Miguel Solis, On Way Out from School District, Looks Back Not in Anger

Miguel Solis over coffee at Margarita's Mexican Restaurant  on North Fitzhugh
Miguel Solis over coffee at Margarita's Mexican Restaurant on North Fitzhugh Jim Schutze
Last week, a day before candidate filing opened for the upcoming Dallas school board election, East Dallas/Love Field board member Miguel Solis announced he will not seek reelection. His public statement maintained a certain aura of mystery. He didn’t announce new plans. It was sort of like, “And now my work is done.”

He’s 33. I have shoes older than that — shoes that are still in great shape. Last time I checked, I’m still way behind on my work. I decided maybe I should talk to him to see if he knows something. And that’s a joke, because obviously Miguel Solis knows something.

During his 11 years with the school district, Solis has put his hand to every one of the major reforms that have turned the Dallas school system from a perennial loser to a national leader in school reform. He came here in 2009 at age 23 as a Teach-for-America kid, fresh off the excitement of being a young staffer on Barack Obama’s victorious 2008 campaign. A Washington job already was being dangled.

Over morning coffee at Margarita’s Mexican Restaurant on North Fitzhugh in East Dallas, he told me some of that story: “Two field organizers on the campaign in Indiana, which is where I was stationed, had done a program called Teach for America. I had never heard of the program.

“My father was for a majority of his life a public school teacher, and I just remembered how difficult it was for him to teach in high poverty schools (in Beaumont), a bilingual teacher, and try to raise a family. So upon initial consideration, I was like, ‘That seems like it would be extremely difficult, and I have seen that growing up.’

“But ultimately I decided to apply, because there was a little bit of this ethos of, Yes we can, yes we can tackle the most entrenched challenges of our time, one of them being the need for high-quality education for all kids. So Teach for America sort of spoke to me.”

At the end of his first year, Solis was singled out for recognition as a top teacher, about which he had mixed feelings. A “Teacher of the Year” award at Thomas C. Marsh Middle School was a distinct honor, because it was bestowed by the votes of his fellow teachers at Marsh. But when he also was awarded an “exemplary” rating by the school system, Solis began to doubt.

"There was a little bit of this ethos of, Yes we can, yes we can tackle the most entrenched challenges of our time." — Miguel Solis

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“I knew objectively there was no way I was an exemplary teacher, but the system that existed at that time said I was. It also suggested, out of the 10,000-some-odd teachers we had in 2009, that 98% of all those teachers were rated proficient, which was good, or exemplary, like I was, which was great, but in no way did that correlate to academic achievement of our students.

“The end of that year was the first time that I started having significant questions about the system in place at DISD.”

But rather than succumb to cynicism, Solis ventured deeper into his challenge. A school principal at Marsh, who remains a mentor today, encouraged him to apply to a graduate program at Harvard. Solis was accepted and, after cobbling together grants, loans, scholarships and personal savings, headed off to Cambridge and the Ivy League — a big jump for a boy from Beaumont.

“The first day at Harvard I showed up in a blue blazer, a button-down collar with a striped Brooks Brothers tie, khaki pants with loafers, because I had watched The Paper Chase (Timothy Bottoms, 1973) and thought that’s how all kids at Harvard dressed.

“I walked in, and there were kids in sweat pants and Adidas, and my mind was completely blown. This was not the Harvard that I thought. It was an intellectual mecca, with thought and ideas flowing everywhere you went.

“Any concept you thought was formalized in your mind could be debated and flipped upside down. As crazy as this sounds, there were no stupid questions you could ask at Harvard, because everybody was asking those questions.”

He completed a master’s degree in one year. Just as he was winding up, he learned that a position was coming open back in Dallas as special assistant to the school district’s brand-new superintendent, Mike Miles. Miles, career military and diplomatic corps before going into public education, was blunt when Solis showed up for an interview. He intended to shake things up in Dallas, big-time. There would be no fun and games.

If Solis took the job, Miles told him, he should expect to spend a lot of time being extremely uncomfortable. Solis told me he wanted the job, so he told Miles he was prepared for the worst. But he wasn’t.

