“We are going to change the performance of our school district. That is one important thing to say, and the other is that it is important to this City that we know what the facts are and all the facts. You tell the whole story about education. Tell what doesn’t work. Tell what does, because edcuation is too important to the inner-city to let it die and to perceive it’s dying, when it may not be and with a little extra push and effort, it may be very effective.” – DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery
Almost without a second thought, several institutions are routinely criticized.
The post office always delivers late.
DART doesn’t deliver at all.
Congress delivers only the pork.
And DISD simply isn’t any good.
The Advocate recently gave DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery an opportunity to respond to such criticism and much more.
In the tradition of last year’s Advocate Interview with Mayor Steve Bartlett, we pulled out our tape recorders and talked for an hour with Woolery about the state of our schools, his plans for DISD and his experience with the district.
Most of our information about DISD and Woolery comes from reading the typically short stories published in area newspapers and watching 30-second reports on TV news.
Needless to say, these brief encounters offer only a glimpse of what is happening.
We’ve transcribed our discussion, virtually verbatim, to give you an opportunity to meet the man who educates our children and oversees our schools.
Here are some excerpts of what you’ll find inside:
- “Yes, there is a plan to greatly improve our schools. The accountability measures that were put into place two years ago, the commission on educational excellence, and the reforms that we are putting into place are really beginning to pay off. Schools are being held accountable for moving forward.”
- “We have metal detectors, curriculum, counseling, support, surveillance – whatever it is we need – extra police officers to make sure our kids are safe. But that ends at 4 p.m.”
- “Kids are fundamentally not different. If they are given enriched opportunities, they respond, like all other kids of all other colors.”
We can learn plenty from and about our superintendent and schools in this candid discussion. So turn to Section C, and see what Chad Woolery has to say, in his own words.
DISD Superintendent Chad Woolery recently sat down with Advocate Contributing Editor Jeff Siegel and Editor Becky Bull to discuss the state of our neighborhood schools and his plans for DISD.
Woolery has been working in DISD for 27 years, starting off as a classroom teacher and moving his way up through the ranks. He was hired as superintendent less than a year ago and has the difficult task of restoring public faith to an institution that many have given up on.
The discussion format was simple: We turned on a tape recorder and began asking questions. Woolery was allowed to respond without interruption to the questions with the understanding that his entire answer would be published. The hour-long tape was transcribed and is printed virtually verbatim, with minimal changes to both the questions and answers to clarify thoughts.
Perception Verses Reality
Advocate: The job of DISD superintendent would seem to be similar to being the police chief of a big city. A lot of headache, a lot of aggravation. Why would anyone want to do it?
Woolery: Well, I think you want to do it because of the sense you get from doing it. I don’t see it as an aggravation. It hasn’t been an aggravation. I think it is an important role, and I think it is really a view you have that education is really important to the life of a community and to the life of a student, for that matter. And you do it because you try to make that a little bit better. It is an active, busy job.
Advocate: One problem is that you’re a lot like an elected official except that you don’t have to run for re-election…
Woolery: Except from the school board.
Advocate: People routinely criticize the DISD, almost to the point of being a matter of habit with or without actual basis in fact. How do you respond?
Woolery: First thing, I think you have to do an awful lot to offset that – to tell the whole story. I think it is really important that we do that. Probably the press and media probably have an agenda out there to make that pretty good press because it sells. You have to do a lot to say what the total story is and what the successes are, and then you’ve got to improve where the school district is weak.
We have to accept criticism where it is and come up with some kind of plan to correct it. But we also have to understand the role of urban education does not have the same kind of playing field as a suburban school district, and I believe that sometimes we are comparing large urban districts as if they are small suburban districts, and the comparison is unfair. They do not have the same taxes in every case.
Advocate: What isn’t fair about comparing urban and suburban schools?
Woolery: What isn’t fair is that basically there are a lot of factors that influence a child’s ability to be successful in school. Many of those factors, if not all of them, are generally out of the control of the child. What the American education has done, and where they get criticized the most, is the fact that they have opened that opportunity up for all kids.
