An Ode to Charles Rice Learning Center, the South Dallas School that Could

South Dallas' Charles Rice Elementary might just be the best school in Dallas.
South Dallas' Charles Rice Elementary might just be the best school in Dallas.
Dallas ISD

Dalton Sherman is a legend.

Eight years ago, at the age of 9, he stood before some 17,000 Dallas ISD teachers and staff members packed into the American Airlines Center and delivered a piece of oratory so precocious and so trenchant that, once the speech was posted to YouTube, he became a national sensation, racking up a million-plus views and making appearances on OprahThe Ellen Degeneres Show and Today

School Superintendent Michael Hinojosa recently recalled that, even years later, peers across the country would ask Whatever happened to that Dalton kid? He's a about to graduate from Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy, probably as valedictorian. And he's still giving mic-drop speeches, including an encore performance at this year's convocation.

Irene Redmond is not a legend, at least outside the walls of Charles Rice Learning Center, though she probably should be. As his fourth-grade teacher, she spent hours before and after school and during breaks preparing him for the district's annual MLK Jr. Oratory Competition in 2008. His victory there led to the invitation to that year's convocation, which launched his speaking career. And while it seems likely that Dalton, crackling with self-assured charisma even at the age of 9, possessed in his DNA and his upbringing a blueprint for oratorical wizardry, Redmond was the one who helped him channel his potential, just as she's helped countless other students during 40 years at the South Dallas elementary school.

That held true even after Redmond was diagnosed with stomach cancer last July, on the day after her birthday. She could hardly eat for three months, withering her already slight frame. Some ingenuity was needed to mask with her clothes the tube plugged into her upper torso and the drainage bag around her waist, but the cancer had no apparent impact on her energy or teaching ability. It certainly didn't stop her from coaching yet another student, fifth-grader Lyriq Turner, to the annual MLK Jr. Oratory title.
So it's hardly a coincidence that so many kids emerge from Redmond's tutelage with such a striking command of the spoken word. And it's hardly a coincidence that Redmond has chosen Charles Rice as the school into which to pour her soul. It's the campus she attended as a kid during the 1950s, and it is one of the best elementary schools in DISD.

The quality of Charles Rice doesn't necessarily leap out from its "Met Standard" evaluation from the state or from its raw test scores, which are well above the district average but pale in comparison to Lakewood, the gold standard for DISD elementary schools. But considering Rice's sky-high poverty rate (91 percent of its students are low-income compared with 10 percent at Lakewood), its relatively transient student body (21 percent of its students don't return each year compared with 7 percent at Lakewood), and the fact that 86 percent of its kids live with single mothers or grandparents, it does incredibly well. DISD's School Effectiveness Index, an in-house measure of school quality that controls for factors like poverty, perennially puts Charles Rice neck and neck with Lakewood as the district's best non-magnet school.

To outsiders, South Dallas is more closely associated with hopeless blight, chronic unemployment, and unrepentant day drinking rather than stellar educational institutions. If a school gains notoriety, as Dade Middle School did a year and a half ago, its almost always for its failure rather than its success.

Things are different on the ground. The neighborhood knows it has a gem in Charles Rice. On Sunday mornings, Principal Alpher Garrett-Jones is often greeted in the parking lot of her church by families looking to get their 3-year-olds into Rice's pre-K program or orchestrate a transfer from other elementary schools in the area. Those who live in the attendance zone or are able to secure a hardship transfer invariably feel blessed. "Both my kids go to school there," says Cortney Lewis Smith, the local development director for the United Negro College Fund and president of the school's PTA. "I wouldn't send them anywhere else."

But how does that happen? How can a school so mired in desperate poverty, in an area that has been variously oppressed, neglected, and pitied by the rest of the city, in a school district long riven by political dysfunction, nevertheless manage to flourish?

The answer is simple, bordering on facile, and yet it's also the recipe for just about every successful public school there's ever been: a good principal, good teachers and support from parents and the community.

The Principal
Garrett-Jones has spent essentially her entire life in DISD. She graduated from Lincoln High School, less than a mile from her current office, and took a teaching job after college at her former elementary school, H.S. Thompson, at a pivotal time in South Dallas education.

A dozen or so years after DISD father Sam Tasby filed his landmark desegregation lawsuit in 1970, it had become clear that white flight was rapidly gutting hopes for meaningful racial integration. It had also become clear that busing hadn't significantly boosted the academic achievement of mostly poor minority students from South and West Dallas, which U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders described as "appalling." As an alternative, Sanders ordered DISD to reduce class sizes and pour additional resources into several South and West Dallas campuses. The "learning centers," as the campuses were called, would have an extended school day, higher teacher pay, more intensive math and reading instruction, a low student-teacher ratio and lots of extracurricular activities. H.S. Thompson was a learning center. So was Charles Rice.

