Changes in Woodrow’s feeder schools could eventually let neighborhood students pick their school, regardless of where they live
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Tracie Fraley envisions a neighborhood where families can look around and decide which school best fits their children, rather than being hemmed in by an address.
“If you look at the evolution of education, why have charter schools and private schools become such a popular option?” Fraley asks. “Part of the reason is people want choices, and we don’t give them choices.”
Her words carry substantial weight because Fraley is the Dallas ISD executive director of the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder pattern, meaning that she oversees Woodrow and all of the schools that funnel children there, including J.L. Long Middle School, and Eduardo Mata, Lakewood, Mount Auburn, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and William Lipscomb elementary schools.
Fraley has worked with principals and parents to develop plans for these neighborhood schools so that within three years, academic opportunities across East Dallas could look much different.
“We’re all about choices and options for parents and kids, things that make sense for families and students,” Fraley says.
The proposed changes are partly a result of the realization roughly a decade ago that “there wasn’t a lot of communication or coordination among schools in the feeder pattern,” says Vince Murchison.
At the time, Murchison’s children were at Stonewall, and now are at Woodrow and Long, where he has chaired the site-based decision making committee for six years.
“I feel like we have reached a point where all the schools are much more cognizant of one another than before,” Murchison says. “We’ve finally got our arms around all of them.”
And as academics grow more rigorous at each of these schools, he hopes the outcome is that “the boundaries don’t matter anymore.”
‘Free-flow’ within elementary schools
In our neighborhood are some of DISD’s most sought-after elementary schools. Lakewood and Stonewall, for example, are so popular among parents that both schools are filled to more than 150 percent capacity, with students spilling out into portable buildings.
Other neighborhood elementary schools, however, have room to spare. Lee could hold at least 100 more students, and Mata is roughly two-thirds empty.
Fraley hopes to correct this imbalance. The first big change would be turning Mata into a Montessori elementary. Unlike other magnet schools that are open to all DISD students and require an interview process, Mata’s spots would be reserved for students in the Woodrow feeder pattern, making it the first neighborhood Montessori campus in the district, with no entrance requirements.
“Philosophically, if you really study Montessori education, the intent is that Montessori should work for every child,” Fraley says. “We don’t want to create an elitist system where you only get a certain kind of kid. If the program is good, it should work for all kids.”
Students currently at Mata are fourth- and fifth-graders who come from nearby Mount Auburn Elementary, a pre-kindergarten through third-grade school. Under the plan, Mount Auburn would add fourth-graders next fall and fifth-graders the following year. (At press time, these changes were uncertain pending a DISD board of trustees vote at the April 24 meeting.)
With the popularity of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Woodrow and Long’s recent designation as an IB school, another logical option is IB offerings at the elementary level. Both Lee and Lipscomb aim to become IB campuses; Fraley hopes to apply for the designation by April 2015 and launch the programs at both schools by fall 2015.
New curriculum also is proposed for Lakewood, Mount Auburn and Stonewall. A science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program at Stonewall would utilize its acclaimed Stonewall Gardens as “the lab,” Fraley says. Lakewood hopes to add an element dubbed “Renaissance learning,” a blending of English, science and the arts.
“Think of Leonardo da Vinci, who was an artist, a writer and a scientist,” Fraley says. “Unfortunately, we’ve been somewhat didactic in how we teach at the elementary level. I’m not saying you’re going to read Shakespeare as a fifth-grader, but you can be exposed to Shakespeare.”
Mount Auburn also plans to add STEM curriculum but with an arts element — STEAM — because “that community loves the arts,” Fraley says. The goal with all three programs is a more well-rounded education.
“We’re not stupid enough to think that a pre-kindergartener is going to come in and want to be an engineer, or even a fifth-grader,” Fraley says, “but we’ve always taught in silos — we’re going to do reading, put your reading away and now we’re going to do math — and we know that’s not how life is.”
Eventually, Fraley hopes that neighborhood families will be able to take advantage of “a free-flow within schools, so at some point you as a community member or parent can say, ‘Gosh, I really want my kid to participate in IB,’ or ‘I want to be down the street from my elementary school because that community school is really important to me.’ ”
One high school and middle school, several options
Woodrow already boasts the IB program and academic tracks for students wanting to pursue careers in fields such as technology, performing arts and business leadership. Next year, it will introduce a humanities strand as an “overarching umbrella that impacts all of these academies, so we aren’t creating scientists who don’t know who Chaucer is, or the difference between a Monet and a Degas,” Fraley says. “It’s a critical piece to be a truly educated, well-rounded person.”
In recent years, Long has rolled out a few new programs that aim to keep middle schools students engaged but don’t necessarily place them on a specific career track. For starters, the global-thinking and –learning IB program already is in full force.