In urban centers, we see that responsibility. In our school district, we have kids who speak 72 different languages. We have kids in our schools who are, for the first time, citizens in the United States or are going to become citizens who have never been entitled to free education at all in their home country. They are not literate in any language. But they have an opportunity the way the American education is set up to have a chance, to have an opportunity.
We are not like suburban districts in that regard. That isn’t their task. So we have basically a lot to do to compensate for the fact that our kids come in all kinds of needs, come with all kinds of abilities and range of abilities. I guess it gets down to fundamentally what you think about American schools. It does bother me when people talk about American inner-city schools failing when it is inner-city schools that gave many of the very same people’s parents their first opportunity to have education in this country which they would not have had if it weren’t for public education.
Advocate: That’s an interesting comment, because we are working on a story for our August issue about why people choose public schools. Just the other day, we asked another DISD administrator: Are DISD students receiving a good education? He said that some of the students may not perform well on TAAS tests, but all of them are being fed, and they are all being clothed, and they are all being taken care of. It seems that the role of the educator has changed to that of a social-service provider.
Woolery: No I wouldn’t buy that. I think we have to be a social-service provider in some cases in order to give a child a more effective chance of being educated. My goal wouldn’t be that same definition. I want to tell you because I can tell by that comment that you may not know.
It is important for all of our kids to pass the TAAS test. It is also important to know what just happened here is basically uncommunicated. Seniors in DISD exceed the state average for graduation in TAAS. That is the suburban schools included. A lot happened here, and there is no reason why it can’t happen in an urban setting. And the kids need to hold to that mastery level. And our purpose is not to just socialize them. It is to make them effective.
But that takes a different approach, and it takes more effort, more hours, more frustration, and it is more difficult to do. So we spend a lot of our time trying to create social support and services for kids that get in their way of being effective students, and we take on the parents role a lot.
But the issue is that if you don’t, there won’t be any education in this country, including suburban schools. Cities can’t collapse and urban schools stay unconnected to that. It will happen.
So our problems will become Richardson problems, become Plano problems. If you want to run and hide and think that it isn’t going to happen; what needs to happen is we need to address the issue of education in our country and make sure that all schools are effective, fix the broken ones and not run and hide from the problems.
It isn’t our function to feed people. Feeding is important in the process to make sure the child is ready to learn. But our function is to educate them. Make them productive at everyone’s same standard. We have some people who believe that it can be done, and others that don’t. It is hard to do it, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
Advocate: If I’m a parent making the decision about whether to send my child to public or private school, and if I talk to my neighbors, many of them will probably say: My God, you can’t send your kid to public schools. Why do people say things like that?
Woolery: There are all kinds of reasons. Some may be out of fear for the fact that they are integrated into situations that they are not familiar with. Some out of just rumor and reputation. Some say that they have never been in a public school and feel that it is the thing to do to send their child to someplace else.
I think what I would say to you is just have an open mind. Go see, first. See what is there. See what the product is in those schools. What are they turning out? Are they all deficient, illiterate or are there achievers there, too?
One of the things that we did was send out a story to all the citizens in the City of Dallas. One of the things in that story is that we showed them where the graduates in public schools in inner-city neighborhoods went. And you find out that they are at Harvard in great numbers and Stanford and Yale. That happens in a public school, also.
We just have to say to parents to check it out for yourself. See what is best for your child. Understand, I have no objection to a private school educating a kid well. I don’t think that there are any losers when a child is well educated. I do believe that can and does happen in public schools. You don’t have to go to a private school to see that happen. And there are some private schools that short-change people as well.
Advocate: How do you think the DISD received the negative reputation that it seems to have? You can pick up the Morning News and…
Woolery: It seems like there are some positive stories that go unheralded. And the negative is highly emphasized. We can have a student get shot in one of our schools, like happened last year, and we will be reading about it for two months. There were three kids killed in the Richardson schools last year, we rarely saw that. I can’t answer that question, but that is what happens.
