Fort Worth ISD partnered with Leadership Academy Network to improve learning. Did it work?
Students in Cindy Reyes’ class spent part of their Wednesday afternoon working on word problems in math at Como Elementary.
Her classroom is full of English second-language learners, and everything is labeled in English and Spanish. She has books in both languages. Her classroom is one of hundreds tasked with improving accountability ratings in Fort Worth ISD.
In 2017, campuses in Fort Worth ISD were marked as “multi-year improvement required” from the Texas Education Agency. It was time for heavy intervention, and a new state law made the funds for it possible. Now, the district will evaluate if the funds helped improve campus ratings.
For the first time since its inception, the Leadership Academy Network will have to put its methods to the test and undergo evaluation by Fort Worth ISD to determine if it will keep its contract. The accountability ratings from TEA are largely based on STAAR results, which are administered in the spring. Results are expected to be released in the summer.
In 2017, the state Legislature approved Senate Bill 1882, which allows public school districts to partner with outside entities to operate schools as charter campuses to improve performance. For these partnerships, the state gives schools extra money for being SB 1882 campuses. Fort Worth ISD board president Tobi Jackson said the Leadership Academy Network gets an extra $2,000 per student under the agreement.
In 2019, Fort Worth ISD partnered with Texas Wesleyan University Leadership Academy Network to form an 1882 partnership to operate Como Elementary, John T. White Elementary, Maude I. Logan Elementary, Mitchell Boulevard Elementary and Forest Oak.
Administrators know the agreement could not solve all the district’s problems, Chief Innovation Officer David Saenz said. But, within the first year of the Leadership Academy Network’s inception, he said, there was growth on the campuses.
“We are looking forward to this year and seeing how our students recover from the pandemic, which has been a challenge for partnerships that started when they did, because they really didn’t have much time to get themselves started before the pandemic,” Saenz said. “And now we’re trying to recover at the same time.”
Priscila Dilley, senior officer for the Leadership Academy Network, said the academies were first launched to intervene on failing campuses. Some of these interventions included an extended school day, after-school support and hiring new teachers and principals with a stipend for working extended days.
The changes cost about $1 million per campus, but school officials were seeing results. Campuses with previous F ratings were improving.
“We knew that those interventions are what the schools needed, and that we needed to do something drastic,” she said. “We had to keep what we knew worked for schools.”The need to keep interventions in place and fund them led the district to seek out the SB 1882 partnership, which requires Texas Education Agency approval. Texas Wesleyan and Fort Worth ISD are now partners, and the Leadership Academy Network has a $28.3 million budget to run the campuses.
Because there was no state testing in the 2020-21 school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021-22 school year is the first time the network will have accountability ratings reviewed by the district.
School board President Tobi Jackson said the board gets an annual report from the Leadership Academy Network, while the district receives a quarterly report. The board can also visit campuses and meet with Dilley.
“It was pretty cool to be able to see principals just be able to do things in a little bit different manner, just a little bit different mindset,” Jackson said of her experience visiting a campus. “And it doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s just different, and different serves more of the public.”
This school year, all Leadership Academy Network campuses will need to receive a B rating to meet expectations, with the exception of the Forest Oak sixth-grade campus, which has a C rating goal. The state considers the Forest Oak sixth-grade campus separate from the seventh- and eighth-grade campus, but Leadership Academy Network leads both campuses with the same team.
By 2024, the network needs to bring all campuses up to an A rating, with the exception of Forest Oak sixth grade, which has a goal of a B rating.
Though Texas Wesleyan has a five-year contract with the district, the school board can vote to end the contract if the goals are not met.
“I am looking to Leadership to tell us if they will hit their goals or not,” Jackson said. “This is what I will tell you: They have $2,000 more per child than the regular schools in Fort Worth ISD have. Therefore, they should accelerate more rapidly toward their goals, if indeed money is the factor, and if indeed they are doing the right things. If they do not accelerate more rapidly or at the same rate, what we need to do is dig deeper.”
As for future partnerships on other campuses, Saenz said, the district is staying put at the moment and waiting to see the results of the original five-year agreement.
“They understand clearly what their goals are and where they’re supposed to be in five years,” he said. “But at the same time, we also know the pushes and pulls that happened these last few years as well. We will work with them and the school board and superintendent to see what went down and what that will mean contractually, moving forward.”
Dilley is pleased with what she sees in the campuses, and while she said she doesn’t know if pre-pandemic targets will be met, she is confident staff members are doing everything in their power to do so. She does not want the pandemic to hold back the growth of students in the network.
“Our strategy has been when you’re in the building, and when kids are in the building, it’s business as usual,” she said. “We can’t let any day go to waste.”
Before COVID-19, the question SSB 1882 posed was if schools are given more money, will they succeed? Now, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds are given to schools to address learning losses in the pandemic.
“So, the question now is, does 1882 allow more latitude, more freedom, more individualized visualization of community student need? And does that cost more money? And does that money need to be delivered consistently,” Jackson said.
The Legislature could always change its mind on SB 1882 and not continue to fund it. But education and SB 1882 partnerships are about more than money now, Jackson said.
“A different parent matriculates toward a charter or an 1882,” she said. “And the traditional parent that says, ‘This is my neighborhood school, and I’m going to go here.’ There are some parents that are discerning about specific things, such as they are, they are concerned about their child being more involved in the arts or more involved in STEAM or STEM or STREAM. I just think that we have a more different education consumer now than we did even four years ago.”
Having 1882 designation gives the campuses more autonomy to put interventions in place, Dilley said. That allows them to move a bit quicker. If they want teachers to try a new curriculum on a campus, it’s easier to get that approved and started.
The school day at Leadership Academies lasts until 4 p.m. That extra hour of instruction means an extra stipend for teachers and more classroom time for students.
Aside from an extra hour of school a day and purchasing new curriculums, Dilley said, the network has a program called “Everybody Grows” that helps students. The enrichment program gives students three hours a week to engage in opportunities like yoga, puppetry, dance, theater and other experiences.
Many students in the network would not be able to have those experiences without the school providing them, Dilley said.
Additionally, the extra money allowed every campus to hire a behavior intervention specialist. These staffers are trained in dealing with trauma in kids, Dilley said. While this is common in middle and high schools, it is not so in the elementary schools, which is when Dilley said it’s needed.
Several students in the network need extra support, she said. All the schools have a calming room, an area with tools to help students deal with their emotions and calm down. Some of the tools include a sandbox, yoga mat or lava lamp.
“They teach kids how to regulate themselves and how to breathe and how to calm yourself and how to not be anxious,” Dilley said. “And there’s pieces about how do you deal with testing anxiety and school anxiety that all of us have here and there.”
So far, Jackson sees the partnership as a win for the community and the district. She said it offers more choices for the community, provides greater access to resources for students and gives faculty some autonomy.
“People have differences of opinions on the partnerships and also, obviously, it depends on where you’re at and what the structure looks like,” Dilley said. “I will say that our schools have made a tremendous transformation from the very first time to like when you walk in to now. I’m very proud of what I see.”