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Can School Districts Afford The Pricey, Successful ACE Program As It Grows?

It began as an experiment more than four years ago in a handful of struggling Dallas schools.  Now, the ACE program —for Accelerating Campus Excellence —  has blossomed into a turnaround program well beyond Dallas. But these programs are pricey. Can districts afford them in the long run?

In 2016, after just one year of the ACE program, six of the initial seven Dallas campuses came off the state’s list of low performing schools. That success has spawned copy cats across Texas, including Aldine, Richardson, Garland, Pflugerville, Lubbock and Crowley. Plano and El Paso are trying variations of the ACE plan.

Fort Worth ISD was among the first to copy it, in 2017, calling the schools Leadership Academies.

At Maude Logan Elementary school, one of Fort Worth’s first Leadership Academies, about a dozen teachers are meeting in the school library, going over lesson plans.

Everyone here is among the best of the best in Fort Worth ISD. Lured by a $10,000 annual stipend, they came to help the school improve. Logan offers after-school tutoring and the kids get dinner. Principal Steven Moore — who also received an incentive - says teacher preparation here is more focused than usual.

“We can’t say, 'Oh their struggles are in reading.' Well, which part of reading? Is it comprehension?  Is it vocabulary? Is it fluency? What are we doing to address the gaps? How far behind are they? What are your plans for this specific student?” asks Moore.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Steven Moore is the principal at Logan Elementary, one of Fort Worth ISD's Leadership Academies.

He says Leadership Academies stress academics and the individual student.

“…very intentional to small group instruction. If small group isn’t happening, students aren’t learning,” Moore says. “That’s our philosophy.”

For four consecutive years, the state says Logan was failing. A year after it became a Leadership Academy, it came off the failing list and continues to stay off.  Just this month, it got a C from the state.

Every single Logan student qualifies for free or reduced cost meals. Bilingual instructor Crystal Romero says her experience at Logan has taught her a strong personal bond helps these kids learn.

“Get to know them, get to know their families,” advises Romero. “Get to know where they come from. Get to know their struggles outside of their academics. Target that first. Trust is…it’s big.”

Teacher home visits are big too. So is one-on-one instruction.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Logan Elementary teachers Crystal Romero (l) and Aisha Mason have helped turn the school around. The state no longer rates it a failing campus

“When you have that, you’re able to work with those students,” Romero says. “You’re able to work with those families. They’re able to work with you, and you’re all on the same page.”  

But that page can be pricey. At about $1 million a campus, that could bust budgets, even though the program works. In Dallas, for example, after three years, funding was withdrawn from the first ACE schools, and shifted to others.

But Fort Worth’s model is different. Garrett Landry is with the Dallas-based education non-profit Commit. It helps districts improve academic outcomes. He says Fort Worth took advantage of a 2017 state law that allows a district to get more money per pupil than the average ACE cost of $1,300 per student, by partnering with an outside group. Fort Worth ISD partnered with Texas Wesleyan University, which now oversees the academies.

“The funding difference that they get under that circumstance is about $1,800 per kid,” Landry says. “So that pays for the program in perpetuity. So that is now the model those five schools have.”

While Fort Worth gets this additional funding, Dallas hasn’t gone that route yet. When Dallas shifted its ACE money to other schools, some former ACE campuses saw ratings slip.  Roger Q. Mills Elementary for example just got an F.  

“We do a great job of getting schools out of improvement required or F,” says Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, “but we don’t do quite a great a job of keeping schools out of there that may have been successful before.”

Do those schools need the extra resources again to succeed? Commit’s Landry says not necessarily, especially after top principals and teachers set a new, higher standard. And he says they often don’t need the bonuses to stay.

“The stipend,” Landry says, “they knew the stipend was going to run out in three years. But they were now working for principals that knew how to develop, knew how to lead. They were getting enriching professional development, and they had created a  cohort of peers in that building that were all working toward a common interest together. And so the environment of that campus - it kept them there.”

Logan Elementary’s Romero agrees. She says even if the stipend goes away, she would stay.

“We all came in with a blank page,” Romero says. “Why? Because it was new. Everything was new. So we’ve come a long way. And we’ve established that together, that we would stay together.”

Romero says the school feels like a family now. It would be hard to walk away.

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