“Unlike Woodrow, that is not a matter of choice. The entire school is IB across the board, 100 percent,” Murchison says.
Pre-advanced placement (AP) courses also are now offered, teaching Long students skills such as “how do you really research something, stick to it, and write a five- or 10-page essay,” Fraley says.
These programs prepare students for Woodrow’s IB and AP courses, and a new Long “advancement via individual determination” (AVID) program targets students “who are very smart but may be first generation college-goers,” Fraley says. “We know they can handle the coursework, so this is setting the stage for what needs to happen when they go to Woodrow.”
“Full-inclusion” classrooms also have been introduced at Long, which takes into account that students from Stonewall, which houses the Regional Day School for the Deaf, enter Long as sixth-graders.
“My background is special education, so it’s always been a concern for me,” Fraley says. “We haven’t historically done the best job for our kids with special needs.”
Instead of a “pull you out and treat you differently” approach, Fraley says special needs students are part of traditional classrooms that have additional instructors assigned to offer “real-time, on-the-spot intervention” as students run into problems. These instructors assist not just students with special needs but all students in the classroom.
“Our special education students in some cases are out-performing kids who don’t have disabilities, so we know it works,” Fraley says of the approach.
In addition, “we are very blessed to have a lot of second language learners in our feeder pattern,” Fraley says, so next year Long will become the only dual-language middle school in the district. Using this method, students will rotate through core courses in Spanish each year as well as take a Spanish language course.
In the past few years, test results have shown these students to be significantly lagging behind all other student groups in the state, district and even at Long, Fraley says, and dual language is the only kind of bilingual instruction “that promises to fully close the achievement gap.”
A future with more choices
School choice has been a hot topic of discussion within DISD, says trustee Mike Morath, who represents most of the Woodrow feeder pattern.
“It just so happens that the Woodrow feeder pattern is just well ahead of the rest of the district in these kinds of choice plans,” he says.
Morath points to other school districts that have successfully implemented open enrollment to families’ school of choice, including Garland and Grand Prairie.
“You have to test into Dallas ISD [magnet] schools, whereas in Grand Prairie, all you have to do is say you want to go there, and they’ll take you,” Morath says.
Specialized curriculum offerings at neighborhood schools “could be a way to help improve student achievement, which is the name of the game,” he says, referencing research indicating higher levels of teacher retention and student achievement in schools that have gone through “a purposeful redesign process.” Plus, giving families choices means they are “not forced to do something just because of their zip code.”
This is especially problematic for poorer families, Morath says.
“Middle- and upper-income families can choose to move or to go to private schools, but lower-income families don’t necessarily have the same choices,” he says.
Likewise, giving parents choices would make our schools more integrated because our neighborhoods are so racially and economically segregated, Morath says.
Historical perceptions of our neighborhood’s schools have been “sometimes deserved and sometimes not,” Murchison says, “and, of course, perception is reality.” He believes, though, that both perceptions and realities have improved tremendously in the last few years.
Long, as just one example, is a “completely, 100 percent different place from first day I walked in there 10 years ago,” Murchison says.
Fraley says that if you stack schools in the Woodrow feeder pattern up to charter or private schools, they are “just as good, if not better.” Having said that, she believes people want options, and considering our neighborhood’s active community members and parent involvement in schools, “it’s prime time for this.”
“If we are meeting the community’s needs, we become competitive,” Fraley says. “I would love for everybody who lives in the Woodrow Wilson feeder pattern, their first choice is one of these schools.”
How to enroll your elementary student in Mata Montessori
Forms are now available for parents interested in their children attending Mata for the 2014-2015 school year. Pick one up at the school, on 7420 La Vista at East Grand, or from any Woodrow feeder pattern elementary: Lakewood, Mount Auburn, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall and William Lipscomb.
First priority will be given to students who live within Mount Auburn Elementary and Mata’s shared boundaries, and then it opens up to students from any of the other Woodrow feeder elementaries. Any remaining spots would open to all Dallas ISD students.
Enrollment does not require an interview process. The school would have 64 spots for each grade, and if more families than that express interest, they would be put into a lottery.
Fraley notes that this first year would give families the best chance to enter the school since kindergarten through second-grades are wide open, and even preschool spots for 3- and 4-year-olds could be available, if openings are left after DISD serves its state-mandated pre-kindergarten students throughout the district. Upper elementary grades would be added as these students advance through the school.
Parents who live within Mount Auburn’s boundaries need to submit forms by April 30; parents in the overall Woodrow feeder pattern have until May 15. The deadline for DISD parents outside of Woodrow’s boundaries is June 1.
For more information contact DISD’s office of family and community engagement at 972.925.3916 or email@example.com.
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