Her class is full of ESL learners, and everything is labeled in English and Spanish. She has books in both languages. His class is one of hundreds tasked with improving accountability ratings at Fort Worth ISD.
In 2017, Fort Worth ISD campuses were marked as “Multi-Year Improvement Required” by the Texas Education Agency. It was time to intervene heavily, and a new state law made the necessary funds possible. Now the district will assess whether the funds helped improve campus grades.
For the first time since its inception, the Leadership Academy Network will have to put its methods to the test and undergo an evaluation by Fort Worth ISD to determine whether it will retain its contract. TEA accountability ratings are largely based on STAAR results, which are administered in the spring. The results are expected to be released this 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 additional funding to be SB 1882 campuses. Fort Worth ISD Board Chairman Tobi Jackson said the Leadership Academy Network receives an additional $2,000 per student in the framework of the agreement.
In 2019, Fort Worth ISD partnered with the 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.
Trustees know the deal couldn’t solve all of the district’s problems, chief innovation officer David Saenz said. But, in the first year of the creation of the Leadership Academy Network, he said, there was growth on campuses.
“We’re looking forward to this year and seeing how our students recover from the pandemic, which has been a challenge for the partnerships that started when they did, as they really didn’t have much time to get started. before the pandemic,” Saenz mentioned. “And now we’re trying to recover at the same time.”
Priscila Dilley, head of 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 the hiring of new teachers and principals with an allowance for extended working days.
The changes cost about $1 million per campus, but school officials were seeing results. Campuses with previous F ratings were improving.
“We knew these interventions were what the schools needed and that we had to do something drastic,” she said. “We had to keep what we knew would work for schools.” The need to keep the interventions in place and to fund them led the district to seek 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 were no state tests in the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021-22 school year is the first time the network will do review accountability notes by district.
School board president Tobi Jackson said the board receives an annual report from the Leadership Academy Network, while the district receives a quarterly report. The board may also visit campuses and meet with Dilley.
“It was pretty cool to be able to see principals being able to do things a little bit differently, just a little bit different mindset,” Jackson said of his experience visiting a campus. “And that doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s just different, and different serves more audiences.
This school year, all Leadership Academy Network campuses will need to receive a B grade to meet expectations, with the exception of Forest Oak’s sixth-grade campus, which has a C-grade goal. Forest Oak’s sixth grade is separate from the seventh and eighth grade campuses, but Leadership Academy Network runs both campuses with the same team.
By 2024, the network must bring all campuses to an A grade, except Forest Oak’s sixth grade, which is aiming for a B grade.
Although Texas Wesleyan has a five-year contract with the district, the school board can vote to end the contract if goals are not met.
“I’m counting on Leadership to tell us whether they’ll achieve their goals or not,” Jackson said. “Here’s what I’m going to tell you: They have $2,000 more per child than regular Fort Worth ISD schools. Therefore, they should accelerate faster towards their goals, if indeed money is the factor, and if indeed they are doing the right things. If they’re not accelerating faster 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 for now and waiting to see the results of the initial five-year agreement.
“They clearly understand 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 have happened in recent years as well. We will work with them, the school board and the superintendent to see what happened and what it will mean contractually, in the future.
Dilley is happy with what she’s seeing on campuses, and while she says she doesn’t know if pre-pandemic goals will be met, she’s confident staff members are doing everything in their power to achieve it. She doesn’t want the pandemic to stunt the growth of network students.
“Our strategy has been when you’re in the building, and when the kids are in the building, it’s business as usual,” she said. “We can’t let a day go to waste.”
Before COVID-19, the question posed by SSB 1882 was if schools received more money, would they succeed? Now, emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools are flowing to schools to address pandemic-related learning losses.
“So the question now is, does 1882 allow for more latitude, more freedom, a more individualized view of the needs of students in the community? And does it cost more? And does that money have to be paid consistently,” Jackson said.
The Legislature could always change its mind about SB 1882 and not continue funding it. But SB 1882 education and partnerships are more than money now, Jackson said.
“A different parent signs up for a charter or an 1882,” she said. “And the traditional parent who says, ‘This is my neighborhood school, and I’m going to go there.’ There are parents who are discerning about specific things, as they are, they fear that their child will be more involved in the arts or more involved in STEAM or STEM or STREAM. I just think we have a more different education consumer now than four years ago.
The 1882 designation gives campuses more autonomy to implement interventions, Dilley said. This allows them to move a little faster. If they want teachers to try a new program on campus, it’s easier to get it approved and get started.
The school day at Leadership Academies lasts until 4 p.m. This extra teaching hour means an extra allowance for teachers and more class time for students.
Besides an extra hour of school a day and buying new programs, Dilley said, the network has a program called “Everybody Grows” that helps students. The enrichment program gives students three hours per week to participate in activities such as yoga, puppetry, dance, drama, and other experiences.
Many network students couldn’t have these experiences without the school providing them, Dilley said.
Additionally, the extra money allowed each campus to hire a behavioral intervention specialist. These staff members are trained to deal with trauma in children, Dilley said. While this is common in middle and high schools, it’s not the case in elementary schools, which is when Dilley said it was necessary.
Several students in the network need additional support, she said. All schools have a calming room, a space with tools to help students manage their emotions and calm down. Some of the tools include a sandbox, yoga mat, or lava lamp.
“They teach kids how to self-regulate and how to breathe and how to calm down and how not to be anxious,” Dilley said. “And there are elements of how you deal with test anxiety and school anxiety that we all have here and there.”
So far, Jackson views the partnership as a win for the community and the district. She said it provided more choice for the community, provided better access to resources for students, and gave faculty some autonomy.
“People have different opinions on partnerships and also obviously it depends on where you are and what the structure looks like,” Dilley said. “I will say our schools have made a huge transformation from the very first time to love when you walk in until now. I am very proud of what I see.