Why can’t Lakewood Elementary hold onto a leader?

Lakewood Elementary. (Photo by Rasy Ran)
Lakewood Elementary. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Principal matters

On July 13, smack dab in the middle of summer break, a collective “ding” dragged Lakewood Elementary parents from their respective reveries. A text sent out at 7:06 p.m. alerted them that something about their school had gone terribly awry.

“Dear Lakewood,” read the group text. “It is with a heavy heart that I need to inform you that I have decided to leave LES. Thank you for everything! Jason Myatt.”

And just like that, Lakewood Elementary was dumped by its principal. Again. The text marked the fifth break-up in four years.

That same evening, Lakewood parents spotted Myatt at Mi Cocina, his heart so heavy only a Mambo Taxi could heal it, some speculated. Or perhaps the liquid courage led to the text, they conjectured.

Myatt and his family live in the neighborhood. They moved from Lakewood Hills to Lakewood Proper, closer to the campus, during his stint at the school. In June 2016, right after he took the helm, he told the Advocate he hoped to retire from the elementary school.

What could be so terrible as to drive a principal who has real estate skin in the game, whose not-yet-school-age children are zoned to Lakewood Elementary, to exit after only a year?

It’s not you — it’s Dallas ISD, Myatt told parents in the inner circle following his departure. Still, after so many consecutive break-ups with unsatisfying explanations, Lakewood parents had to wonder:

Is it us?

This is a question that more and more communities may be asking, as Dallas ISD continues to see more middle- and upper-class families in East Dallas send their children to district schools. In our neighborhood, that means involved, educated parents with high expectations making demands of a principal mired in a massive district bureaucracy.

In an environment where charter and private schools provide stiff competition, the struggles of Lakewood Elementary are a microcosm of a growing conflict in Dallas ISD.

Of Lakewood Elementary’s last five principals over the last five and half school years, none lasted more than two school years. The chasm between the demographics of the school and that of the district is part of the problem, community members say.

Lakewood Elementary is a wealthy anomaly in a district where an overwhelming majority of students are poor. The Texas Education Agency classifies 88 percent of Dallas ISD students as “economically disadvantaged.” The reverse ratio exists at Lakewood Elementary, where only 7 percent of students are considered to have low socioeconomic status.

The dichotomy between the average Lakewood student and family and that of the district presents a challenge, says Lakewood father Chris Prestridge.

“It takes a special person to come off the streets and handle the pressure of the district and the high expectations of the parents who are involved,” he says. “It is all very demanding to get their hands around all those responsibilities, though if properly harnessed, you have some nice things at your disposal.”

Lakewood Elementary has all of the factors that the school district says it wants: a neighborhood school with overwhelming community support, great test scores, experienced teachers. So why can’t it hold on to a principal?

Stephanie Elizalde, who oversees all Dallas ISD campuses as the district’s chief of school leadership, admires the “energy and involvement that you have in that community. Everyone wants to own the school’s success.” A school with such strong parental involvement can be a blessing.

“When schools sit in a community that will do anything and everything, the sky is the limit,” says longtime Lakewood parent Amy Cuccia.

Conversely, this kind of community comes with unique challenges. Former Lakewood PTA president Stacy Stabenow describes past principals who could not handle the expectations of the community. Some told every group what they wanted to hear; others butted heads with parents constantly. Stabenow admits that she herself is guilty of being a “hyper-involved parent.”

The question may be whether the district can attract candidates that have the skillset to do the job well.

“One of the district’s goals is to attract the middle class back to its schools,” says Paula Blackmon, a neighborhood resident and the former director of intergovernmental affairs and community relations at Dallas ISD. But, Blackmon says, “the district is not equipped to deliver a quality product. There is no ‘farm league’ of leadership waiting in the wings.”

“We demand a lot,” Stabenow says. “Sometimes we can overdo it.”

Prestridge, who helps run the Friends of Lakewood group for dads, was in touch with Principal Jason Myatt from the start of his tenure in 2016. Myatt seemed to be a good fit, coming from a school in Plano with substantial parental involvement. Yet, “he told me that he had never experienced anything like what he walked into at Lakewood,” Prestridge says. “It took its toll.”

During the single school year Myatt was principal, he reined in the parental freedoms that parents had come to expect, says Lakewood parent Brandi Lewis. He put an end to parents congregating on the playground during recess and worked to control who was on school property, including how often parents could eat lunch with their children. He asked parents to not walk their students all the way to their classrooms. Lewis says she liked Myatt, but these changes didn’t sit well with some parents.

In the end, Prestridge feels like Myatt gained the trust of the staff and the parents, but that conflicts with DISD red tape spelled the end of his time at the school. 

The data supports Myatt’s positive impact on the staff, as significant improvements are evident in Lakewood Elementary’s most recent staff survey. Dallas ISD issues this survey near the beginning and end of the school year to all of its teachers, giving them a chance to evaluate their school and district’s administration. In the categories of “beliefs and priorities,” “feedback and support,” and “culture and environment,” Lakewood teachers began the 2016 school year ranking their campus well below the district average but finished the year giving it above average marks.

