A year ago, South Dallas’ Billy Earl Dade MIddle School was in disarray. Things there were so glaringly bad that, on an impromptu visit in mid-October, six weeks into last school year, Superintendent Mike Miles got rid of Principal MIchael Jones and 10 teachers on the spot. The following Monday, outside of a predawn faculty meeting, Miles had trustee Bernadette Nutall physically removed from campus by district police.
At the time, Miles supporters could somewhat credibly characterize those moves as examples of decisive leadership. In Dade, he saw a campus struggling so mightily under Jones that waiting until the end of the year wasn’t an option. And Nutall had been hellbent on running Miles out of the district ever since he’d targeted several popular southern Dallas principals as part of an early reform initiative. He couldn’t run the school district with trustees actively trying to undermine him, as Nutall seemed to be.
In retrospect, Miles’ swift action last October clearly was a disaster. In the leadership vacuum that followed Jones’ dismissal, which was only partially and temporarily filled by Margarita Garcia, who quit before the end of the year because of health problems, chaos metastasized. The South Dallas community, already deeply wary of Miles and his reforms, coalesced even more firmly against him after watching his officers manhandle Nutall.
Those on the ground at Dade at the time — parents, students, former teachers, community activists — say things unraveled quickly once kids sensed that no one was in charge. One teacher likens Dade during the latter parts of last school year to Lord of the Flies. Fistfights were routine. Discipline was haphazard. Students threatened teachers and fellow students with virtual impunity. Adults were present, but the student body had reverted to semi-feral state, as happens when 800 11-to-14-year-olds are largely left to their own devices.
Eddie, a sixth-grader at the time, remembers an assembly in the auditorium in which Garcia was drowned out by chants of “GIVE US CHIPS! GIVE US CHIPS!” Access to chips had been taken away as punishment for chronic food fights, which on multiple occasions escalated into the all-out food wars of the type that break out in kids’ sitcoms but seem too hyperbolic to ever happen in real life. During one such incident, Eddie remembers an assistant principal, Ms. Morgan, being beaned in the head by a flying milk carton. Courtney, another former sixth-grader, remembers it somewhat differently. It was a teacher who’d been hit by the milk carton, which wasn’t thrown so much as dumped on his head; the projectile thrown at Ms. Morgan had been an apple. The turmoil crescendoed a few weeks before the end of school when a campus police officer shot pepper spray to disperse a crowd that had flocked around a fight.
It’s still early in the current school year — too early to have any solid data or draw any firm conclusions — but Dade appears to be a different place. It’s as calm and orderly as can be expected of a middle school campus. Behavior is better. Attendance is up. The cloud of bitterness and suspicion that long enveloped the school disappeared with Miles, who resigned over the summer.
I arrived for a tour of campus on Thursday morning. The building, on Al Lipscomb Way (formerly former Grand Avenue) a half mile from its intersection with Fair Park, opened two years ago. It resembles a suburban corporate campus as much as a middle school, its hard institutional edges softened by the sand-colored brick and layering of the Kandinsky-esque glass panels on the facade. It’s a striking piece of architecture, particularly set against the vacant lots and shabby beauty salons that dominate its stretch of Grand. Inside the office, staff members politely greet visitors while sunlight streams in through picture windows. In the corner sits a trophy case featuring photographs and diplomas from the school’s namesake, a longtime DISD educator. It wasn't like that last year, said DISD spokesman Andre Riley.
The tour was led by Dade’s new principal, Tracie Washington, who was accompanied by her boss, DISD executive director Jolee Healey, and Riley, who tagged unobtrusively behind tending to his constantly buzzing iPhone. It was a carefully if subtly orchestrated look at the school, as these types of visits tend to be. It was scheduled for mid-morning, which last year was one of the calmer times of day. When an electronic tone chimed to mark the passing period — another trouble spot last year — we were in the library, where an assistant principal was filling in for Washington at the monthly coffee-with-the-principal meeting.
