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Education

Saving the Worst School

How Texas Instruments tackled a South Dallas school to prove to the nation that education reform can work.
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TI’s Phil Ritter says they had lots of data. The trick was figuring out how to make that data useful in the classroom.
photography by Allison V. Smith
Lawyer Tom Luce said, “There is a goal: teach those kids how to read by the end of the third grade. How? By any means necessary.”
photography by Allison V. Smith

Julia C. Frazier Elementary School is located in a tough part of South Dallas. Aside from the Frazier Courts Public Housing Community, filled with 300 new low-income homes, the area consists largely of rotting clapboard houses, long-abandoned storefronts, and scrubby vacant lots. Crime remains a concern. The parents who send their kids to Frazier are, at best, over-busy and underpaid. The median yearly household income in the area is just over $15,000. The average house value is $37,595. The only real education the neighborhood would seem to offer is one from the school of hard knocks.

Which is why you might be surprised to learn that Julia C. Frazier Elementary School is one of DISD’s best schools—and has been for some time. In 1999, it was rated “recognized” by the Texas Education Agency. From 2000 through 2008, it has been rated “exemplary,” the highest level a school can attain. Given the school’s surroundings, the argument could be made that Frazier Elementary has outperformed the other “good” schools it is never mentioned alongside of, such as Highland Park’s Armstrong Elementary or Southlake’s Carroll Elementary.


But wait. There’s more. Not only is Frazier one of DISD’s best schools, it has become, in essence, the font of national educational reform. Few people know that the school served as the inspiration for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. In other words, Frazier Elementary isn’t just a model school. It is the model school.

 

THE BACK STORY FOR ALL THIS comes from Texas education reform efforts that began in 1984, under the stewardship of H. Ross Perot and Dallas lawyer Tom Luce. Luce would go on to become one of George W. Bush’s top education advisors during his gubernatorial campaign and then serve as assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education during President Bush’s second term. What Perot and Luce and others advocated and eventually instituted was a system of standards, assessment, and accountability. Luce put it more simply in February 1996, in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News: “There is the goal: teach those kids to read by the end of third grade. How? By any means necessary.”

By the time Luce wrote that, the approach had become the bedrock on which Frazier Elementary was being rebuilt.


But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, much of these new measures were still theoretical. The question for then DISD School Board President Sandy Kress—along with other education policy leaders and interested parties from the business community, including Texas Instruments—was one of implementation, about the practicality of it all. Phil Ritter, senior vice president at Texas Instruments, says the student data was being gathered, but no one had quite figured out how to use it.


“They were able to identify significant amounts of data on student performance, by classroom, breaking down ethnicity, economic circumstance, geography,” Ritter says. “But the question is, How do you make that data useful in the classroom?”


The idea was to come up with information systems to make that data beneficial to anyone who wanted to know how his school was doing and, as Ritter says, “how they could perform and achieve at the highest levels—not just the minimum, but at the highest levels.” For example: if your school had a predominantly African-American student population, and your kids were at a certain income level, where are the best-performing schools in the state that have characteristics similar to yours, and what are they doing that you could adopt to drive academic achievement in your school?


Ritter and others could talk about this all they wanted, but they needed a real-life school setting in which to test their theories. They got it when the late Jerry Junkins, then the chairman and CEO of Texas Instruments, paid a visit to Frazier Elementary with Albert Black. Black—founder, president, and CEO of On-Target Supplies & Logistics, as well as the president of the Regional Dallas Chamber (called the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce at the time)—was raised in the old Frazier Courts housing projects. He took his friend and colleague (they both served on the Dallas Citizens Council) to his former South Dallas neighborhood to show him what they were up against. Junkins returned to TI with the kernel of an idea: make Frazier the test case.


“If you had to pick a setting to try to figure out if these tools could move academic achievement, there would be no more challenging setting than Frazier,” Ritter says. If Frazier could be fixed, then almost any school could. So in 1993, Texas Instruments began working full-time with Frazier Elementary, under the aegis of Enhanced Partners in Education, a collaborative arrangement between the TI Foundation (the company’s corporate philanthropy and volunteerism arm), the Citizens Council, and the Regional Dallas Chamber.


Immediately, the foundation realized the biggest obstacle to improving the school’s academic profile: kids from the neighborhood were showing up for kindergarten not ready to learn and not ready to read. That meant much of kindergarten would have to be written off, thanks to a no-win game of catch-up. Which meant the kids were behind when they reached first grade, and then second grade, and so on.


To remedy this, in 1994 the TI Foundation installed a language-rich curriculum at the Margaret H. Cone Head Start Center, a preschool next door to Frazier. The Language Enrichment Activities Program (LEAP) was designed by Nell Carvell, director of the Head Start Initiative at SMU. The core of LEAP was phonological awareness, playing with letters and sounds and words through rhyming games and everyday observations. For instance: noticing how the golden arches at McDonald’s form an “M.”


At the same time, two retired TI employees, Jim Fischer and Ralph Dosher, developed a software tool called Academic Improvement Management (AIM) and brought it to Frazier and the Cone Center. Using methods borrowed from the business world, AIM gave teachers and administrators a powerful way to measure progress, student by student and classroom by classroom. Also, Ritter assigned Gerald Borders, a public affairs director at TI, to coach new principal Deardra Hayes and help establish tutoring programs and campus-centric management protocols.


The payoff was immediate. In 1995, more than 93 percent of Frazier students passed the TAAS test (the precursor to TAKS), an improvement of almost 77 percent. By the time the kids who went through the LEAP program at the Cone Center had made their way to third grade at Frazier, under the guidance of TI’s new approach to management and assessment, they were performing at almost a fourth-grade level. By 1999, Frazier ranked in the top 13 percent of all DISD schools. Catching up was no longer required.

 

THE DRAMATIC STRIDES being made at Frazier Elementary came to the attention of George W. Bush through Luce during Bush’s run for governor in 1994. In Frazier, there existed the ideal of what Luce had long talked about.


The result: in 1997, the state Legislature funded $17 million for early childhood programs based on the TI Foundation’s approach. Laura Bush pledged her support for a program modeled on Frazier’s work with the Cone Center, and that became the model for statewide implementation. When Bush was elected president, the core of TI’s work became the core of No Child Left Behind, voted into law in 2002, which demanded data and best-practices management systems for all schools. Frazier had gone nationwide.


In Dallas, the TI Foundation continues to work with Frazier Elementary. But in the past few years, its scope has widened, sparked by Jerry Junkins’ successor, Tom Engibous. One day following a board meeting of the National Center for Education Accountability, Engibous was riding in a car with Ritter. Engibous said to him, “You know, we can prove this model out at campus settings like Frazier, but it’s never been proven as a viable education reform strategy for an entire urban school district. And if ever a place was needed to do that, it’s Dallas.”


To that end, as part of a partnership between TI and the Foundation for Community Empowerment, the goal now is to effect the same type of change on a broader scale, using three DISD high schools (Lincoln, James Madison, and L.G. Pinkston) and the schools that feed them. The apparatus is the same: data, best practices, and campus-centric management. Ritter believes the end result will be the same as well.


“If you have stability in the principal’s office,” he says, “if you’ve got a quality early reading and early learning experience for the kids, if you’re doing the measuring and assessment, so you know which teachers are doing great and which teachers need development, and if you’ve got all those things in place, even in the most challenging urban setting, you can have kids who achieve at a very, very high level. And you can sustain it.”