DISD Board Member, Principal, and Teachers Discuss State of Education

Last night, I attended an education panel that was hosted by a young professionals group called Dallas Engaged Professionals. (Full disclosure: my husband started DEP and he coordinated the panel as well). Panelists included Nakia Douglas, principal of Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy; Bernadette Nutall, District 9 school board trustee; Zack Hall, third-grade TFA teacher; and Justin Coppedge, executive director of Leadership DISD and former TFA teacher.

I don’t have a child who attends DISD. I didn’t attend DISD. I have no horse in this race. But I know that education is a hot topic, and change needs to happen. Fast.

I was amazed at the passion and determination of last night’s speakers. One teared up, surprising even himself. Another talked about how his classroom hasn’t had air conditioning since the first day of school, but that’s okay, he’s learned that there are things you can’t control. (That’s when Nutall leaned over and said no classroom should be without air conditioning and promised to get that situation fixed right away.) Through these snippets of daily life for a DISD educator, there were several themes that emerged.

Jump for my really long recap.

After a moving opening statement from Hall about how he leaves work every day knowing that he accomplished something or impacted at least one student, Douglas put a hand on his shoulder and said, “That’s part of the solution–passionate educators. You can’t teach passion. That’s not in a textbook.” Douglas explained that at his school, which is in its first year, there aren’t many monetary incentives. Teachers work longer days than normal, and often do extra work outside the classroom. Douglas said he’s upfront with his expectations. Teachers, students, and faculty sign oaths of agreement to participate on campus. “We don’t have extra money,” Douglas tells his teachers. “It’s probably going to be tighter next year. What I can offer you is an opportunity and an environment where you get to be a teacher.” There were some questions about how that might affect turnover rates. But, of course, with his school being in its first year, Douglas doesn’t know how those numbers will look. He’s confident, however, that passionate leaders can lead passionate teachers who will help their students succeed.

Standardized testing was a large part of the conversation. Hall said that these tests are ineffective in measuring teachers. There are kids who improve two grade levels in just one year. But those kids still fail the tests. Their development is not taken into consideration when evaluating teachers. He’s working with a committee that’s attempting to come up with a new teacher evaluation system. “The fact is, we have to change this,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of the teachers in DISD met or exceeded expectations, according to the system that’s currently used. In my opinion, 98 percent of our kids should be meeting and exceeding expectations and graduating high school and going to college. So we have a disconnect.”

Nutall mentioned multiple times that her greatest request for the community is to hold the board members accountable. She has a daughter in DISD, so she’s vested. (She also has a daughter in private school. When her youngest was 4 and Nutall went to enroll her in a DISD pre-K program, she was told that she did not meet the requirements. So she put her daughter in a private school. Constantly moving as a child in an Army family, Nutall did not want that much change for her daughter. So she’s keeping her in private school.) “Until you make us accountable as board members, make administration accountable, we’re going to still get the same ole, same ole. The system is broke,” she said. “[Until] we admit that the system is broke and how we’re going to fix it, the gaps are going to be there.”

One of the jobs of the board is to hire the new CEO. Nutall said she’s looking for a great communicator, someone who cares about urban children, believes that children can learn, and understands data and can use it to implement change. “What I’m looking for is a person that can come in and make courageous decisions,” she said. “You’ve got to come in and turn the ship around. Our children are depending on us.”

Hall, who’s easily one of the most passionate teachers I’ve run into, said he planned to join TFA for two years and then go to law school. Now, he wants to be a principal. He’s not doing the job for the money. For him, it’s all about the kids. “I love being on the front lines of what I see, and a lot of us see, as the greatest civil rights issue our generation will ever face,” he said. “The kids in Frisco are getting a much different education in a much different school than the kids I’m teaching in Oak Cliff, and we have to fix that. There is no reason that it should be any different. At all.”

After last night, I had so much hope for the future of DISD. With teachers such as Hall and principals like Douglas, I just can’t imagine the state of education in Dallas not improving. But then I was talking about the panel with some people at work who have kids in DISD. After that talk, the concerned feeling returned. There’s a lot of work to be done to turn this ship around.

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