Advocate: What you’re saying is that DISD is not as bad as many people think?
Woolery: Here is what I would like to tell you about the Dallas schools. We have many very positive points that the general community doesn’t know a whole lot about. They haven’t listened to or we haven’t communicated as well as we need to.
What we need to say about our schools is what the whole story is. We need to call a problem a problem, and we ought to make sure we have a remedy out there to fix it and we ought to call a success a success and have the same opportunity to talk and call it a success and not put it on the back page.
The problems make the front page all the time. That happens to us all the time. We have had board members that have pointed that out to the editor. So when the great things happen, they are on the 14th page in a small column, and let some negative thing happen, and it’s on the front page for weeks.
I can’t answer that question.
What’s Goin’ On At Woodrow
Advocate: I understand what you’re saying. The shooting was at Woodrow. Yet Woodrow is one example of an integrated urban high school that works.
Woolery: Yeah, and it’s probably fifth out of 20 high schools. It isn’t among the highest. That means that there are others that are working just as well, and no one seems to understand that. I don’t know all the answers to that.
Advocate: Let’s talk about Woodrow. There’s a new principal who seems to be doing a very good job. Why did you change principals, what did Dr. Torres need to do this year?
Woolery: We changed principals at Woodrow basically because we didn’t think the school was moving quickly enough. Its potential was a mess. Its background was a mess. Its reputation was destroyed. The school didn’t seem to be taking off under the leadership of the former principal. It needed to challenge kids more rigorously and live up to the fact that the feeder plan was very strongly coming into the school and that the kids needed to continue to grow and be more challenged and have more opportunity.
We thought Dr. Torres can do those things and can bring a multi-cultural group together a little bit stronger than the previous principal, and we wanted to see that. We think Dr. Torres has done exactly that. He has certainly been well-received. He has brought some strength to the school, and we expect Woodrow to continue to improve.
Advocate: He seems to have made connections with parents at Woodrow.
Woolery: He does. He has that reputation as being a very hard-working person. Very dedicated to what he does. He spends hours and hours at doing exactly what is going to improve student performance, and I think he is very focused on student performance, student improvement and what it takes. He will address teaching that is less than satisfactory.
Just because a person has been at a school a long time doesn’t mean that they are teaching to their ability, and he addresses that issue. So I have been very impressed with him. I think he is going to do a great job there.
J.L. Long’s Reputation
Advocate: Obviously, parental involvement is important. How important is it?
Woolery: It is not the most important thing, but it is absolutely a very critical factor. We have examples, including in this City, of schools that do well without much parental involvement. What is more important than parental involvement is a principal’s leadership of a school and how directed you can get the school staff at really causing something to happen.
When you have a strong principal, and they lead that way, we have examples of schools with very little parent involvement that are on the top of the list. But I want to tell you that parental involvement is a very strong plus for a school. If a school has that, their likelihood of being high-achieving is very strong.
It is a very important factor, but I was just saying to you that a school can be a great school without it. It’s rare. But when they do, you have an outstanding principal who is seeing that it happens.
Advocate: J.L. Long Middle School is one school that seems to have one of the worst reputations. Can you talk a little bit about that. Is that fair, is it deserved?
Woolery: That is middle school. Middle schools across the country have poor performance records, bad reputations. It is a very awkward age.
One of the initiatives that we have is to completely revamp our DISD middle schools. That plan was passed. Long was one of the schools that applied. What we have in the middle schools generally is pre-adolescents who are neither elementary students or high school. They are temporarily insane. A lot of people describe them as hormones with feet and all that. And for a period of about three years, it is a very strange period.
The instruction program has to change in middle school, and everyone knows that, but we just don’t get around to doing that. You cannot treat a child like he is in elementary or high school. There are a lot of features about middle school that need to be different and unique for pre-adolescence. Our middle school project talks about that.
