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Dallas School District Cuts Back On Successful 'ACE' Model, As Other Districts Pick It Up

Lara Solt
Thomas A. Edison Middle Learning Center in Dallas was one of the seven initial ACE schools in 2015.

The Dallas Independent School District launched a program a few years ago to turn around struggling schools called Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE. Now, other North Texas school districts are launching similar efforts, while Dallas ramps down the program.

Dallas ISD launched ACE in 2015, starting with seven low-performing schools that were rated “improvement required” by the state. The district incentivized teachers to work at those schools by offering stipends. It also lengthened the school day, offered more after-school activities and provided students breakfast, lunch and dinner every day.

After just a year, six of the seven schools went from "improvement required" to "met standard." So the district expanded the effort, up to 13 ACE schools last year.

Facing high program costs, however, district officials are now considering changes to the model. The district pays an additional $1,180 per student enrolled in an ACE school.

At a school board meeting in the spring, officials discussed alterations to the program, including offering stipends only to administrators and select teachers at ACE schools rather than all of them, as well as reducing the number of students who would stay for the extended school day. Additionally, the ACE program will no longer replace the entire staff and teachers of a school, as it had in the past.

"It is a little bit disappointing," said Dallas ISD trustee Dan Micciche, during a meeting last spring, "that we have a program that has produced such outstanding results, and for budgetary reasons we are having to look to modify it while other districts around the area are copying our original plan."

Schools adopting ACE or similar model

Fort Worth ISD launched a similar program in the 2017-18 school year, turning some low-performing schools into "leadership academies."

Superintendent Kent Scribner said the model helped schools achieve improvement in just a year.

"These schools achieved double-digit improvements for all of our leadership academies," Scribner said during a school board meeting in June. "Early results indicate that our strategy is working, focusing on fewer things: elementary literacy, middle years mathematics and college/career preparedness."

Two more school districts, Richardson and Garland, are adopting the ACE model as well. In March, Richardson ISD announced it would implement the ACE program in four schools, in order to reduce the achievement gap. Only 20 to 33 percent of students there met third-grade reading standards, while other campuses saw as high as 88 percent of third-grade students meeting reading standards.

Richardson School Board President Justin Bono said during an announcement of the district's plans that schools there also have a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

"There have been two decades of leaders and staff that have worked tirelessly to close the achievement gap for our most disadvantaged students," Bono said. "Superintendents and boards have tried countless programs over that time to close that gap for our kids, yet the gap persists today without substantial movement."

In a smaller version of the model, Garland ISD plans to implement the ACE program at two schools — Handley Elementary School and Lyles Middle School.

Jovan Wells, chief academic officer at Garland ISD, said there is significant teacher turnover in high-need campuses like Handley. 

"You have teachers suffer from burnout because it is long hours. It's very challenging," Wells said, referring to teachers under pressure to close learning gaps and help students make academic progress. "So we go in and we try to support those efforts from the district level. But the challenges we have to look at a different approach."

Wells said even schools that aren't adopting the model will benefit, as staff at several other campuses will go through the same training offered at the two ACE schools. 

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.