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This Dallas School Is Turning Things Around, Thanks In Part To Better-Paid Teachers

Bill Zeeble
Angela Fulbright-Burley teaches her eighth grade history students at Zumwalt Middle School.

The Dallas school district launched a program last year designed to turn around its most troubled schools. It’s called ACE – accelerated campus excellence. Last year, six of the seven ACE schools got off the state’s improvement required list. 

“Who makes the most money?" asks the history teacher.

"England," say the kids. "England makes the most money…"

We’re in Angela Fulbright-Burley’s first period history class. This small group of eighth graders at Sarah Zumwalt Middle School is tackling early American mercantilism. 

“England’s mean,” one student says.

“Why do you say that?” Fulbrigh-Burley asks.

“Cause they’re selling it for higher when they sold the natural resources for lower,” the student says.

These kids are curious, active, engaged.  Their teacher says it didn’t used to be that way.

“If you would have come into my room last year, you wouldn’t have seen what you saw this morning," Fulbright-Burley says. "They would have been quiet. They really couldn’t articulate their ideas.”   

Angela Fulbright-Burley says last year was hard. And she’s good. But that’s why she’s here. Zumwalt consistently underperformed. So this school and six others practically started over, with new, top-rated teachers and principals. This is Zumwalt’s second year in the ACE program.

“I’ve always had 90+ percent students passing state assessments,” Fulbright-Burley says. “Last year I think I had 58 percent. And I was so happy for it. Because the year before that it was like 18 percent and 22 percent and 21 percent. So this year, it’s 80 percent. I got to have 80 percent this year.  And I think it can happen because the culture has changed so much.”

How much?  Just ask the kids. Eighth grader Josh Bullock, who’s 13, is in his last year at Zumwalt.

“Before they came it was like, really rowdy and bad. It had no structure,” Josh says.  

Structure’s what appealed to eighth grader Kentavia Davis after witnessing fighting and mayhem.

“My first year it was hard for me to learn because of the amount of people in the classes,” Kentavia recalls. “And the disciplinary actions of the other students were making it hard for the other students that were focusing on school to learn because the teachers were addressing the students and not teaching much.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Kentavia Davis, left, sits next to fellow eighth grader Nancy Hernandez. Both were at Zumwalt before and after the ACE program. The difference? Both say mayhem used to rule and learning was hard. Now there's structure and learning's fun.

This shift in Zumwalt’s culture? Annie Wright says it’s major and difficult. She runs the Center on Research and Evaluation -- CORE -- at Southern Methodist University’s education school.

“They’re hard to accomplish, they’re worth celebrating and ultimately those are the kinds of changes that then start to point to academic outcomes and test scores that are eventually what make the headlines,” Wright says.

The ACE program was one of former superintendent Mike Miles’ reforms. And his successor, Michael Hinojosa, wanted more money for additional ACE schools. Trustees said they needed more data to confirm the improvements before asking voters for the money.  

Ron Olive is convinced the proof’s already in. He’s an ACE teacher at John Mills Elementary. He says waiting wastes time kids may not have.

“Whether or not we use ACE, we have to come up with something,” Oliver says. “It’s inexcusable that we have 50 percent of our students at some grade levels failing. It’s maddening. I don’t’ seen an acceptable reason for that to happen.”

Frustrated, the highly-ranked art teacher signed up for the ACE school. There’s more pay, in part, because he works longer hours. For him, there’s a different payoff.

“One of my best feelings of the year was when we were departing last year,” Oliver says. “And I had some students who were always quiet in class but as I was putting her in her car that day, for dismissal, she turned to me and said ‘Mr. Oliver are you coming back next year?’ And I said yes I will be. And she goes ‘yay.’ It made me know we were making a difference.”

How much of a difference is still a question. Performance gaps among African American and Hispanic students compared to whites, remain. Yet in some ACE schools that gap shrank - in some cases - 30 points. But getting it to zero? That may take more than any standout program can provide.  

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