We know we have to line ourselves up with what the national research says and what common sense says about middle schools, and we think we’ll get the performance up.
A long answer to your question is all middle schools concern us because you’re going to find that it is the lowest-performing group of students in Dallas, in Texas, in the United States. That is a struggling area, and so you have to have different approaches and a willingness to treat them differently.
I think we are beginning to wake up to that fact that it can’t be just like it has been. We have many junior highs that we call middle schools. They are neither junior highs nor are they middle schools. And they are a very traditional approach to students, and it is a high school approach watered down, and that won’t work.
It hasn’t worked, and we are going to be one of those communities that says let’s do what it takes to make middle schools more effective. And it gives high schools a better chance when that happens.
Advocate: What you are talking about, please correct me if I’m wrong, is that Long’s perception problem is the same as that at all middle schools. It’s not so much a discipline problem as it is just a middle school problem?
Woolery: Middle school kids will not, in any school, go down the hallway without pushing someone, tackling someone, running, playing, talking loud. If you let middle school kids go by themselves without addressing those issues, it will happen at the most elite private schools, at a middle school in the public sector as well.
There are issues related to middle schools that you should really be prepared to do. Parents are always concerned with transition times. A parent is concerned when that kid leaves the third grade and goes to the fourth grade, when the child leaves the sixth grade and goes up to the middle school. They are all convinced their child is going to be eaten alive.
When they go to high school in the ninth grade, they are scared to death that they are going to be jumped on by the big kids, so those are natural transitions, but the fact is that those don’t happen at all. I understand that. There is a fear of changing grade levels and going into a new program, and there is a fear at middle school when you leave elementary.
A lot of our elementary schools are self-contained. They have had the same teacher, who knows you inside and out, makes every decision for you, has you under her wing all day long, and you go into a bigger school, changing periods every 50 minutes, and you feel like you are a lost pilgrim out there during that first year. That is a big transition for kids to make.
Elementary Schools That Work
Advocate: Which of the elementary schools in our neighborhood do you consider to be working?
Woolery: I think we have one of the best in the United States in East Dallas. Have you been to Stonewall Jackson? It was voted as one of the best in the nation. That is an ideal school. Has a tremendous performance base there, very creative place. Supported by parents, a very diverse population, including a special deaf population. That is an exceptional school. Very high performance on the TAAS.
As a matter of fact, I think they had 100 percent passing in the third grade. It is a school that works. It’s identified as one of the best in the United States by the Redbook Magazine. It is a mentor school from the Commissioner of Education here. They send other principals to see how they do it. In my view, the superstar in that cluster is Stonewall Jackson.
Advocate: Why does Stonewall work so well?
Woolery: Principals. Both principals. The one that is there now and the teaching staff is so together and strong, and they look for ways to make the school an exceptional experience for the whole student, not just for the academic development but for the whole student. They have after-school programs. The fact that all kids learn sign language and sign.
They just look for opportunities. The themes that they develop, they studied the rain forest this year. They turned the school into a rain forest. Those are exceptional opportunities. It means people working awful hard, but it certainly has captivated the students at the school.
Advocate: What do you do to transfer that attitude from one school to another?
Woolery: We have to teach our principals and select our principals based upon that kind of leadership. We need to take the Olivia Hendersons (Stonewall’s principal) and have them teach some of our new principals on how you get to make a turnaround in our schools.
We started that with what we called our Principal Institute this year. We take our superstars, and they teach the other principals. Then we have through Exxon and others, helping to fund.
Across the country, there are other Olivia Hendersons that have made turn-around stories. We ask them to come to DISD. Talk to our principals about how they did that in their campus. What did they do? What steps did they take? How did they get success from urban settings in areas you wouldn’t expect it. It is an exposure, and it’s training. I think the absolute key ingredient is having the right principals is where that starts.
Advocate: Which are the elementary schools that you think need some work?
Woolery: We have a number of them. We demoted 19 principals last year. I think when that happens, you will know that is where they are.
