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'The World Is Changing:' School Choices Are Growing In North Texas

With a surge of charter schools and the continued appeal of private schools, the Fort Worth ISD is meeting the competition head on. For the past few years, the school district has been adding academic specialties at nearly every campus. It’s called the Gold Seal Programs of Choice.

At Como Elementary, students can take specialized music classes, along with reading, writing and math. Stripling Middle School offers prep courses in biomedical sciences. And at Eastern Hills High, you can enroll in fire science technology,  the state’s only four-year firefighter program. Dallas’ retired fire chief, Eddie Burns, coordinates it.

“I love education,” Burns said. “Matter of fact, I’ve been teaching at the college level for 12 to 13 years. So this was a natural fit for me. I’ve always loved training, higher-level learning.”

Burns’ students, like 15 year-old sophomore Isaiah Thompson, are serious about their studies -- and their future in the field.  

“Firefighting is a great job, almost a guarantee out of high school, a job as long as you pass that exam," Isiah said. "You get to help. You get to give back to the community.”

It’s not that Isaiah’s opposed to college.

“But you don’t always have to go college to get a good job, or a great job," he said. "College is one of those things that I believe is probably over-talked. … Looks great but you don’t necessarily have to go for a job like a firefighter.”

"Explore all your options"

Career and college options matter to teacher Michelle Harris, whose children now attend private school. But she’s considering a switch, which is why she visited FWISD’s School Choice Expo.

“As an educator, I know how important it is to explore all your options,” Harris said. “I was attracted to the Choice program because there are so many actual options that are tailored to students’ needs. The whole child. Not just academics but maybe their professional or trade pursuits. You have to know what’s out there before you can make an informed decision.”   

That’s why Meharvan and Preeti Singh were at the expo. They’re weighing their kindergarten options for 4-year-old Jaania. 

“When we started this a couple of months ago, we wanted to be sure we explored everything," Preeti Singh said. "We want to know we made the best choice. Even if that meant sending her to the local public school, that we needed to know we were OK with what we were doing. So I’m hoping for clarity.”  

Other North Texas districts offer choices

Fort Worth is just one of several North Texas districts offering choices. Every Grand Prairie school is a school of choice. Dallas is working to add options, which now include magnet schools, a talented and gifted campus, and programs like hospitality and tourism or arts and design.  

Walter Dansby, the Fort Worth ISD superintendent, says the Choice Program has evolved, so some low-interest programs are gone, and newer options, like an all-boys academy -- which is joining the all-girls school -- have high interest.

“The world is changing,” Dansby said. “Our kids are competing globally now. We’re not competing with the guy next door. And we’ve got to give our kids those advantages and skillsets that’ll help them compete globally.”

Fort Worth has just launched an aviation technology program at Dunbar High, with a hangar full of planes and engines for hands-on learning.

Dansby says any district student interested in any program has access to it as long as there’s room in the school. With rare exceptions, he says you don’t have to test in, and a district bus can get you there if it’s not your neighborhood school.

Fort Worth deadline

Friday is the deadline to apply for a Fort Worth school of choice for next fall.  

A look at the options

Here are some Fort Worth ISD choice options.

For more details, check out KERA's Class of 17 education blog.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.