’s leadership seems to be on an upward curve, particularly with the recent ascent of current and former board president Ramos — a parent-activist, gang intervention expert and juvenile probation officer with impressive, collaboration-based leadership abilities.

Overcoming all these challenges will require every bit of leadership, innovation and unity the district can muster.

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