5 Important Ideas For Transforming Public Education in Dallas

Panelists were (from left): Krys Boyd, Rosemary Perlmeter, Jonathan Gonzalez, Yasmin Bhatia, and Mike McFarland.  Photo by David Leeson.
Panelists were (from left): Krys Boyd, Rosemary Perlmeter, Jonathan Gonzalez, Yasmin Bhatia, and Mike McFarland. Photo by David Leeson.

In February, we reported on the Communities Foundation of Texas’ 60th anniversary and on the first of a three-part, commemorative series of “Cause-Minded Conversations” about Dallas-area public education. Yesterday, the folks at CFT assembled again for the second of the series’ conversations—this time engaging the topic of “disruptive innovations” in K-12 public education.

Moderated by KERA’s Krys Boyd, the discussion was informative; at times, entertaining; and—thanks to 17-year-old panelist Jonathan Gonzalez—even inspiring. Gonzalez is an Oak Cliff native and junior at Dallas ISD’s Trini Garza Early College High School. Its graduates receive not just their high school diplomas, but also up to two years’ worth of college credit, or an associate’s degree. It’s just the sort of unconventional program on which the conversation was focused.

In addition to Boyd and Gonzalez, sitting on the panel were Yasmin Bhatia, CEO of charter school operator Uplift Education; Mike McFarland, superintendent of Lancaster ISD; and Rosemary Perlmeter, co-founder and CEO of Teaching Trust, an education advocacy organization.

Here are the 5 most important/intriguing/inspiring ideas from the evening:

1. Putting Practical Math and Science Front and Center. McFarland’s 6,500-student district has reorganized its K-12 curriculum around a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) focus. Lancaster ISD has sought to connect the classroom to the real world, enlisting the involvement and expertise of community employers in a project-based learning approach. Students, for instance, learned about the physics of force and motion by building a skate park, which city engineers evaluated and critiqued. According to McFarland, when eight of the future’s 10 jobs occur in a STEM field, a STEM-centered curriculum (rather than just a typical diploma) can produce a greater number of choices and opportunities for students.

2. Guiding Students to Success. Uplift Education has attacked college readiness through a  “hands-on” counseling approach, both during and after high school. Bhatia referenced Uplift’s full-time road-to-college counselors that assist students in applying to colleges (by finding the best-fit schools, helping navigate application procedures) and in securing financial assistance when necessary. After a student enrolls in college, the counseling doesn’t stop: Uplift’s counselors continue to offer guidance on problems related to academics, finances, and emotional adjustment. Its project has resulted in impressive results: 100 percent of Uplift’s graduates attend college, and 80 percent remain in college through at least their junior years.

3. Don’t Confuse Ego For Courage.  Leaders must perpetually ask themselves the question, “What if I’m wrong?” said McFarland. It isn’t enough to see an idea through; one must also clearly assess the idea’s efficacy.

4. Technology Can Both Help and Hinder.  McFarland said technology is “an efficiency tool, not the end-all, be-all.” Administrators and instructors should, therefore, seek to employ technology where it can serve the end of education, but they should avoid converting valuable instruction time to technology-training time.

5. Teachers Matter.  Gonzalez, who is planning to attend Texas A&M to study architectural engineering, closed the discussion by emphasizing the singular role of a good teacher in any of these efforts: “Everybody prefers a handshake or hug over a letter. It’s that emotional connection that a teacher provides—the teacher connects with students and makes a difference.”

There will be another “Cause-Minded Conversation” on Wednesday, October 9, on transforming higher education. The discussion is free and open to the public.

Farraz Khan is a D Magazine intern.