After Getting Failing Marks, Thomas Jefferson High School Is a Success. Will a Tornado Change That?

An aerial view shows damage done to Thomas Jefferson High School by an EF-3 tornado unleashed in Northwest Dallas on Oct. 20.
An aerial view shows damage done to Thomas Jefferson High School by an EF-3 tornado unleashed in Northwest Dallas on Oct. 20. Kathy Tran
On the first day back in class after a tornado tore through North Dallas and left her school in shambles, the list of things algebra teacher Kristen Dale's classroom didn't have was quite a bit longer than the list of things it did.

It had about a half-dozen circular tables, each with chairs arranged around it, and math posters on the walls, but no calculators, laptops or filing cabinets. She didn't even have a pencil sharpener.

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An aerial view shows damage done to Thomas Jefferson High School by an EF-3 tornado unleashed in Northwest Dallas on Oct. 20.
Kathy Tran
A little over a week after students, teachers and staff from Thomas Jefferson High School started school at Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center, Dale's classroom was still missing many things. She had calculators, but she hadn't been able to set up the projector she uses to walk the class through algebra problems. She had a few small whiteboards students use to work out problems, but not enough dry erase markers to go around.

A few of her students were missing, too, but for the most part, everyone was starting to get back into the flow of school.

"Each day gets a little bit better," she said.

TJ was one of three Dallas ISD schools closed indefinitely and relocated to new buildings after the tornado struck them. Before the storm, the school, once one of the district's lowest-performing campuses, had become a success story. Now students are back in school, and teachers and administrators are left with the task of making sure the disruption doesn't blow away years of carefully built progress.

The school scored an 81 on this year's A-F report card, up from 77 last year.

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The EF-3 tornado tore through North Dallas on the evening of Oct. 20, destroying some buildings, ripping roofs from others and leaving a tangle of downed limbs, twisted metal and debris in its path. The storm didn't kill or severely hurt anyone, but it caused an estimated $20 billion in damages.

Of the dozens of buildings damaged in the tornado, three schools were among the hardest hit: TJ, Edward H. Cary Middle School, which sits on the same lot as TJ, and nearby Walnut Hill Elementary School. On the morning after the storm, district leaders determined those three schools would need to be shut down indefinitely.

That left the district with the herculean task of finding a place to move the 3,000 students who went to those three schools. They came up with a plan to move students from Walnut Hill to Tom Field Elementary School and students from TJ to Thomas Edison. Both Tom Field and Thomas Edison were shuttered at the end of last year. Cary students were divided between Medrano and Franklin middle schools.

Over the next two days, teachers, administrators, maintenance workers and food service staff began preparing for students to come back. Shuttered school buildings the district had been using for storage or staff training had to be readied for class. The district had to come up with classroom supplies to replace those left behind in the tornado-damaged buildings. Because some students would be going to schools miles from their homes, the district had to map out 38 new bus routes virtually overnight.

District staff couldn't even get into TJ until more than a week after the tornado struck, meaning they couldn't get a full picture of the damage. But during a board meeting last week, Scott Layne, the district's deputy superintendent of operations, told trustees that, even without touring the building, officials could see standing water in the school's boiler room, gym and cafeteria, water in electrical rooms and the roof torn off of some sections of the building. Seventeen of the school's portable classrooms were damaged beyond the point of usefulness. Layne said workers had spread tarps over the building's roof to keep more rain from getting in.

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Kristin Dale sets up her ninth grade Algebra I classroom at the temporary school, Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center, with the help of daughters Kaydence and Savannah.
Kathy Tran

‘Minor Miracle Story’

The tornado came at a critical time in TJ's history, when the school is moving from one of the district's lowest-performing campuses to one of its best. In 2016, the school was placed on the Texas Education Agency's "improvement required" list, a designation that marked it, for the first time, as a failing campus. This year, TJ scored a B in the agency's new A-F accountability ratings. During a news conference three days after the tornado, Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa called that turnaround "a minor miracle story."

The year TJ was placed on the improvement required list was a difficult one for the school, principal Sandi Massey said. When a school receives an improvement required rating, people from the TEA are on campus every day, monitoring everything. It was a high-pressure situation, Massey said, but even before the school received the failure rating, leaders there knew the school was in trouble and began making changes to correct it.

