Can Game-Changing "Community Schools" Model Survive Dallas ISD Politics?

On a sunny morning in early May, a wayward DART bus pulled to a stop in front of Paul Laurence Dunbar Learning Center in South Dallas. From the porches of tumbledown homes, neighbors glanced with mild curiosity as the school’s principal, Dionel Waters, stepped aboard. Waiting for him on the bus was an array of local dignitaries, including a city council member, a state representative, a U.S. Congressman, a Dallas County judge, and the guest of honor, Robert Kaplan, the president of the Dallas Fed. The riders had accepted an activist group's invitation to tour hardscrabble Dallas neighborhoods that remain untouched by the region’s booming economy.

Waters stood at the front of the idling bus with a microphone and described for Kaplan some of Dunbar’s challenges. The previous school year, all but two of the campus’ 594 students qualified as low-income. The median household income for the surrounding neighborhood, which borders the sprawling parking lots on Fair Park’s eastern edge, is around $10,000 per year. Broken families are the norm, as are parents with criminal records. Unemployment in the area is staggering, with only a third of working-age men and around 40 percent of working-age women with jobs, according to census data.

Then, Waters pivoted. Together with Hank Lawson, who works for the community development nonprofit Frazier Revitalization Inc., Waters described a vision for transformational change at Dunbar. With support from the Texas Organizing Project, which organized the bus tour, Dunbar would open the 2016-17 school year as Dallas ISD’s first ever “community school.”

Community schools are built on the idea that education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poverty levels, family structure, health and nutrition, emotional well-being, and all manner of other outside factors impact academic performance and school quality. Creating a better school, then, requires addressing not only what happens in the classroom but outside social and economic factors as well.

Exactly what a community school looks like depends on the specific needs of the individual school and the surrounding community. Generally speaking, though, the model emphasizes getting parents, community members and teachers greater input in campus decision-making; forging partnerships with local businesses and nonprofits to provide programming and services the school can’t; and finding non-punitive ways to address student behavior.

It is billed as a more humane alternative to No Child Left Behind-style school reform, which can punish poor and heavily minority schools for poor performance without doing much to address root causes.

Community schools are meant to be transformational. A report released in February by the Center for Popular Democracy profiled eight campuses and school districts across the country that have implemented the community schools model with tremendous success.

One of the more dramatic turnarounds took place in Austin. Webb Middle School, a perennially low-performing campus in a working class Hispanic neighborhood in northeast Austin, was on the brink of closure in 2007 when neighbors rallied and convinced the district to give them a final chance to save the school. They turned to the community schools model and crafted a detailed plan based on feedback from parents and neighbors.

The school restored music and art to the curriculum, adding band, orchestra and a dance troupe. The Boys and Girls Club began offering after-school programs. Another nonprofit provided college mentoring. A mobile clinic offered free immunizations and physicals. Other organizations provided parents help with employment, housing and health issues and offered them ESL classes.

Test scores climbed. So did enrollment. By 2015, Webb had gone from the worst middle school in the district to one of its best.

Waters and Lawson hoped something similar could happen at Dunbar, which had been placed on the state’s list of failing schools in the 2014-15 school year. So did Ed Turner, the Texas Organizing Project staffer who’d already spent months laying the groundwork and joined Waters and Lawson on the bus. And so, for that matter, did DISD administrators. Cynthia Wilson, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa’s chief of staff, told the Observer the following day that the district was supporting the community schools model in general and the Dunbar pilot in particular. “From our perspective, [it’s] a win-win,” she said.

On the bus, Kaplan nodded along as Waters spoke; turning Dunbar into a community school certainly seemed like a no-brainer.

But then, rather abruptly, DISD pulled the plug. Alendra Lyons, a community leader in the Dunbar neighborhood who both works at the school and serves on its site-based decision-making committee, was told at a committee meeting in June that the community schools pilot had been moved elsewhere.
Why, after months of planning and the showy presentation to the VIPs on the DART bus, the Dunbar project had been unceremoniously scrapped, Lyons couldn’t say, only that it definitely wasn’t happening.
DISD’s official explanation is, in a word, bureaucracy.

In a July 25 email, DISD spokesman Andre Riley said the community schools initiative had been moved from under Wilson and into the school leadership department.

Stephanie Elizalde, the chief of school leadership, said in a subsequent interview that she decided that John Neely Bryan Elementary in East Oak Cliff was a better fit for the pilot. Like Dunbar, John Neely Bryan is overwhelmingly low-income and has struggled academically, bouncing on and off the state’s list of failing schools. Last August, it received its second consecutive “improvement required” designation from the Texas Education Agency; a third would mean implementation of a “campus turnaround plan” and potentially drastic changes at the campus.

