Lessons From DISD’s Principal for a Day Program

Part of the mural lining North Dallas High's hallways in honor of alumnus Tex Avery.
Part of the mural lining North Dallas High’s hallways in honor of alumnus Tex Avery.

For the first time in 10 years, I got dropped off at school this morning. As I made my way to the front doors, I eyed the couple huddled near the entrance and the other student hanging out on the stairs. I tried the doors. They were locked. I took a look at my phone and saw it was only 7:38. I was 22 minutes early. I thought about asking the students when the doors opened, but I was a little intimidated. They seemed like the cool kids. I’ve never been a cool kid. So I waited until the custodian noticed me lurking outside the doors and let me in. I slowly made my way to the principal’s office and sat down.

Thus started my day as principal at North Dallas High School.

I wasn’t alone. There were 156 other adults who had flashbacks of school days as they participated in DISD’s Principal for a Day program, which was started in 1999. All 157 of us spread out, descending on elementary, middle, and high schools in hopes of learning what it takes to educate on a daily basis. Everyone had a different experience. I saw one friend took doughnuts to his school (that’s how you become a cool kid) while others taught classes. I followed Principal Dinnah Escanilla, who’s on her fourth year as principal at North Dallas, around for the morning. I attended her administration meeting with her four assistant principals, walked around to several classes, attended a meeting to discuss the school’s TTIPS Grant, and made an announcement. My head is still reeling from everything I observed and was taught. But here are just a few takeaways from my experience.

1. Spot observations (where admins drop in to a class for 15 to 20 minutes and evaluate teachers) are terribly interesting. And I’m pretty sure I’d be awful at administering them. The admin staff went through a few to see what was working and what wasn’t. They admitted they’re harder on teachers who teach subjects they’re familiar with. With teachers that are focusing on different areas, they take the approach of, “Does this lesson make sense to me?” If yes, the teacher is doing a good job. If they’re left with questions, something’s missing. The point is to “improve teaching skills of all teachers, regardless of what they teach,” Escanilla says.

2. A lot of people have connections to D Magazine. I met a teacher whose daughter interned here last year and a teacher whose mother was hired by Bernie Kraft many years ago. It’s a small world.

3. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to education. North Dallas High has 87 percent of its students on free- or reduced-lunch, and it has the district’s largest population of homeless students (150). If you walk around and observe classes, you may notice that the students aren’t interacting a great deal with each other. The reason: there are language barriers. But the principal and staff have work hard to overcome these challenges. They have found ways to teach around the obstacles. These approaches wouldn’t work at all the schools in the district, but they have worked here. (For the first time in nine years, North Dallas is on the academically acceptable list.)

4. Calculators have gotten scary. (See photo below.)

5. Looney Tunes’ creator Tex Avery graduated from North Dallas in 1926. There is a hallway dedicated to him that has murals painted by each graduating class. It’s a fun hallway to walk down.

6. I’ve always respected principals. Now, I respect them even more. As I’m sure you’ve heard, 12 students were arrested two weeks ago at North Dallas High. There was a lot of talk about this situation and how it was handled. Some of the students have come back to the school. They must check in with the principal every afternoon and then serve community service at the school. The dad of one of the students joined in on the punishment yesterday because he said he was partially to blame for his son’s behavior. The administration said that they felt the morale at the school is better. Students feel safer knowing that some of those students are gone, and they’re relieved to see that punishment was doled out. Principal Escanilla had five community meetings last week addressing the arrests. Though it’s a tough situation, she has been open with the community. She has developed programs to foster her students in good behavior and learning. “We’re trying to do good here so that it will go back to the community,” she says.

An art project; the scariest calculator I've seen; another shot of the mural; an English assignment
An art project; the scariest calculator I’ve seen; another shot of the mural; an English assignment


  • D. Shapiro

    I sure hope their use of Looney Tunes characters is licensed.

    • Guest

      It isn’t.

  • NDTeacher

    It is licensed. Permission was granted due to Tex Avery’s legacy to North Dallas

  • Justin

    I remember sometime ago this mural was featured in Dallas Morning News. I’m proud of North Dallas for overcoming the hurdles. The principal I heard is a very dedicated and passionate to improve the school. Parents and teachers should be proud what North Dallas has accomplished.

