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"Only Excellence Will Do" - How the Leadership Academy at Forest Oak Combines Rigor With Restorative Justice

Like most middle schools, mornings at the Leadership Academy at Forest Oak begin with the announcements. But what’s said in those announcements is indicative of a mindset that makes this campus special.

“Every day on the announcements, I say, ‘if no one's told you that they love you today, remember that I do,’” said Principal Seretha Lofton. “‘And I always will.’ Yes, we are an institution of learning, but we have to embrace the whole child. Before we can even attempt to educate our students, we have got to address where they need to be socially and emotionally. Especially when you're in this type of environment.”

Forest Oak serves the community of southeast Fort Worth. 90% of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch, compared with under 80% of the district and about 60% for the state as a whole. And for years, Forest Oak and its surrounding community was a victim of serious neglect: in 2017, only 16% of its students met state academic standards.

“When we had those first meetings with parents,” Principal Lofton continued, “I had several come up to me and say, ‘We do not feel safe with our children here at this school. We did not know what was even going on at the campus.’ I asked the parents to give us an opportunity, give us a chance. We're going to make things different.”

And that’s exactly what Principal Lofton and her team did, implementing a strategy known (in Fort Worth) as the Leadership Academy, with the assistance of Texas Wesleyan University and guidance from Best in Class- a collaborative initiative between Commit and Communities Foundation of Texas that seeks to attract, prepare, develop, and retain a diverse corps of effective educators.

When Principal Lofton took on her position nearly three years ago, she reconstituted the entire campus and had increased autonomy to build a team of experienced educators and support staff attuned to the specific needs of her new school community. Those staff members who demonstrated excellence in their field were offered increased pay to come to the historically underserved campus- and expected to earn it through increased hours and responsibility.

“You’ve got to work,” Lofton summarized. “The expectation is very clear.”

These high expectations extend to the students. The campus motto- which is invoked repeatedly over the course of a school day- reads “Only Excellence Will Do.” Lofton explains: “That's excellence in your coursework. That's excellence in your behavior. Everything that you do and everything that you touch should be touched with a spirit of excellence. And so that's the message that we are making sure that all of our students embrace.”

All signs indicate students have, in fact, embraced that message. Discipline referrals are down significantly, with fewer “repeat offenders.” Conflict is dealt with through restorative justice- a discipline practice that keeps students in the classroom. And achievement is up- over 50% more students met standards on the state exam in Forest Oak’s first year as a Leadership Academy.

“When STAAR comes, it's truly a different environment here as opposed to previous campuses I've been on,” says Assistant Principal Danny Fracassi. “In the spirit of our motto, our kids are prepped for excellence. They know what's coming. We've started that from day one. This is where our expectation is. This is where you can meet it, and we're going to put you there.”

This mindset shift shows up in subtler ways as well. Passing the state’s Algebra I exam in 8th grade is essential in order to stay on a college-ready mathematics track. Both before and after its reconstitution, nearly all Forest Oak students taking the exam passed. The difference is, under new leadership, more than twice as many students were given the opportunity to sit for it and they still had resounding success.

Under the recently passed Texas House Bill 3, school districts across the state will have the opportunity to access greater additional funding by replicating the Leadership Academy model. The new Teacher Incentive Allotment allows districts to draw down funds for employing the state’s most effective teachers, and districts are financially rewarded for incentivizing those educators to work on the campuses they’re needed most, equitably distributing talent.

“It's all about the expectations that you set, and the follow through.” Principal Lofton concluded. “The kids really feel good about themselves. The whole community feels embraced, the children feel loved and empowered, and the teachers are more motivated as well because we give them the autonomy to do what needs to be done in that classroom. It's been a very blessed opportunity and fulfilling journey, to say the least.”

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