“[Myatt] told me that the bigger issue was navigating DISD in regards to regulations and red tape and getting things done,” Prestridge says. Myatt, who now works as an assistant principal in Richardson ISD, did not respond to interview requests.

Cuccia, who led a committee that advised Myatt, saw these frustrations firsthand as DISD proclamations came down from on high. “Blanket statements about lesson planning across the entire feeder pattern doesn’t serve the needs of individual schools and classrooms,” she says.

Even if a principal manages to satisfy both the district and the parents, this can mean alienating the staff, says a former Lakewood Elementary teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.

“The faculty wants the principal to have the teachers’ back rather than the parents’,” the teacher says. She describes a situation where a parent brought an issue to a former principal, who made a decision without consulting the teacher.

Several Lakewood teachers have worked at the school for decades, and new principals can find it difficult to gain the trust of this entrenched staff, she says. Lakewood Elementary teachers have been on the job for an average of 15-plus years, while the district average is less than 10, according to DISD.

Experienced teachers can be a great boon for a campus, but it’s not a given; Lewis says that while she loves some teachers, others are too set in their ways to deal with positive changes.

The juggling act between the community, the teachers and the district makes all principal jobs challenging, but Cuccia thinks the district doesn’t tell candidates what at an anomaly Lakewood is. She says the district’s mindset that the school will always perform well because of parental support has hurt advancement of the school.

Lakewood Elementary. (Photo by Rasy Ran)
Lakewood Elementary. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Elizalde admits that the district has not done a good job in matching the needs of Lakewood with the skillsets of leaders, while acknowledging the difficulty of finding a leader both adept at and comfortable with nuance.

“There is no, ‘this is right, this is wrong,’ ” she says. “You have to have judgment in leadership, knowing when do you negotiate, when do you compromise and when you hold fast.”

The opinions of East Dallas parent leaders and former teachers coalesced around a few names who seem to fit the mold of the right principal for a school in a massive urban district but with a community of support that might look more like what one might find in the suburbs: Kyle Richardson, who was principal at Woodrow for five years; Michelle Thompson, who was at Lakewood Elementary for seven years; and Bert Hart, the current principal at Lee Elementary.

Prestridge says the Lakewood community had unanimous support for Hart when he was the school’s assistant and interim principal before taking the Lee position. A seasoned DISD veteran, Hart also spent several years at Stonewall Jackson Elementary. He knew the district and the community well, but the district went in a different direction. 

Stabenow remembers both Thompson and Richardson as strong leaders who weren’t afraid to make a decision but also let parent groups have their say. Cuccia emphasizes the need for an elementary principal to be steeped in elementary curriculum and child development with the ability to articulate it and model it for staff. A principal should be polished, she believes, but should also be a listener who can both earn and give respect, and who hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid.

Despite the recent turnover, community leaders are optimistic about the future of their neighborhood school, especially now that Katie Wilke has been named principal.

Wilke, who was Lakewood’s assistant principal under Myatt and became interim after his departure, is continuing Myatt’s policies regarding parents on property. In an email reminder to parents at the beginning of the year, Wilke reminded parents to “refrain from bringing family pets on campus” and to use the “hug zone” in the foyer to say goodbye before students walk themselves to class. Lakewood parents don’t seem to be holding this against her, however.

Elizalde, too, is bullish on Wilke making the grade at Lakewood.

“We absolutely need someone who is a true listener,” she says of Lakewood and campuses like it with highly engaged parents. “It can’t even be a skill that you’ve acquired; it has to be who you actually are. For me, personally, that is something I’ve had to work on. I would not be a good fit at Lakewood. On a high-stress day, I would revert back to my natural style.”

But with Wilke, Elizalde says, “It is her natural style to be a listener. She’s truly working to understand, to be a collaborative problem solver.”

Collaboration is “very, very taxing on time, but in the end you end up with far more support. It’s easier to say, ‘I’m not going to tell you the why, but here’s what we’re going to do.’ ”

That was Dallas ISD’s default stance for decades, but now, “we’re in a much more competitive environment,” she says. Parents and teachers know the difference between collaboration and buy-in, she adds, and see through efforts to make people feel they have input even when a decision has already been made. Hiring leaders who work with the community rather than hand down edicts is “what we now know serves our students or our campus community or our staff, best,” Elizalde says.

Taking time to make sure this was Wilke’s modus operandus is the reason she remained an interim and wasn’t immediately promoted to the principal position after Myatt left in July.

“I couldn’t make another mistake,” Elizalde says. But now, she says, “I’m feeling more confident in the selection of our principal than I have in years.”

Lakewood Elementary Principal Timeline

Michelle Thompson, 2005 – 2012

46% – 13% low socio – economic students

Kaye Simmons, 2012 – 2014

16% – 13% low socio – economic students

Toni Goodman, 2014 – 2016

10% – 10% low socio – economic students

Jason Myatt, 2016 – 2017

10% low socio – economic students

Katie Wilke, 2017 –

7% low socio – economic students

Additional reporting by Keri Mitchell

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