The Woodrow Way: A new principal is finding his stride at this East Dallas high

Steve Ewing (Photo by Rasy Ran)
Steve Ewing (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Steve Ewing took a big leap last summer from Plano ISD to Dallas ISD, from leading a middle school to helming a high school. And not just any high school — East Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High School consistently is regarded as Dallas’ best comprehensive high school (read: non-specialized, non-magnet), and among the best in the state. That didn’t scare Ewing, however. It fueled him.

So how is Dallas different than Plano?
The largest difference I have found is the sheer size. Plano has 56,000 students and Dallas is much, much larger than that [roughly 160,000 students]. When I was in Plano, I knew who to call for everything. I’m still learning my phone tree. But I’m learning the reception and customer service is the same, it’s just a lot larger pond to cross.

You have a placard in the front office promising great customer service. What does that mean for a school, and why is that important to you?
I think it’s critical to provide that component in a very healthy and stable environment, and I think that should be one of the things, when people leave our building, they feel satisfied in what they came for. It’s one of my core values. When you go to Disney World, you’ve spent so much money and time and planning and preparation and have this vision of what excellence should look like, and you get there and the customer service is the first thing you’ll notice is wrong with your vacation. I want to make sure we’re doing that on an educational platform, academically, but also operationally.

Woodrow alumni have drunk the Kool-Aid, so to speak. What is it like having such a powerful force involved in the school?
Every single day I have a unique adventure here at Woodrow. One of my most unique experiences this year was the homecoming parade. I had not experienced a homecoming parade since I was a child. We shut down Dallas for half a day for our parade, and to see the kids and the excitement and everyone unified … as we moved into the football game, the stands were full and the spirit was remarkable.

Plano is an amazing school district, and as I left Armstrong Middle School to take on this job, my daughter was coming into sixth-grade at my school, so it was a big Ewing family discussion at the house. When I got here, I was amazed at the community support and investment in the school, and that made me feel like I had made the best decision ever.

I don’t know of a high school where the alumni association has such an incredible impact on current success and future aspirations. It’s almost like a university. I think that’s very unique, and I think that’s what’s going to keep moving this school forward and ahead of the rest, to be honest with you.

Speaking of universities, Woodrow still has academies, or career paths, which are vestiges of Supt. Michael Hinojosa’s first tenure. They didn’t make it to the present day in most DISD high schools.
The academies are working. They’re producing. Students are being successful. We want to continue to improve, always, on everything we’re doing. When we look at school improvement, we want to look at areas of growth. We need to focus in on gen-ed [general education] classes, students who are not attending school. There are areas of improvement but the academies overall are successful.

Regardless of what academy [students] choose, we can also provide clear paths for their futures and their success, and sometimes that takes individual plans for kids that don’t fit the academy mold.

What are the academies?
IB [International Baccalaureate], which is really popular; STEM [science, technology, engineering and math], they were robotics champions and that program is really exploding; CAPA, our fine arts program, which is one of the best in the world; and the business academy, with different opportunities to learn about the world of business and finance, which I would have died to learn when I was growing up. I didn’t even know how to balance a checkbook. These kids are learning to run companies.

Hinojosa’s latest pet project is collegiate academies, which are springing up in high schools across Dallas ISD. Will one be added at Woodrow?
It’s something we’re working on to make sure we have community support, and visiting with our staff to make sure everyone is informed. We know they’re successful in other schools. I’m interested to see the data that will show whether this is the right path for our school. What we don’t want to do is to deny an opportunity that is beneficial to students. We [also] don’t want to ever just jump into anything. We want to make sure we’re collectively making the best decision for our school, and there are a lot of people invested in this school.

What’s next for Woodrow?
Our bond construction will start in January. We’ll have a new competition gym that will be very impressive, and it will be very exciting be able to host a lot of events. We’re going to gain classrooms, science labs and an engineering room as well, plus a new band hall, which is very exciting because our band is truly growing exponentially. It’s happening because Mr. [Chris] Evetts is a first-class band director. Growth in a program like band doesn’t happen if you don’t have an outstanding leader.

Has your first year gone as you expected?
I was really hopeful for an amazing opportunity — and it really had to be an amazing opportunity. At Armstrong Middle School, where I came from last year, we had seven state distinctions [the maximum possible; Woodrow did as well]. We really took a school in six years from one place to a whole other level. The staff was happy, the students were happy, the community was happy, the principal was happy, so for me to even consider a move, it had to be something extraordinary.

I knew about Woodrow, I knew about the culture, I knew about the desire for excellence and the legacy that, certainly, many have left here. I knew it was a high-performing high school. To say I’m principal at Woodrow Wilson High School is something I’m very proud of. As a professional, you want to be able to say you have been in a place that is at the top of other high schools in the state of Texas. For me this is an amazing job, it’s an amazing opportunity. At the end of the day, it’s about helping people be successful. I’m a servant leader by nature, definitely not a dictator. I’m about working collaboratively and making us all successful. It had to be that because I wouldn’t have left if it wasn’t perfect.

So Woodrow is perfect?
It has been for me. It’s about understanding the expectations from your community, your students, understanding the diversity at the school, knowing your kids, your parents, understanding the philosophy of Dallas ISD, knowing that Woodrow parents are very invested in the school and you should be just as invested as all your stakeholders. I knew the expectations were very high. I actually thrive in that. I love the challenges that come with being a principal in general, but in a high-performing school, a community with high expectations, I love that.

I love the feel of the one-horse town. This is our town, our school. If Dallas wasn’t right there, I wouldn’t even know we were in the middle of the city. Everyone buys into the “Woodrow Way.”


Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.
Written By
More from Keri Mitchell

Photo: Yup, it’s windy out there

Carla Becker of Forest Hills sent us this photo of a tree...
Read More