Stories

SMU: World Changers Shaped Here.

Esmeralda Ortiz

Helping turn a school zone into a college graduate zone.

Esmeralda and a team of SMU faculty, staff and students are part of an important partnership in West Dallas, called The School Zone. It supports struggling students and their families by redefining the way schools and the social sector work together. Through tutoring, mentoring, arts programs and more, they're changing the world one child at a time.

Esmeralda Ortiz is community relations director for the Center on Communities and Education (CCE) at SMU. She has played a central role in creating and managing The School Zone, a multi-partner intervention tailored to high-need students from economically disadvantaged families.

Housed within SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, the program’s goal is to ensure that children of all ages in West Dallas have access to high quality learning opportunities and community resources, increasing the likelihood that they will graduate from high school ready for college and career.

With more than 20 nonprofits partners and SMU providing an array of wrap around services and programs to more than 6,000 students in public, private and charter schools in West Dallas, The School Zone is changing the educational landscape of this community, located just minutes from SMU.

“As in many communities, our nonprofits were doing incredible work to help students academically. But they often did it in silos, and there was an absence of student-level data, making it difficult to measure the effectiveness of their programs,” said Ortiz. “At the same time, principals and teachers were balancing educating our children and addressing the day-to-day challenges that poverty brings.”

Today that is changing. When nonprofit leaders, school principals, Dallas ISD administrators and CCE staff meet once every six weeks, the group focuses on parent involvement, early childhood interventions, supporting teaching and learning, and providing community resources that support students and strengthen families. Partners freely discuss the challenges and opportunities they are facing, and data drive the conversation and inform the support plans for individual students.

It is no secret that too many children in West Dallas are falling behind academically, and Esmeralda and her colleagues know years will pass before significant progress is made.

“We’re working collaboratively to fix broken systems at a community level through evidence-based decision making, and that takes time,” said Regina Nippert, executive director of the Center on Communities and Education. “Thriving partnerships coupled with an understanding of data are providing the foundation necessary to achieve our goals.”