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Education

The Foundation of a Turnaround

How a former real estate executive came to see that the city’s future lay in its school district.
By  |
Don Williams was the CEO of Trammell Crow Company. He launched the Dallas Achieves Commission to fix DISD.
photography by Tadd Myers

Save the Dallas Independent School District, and you save Dallas. Not just the city. You save its soul.

That’s how J. McDonald “Don” Williams—former Trammell Crow Company CEO, former Dallas Citizens Council president—sees it. He saw it that way years ago, before everyone else noticed how fast the district was sinking and how closely the future of the city and DISD are tied.


But save the district—how? Williams has been working on that thinker for a long time. First he did it through the Foundation for Community Empowerment, which he established in 1995. Then he started talking to public-education consultants. Then he started talking to the district, and then to community leaders, business leaders, and education leaders.


All that talking and a partnership with former DISD Superintendent Mike Moses led to the Dallas Achieves Commission, a think tank of sorts populated with more than 60 diverse community leaders. The commission—co-chaired by Williams, CARCON Industries & Construction President and CEO Arcilia Acosta, and PNIndustries President and CEO Pettis Norman—eventually helped set a new course for DISD that, contrary to recent headlines, is actually starting to work. This summer the Texas Education Agency rated 26 DISD schools “exemplary,” up from 15 last year. Seventy-seven schools were considered “recognized,” up from 36 last year—all this while the state’s tests were made more challenging. The main criteria for determining the ratings are TAKS scores in reading, math, writing, social studies, and science. The state also factors in dropout rates.


“That’s the No. 1 test to say this has the potential for working,” Williams says. “That’s the evidence we’re on the right track.”

 

BY THE TIME WILLIAMS formed his Foundation for Community Empowerment, he’d become the chairman of the Trammell Crow Company, having served as president and CEO from 1977 to 1994. (He would later become chairman emeritus.) But even as he was running the Dallas-based global commercial real estate firm, he was teaching Sunday school. Williams says that somewhere along the line, it occurred to him that throughout the New Testament, God had a special concern for the poor, and in Williams’ own words, it “changed my theology.” So he started looking at Dallas through that lens.


“Sometimes you don’t know your own motivations, but in my tenure at Trammell Crow, I became increasingly concerned about widening inequality in my hometown,” Williams says. “The data bear it out quite well. I just asked myself, ‘What can I do about that? Is there anything that can be done about deteriorating neighborhoods here?’ ”


Given his background as a real estate executive, his first thought was that he could attack the affordable housing problem, though not as a developer. That’s when he set up the Foundation for Community Empowerment, which launched a number of small, local initiatives, including a private equity fund for businesses that would locate in Dallas’ southern sector. Some of these programs worked, like a chess program inspired by one in Harlem. But none had the impact Williams hoped for.

“We’d bring these ideas into communities. We’d try to pilot stuff, and if it worked we’d scale it up. And, if not, we’d bury it on my nickel,” he says.

Along the way, Williams discovered a second problem: the dearth of useful data to measure baselines and to target the problems of the southern sector. So he established a research institute to gather his own data, and he discovered something obvious—yet astonishing. “You can’t separate affordable housing problems from education from health care from jobs from crime and safety or even recreational opportunities,” he says. “It’s all connected. I should have known that, but I’m a slow learner, I guess.

“These programs we had were useful and could help a few, but if you really want to change a city like Dallas, you have to go for the many,” he says. “Tom Luce [a Dallas attorney and a former assistant secretary of the Department of Education] is one of my closest friends, and he says, ‘Demographics are not destiny.’ For every demographic in America, there are high-performing public schools. We realized we needed to scale up the best practices in public schools in America and bring them to Dallas.”

That’s when Williams started talking to Moses about his bigger vision, which led to the Dallas Achieves Commission and more than a year of data analysis by a team led by the Boston Consulting Group. Along the way, Michael Hinojosa became the district’s superintendent, and with his input, Dallas Achieves recommended about 100 reforms to the DISD school board.

It might seem that just setting goals, laying out the suggestions for fixing DISD—not planning those fixes, not funding them, not executing them—would be the easiest task. But, no. Determining the goals was a massive, costly undertaking, even if the thrust of them all seems as obvious as, well, the problem.