“Did I know that almost upon being hired there would be stories about whether I was hired legally or not? Did I know that I would have my phone calls searched with open records requests? No. I didn’t know any of that stuff would happen.”

Miles, intent on raising student achievement, met ferocious opposition from the teachers unions and then, a little later when they woke up, from the city’s black elected leadership, all of whom believed Miles was threatening people’s jobs, which he absolutely was.

Solis left the administration in 2013 at age 27 and became the youngest person ever elected to the Dallas school board, a record recently surpassed by Karla Garcia, 23. On the board he served as a point man for the Miles reforms. At age 28, he became the youngest president ever of the school board, a record he still holds.

In spite of opposition that was gut-level and strictly dirty pool at times, Miles achieved all of his most important goals before leaving in 2015. He was able to tie teacher pay to student achievement, then proved that miraculous results could be achieved by sending the best teachers to the worst schools. Especially given the ferocity of the resistance, Miles’ victories in Dallas stand today as a truly singular achievement.

Former Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles
Mark Graham
Solis has a nuanced insider’s view of those years. Without diminishing in any way Miles’ personal role, Solis also gives credit to changes he saw in the way the larger community learned to look at school reform.

He gives credit to Eric Celeste, then at D Magazine, for writing about what Miles was really doing in terms of education and reform, offering readers an alternative to the scandal-a-day coverage at The Dallas Morning News. But he also gives credit to Mike Wilson, who took over as the new editor of the Morning News in 2014, for turning the paper’s coverage around, forsaking the cheap accusation stories promulgated like popcorn by the opponents of reform in favor of coverage more like Celeste’s.

"Did I know that I would have my phone calls searched with open records requests? No. I didn’t know any of that stuff would happen.” — Miguel Solis

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Oh, and he mentioned me, of course. I mean what’s he going to do, separated from me by two cups of coffee? But that’s a little embarrassing. I said great things about Miles, but only after I called him a dead man walking. I always figure, shoot first, then if the guy’s still alive, try to get an interview with him.

Solis spoke to me in much greater detail than I will relate here about the role of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, about nonprofits including but not limited to Commit and Dallas Kids First and about a succession of school board members who withstood sometimes brutal opposition to form a solid five-vote bloc in favor of reform. He also had high praise for current Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who preceded Miles and then came back to succeed him.

I tried to steer the coffee cups back around a little bit to Solis himself. I was still trying to figure out why this guy, at age 13 or whatever he is, thinks he can be done when I’m still at it. And while he won’t say what’s next — more time with his daughter and wife, you know — I think the answer is that he’s not done.

When he speaks about his own personal view, Solis comes back to a perspective having to do with history and its obligations. Solis devoted much of his tenure on the board to identifying policies of the past like redlining and school segregation that still have repercussions today.

“Right now I have no intention of running for anything. The reason I ran for the school board was that what I saw in my classroom, the education I then received at Harvard and the experience I had for a year working for Miles crystallized the notion that governance is perhaps the most critical component of holistic transformation in a large urban school district.”

He says his unsuccessful campaign for mayor last year was an attempt to address all the same issues on broader basis: “The reason I ran for mayor was that, over the course of a decade, I have recognized that there are historical policy and programmatic decisions specifically made within the past century that engineered our city to act the way it acts.

“That is reflected in what you see on a day-to-day basis in our school system and the forecasted outcomes of our children. As mayor, I saw an opportunity not just to have the difficult conversations about those issues but to actually put programmatic change in place.”

Solis is executive director of Coalition for a New Dallas, a political action committee working on an array of civic issues. He and his wife, Dr. Jacqueline Nortman, a pediatrician, have a special and well-chronicled devotion to their 2-year-old daughter Olivia, who was born with a congenital heart defect (and is now doing well, he reports.)

When he says he wants to devote more time to family, I will not crassly or callously doubt him. At least not right away. But I do seriously doubt this is the last we hear from Miguel Solis.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze