The number one factor in choosing a neighborhood is its neighborhood school. Parents and prospective homebuyers glean information about potential schools from a variety of sources, whichlet’s be honestoften boil down to hearsay. A school’s good reputation may be 10 years out of date or the figment of a real estate agent’s sales pitch.
Until recently, facts about schools have been hard to come by. No longer. In these three pages, and with the accompanying chart, you will now be able to answer the most important questions in your child’s life. How does your neighborhood school measure up against the other schools in Dallas and statewide? Is your school good, or do you and your fellow parents just think it’s good? Is it doing the best job it can do considering its student population? With data provided by the nonprofit educational resource Just4theKids, D Magazine has undertaken the first comprehensive ranking of the top 250 elementary schools in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Just4theKids is the result of Dallas civic leader Tom Luce’s deep involvement with improving Texas public education. In 1984-85 he led the reform movement that pressured the state legislature into imposing the first statewide testing system to measure how schools were doing. When the trend toward local control became clear, he looked for ways to keep up the pressure on schools to perform. “Like Darrell Royal once remarked about the forward pass,” Luce says, “with local control there are three things that can happen, and two of them are bad: they settle for the status quo, get worse, or on the good side, they mobilize to improve.” To push toward the better outcome, in 1995 he founded Just4theKids. “Before anything comes information,” he adds. “You may be told that your school is great. But when you compare it against the best, you may find out something completely different.”
The unique feature of the Just4theKids approach is to rank schools against their peers. An urban school with a large immigrant population has different problems to address than an all-white suburban school. Once a school’s parents and staff wake up to the fact that others in Texas are achieving at a higher level, Just4theKids provides “best practices” information to tell them how the top-achieving schools are reaching their goals.
Passing vs. Proficiency
Ask any third-grader what TAAS stands for, and he’ll tell you. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, given every spring to students in grades 3-10, has come to dominate the lives of students and teachers throughout the state. Supporters maintain that this system is the reason Texas students and schools have shown substantial gains and have led the country in improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the closest thing to a common national test in the United States. (George W. Bush’s education reform package proposes national testing of students similar to TAAS for grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics.) TAAS measures the lowest possible passing scores to meet the minimum state standards. Just4theKids’ system measures TAAS proficiencya higher standard that represents mastery of the grade-level material. Just4theKids has been tracking the schools’ progress in these areas since 1994.
The purpose is to instill a culture of high expectationsand to do away with excuses. It doesn’t matter how poor your school is: somewhere in Texas, schools with kids just as poor are doing excellent jobs of educating. And schools lucky enough to have students whose parents read to them and who are already above average when they walk in the door for first grade can’t just sit on their hands. When ranked against the best in the state, they may come in dead last. Just4theKids’ best contribution to public education in Texas may be simply putting up the factsapples to applesfor everyone to see, leaving no room to hide.
What is an Opportunity Gap?
Just4theKids’ unique qualifier for each school is the opportunity gap, measured for both reading and math. The opportunity gap measures your school’s TAAS proficiency against the top 10 schools serving a similar demographic population statewide. The Just4theKids profile of each school is based on the idea that if a school facing equal or harder challenges can accomplish a result, then your school can, too. The opportunity gap reflects a school’s opportunity for improvement.
Opportunity gaps greater than or equal to minus 10 are considered top tier. Gaps between minus 10 and minus 40 are considered “moderate” (whether a parent will think they are moderate depends on the parent). Anything below minus 40 is in trouble. The schools at the top of our list have opportunity gaps above zero, meaning their performance is well above those of comparable schools statewide.
How to Use the Web Site: www.just4kids.org
Information for each Texas school is listed by campus and by district. The mathematics, reading, and writing grades are available on a campus by campus basis. Comparison charts for the top 10 comparable schools as well as a multiyear summary of the school’s performance are also available.
For example: if your child attends Springridge Elementary in Richardson ISD, you can see how his third-grade reading course compares with the top 10 schools statewide that are just like his25.1 percent economically disadvantaged and 29 percent limited English proficient. The results show that Springridge is 87.5 percent TAAS proficient, with 90.63 percent of students passing TAAS.
The top 10 similar schools averaged 66.31 percent TAAS proficient with 91.49 percent passing TAAS. So with the highest performing schools’ opportunity gaps being greater than or equal to minus 10, Springridge’s rating of plus 3 in third grade reading makes it a high performing school. In fact, it’s the state’s third-rated elementary school in the reading category. A chart monitoring the progress of the third-grade reading program shows a slight improvement from 1999-2000. Not only is their opportunity gap closing; they’re now above the average.
Another example: Manuel Jara Elementary in Fort Worth ISD is 89 percent economically disadvantaged and 70.6 percent limited English proficient. The percent passing TAAS at Manuel Jara in fourth grade mathematics is 91.03; the TAAS proficiency percentage is 47.44. The average TAAS passing percentage for the top 10 comparable schools is 84.94 percent and the TAAS proficiency percentage is 43.51. The highest-ranking schools for fourth-grade mathematics have opportunity gaps greater than or equal to minus 10. Manuel Jara’s fourth-grade mathematics rates plus 4, making it fourth in the state among similar schools. A steady increase in performance is evident from the 1995-2000 progress chart. In 1999-2000, they showed a 17 percent jump in proficiency; the principal and teachers of Manuel Jara are doing a great job.
