More than halfway into its first attempt at a campus turnaround program, Richardson ISD is reporting assessment score spikes at its lowest-performing schools.
The district released a mid-year progress report in February for Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, a program created by Dallas ISD in 2015. ACE launched in RISD in fall 2018 at Carolyn Bukhair Elementary School, Forest LaneAcademy, RISD Academy and Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.
In many cases, data shows students at ACE schools meeting or exceeding district performance averages in reading and math. A significant reduction in discipline referrals was also reported.
“Our kids are not just getting across the line. … We are starting to see our kids solidly at the meets level and some moving into the masters level,” said Joe Miniscalco, RISD executive director of school improvement.
Superintendent Jeannie Stone has positioned herself as a champion for equity since first proposing ACE in early 2017. The program is being tested at these four schools for three years, but Stone said she plans to take certain elements of ACE districtwide.
Still, some skeptics doubt RISD’s ability to afford a scale-up of ACE, especially in light of the uncertainty around public school finance. The program’s inaugural year cost the district $3.2 million, according to Chief Financial Officer David Pate. But despite its success in closing achievement gaps, some North Texas districts, such as Dallas ISD, have dialed ACE back for cost reasons.
HOW IT WORKS
Almost all ACE students come from low-income households, and English is a second language for some.
By extending classroom hours, providing free after-school care, offering three meals a day at no cost and keeping students on a structured schoolwide routine, the ACE program seeks to tear down obstacles common among these populations.
In March 2018, the district began recruiting its most highly qualified teachers and administrators for ACE. All current staff members were welcome to apply, but in the end most came from other RISD schools, Miniscalco said.
“I didn’t want our teachers to think they were bad teachers or that we were firing them,” Stone said. “I wanted them to understand—so I was overt in explaining—that this was about moving teachers to campuses where students have the greatest need, so we needed teachers who had experience working with kids that were behind.”
Employment at an ACE school comes with a salary stipend of between $5,000 and $15,000 per year, depending on the position.
ACE teachers closely document student progress and immediately intervene if a child is falling behind. They also work with content experts called instructional coaches, who often help guide coursework in the classroom.
The extra attention for children at ACE schools goes beyond academics. From bell to bell, students follow a strict schedule. Miniscalco said consistency leaves no room for uncertainty when it comes to student expectations.
Teachers are also trained to call out positive behavior, which, combined with structure, is in part responsible for the decline in discipline referrals at most ACE schools, Miniscalco said.
Still, ACE has not totally eradicated achievement gaps. Some students are lagging behind in certain content areas.
Fourth-graders scored below average on mid-year assessments in the areas of math and reading at all four ACE campuses, according to the progress report. Miniscalco said this is in part due to a shift from explicit to implicit curriculum that occurs in fourth grade.
STRIVING FOR EQUITY
Implementation of ACE is part of a larger effort in RISD to level the playing field for students who come from low-income homes.
When Stone became superintendent two years ago, she said she made it her mission to see all students succeed. This passion was born out of her own experience growing up impoverished, she said.
“Life can be challenging for people who come from poverty,” she said. “There has to be something that helps you break out of it, and education is the answer to that. It was for me.”
During her tenure as deputy superintendent, Stone was instrumental in pulling three failing schools up to a passing grade.
A year later, though, when ratings slumped again, Stone said she knew a more systemic measure had to be taken.
“All we did was address the low-hanging fruit the first time around. We didn’t do anything to transform,” she said. “I wrote on my whiteboard ‘we must find a disruptive change.’”
Stone began searching for turnaround programs and found that ACE had been deployed in both Dallas and Fort Worth ISDs. Convincing the RISD board to take the financial plunge could be an uphill battle, but Stone thought ACE could dramatically improve student outcomes.
“I knew it would take more money and great leadership in a principal that everyone wanted to go work for, but I felt compelled that we had to do it,” she said.
Each school receives $800,000 to implement ACE, which covers salary stipends, professional development training and workshops, extended care for students, facility upgrades, uniforms, library books and program management.
The cost of education at an ACE school is approximately $1,250 more per student than at a non-ACE school, according to Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum.
The high cost of ACE forced DISD to scale down the program from 13 schools to seven. While Stone has big dreams for a more equitable RISD, she knows it is not feasible to provide a stipend to all teachers and staff members.
“There are some great things we have learned [from ACE] that we need to scale,” she said. “It can be done without having to build in a $10,000 incentive.”
Right now the lion’s share of ACE is paid for through the district’s general fund, which is made up of local, state and federal tax dollars, Pate said. A few Texas Education Agency grants for low-performing campuses also helped shoulder the cost, Branum said.
RISD had a deficit of $6 million while crafting the fiscal year 2018-19 budget. A simultaneous curriculum audit indicated a need to restructure the curriculum and learning department, which freed up funds for ACE, Branum said.
Stone and Branum said they are cautiously optimistic that state lawmakers could provide funding relief this legislative session. House Bill 3, for example, could allocate some funds toward recruiting teachers at high-need campuses, Branum said.
THE FIRST DOMINO
The focus on equity in the district comes in the wake of public allegations of unfair distribution of resources.
In January, RISD settled a lawsuit brought by former trustee David Tyson Jr., who claimed the district’s at-large electoral system not only favored white candidates but also discouraged minorities from running for board office.
The suit also claimed that the district’s all-white, affluent board favored schools in areas with similar demographics.
As a result of the settlement, five of seven trustees will now be elected by residents in predetermined geographic areas rather than by voters districtwide.
The district is also in the process of approving an equity policy that would audit curriculum and train teachers in cultural competency. The policy would also guide the hiring of future teachers, according to a March 25 presentation given by Angie Lee, RISD director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
“We are hoping [equity] becomes the language of the district—that we are always running our policies, practices and procedures through the lens of the equity policy,” Lee said.