Still, Washington clearly runs a tight ship. We stepped into a sixth-grade English class. The kids scribbled on whiteboards while the teacher drilled students on literary techniques — similes, metaphors, alliteration, etc. She projected a sentence onto the board, something about someone "dancing like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower." The consensus on the white boards was that it was a simile, but it wasn't quite unanimous. "Stand up Lakendria." A girl in the front row wearing ROTC fatigues rises to her feet. "Lakendria, can you please explain to me why you did not get No. 12 correct?" Lakendria, quiet but confident, says the sentence also contains alliteration. The teacher pauses. "'Flitting from flower to flower.' I’m gonna give it to you. That's right. You have the consonant of ‘f’ repeating after and after and after." We take an elevator upstairs to the third floor and peer in on eighth-grade math and English classes. Again, the kids are engaged, the teachers in command.
More telling than a few brief glimpses of a single classroom is the tangible sense of optimism. Rosie Lazo, one of the parents who showed up for coffee, gushed about the school. Her family had just moved to Dallas and had been wary of Dade. But her sixth-grade daughter, Diana, had loved it. "I have never seen her so excited in all these years that she's been in school as this year. It's awesome." Leonard Hatcher pastors Oasis Baptist Church, a small congregation across the street from the school. Dade's transformation this school year, he said, has been nothing short of amazing. "It makes me wanna re-enroll in school," he says with a laugh.
It was a limited sample, but the optimism in the parents' meeting matches that of the broader community. Alpha Thomas, a volunteer who has been a near daily presence at Dade since the new campus opened, knew good things were coming when she showed up for a back-to-school block party and couldn't find a parking spot. She expected to find bedlam inside the gym, where Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith was passing out free school uniforms, but the event was orderly and impeccably organized. "The way that staff greeted people as we entered the school, just the energy from the staff and the administration was very different, very positive, and I'm like, you know, I really feel like this is it."
Thomas — and just about everyone else close to Dade — credits Washington for the early success. Fresh off a turnaround job at Seagoville Middle School, she has spent the summer building trust with the neighborhood, showing up at community dinners to meet with parents and forging ties with the battery of nonprofits serving South Dallas. She has an authoritative presence, at once forceful and warm, and an energy that doesn't seem to flag despite punishingly long hours. She also has a knack for nailing the small details. Addressing a group of parents, she doesn't talk about "students"; they are "scholars."
The other big factor driving change at Dade is the campus' selection as one of seven ACE schools. The ACE program, announced by Miles last spring, is, in its broad outlines, similar to Imagine 2020, a previous DISD initiative that aimed for a turnaround at Dade. ACE, like Imagine 2020, seeks to boost student achievement through an extended school day, extra tutoring and incentives for high-quality teachers. But ACE differs in key respects. For starters, the incentives offered to teachers are much more powerful — an extra $10,000 per year for "distinguished-eligible" teachers to come to Dade versus a $1,000 bonus under Imagine 2020. And ACE is less about adding additional resources than it is about reconstituting the school from the ground up. Kids and parents at ACE schools are required to sign a pledge promising to show up to school, on time and in uniform, and to do 90 minutes of homework every night (the school stays open until 6 p.m. and serves dinner for those who want to complete it there). Otherwise, DISD will bus them to another campus, in Dade's case Hood Middle School. A handful of teachers successfully reapplied for their old jobs, but about 85 percent of Dade's faculty and staff, from the principal down to the custodians, are new to the campus. Healey, the executive director of the ACE schools, says that a small handful of students opted to transfer to Hood but that none of them were forced there for failing to sign student and parent contracts.
All of this has transformed Dade into a school that feels successful. But the measure of success in public education isn't how a school feels but how it tests, and as yet there are no scores available to measure student performance. But Washington has her sights set high. By the end of the school year, she tells the parents gathered for coffee, she wants Dade to be among DISD's 10 highest-performing middle schools. "We've got a long way to go," she tells them, cautioning them not to be misled by the heels she's donned for the tour. "These are not the shoes I wear when I'm running."
Interim assessments, the first major test of the school year, are this week.