  • S. Henley

    I cannot imagine how much effort it took for the principal and administration team to lead and manage a school with so many challenges. The principal seems to have a handle of everything. The suburbs have no clue at all what’s going on in inner city schools. Thank you for sharing this article. It breaks my heart to know one school has so many homeless students.

  • DISD Teacher

    This makes me feel really good as a teacher in DISD. Principals have the toughest job. I know my principal sometimes shields us from the demands of Ross Avenue. If we have more principals like Principal Escanilla of North Dallas, there is hope in public education.

  • Kit Hickerson

    Principal Escanilla is a powerful force for change at North Dallas. She is unintimidated by obstacles, always looking for ways to promote the school and its students. The principal and staff have led the school back to near greatness. The three academies are testament to that. Also, the homeless students are getting a huge hand up through support from Church of the Incarnation next door. If you are interested in helping, contact the school or the church. It’s a great place and Bulldog grads continue to make a positive change in the world. Go Bulldogs!

    • Carol

      And Kitty Hickerson should know a great principal when she sees one – she is one of the best principals I’ve worked with in nearly four decades in the public education business.

  • Kathy R

    It is so great to read of these positive experiences in our public schools, especially North Dallas HS. My husband is a proud graduate, Class of ’59. There are many such stories in this school. This is just more proof of what caring, creative students, teachers, administrators and community can accomplish together. Congratulations to this young lady, her remarkable principal and the rest of NDHS.

  • David Newton

    Krista Nightengale, you hit the nail about the realities of public education. I wish North Dallas High principal the best. Uptown and West Village are proud of our neighbor school and we love our principal!

  • BeAMentor

    If you want to make a difference in public education, volunteer at a school or be a mentor. I am one of almost 100 employees of AT&T serving as a mentor in North Dallas e-Mentoring program through Big Brothers Big Sisters. Principal Escanilla spoke to our last meeting this week and we can tell from her words how sincere she is to getting the school to a higher ground. My mentee spoke highly of her as the best principal since 3rd grade!! I followed my little sister for second year now and I can tell the positive impact in her behavior and grades. To sign up for mentor2.0 go to http://www.bbbstx.org or North Dallas High School website http://www.dallasisd.org/northdallas
    Mentoring does not only change the trajectory of your mentee’s life but it will also change your perspective about public education.

  • Bulldog Class ’68

    The class of ’68 is very proud of our school and current principal. Principal Escanilla is the perfect match for our beloved alma mater. We cannot thank her enough for the wonderful things she’s doing to help students. The alumni groups recognize her as a true bulldog hero.

  • Lisa Taylor

    I am happy to say I also participated in this program. It offered me great insight towards my new career as a 6th grade language arts teacher at Quintanilla Middles School. Glad to see you were able to do this too!

  • Sam Williamson

    I participated in PFAD some years ago and it definitely change my preconcieved ideas about public schools. At the same time I was outrage why there’s no sense of urgency to fix the problems. We need outliers principals like the principal at North Dallas. With all the fanfare and publicity of PFAD, Dallas ISD was only able to recruit 157 Principal for a Day volunteers. On the other hand, based on the comment of BeAMentor, North Dallas principal was able to recruit 100 volunteers in her mentoring program which is a year or two commitment. We need more principals that focus on fixing the problems with long-term solutions. That’s how you fix public education, one school at a time.

  • Tracy Wilson

    I stumbled on this link from Educationblog.dallasnews.com. Why is this not front page in Dallasnews? Something great and newsworthy. Thank you D Magazine for writing this. North Dallas High is a legacy in the city. My father-in- law graduated from North Dallas and he still boasts about his school.

  • Lakewoodmom

    Thank you Miss Nightengale for recognizing a gem among principals in Dallas ISD. When Ms. Escanilla left Woodrow for North Dallas, I have no doubt in my mind that she will make a huge difference as principal. And she did. We welcome a friendly competition between two historically rival schools. Ms. E, as we fondly called her back when she was dean of instruction at Woodrow, is indeed a treasure for both schools.