Advocate: You mentioned something I have never heard anyone in education talk about – the role of the principal. You hear about money, parents and all sorts of excuses.
Woolery: There is all kinds of research that shows that. You may not have run acrosss that, but there is no example of a great school with a weak principal. There is just no example. It doesn’t happen.
Good schools are good because of principals. They are good in affluent areas. They are good in the poverty areas. It is a principal who sets the tone. What principals can do is hold the expectation there, and then assemble a staff that he or she is willing to deal with.
Those that are not supporting real, true education and not knowing their jobs, good principals deal with them. The next thing is you turn around and have enriching experiences that captivate the kids’ imagination about learning. Learning becomes fun and interesting. A student cannot wait to get back up there the next day. That is what the good principals do.
Some of that you can train for, and some of that you have to really recruit for. If it is not in you, I’m not so sure you can ever make a person that doesn’t have that interest into a real strong principal. So you have to be very careful about who you pick. Do they have an interest in doing that? That is a key ingredient.
The Comeback District
Advocate: DISD’s enrollment seems to be going back up now after declining, especially after desegregation. I know in our neighborhood, there has been an on-going problem about a relief school to be built up the street here.
Woolery: There will be three relief schools.
Advocate: Do you see enrollment becoming such a problem that over-crowding will become a problem throughout the district?
Woolery: We have a serious over-crowding problem. The bond issue that we passed last fall will address the worst, but only half of the over-crowding. Our enrollment has been increasing in this City by at least 3,000 students a year for the last four years. Next year’s growth is 3,100, and it will continue to be a problem.
The relief schools that we are building will be a great help, but they will not solve the problem. We simply cannot sell to our community more than we were able to sell this time. A $275 million bond issue is huge. It’s immense. It is the largest in our history. It passed by the largest margin, by the way, in a down economy, which is very interesting of all the bond issues we’ve had.
We are a school district that has never lost a bond issue. This is rare. It passed at a higher rate than any of those we’ve ever had. But we are getting to a saturation point, too. We are getting to where we have to back up one bond project to another. Finish one and start another in order to keep pace with what we have out there. We think it is going to be very helpful.
There are going to be some beautiful, tremendous schools that will help relieve over-crowding, but it will not solve the problem. We can continue to expect the need for portables, the need for kids that keep coming into the City, and we have to predict where they are going to show up and be ready for that growth.
Advocate: Why is DISD growing?
Woolery: There are several reasons. I think there is more than one. It’s still perceived to be an “in-economy.” Dallas’ job market, even though it’s not wonderful, is certainly better than a lot of other regions. We looked at the last census stuff, and Texas is still one of the “in-migration” states. California, Florida and Texas have population shifts moving to us big-time from the East Coast and other sections. It’s a relocation center, too, for foreign folks and for refugees.
Dallas is a relocation area, as a matter of fact. We have a lot of immigration of foreign people. We are up to 72 languages here. And so that is part of it.
We have a lot returning from previous desegregation – white flight. All of the North Dallas schools that were closed during the white flight are open this next year, and they all have portables on them. There are anglos coming back. So that is a positive story that you’ll never read about in the paper.
Advocate: Does DISD have a plan to attract those who participated in white flight back to our public schools?
Woolery: It’s just not the white flight people back. Let me put it in a little different terms.
Yes, there is a plan to greatly improve our schools. The accountability measures that were put into place two years ago, the commission on educational excellence, and the reforms that we are putting into place are really beginning to pay off. Schools are being held accountable for moving forward.
There has been an immense forward motion in our school district in the last two years in test scores, all the rest. That is one of those things that is a good indicator to parents. It’s the first time in our history, even the “good ‘ol days,” that first and second graders are at national norms. That has never happened to us, and it’s certainly the only urban school district where that happens.
