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Students Making Progress, State Schools Chief Says, But Harvey Brings 'Daunting' Challenges

Stella M. Chavez
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Richardson ISD Superintendent Jeannie Stone and Eddie Conger, International Leadership of Texas superintendent at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was in Dallas this week to talk about how the state’s schools are doing -- and the impact Hurricane Harvey has had on education.

Dozens of districts delayed the start of school for days, even weeks after the storm hit last month.

All but three districts have reopened, Morath said. He spoke to a packed room at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas at a luncheon Wednesday sponsored by the Dallas Regional Chamber.

“We educate in the state of Texas roughly the same number of children who are educated by the nation of Canada, and one in four of them have suffered pretty significant disruption to their learning experience and to their lives,” Morath said.

Morath was a Dallas school district trustee before Gov. Greg Abbott chose him as education commissioner in January 2016.

He talked about his recent visits to districts affected by Harvey — school districts like Port Aransas, which is scheduled to reopen next month. Most of its students will have to attend classes in portable buildings.

“Our teachers are spending all day with rooms full of kids, who, in many cases, are suffering post-traumatic stress and then they’re going home and demoing their own homes, cleaning out fiberglass insulation, cleaning out drywall and then waking up and getting it all again,” Morath said.

Still room for improvement

Morath also talked about how students across the state are faring. More students are now meeting grade level expectations and the state’s graduation rate – at 89 percent – is the highest Texas has had.

Still, Morath said, the state has a lot of work to do to boost student performance.

“We have more poor kids today than we ever had," he said. "We have more families of challenge than we ever had, and we got several hundred thousand newly homeless families in the Gulf Coast region. The challenges that we face are daunting.”

Morath was joined on stage by area superintendents, including Dallas’ Michael Hinojosa. Each of them talked about what their district is doing to help students in an innovative way.

Hinojosa praised Dallas ISD’s dual-language program. Under this model, students are taught in two languages: Spanish and English.

“When we look at our results and then we take our English learners, our dual-language parents that are either African-American or white, their results are even much higher than our other groups of kids, and they’re becoming bi-literate,” Hinojosa said.

Forty-four percent – or 70,000 students – in the Dallas school district are considered English language learners. That’s more than the total number of students enrolled in the El Paso or San Antonio school districts.

Hinojosa says the dual-language model is just one example of how a district can help students — whose first language isn’t English – succeed.

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.