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Bright Spots / Hope in Accountability: Alice Contreras Elementary, Fort Worth ISD
How Alice Contreras Elementary’s “D” rating became a launchpad for big improvement

Hope In Accountability Alice Contreras Elementary Fort Worth Isd

Bright Spots

Hope in Accountability: Alice Contreras Elementary, Fort Worth ISD

How Alice Contreras Elementary’s “D” rating became a launchpad for big improvement

Hope in Accountability is a series spotlighting schools that made tremendous improvements in their TEA accountability ratings from 2019 to 2022. Visit Commit’s Hope Chart Dashboard to learn more about accountability scores and growth across Texas public schools from 2019 to 2022.

Walking through the halls at Alice Contreras Elementary in Fort Worth Independent School District, you couldn’t help but notice the school’s theme for the year: “Our Future is Limitless.” Bulletin boards outside classrooms embrace it, with rocket ships and outer space themed cutouts surrounding student work. Principal Amelia Cortés-Rangel said this is just one of many intentional efforts to demonstrate how much Alice Contreras values students and their growth.

After the school earned a “D” on the state’s accountability rating system in 2019, Principal Cortés-Rangel and the staff collectively identified three “big rock” strategies to improve student learning: quality instruction in core subjects, positive school culture, and multiple forms of student growth. In just a few short years, these big rocks transformed the school to earn the highest marks in the system: in 2022, Alice Contreras earned an “A” rating.

The experience at Alice Contreras shows why a standard ratings system is crucial for student and teacher development. In a system that measures comparable outcomes across schools without dictating specific strategies, the Fort Worth elementary school teachers were able to come up with creative and successful approaches that draw on their particular skills, experience and understanding of their own students.

In 2022 56% of students at Alice Contreras met grade level standards or better in reading, up significantly from 36% of students in 2019 and outpacing the district average. Students at the school are now exceeding district averages in math as well, with 41% of students meeting grade level standards or better in math in 2022, compared to just 36% in 2019.

Leaning on teachers’ skills and experience

Improving instruction started with an asset-based approach from Principal Cortés-Rangel, that is, observing classrooms to identify teachers’ strengths, the assets she could scale for a turnaround. From there, she brought together the expertise to create an instructional learning team (ILT). The ILT serves multiple purposes, taking advantage of the specific strengths and knowledge of the school’s teachers to build the capacity of all campus educators. Being intentional about using teachers as internal consultants and change agents led to a variety of approaches that improved instruction: Members of the ILT regularly model instructional and classroom practices for their peer teachers, along with other forms of professional development like pop-ins, where teachers briefly visit other classrooms to surface new ideas.

A commitment to professional learning communities

Alice Contreras also launched professional learning communities (PLCs), assigning teachers to small groups to learn together. School leadership leveraged data to identify clear professional development needs based on campus trends, often specific to particular grades or teachers. The school also incorporated district resources on instruction and ensured lesson objectives, activities and assessments were aligned to the state standards. The PLCs also reinforce the importance of a growth mindset - not just for students but for teachers as well - and the need for collective effort.

“We were meeting weekly [in professional learning communities]… we made sure that our schedule allowed for it … and that really did have that positive impact because then I think that's when everybody realized, OK, we can learn from each other. And we just maintained that for our campus culture and climate.” - Principal Amelia Cortés-Rangel

A culture that supports student growth

The PLCs and ILT demonstrate the clear commitment to a culture that supports student growth and uses data as a starting point to determine where to direct staff energy and attention.

Students are active participants in their own learning, joining conversations about academic opportunities. Working with their teachers, each student is aware of his or her strengths and areas of focus, with tools the student can use to track and celebrate personal growth, skills that Principal Cortés-Rangel hopes lasts well beyond the years the students spend in her school.

“I want [the students] to continue pursuing whatever goals and dreams they have,” she said. “I want them to remember Contreras and our teachers… I want them to say, ‘I had those adults that believed in me, and this is the reason I'm here.’”

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