Unlike Dunbar, however, Bryan is part of DISD’s “Intensive Support Network,” two dozen struggling schools targeted by district administrators for special oversight. It also has a more seasoned principal. Elizalde describes Waters as “likeable, intelligent [but] also relatively inexperienced” – barely 30 with just two years as a principal under his belt. Elizalde felt that Bryan’s principal, DISD veteran Tonya Anderson, was better equipped to make the pilot a success.

For advocates of community schools, the stakes are high. A high-profile failure in the pilot could taint the model in DISD and cripple efforts to expand to other campuses. “That is what I don’t want to have happen,” Elizalde said. "I’ve got to think bigger picture."

But several people familiar with the discussions say Dunbar was the victim less of ordinary bureaucratic machinations but of DISD’s toxic internal politics. Specifically, they point to a long-simmering feud between the Texas Organizing Project and trustee Bernadette Nutall.

The rift dates back to efforts to rescue Dade Middle School, which, thanks to poor planning, sky-high turnover, and heavy-handed interventions by then-Superintendent Mike Miles, spun into chaos soon after it opened for the 2013-14 school year. The Texas Organizing Project was heavily involved in the turnaround effort, mobilizing parents and pushing DISD to make Dade the first of 20 community schools in the district. So, for that matter, was Nutall, who was famously removed from the campus following a confrontation with Miles

By all accounts, the turnaround effort has been a success. There is much less agreement on whether Dade’s resurgence has more to do with the Texas Organizing Project’s community work, Nutall’s close oversight, or, alternately, a belatedly successful intervention by Miles, whose administration found a hyper-competent principal in Tracie Washington and offered the district’s best teachers a hefty salary bump to teach at Dade.

Nutall has bristled at the Texas Organizing Project’s credit-taking. In response to a KERA story this spring focused on the organization’s efforts to turn Dade and other campuses into community schools, Nutall sent an indignant email to trustee Miguel Solis, who was quoted in the piece broadly endorsing the community schools concept, and several DISD administrators saying Dade’s success had been “hijacked.”

Dade staff and community members had long been trying to have a meaningful role in the school, Nutall wrote, but they were consistently rebuffed by Miles and the previous campus administration.

“However, since the new administration has been in place, the staff, parents, students and community members have been able to implement the very same suggestions that were ignored before,” she wrote. “The results have been tremendous. Yet, they weren’t recognized for their efforts. Instead, they believe that their results have been hijacked in an effort to falsely attribute their success to a concept that had little to do with the results.”

In an interview, Nutall said she supports community schools but that there “has to be buy in from all parties.” That wasn’t present at Dade, and it wasn’t present at other campuses where Texas Organizing Project wanted to implement the model. “I understand them [the Texas Organizing Project] getting upset,” she said, adding that “they wanted the whole Lincoln-Madison feeder pattern.”

“I am not going to force something on principals and teachers,” Nutall said. “That is not good governance.”

At the same time, Nutall distanced herself from the decision to move the community schools pilot from Dunbar. The decision, Nutall said, was a judgment call by Elizalde and other DISD administrators.

Allison Brim, organizing director for the Texas Organizing Project, was also careful to downplay the friction between her group and Nutall.

“Essentially what happened, there had just been turnover in the administration,” Brim said.

In early 2016, former chief of school leadership Robert Bravo, with whom the Texas Organizing Project had been in discussions, was replaced by Elizalde. “She was very supportive of the community school concept but really wanted to reconsider where we were going to do the first pilot, which we were open to in some ways as well.”

John Neely Bryan, in everyone’s view, could benefit as much from the community schools model as Dunbar. Perhaps even more, given the comparative lack of outside resources directed at Bryan by churches and nonprofits.

“We were also interested in having full support from the trustee,” Brim said. She described Nutall as “supportive” of community schools but said that John Neely Bryan’s trustee, Lew Blackburn, ”was pretty eager to find a school in his district” for a pilot.

In the end, for the Texas Organizing Project as well as for Elizalde, the most important thing “was really getting the opportunity to prove that this model was an effective, successful model for school turnaround,” Brim said.

All parties – Brim, Elizalde, and Nutall – were quick to say that the idea of turning Dunbar into a community school isn’t dead. Discussions are ongoing, and DISD and the Texas Organizing Project may well get around to implementing the model in the coming years.

Dunbar, after all, is still in sore need of a turnaround. State accountability ratings the Texas Education Agency will release in the coming days will show that Dunbar is on the state’s list of failing schools for the second consecutive year, which has made Elizalde rethink the decision to move the pilot.

“If I had a crystal ball and could have seen that Dunbar was going to wind up in [improvement required]-2 status," she said, "I would have left it there anyway.”
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson