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The Challenges Of Leading A Large Urban School District: When A City Changes

Stella M. Chávez
Large urban districts have undergone numerous changes over the years. Among them, a higher number of students living in poverty. The Dallas Public Library has responded by serving free lunch to kids during the summer.

Over the past few weeks, KERA's American Graduate project has explored why it’s so tough to lead a large urban school district. Both Dallas and Fort Worth are looking for superintendents. This week, we look at how changes in urban districts have made the job even harder.

Inside the Dallas West Branch Library, a group of elementary-age children are busy chowing down on sandwiches, fruit slices, celery sticks and chocolate milk.

It used to be you couldn’t eat or drink in the library. These days, at least during summer, serving food is not that unusual. In fact, 11 Dallas public library branches now offer free lunches to kids.

Patrick Ranson had the day off from his landscaping job and joined his son Ashton in a meeting room designated for the meals. Dad brought his lunch from home.

“You know, I think that’s very good for the kids to have somewhere to go because, you know, it’s a lot of poor people in West Dallas,” Ranson said. “And, you know, some homes may not have any food.”

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Patrick Ranson joined his son, Ashton, for lunch last week at the Dallas library branch in West Dallas. Kids get free meals, but parents must bring their own.

That can be a problem for large, urban school districts like Dallas and Fort Worth. Today, about one in five school-age kids live in poverty. Fifteen years ago, it was one in seven.

“It’s a cry for help being an underprivileged kid,” Ranson said. “Sometimes in the home, you only have one parent and that parent has to work two jobs and that kid is left to raise their self almost.”

It’s not just poverty that’s had an impact on schools. Tim Knowles of the University of Chicago has written about school leadership, reform and accountability.

“I would say just the changing nature of American and the cities have become more diverse,” Knowles said. “There’s many more language groups than have historically have been there in the past and cultures and ethnicities and that has created both huge opportunities as well as challenges for big system school leaders.”

Often with those challenges come changes in leadership. Mike Miles left Dallas after just three years. And Fort Worth is due to choose its new leader after the previous pick withdrew.

“It’s a terrible irony that they don’t stay longer because the places where they do stay longer perform better, over time,” he said.

When superintendents stay longer, Knowles said, the district isn’t constantly trying to introduce new initiatives, which means kids might learn more deeply.

“The fact that the average superintendent’s tenure is three years or less – I think it’s more like 2.8 – it means that they’ve almost turned into the equivalent of NFL coaches – they bounce around from city to city and they aren’t there long enough really to pay significant dividends.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Linus Wright served 10 years as superintendent in Dallas ISD. He says the biggest change he's seen in large urban districts is the contentious relationship between superintendents and schools boards.

By today’s standards, Linus Wright broke a record. He served a decade as superintendent in Dallas starting in 1978. Wright, who’s 88, says the biggest change he’s seen is the friction between superintendents and board members.

“Too many of them want their agenda and that’s something the people have to address. They have to elect people that are willing to work collaborative with everybody,” Wright said. “And when you have board members that want to go their own independent way, it naturally creates problems, just as much as a superintendent wants to go his independent way.”

Trini Garza went his own way and paved the way when he became the first Hispanic elected to the Dallas school board in 1970.

“When I first came on board, there were no Hispanic administrator at the top level, no principals and only one school was named after Hispanic, Benito Juarez,” Garza said.

Back then, one in 10 Dallas students was Hispanic. Today, it’s seven in 10. By the time Garza returned to the board in the mid-1990s, single-members districts were opening doors for more Hispanic board members.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Trini Garza was the first Hispanic elected to the Dallas ISD school board in 1970. He says one of the challenges large districts like Dallas face is meeting the needs of a diverse student body, including English Language Learners.

At a recent luncheon in Fort Worth, Mayor Betsy Price focused on the positive changes she’s seen in her district, like developing lessons on new technology.

“And they’re also picking up on the fact that the kids aren’t all gonna go to go to college,” Price said. “They may long term, but they’ve got to have a deliverable skill where they can make a living when they first get out of high school.”

Price says whoever leads the district next will have to be creative and willing to listen. Most important, she says? Stability. Preferably longer than 3 years.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.