One of the biggest changes had to do with the school's master schedule, Massey said. School leaders began double-blocking important courses like Algebra I and English, so students are in those classes every day instead of every other day. That may not seem like a substantial change to anyone who's never run a school, Massey said, but it made a big difference.

Another major change was in school leadership, Massey said. Before the change, leadership was top-down — administrators looked at data and told teachers what to do, and teachers did it. Now, the leadership style is more collaborative. Administrators work with lead teachers in each subject area, and those lead teachers work with other teachers on their teams.

School leaders also rearranged lead teachers' schedules to give them more time to coach other, less experienced teachers. Experienced teachers can have a lot of influence with their colleagues, Massey said, so allowing those teachers more time for coaching raised the level of instruction across the school.

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The tornado shattered the sign in front of TJ.
Kathy Tran
Dale, the algebra teacher, attributes the school's progress to much cooperation and hard work on the part of teachers and school leaders. New systems more easily allow teachers to help each other out, she said. Teachers emphasize certain skills, like writing, across all subjects, and the school's algebra teachers have worked hard to come up with ways to help low-achieving students meet state standards and higher-achieving students reach even further.

Those changes appear to be paying off. The school scored an 81 on this year's A-F report card, up from 77 last year. The biggest factor determining the school's overall score was how it fared in the school progress category, which shows how students there perform over time and how their progress compares with other schools. TJ scored an 87 in that category.

But Massey said she worries the tornado and its disruption could put all that progress in jeopardy. Some students are already beginning to test boundaries and see how much they can get away with, she said.

Other students took a while to show up at all. In the first week after the tornado, hundreds of the school's students were missing, but every day, more and more students came back. By Friday, almost 1,800 of the 1,876 students who were enrolled before the tornado had been to school at least once, Massey said.

As much as she worries about maintaining academic progress, Massey said her biggest concern is school culture. Many of the students and teachers at the school have tried to keep a positive spirit since the tornado, she said. Others are clearly frustrated and stressed.

"I think it's kind of mixed right now," she said.

One of the biggest problems is that teachers haven't had classroom technology. Most are used to using computers and Smart Boards to teach lessons, show photos and video clips, and help students do research. Not having those tools has been a major disruption, Massey said. She hopes to have those tools replaced within the next few days, but in the meantime, it's been a huge source of stress and frustration for teachers.

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High school students from Northwest Dallas are bused to West Dallas to attend high school in the temporary Thomas Edison Middle Learning Center.
Kathy Tran

‘We Can Overcome It’

By the end of the school year, Massey said she hopes anyone walking through the building will see everything related to Thomas Jefferson and nothing related to Thomas Edison. She wants the students and teachers to take ownership of the school and make it their new TJ.

In the meantime, she said teachers and administrators at the school will have to keep pushing students to be their best. It can be an awkward balance to strike, she said — teachers have to let students know they care about them and give them all the support they need, but they can't let them lose ground or give any free passes because of the tornado. Teachers will need to make sure students understand all the progress the school has made over the last three years and remind them that it's their responsibility not to slide backward.

In the days after the tornado, Dale said some of her students noticeably changed. When they arrived at Thomas Edison, some of them complained that they hated their new school. Dale can tell that a few of her other students are dealing with some new struggles because of the storm, but they aren't ready to talk about them yet. Dale said she's confident the school will be able to move on without losing ground. It will take a lot of hard work and determination from the teachers and commitment from the students, she said.

Teachers at TJ are already at work on that front, Dale said. The message they're trying to convey to students isn't much different from what it's always been: We're here to help you meet your goals, and if you put in the effort, you'll see the benefits.

Some students buy that message, Dale said. Others don't, some because they're still dealing with the trauma of the tornado, others just because they're teenagers. For those students who don't, Dale said, teachers have to do what they've always done — stay on top of them and believe twice as hard for them.

"I think that it is a hiccup," Dale said. "But with our determination, we can overcome it."
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Silas Allen has been the Dallas Observer's news editor since March 2019. Before coming to Dallas, he worked as a reporter and editor at the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. He's a Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Missouri.
Contact: Silas Allen