So we have parents out there that begin to give us a chance and to see what is really happening, and they are pleased with the experiences they are getting, on how their schools are operating. They know what spending $6,000 to $8,000 a year does, and if that opportunity isn’t equal to what you can get in your own neighborhood –
They are giving us a chance, so we are seeing a lot of people come back and are pleased with that. When they come back, they tell their friends, and then they come back. We are pleased with that.
It’s all about quality. Quality is what brings people back to schools. They don’t come back to be mistreated, and they wouldn’t be coming back in large numbers if that was happening.
Advocate: What kind of large numbers are we talking about?
Woolery: We had to open up schools. And all of those schools have portables, which means they are larger than they were when we closed them. They were designed for one population, and some of them have tripled that now.
Advocate: These are the North Dallas schools?
Woolery: Yes. We have portables on every campus you can imagine, including Lakewood. Every day, we are building them every day. We are building some more out at Stonewall Jackson. As a matter of fact, we are building 100 portables now.
The Role of the Superintendent
Advocate: Where do you see your role specifically in all that we have been talking about – in luring parents back, making sure that everyone has a classroom and that principals are accountable?
Woolery: I have a lot of responsibility in those areas. I think that you can see how I see my role by the 17 initiatives that I announced when they made me a superintendent. And they are a mixed bag. They are in different areas.
Some of those things deal with the very fact that I am holding people accountable on a measurable index compared to what that school did the previous year. I am not comparing the high-achieving schools to the low-achieving schools. I’m comparing every school to the performance of their own school.
I have been here 27 years, and I have never seen a principal demoted. I demoted 19. I noticed that the 19 schools have made remarkable progress. That was a message that needed to be out there, so when we began this process this year, we had seven high schools classified as low-achieving. At the end of this year, when the tests came out, lo and behold, five of those came out of that category because they had new principals.
Teachers understood that we were going to measure their performance. We will take both teachers out and principals out because schools do not need to be failing, and it is more important than the personality. I’m not interested in protecting the person’s position. What’s more important is that the school gets better. So you have a responsibility for accountability. Make sure you are measuring the right things.
You have to really enrich the curriculum, and we have big gaps in our curriculum, and you will see many things happen this year in our planning process to correct that. Bring more math, science and technology efforts to our school district that are equal to anyone’s in the country. Not just good. They need to be as good as anyone’s.
We have a process that we put into place that you will begin to notice which includes using data to find out exactly where we are. Making corrective action. We go look for benchmarks. We find who does it the best in the country, and we try to either exceed that or match that. It’s just a matter of getting better, it’s who does it the best. Let’s find out how they did that. Let’s do it here.
Dallas doesn’t have any limitations that I can find. The community wants it. The business community is very supportive in this City. They have never said no to us on a funding issue. Not one time. So what is the problem? That is how we are going to try to approach it.
The partnership to do that is really important. You can’t have half the community thinking that it is impossible, because it isn’t. You have to make sure that the facts are understood. Things that work need to be communicated. It’s important for a community to know that things work in a school district.
Things that are broken – they need to know, too. It is important that we accept the heat that comes from that. I don’t think the taxpayer has to put up with a crappy school. I don’t think anyone has to put up with it. So we have to be willing to do our part of that to fix that. So that is how that happens.
One of the ways that we are asking that to happen faster is by the SCE, School Centered Education, where we tell parents: Come right on in here, sit around the table. Here are our statistics on this camp, here are the blemishes, here are the highlights. Now, what do we need to do to fix it, and then give them school authority to do that.
That school doesn’t have to run just like the school down the street. It doesn’t have to have the same curriculum. Doesn’t have to spend money in the same way. If we have a better solution you think is going to work, it’s got to be measurable. If it’s not, we are going to let you know, but go see if you can fix it. I think people like that kind of challenge. It has been helpful.
Advocate: If you were talking with a group of parents who are considering either public or private school, what do you tell them to convince them to go to public school?