Garrett-Jones taught for a decade at H.S. Thompson before moving into school administration. She became a principal in 2001, spending two years leading the J. Leslie Patton Intermediate School and the next three in charge at J.P. Starks Elementary in East Oak Cliff. In 2006, she took a research fellowship with the Bickel & Brewer Foundation through which she spent two years studying the operations of St. Mark's, Hockaday, the Episcopal School of Dallas and other elite Dallas private schools. In the summer of 2008, she was named principal of Charles Rice.

"It was like night and day, of course," Garrett-Jones says, comparing the North Dallas private schools she embedded herself in with the South Dallas public school where she'd spent most of her life. At the former, she studied, she attended glitzy auctions where well-heeled parents thought nothing of shelling out thousands of dollars — on top of the college-level tuition — to support their children's schools. At the latter, many parents can't provide adequate food or medical care, which turns school staffers into de facto social workers. Garrett-Jones has made sure Charles Rice students have had access to three meals per day on campus since she arrived. She's worked with DISD's Youth & Family Centers and outside organizations to host asthma clinics and provide things like eyeglasses and dental sealants. The campus also keeps a stash of clean uniforms to save kids from embarrassment if the ones they arrive in are embarrassingly soiled.

Despite the differences, Garrett-Jones has sought to replicate the level of engagement she saw at the private schools. She sums up her educational philosophy as, "How can I ensure that my children are so excited by school that they're dragging their parents, 'C'mon you're making me late!'?"

Garrett-Jones' enthusiasm has permeated the campus, as was evident during a recent tour. Garrett-Jones, wearing the same emerald-green button-up as most of the teachers, with the cartoonish Charles Rice tiger grinning from the pocket, had a maternal air about her as she walked the halls, simultaneously warm and and authoritative. She explained that she spends as little time as possible in her office, preferring to spend her days dropping in on classrooms, saving paperwork and phone calls for the evening. She paused frequently to bend down and pick up a stray piece of trash, light janitorial work being just another part of the job.

The school, two stories of red brick, was built almost a century ago in Queen City, the historic center of South Dallas' black community. It rings a grassy courtyard dominated by a garden the students have dubbed "Eden." The walls, both inside and outside the classrooms, are covered with a comfortable mix of rigor and whimsy — there are multiplication problems stenciled on the second-floor walls but also a classroom door that's been transformed into a Minion with the legend "Be Ambitious — Anything Less Is Despicable."

In a pre-K classes, where the letter of the week is "Q," a 4-year-old is giving the definition of his chosen word, "quartet." One of the older classes is scattered in classrooms throughout the school, having broken into small groups for more intensive writing practice. Garrett-Jones pauses outside another door and motions Lyriq Turner, the speaking champ, into the hallway to answer a few inane questions from a reporter. No, she wasn't scared of speaking in front of a bunch of strangers, because why would she be? Yes, Mrs. Redmond is great. Yes, she has found Charles Rice much more challenging and engaging than her old school, the well-regarded DISD magnet Harry Stone Montessori. She stands upright and alert throughout, delivering her answers with a grace and self-possession that few adults could muster.

The Teachers
To a certain extent, Redmond is an outlier among the teaching staff at Charles Rice. After all, plowing through one's 40th year of teaching while being diminished to a husk by the combined effects of stomach cancer and chemotherapy is scarcely average.

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But Redmond isn't that much of an outlier. The average tenure of Rice teachers is 23.3 years, longer than any other campus in the district except for the Elementary Disciplinary Alternative Education Program and the Dallas Regional Day School for the Deaf, which are in unique situations.

The longevity of Rice teachers is remarkable. High-poverty schools often have a difficult time hiring and retaining good teachers. They become a revolving door for inexperienced teachers who stay for a year or two and then either burn out and quit or move to less stressful environments in the suburbs. Research has shown that student performance suffers as a result.

Charles Rice, because of stable leadership and a cadre of dedicated, professional educators — and who knows what else — has managed to avoid that fate. More than half of teachers at the school — 58 percent according to data compiled by Commit! — have 20 years or more of experience, and just 9 percent have fewer than five years of experience, which is the point at which some (but hardly all) research suggests teacher effectiveness plateaus. Some of the veterans have been around long enough to teach the grandchildren of some of their early students.

Like Redmond, the teachers tend to be almost absurdly dedicated. According to Garrett-Jones, four have taken in students as foster parents after child welfare workers removed them from their families, to say nothing of the more mundane sacrifices of time and energy they make on a daily basis. "They care," Lewis Smith says. "They go the extra mile."

