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A Lesson In Continuous Improvement

Dallas ISD's ACE program continues to adjust and improve.

Turning around a struggling school is incredibly difficult work, for administrators, educators, and- especially- every student in attendance.

“I absolutely love Isaiah. I'm very happy to say that he's currently in middle school taking all pre-AP courses, which is amazing, since he was a kid who, in elementary school, was not passing the state exams.”

Katie Benningfield is a six-year Dallas ISD teacher. Isaiah was one of her students at Annie Webb Blanton Elementary in the neighborhood of Pleasant Grove.

“And I remember just thinking, oh my goodness, what do I do? How do I get him to even think about college? Why does this math problem matter to him if he has all of these outside life things happening?”

Too many students in Dallas County struggle with hunger, poverty, and transience. These issues threaten to keep children from achieving their full potential by distracting them from the hard work our educators put in every day. But luckily for Isaiah- and Katie- administrators had other plans for Blanton.

“Working in the ACE program, being surrounded by [highly-effective] teachers, I was able to learn the skills needed in order to help [Isaiah].”

The ACE program works by identifying a strong school leader and allowing them to fill a struggling campus with a new teaching corps comprised of effective, experienced educators. These teachers are paid more than their peers at other campuses, but they’re also expected to serve longer hours. Increased community engagement, social-emotional supports, and three meals a day are also provided.

“We were able to get him services to help [Isaiah] and his family. I was able to tutor him the extra hours necessary. I was able to [help him] navigate how his future could look.”

ACE stands for Accelerating Campus Excellence, and for the past four years that’s exactly what it has done. In the time since the initiative began, student achievement has increased 9.1% across the entire Dallas school district. And scores on ACE campuses have risen even more dramatically, including Blanton, where students surpassed their far-more affluent peers at Highland Park Elementary. Students like Isaiah.

“It goes to show that he was always capable of doing it. He just needed the best instructors in front of him.”

This transformative model has inspired effusive press, influenced major decisions made in this year’s Texas legislative session, and spread to nine other Texas school districts so far. But the district has refused to rest on the laurels of its headline-grabbing initiative, and instead has committed to the spirit of continuous improvement. That’s why this summer, they collaborated with the Best in Class coalition to convene an ACE Focus Group, consisting of former and current ACE teachers and principals.

The timing of this discussion was significant. ACE, as it currently exists, lasts for exactly three years. The 2018-19 school year marks the first full year that former ACE campuses operated without the program in place. And newly released student achievement data shows an unfortunate (if understandable) decrease in results.

Seven schools were a part of the original ACE cohort: Elementary schools Blanton, Umphrey Lee, Pease and Roger Q. Mills (scheduled to become a Vanguard Academy in the coming year), and middle schools Dade, Zumwalt, and Edison (which sadly had to be closed in 2017 because of environmental concerns). Of the remaining six schools, achievement increased by an average of 17.3% since 2015. But from the previous school year to this one, student achievement actually declined by 1.9%.

The ACE Focus Group identified the major challenges that faced schools rolling off the program. The largest of these was the retention of teachers and leaders.

“The goal of ACE funding is rightfully to stabilize historically under-resourced schools,” says Robbie Estaban, a parent of a Dade Middle School student. “Unfortunately, Dade's 2018-2019 principal was saddled with 70% core teacher turnover, new support staff, and none of the community resources that had existed the year before. The school was entirely destabilized.”

Given the additional compensation associated with the initiative, it's easy to assume the decision made by these educators was purely financial. But by taking the time to listen and learn from the teachers themselves, the Focus Group convenors learned this wasn’t always the case.

“School culture and climate was the most important factor for retention,” said Garrett Landry, a director with the Best in Class coalition, noting that most teachers who left ACE campuses did so not because of stipends, but because of changes in leadership. “When change was abrupt and not clearly communicated, it impacted culture and climate in a negative way.”

Educators also pointed toward the loss of social-emotional supports, including an extra school counselor and assistant principal. And many former ACE principals wished they could maintain the extended instructional hours their campuses once enjoyed. “Additional time is important even if the school can’t afford it,” Landry continued. “Without it, teachers have less time for targeted instruction and feel rushed.”

Finally, the teachers and principals convened by the focus group recommended that, rather than rely on an arbitrary three-year window, district leadership could instead establish exit criteria for ACE campuses that ensures sustained growth. These criteria could potentially include leadership consistency, strong climate and culture, and parent and student surveys. Additionally, some respondents suggested that, rather than an immediate withdrawal of resources, ACE campuses could instead see them gradually reduced.

Ultimately, the ACE Focus Group identified the best practices for moving forward not only on ACE campuses, but on every campus. The training used to prepare ACE principals (in collaboration with Teaching Trust) is now being piloted across the district in a program called Leader Excellence, Advancement and Development, or LEAD. Similar programming could be utilized to develop teacher leaders that can help maintain a positive school culture even during times of difficult transition.

As many experienced educators will tell you, there are no magical silver bullets when it comes to the incredibly difficult task of educating young people. Ensuring consistent growth and achievement for each and every one of our students requires bold new ideas like the ACE initiative, but it also requires the humility to constantly reevaluate and improve upon those ideas. By convening the ACE Focus Group, district leaders have demonstrated a commitment to continuous improvement.

Back in Pleasant Grove, Katie Benningfield leapt at the opportunity to teach at the newly created School for the Talented and Gifted in order to continue on to middle school with many of her former students. But she’s still kept in touch with her colleagues at Blanton. The school has maintained strong student achievement in its first post-ACE year, and the reasons why are directly connected to the focus group’s findings about the importance of school culture and consistent leadership.

“Even though we had teachers, like me, leave the campus, we all still keep in contact,” Benningfield said. “The ACE program really required all of the teachers to bond together to build a really strong culture. So I have gone back to visit my kids, just to check on them, see how they're doing. And they're having a really great year. They still have a very positive school culture. The principal in place was previously an administrator in a different role. She understands the systems and culture that we had already built, so she's been able to continue that acceleration. They're having a fantastic year.”

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