July 24, 2012
Southern Methodist University, the Dallas Independent School District and 20 West Dallas nonprofits have entered a partnership to develope a local version of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone by improving Pinkston High School and the feeder schools that funnel students into it. Following are news accounts of the agreement:
Anyone concerned that new Superintendent Mike Miles would hesitate to shake up the traditional educational approach in the Dallas Independent School District need look no further than this past weekend’s retreat with school board trustees.
The board and Miles approved a unique agreement that makes the district a full-fledged partner with Southern Methodist University and 20 West Dallas nonprofits in developing a local version of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone.
Not only is this the right move for DISD, West Dallas is the right place for the innovation.
The Harlem program’s success stems from its hands-on approach to improving academic performance in a community where educational challenges exist both inside and outside the classroom. Begun as a private charter school, the Children’s Zone demanded parental involvement and provided social safety nets for children who might otherwise have come to school hungry or with other needs. The program offered improved classroom instruction and raised expectations for student achievement.
Unlike the Harlem blueprint, the DISD agreement doesn’t create a charter school network. It wisely taps West Dallas’ social services, mentoring agencies and parent groups, all of which have been hindered in their efforts to improve the area’s schools by the school district’s reluctance to partner with outsiders. If it can help improve student achievement in West Dallas with this plan, the district will have found an important approach to implement citywide.
Impressively, Miles shows no signs of his predecessor’s resistance to the plan and pledges to work with the West Dallas community to improve Pinkston High School and the feeder schools that funnel students into it. At a recent meeting with the editorial board, Miles said, “We can’t do it alone. But we can home in with community groups on all the things that the community needs for a child to be successful.”
This attitude is worthy of applause. West Dallas has a history of students doing well in elementary school but stumbling in middle school and falling into academic chaos by the time they reach Pinkston, a high school with a rocky academic background.
The district, SMU and the nonprofits will apply for Promise Neighborhood funds, a federal grant given to communities that have put together innovative educational reform plans for impoverished neighborhoods. In addition, the Center on Communities and Education, an offshoot of SMU’s education school, will track student performance in unprecedented ways to determine what works and what doesn’t in preparing students for college or a job after high school.
Much credit goes to the West Dallas groups that have pushed this idea forward, as well as to SMU and the school board.
The reform could have enormous payoff for a vulnerable part of the DISD population. Now the district and its partners must work hard to make sure momentum is sustained.
By most measures, LG Pinkston High School is failing. The school, which neighbors Fish Trap Lake in a poor area of West Dallas, has higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and lower test scores than the rest of Dallas ISD. It is considered academically unacceptable by the state and has been for several years.
That's not to say that people aren't trying to improve things. A coalition of nonprofits and community groups, with a big assist from SMU, has focused on improving Pinkston and its feeder schools as a means of revitalizing a long struggling part of the city. But those efforts will enter the next phase come Saturday when, right after giving Mike Miles until July 2013 to obtain his Texas superintendent's certification, the DISD Board of Trustees will decide whether to sign an agreement with SMU's Simmons School of Education, the city of Dallas and about 20 nonprofits to transform West Dallas into a Promise Neighborhood, the federally assisted versions of the Harlem Children's Zone, the by all accounts very successful program that tracks every child's education from cradle to graduation.
The stated goal of the project, dubbed The School Zone, is to "improve school performance, raise graduation rates, and increase college readiness," which is straightforward enough, but it's the same goal that's has aimed for and missed for a long time. The key is the new cradle-to-career approach that tracks kids through their educational career.
The thought is, per the partnership agreement, "that if we increase early childhood educational opportunities, provide families with targeted resources from a coordinated social sector, improve teaching and learning, and engage parents in their children's development, then students will be more likely to graduate from high school prepared for college and careers."
Doing all that won't be free, which is the coalition will seek a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education. They seem poised to move forward whether or not they get it. Already, participating groups have pledged more than $6.5 million, which seems like a pretty good start.
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