How We Did It
We selected schools from our readership area, including Fort Worth and Dallas, Collin, northeast Tarrant, and southeast Denton counties. Out of the 565 elementary schools in that area, we eliminated those with an overall “acceptable” or “low performing” TAAS rating. We modified the data from Just4theKids by averaging the districts’ math and the reading opportunity gaps and used that average to rank the schools. Then we used the overall TAAS passing percentage from the TEA web site (www.tea.tx.state.us) as a secondary criterion. The economic disadvantage percentage shows the relative wealth of the school population, and the limited English proficiency shows the relative language fluency of the population. Just4theKids’ data ranks each school against other schools with similar demographics statewide. From that data, we rated the schools on how well they perform against their “class” statewide. An elementary school in, say, Plano or Highland Park, may be better than schools in the urban districts of Dallas and Fort Worth, but when compared to its own peers statewide may not measure up as well. That’s why we measured it against its peers. Our revised ranking system eliminates inequalities and places a school’s achievementor lack of achievementin its proper context. We encourage parents to check our math and their school’s performance against the best of its peers by going to www.just4kids.org.
Eight Dallas-Fort Worth elementary schoolsand possibly two moreshare top Blue Ribbon honors with exemplary schools across the United States.
Blue Ribbon status is quite an honor for any school, whether elementary or high school. But what does it mean and how do you get it? Schools fill out applications for statewide Blue Ribbon status, which are then reviewed by state education agencies (in Texas, that agency is the TEA). The TEA bestows Blue Ribbon honors on select schools, who are then nominated for national Blue Ribbon status. (The U.S. Department of Education honors elementary schools in alternate years.) The Blue Ribbon Council for the Department of Education reviews the nominations, conducts site visits, and decides which schools in the country will receive the coveted title. Schools that carry the Blue Ribbon badge are recognized for academic leadership, teaching and teacher development, school curriculum, exceptional community and parental involvement, high student achievement, and rigorous safety and discipline programs.
Since the Blue Ribbon program was launched in the 1982-83 school year, the Department of Education has recognized 3,784 schools, including 2,971 public schools and 813 private schools. The current national list includes 181 public and 17 private schools in 43 states. Representatives from this year’s winning schools will attend a ceremony in Washington D.C.
Dallas-Fort Worth weighed in with eight contenders: five schools from Grapevine-Colleyville ISD; W.H. Wilson Elementary School in Coppell; Walnut Hill Elementary in northwest Dallas; and DISD’s superstar, Stonewall Jackson Elementary, the only elementary school in the district to win an “exemplary” ranking from the TEA.
Stonewall is also the regional school for the hearing impaired. Students and faculty on this campusboth hearing and non-hearinglearn sign language. But sign language isn’t the only special program in place.
“We link science to outdoor activities,” says principal Olivia Henderson. “We have a garden, and all of the students care for their plants. We’re in an urban environment, so some of our kids think that carrots come from Tom Thumb. We teach them how to make them grow, and then they get to harvest them and cook a meal using their products. We’re lucky enough to have a teacher who’s a master gardener. Even people from the community come and care for the plants year-round.”
Another key to Stonewall’s success is the longevity of both students and faculty. Students K-5 stay the length of their elementary education and build relationships with their teachers. The teachers have, in many cases, already taught older brothers and sisters. Parents get involved. Every year, each child is evaluated and his place on the learning curve is diagnosed. If there are areas to improve, those needs are immediately addressed. But, more important, learning here is fun. In May, the campus is transformed into a different worldliterally. The school adopts another culture and country and immerses the kids and teachers in the food, language, economy, and culture of that country. This year, it’s the Caribbean.
The teachers, parents, and administrators in the Grapevine-Colleyville ISD also know the sweet taste of success. GPCISD is the largest school district in the state of Texas with an overall “exemplary” rating. National Blue Ribbon recipients in GPCISD include Bear Creek, Bransford, Colleyville, O.C. Taylor, and Heritage elementaries. Timberline and Glenhope are 2000 state of Texas Blue Ribbon recipients and will know by the end of the school year if they have achieved national Blue Ribbon status.
Principals Sandee Williams of Timberline and Wynette Griffin of Glenhope agree that community involvement and the administration’s push to raise standards are directly responsible for GPCISD’s success. The district spends an enormous amount of energy on yearlong staff development.
“The teachers want to teach here,” says Griffin. “The newest technology and cutting-edge curricular issues make teaching here an achievable challenge. We move kids around and try different approaches until we find the best way to teach them. If they don’t respond to the first attempts, we know that just means that we have to find a way to reach them.”
This “one child at a time” philosophy is paying off in academic achievement.