“What I learned out of this early on is that just to agree on the mission and the goal, we had to all have a common respect for the facts,” Williams says. “It took a lot of wrangling, but we finally agreed on two goals: that all DISD students graduate—only 58 percent do—and that they graduate either college or workforce ready [see story about the dropout rate on page 94]. Even those graduating were graduating at a low standard. Only 5 percent were college ready.”

Ultimately, Williams is the godfather of this effort, which is a holistic, no-nonsense, businesslike approach that advocates adopting best practices and giving power to principals who prove themselves capable. Dallas Achieves proposed a three-step agenda: first, the district should adopt performance targets as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the National Center for Educational Accountability. Second, the district should graduate students who are college or workforce ready. Third, the district should reduce the dropout rate by identifying and counseling students who are deemed “at risk.”

Some of the district’s entrenched interests asked publicly what business was it of this coalition of civic and business leaders to stir the DISD pot. Williams was ready with an answer.

“It’s the public schools,” he says, emphasis all his. “They don’t belong to any one administrator, board, employee union, or superintendent. This is bigger than any one person.”

Getting teachers, the DISD board, and administrators all to buy in to the Dallas Achieves recommendations was no small feat. The key, Williams says,
was basing the problem-solving steps on proven, objective strategies based on the work done by consultant BCG.

“What do we rely on for a plan? It should be best practices. That’s why BCG is so crucial,” he says. “What is it high-performing schools do? That literally changed the conversation. Because if I or anyone else brings a bias to the process, it gets exposed by best practices. We brought in principles that just make sense. And it was about as close to a civic miracle as I could find. People came together and agreed on what we would do.”

In February 2007, a 109-point plan was approved with just four votes against. (Two nays came from representatives of teachers unions who said they favored the plan but didn’t want teachers evaluated or compensated based on student achievement, something the businesspeople on the 65-member commission found astonishing, to say the least.) In April 2007, the plan was adopted by the DISD Board of Trustees.

“Now, a plan doesn’t change things. If you don’t get behind it and implement it, it won’t change a thing,” Williams says. “I know that from my Trammell Crow days. And there was a lot of skepticism.”

Aside from the focus on academics, lower student-teacher ratios, and principal empowerment, Dallas Achieves aims to prepare lower-income kids for the classroom. Lower-income students arrive at school two to three years behind upper- and middle-class kids, so an emphasis was placed on early childhood education programs and parent involvement. Community engagement is also key. Williams says, “All the rich kids in Highland Park go to all the summer camps and outside programs and all the things that enrich and add to competency. So we’re stepping that up with mentoring summer camps, summer jobs programs, and a variety of support mechanisms. 

“What we do know is poor children can learn, but it takes a lot of additional support. Charles Murray is wrong,” he says, referring to the sociologist and co-author of The Bell Curve.

For Williams, it’s not just about practicality and businesses needing qualified workers, or even just the city of Dallas. “It’s a moral question about what kind of society do we want, and it’s a moral imperative,” he says. “It’s easier said than done. And a lot of my friends were skeptical. ‘What’s different now?’ they ask. We’ve heard all these turnaround speeches by superintendents. The difference is we’re already getting results. I think we have alignment here.”

 

AS THIS STORY WAS being written in September, DISD revealed a budget shortfall that was created, in part, by the hiring of teachers to reduce class size, one of Dallas Achieves’ goals [see sidebar on how this happened, page 43]. Williams says it’s important to keep the shortfall separate from the big picture.

“It’s an accounting problem,” he says. “Some principals hired more than the budget allowed. It’s not a good thing, but even in business mistakes are made. You don’t take it lightly—I didn’t at Trammell Crow—but if you’re accomplishing the rest of your mission, you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Accounting problems are easier to fix than the school performance, and we have a chance to do that right now.”

In the meantime, Williams continues his crusade. He’s out seeking grants and haranguing other foundations for giving money to places like SMU, which is not hurting for cash, rather than to DISD. He believes that donations to the latter will make a bigger, more immediate impact on the city. Dallas is becoming a city of rich people who live in North Dallas and poor people who live in South Dallas. Between them lives a shrinking enclave of die-hard (but dying, nonetheless) middle-class whites in select parts of East Dallas. And the center will not hold. With good suburban schools just minutes away? It’s not hard to see where that trend line heads. Williams doesn’t want that for Dallas. Fix the schools, and middle-classers reverse their exodus. The city lives.
 

“We can’t keep letting this city grow apart,” Williams says. “This is how we bring it back together.”