Experience and compassion aren't necessarily synonymous with quality instruction, of course, but Rice doesn't appear to be carrying a lot of dead weight. Anecdotally, Garrett-Jones tells of teachers with decades of experience who are constantly reading about education research or education systems in other countries and refining their pedagogical approach accordingly. The data bear this out. Charles Rice ranked in the top fifth of all DISD campuses in terms of teacher quality as measured by the newly implemented Teacher Excellence Initiative, which ties teacher pay to performance rather than years of experience. In fact, Charles Rice teachers felt almost punished for their experience. Their average salary increase of $570 under TEI ranked dead last among the district's elementary, middle, high school and magnet campuses by a long shot. Some Rice teachers will be eligible for the $1,000 retention bonus DISD's board recently approved for highly qualified teachers jilted by the new system, but those won't come until September.

Even so, morale at the campus, an ingredient often overlooked in discussions of school reform, is sky-high. According to campus climate surveys distributed to all DISD teachers and staff each semester, all Rice teachers and staff reported feeling like their campus is headed in the right direction. The same number — 100 percent — expressed satisfaction with campus leadership and said they'd recommend the school. This isn't normal, as evidenced by the district average for those categories — 73 percent, 68 percent, and 66 percent, respectively. 

The Community
A few weeks ago, Garrett-Jones welcomed a group of friends who'd attended Charles Rice in the 1960s. Even four decades later, separated by careers and families, they felt a connection to the school. It was like nostalgia, only stronger.

Their sentiment is common. It's the same one that drew Redmond, among several other alums, back to teach at Rice after college. It's why, eight or nine years after leaving campus, former Tigers return from college on Christmas break and have hot cocoa with their former teachers. Garrett-Jones uses the get-togethers to pick their brains about what she can improve; the consensus is that she should continue to emphasize writing, which they invariably have discovered is a prerequisite for college success. It's why Lewis Smith, another alum, showed up so frequently to volunteer that Garrett-Jones more or less handed her the PTA presidency and why she feels so strongly about sending her kids to the school. "My mother went there. All of my aunts went there. It's a legacy to me," she says.

Charles Rice is buoyed by a strong core of highly involved parents. Garrett-Jones and Lewis Smith work hard to engage the rest, which can be a challenge. Lewis Smith puts out a lot of notices and reminders on social media, and Garrett-Jones makes sure that she bakes parent interviews into the enrollment process, both as a way of understanding each family's needs and making sure they understand the school's expectations. The majority get it and want to be involved in their children's education. Criminal records prevent some of the fathers from passing DISD's criminal background check, barring them from volunteering during the school day, but many volunteer to help out on weekends doing things like tending the garden.

A garden called Eden by the kids at Charles Rice Learning Center.
A garden called Eden by the kids at Charles Rice Learning Center.
Dallas ISD

Still, while Charles Rice may be rich in parental involvement, the surrounding community is desperately poor. Glitzy auctions like the ones Garrett-Jones dropped in on while researching private schools or a $15-million capital campaign like Lakewood parents launched three years ago are beyond even imaging. But Garrett-Jones has proven adept at marshaling private support. Chase Bank funds the community garden. The North Texas Food Bank provided dinner before DISD stepped in. And Garrett-Jones enlisted the nonprofit Big Thought to rescue the extended school day and arts and music programs that were endangered when the DISD board gutted learning center funding in 2009, ending a special commitment to South and West Dallas schools that lasted for more than three decades.

The success of Charles Rice Learning Center isn't hard to explain when one looks closely at the data and talks with teachers, families and administrators. Replicating that success is another matter. Doing what Rice has done — finding effective principals, populating the school with excellent teachers, getting the community invested in kids' education, and then protecting all that from the political churn that constantly roils big urban school districts — is the holy grail of public education. How best to make that happen has been the subject of intense debate for decades.

Still, short of cloning Garrett-Jones and making all DISD teachers pass the I-will-work-through-stomach-cancer test, Charles Rice does offer some bigger takeaways. There's value to veteran teachers, and TEI should probably do a better job of factoring that into decisions about pay. Good morale is contagious. If teachers feel good about their school, then students and parents probably will too. Finally, while ensuring that kids in South Dallas and the city's other poverty moonscapes is a moral imperative and vital to the health of the city, it's also important that policymakers not underestimate schools' importance as the glue that binds communities together and gives them an identity.

Alas, Charles Rice offers no hint at how to achieve the most elusive educational goal of all: How to make middle school not suck.

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