Woolery: First of all, I tell them the best possible thing you can do before you decide is go see for yourself. That is what I did as a parent. My kids are in the school district, and I have options, too. I know the schools they were in. I was there, I saw them, I know how they operated. Make your decision. Don’t go on a rumor, and don’t go on a perception. You have to go see it. That is number one.
The second thing is if there is something about that school that you don’t like, that you think is broken, that is not acceptable, you need to go be a part of it. You need to sit in the principal’s office, be a part of the PTA, be a part of the SCE and say: Look, we could really do that better here.
There is no reason to accept it if it is deficient. I think parents need to stand up for that. They are paying the freight. It is their child, and they need to get up to the school and say: Look, this is not good, now let’s fix it. I think anyone likes that approach. It is one thing to say: It’s not good, it’s sorry, DISD is a bad place to be. It is another thing to say: It could be better here, and here, and here, let’s work together to make it better.
That is all I’m asking for. I think that is the advice I’d give them. Then make your decision.
Advocate: Is crime in our schools a problem?
Woolery: Crime is rampant in the City of Dallas. It is one of the worst communities in the United States. It is one of the most violent communities in the United States. It has the second largest murder rate in the United States. It has a larger murder rate than New York City. So you aren’t surprised.
I would be interested in seeing what your perception is with crime in the schools. Because recently, the governor of the State of Texas calls our plan the most effective. Peter Jennings featured it on the American Agenda. And the last two police chiefs called our plan the most proactive in the country.
We are one of the few that keeps a day-to-day database, and the numbers are down in the campus. We have put 29 features into a safety plan to make sure school is the safest place a child can go. What we need to do is appeal to Chief Click so that he knows, just like I know, that we are going to have to go neighborhood to neighborhood, taking their neighborhoods back. Working collectively.
When kids talk to the governor of the State of Texas about crime, a youth crime commission, that she likes so much that she invited them to Austin two Sundays ago to talk to her again. A kid from one of our low-achieving neighborhoods said: You know, I’m not worried about my school. I think my school is safe. But I’m real unsafe in my neighborhood. They shoot all night long. What are you going to do about that Governer? That may be the issue. If I ever have to carry a gun, it’s because I need to get home. What are you going to do about that, Governor? I think that is the issue.
Why don’t we just attack that problem? If we work together, neighborhood to neighborhood, I think we can make an improvement. We have metal detectors, curriculum, counseling, support, surveillance – whatever it is we need – extra police officers to make sure our kids are safe. But that ends at 4 o’clock.
The truth is that 100 of our students were killed last year in their neighborhoods. Not in their schools. And who killed them? Their parents, their friends. We think that it is gangs that kill them. One percent of the kids killed in this City were gang-related. The rest of them, 49 percent were killed by a family member.
That is 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. and partying and out on the streets. So if we don’t know that, and we don’t deal with that, well, I don’t know how safe it’s going to get. We can make a little safe haven, but I guarantee you we haven’t solved the problem here, nor have we addressed the problem. I don’t think it’s going to get better in the City of Dallas until we address crack cocaine, and we address street enforcement. It is really going to have to accelerate before we make a dent in the crime in this City.
Advocate: So you’re saying that DISD is handicapped by what is happening outside of the schools?
Woolery: What I’m saying to you is I think we can do our very best to make 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. a pretty safe experience and to make the extra-curricular activities kids go to a pretty safe experience. But I think the world of the youth in this City is really dangerous.
Our Tax Dollars At Work
Advocate: What is the relationship between the amount of money you spend on a kid and how good his education is going to be? And does DISD have enough money?
Woolery: Yes, we do. Depends on what the answer to your question means: What do you do with the money. Yeah, dollars won’t do it. How you use the dollars will do it.
We are not under-funded. We are not really heavily over-funded, either. We have gone through a number of cuts, but I think we have the funds we need to do the job.
It is not a money issue. That is why I’m not asking for more money. I don’t believe we need more money. Any adjustments that we have generally handle the growth of the new kids we are getting. So I don’t think it is a funding issue, at this point. I think it is what we are doing with what we have.
There is a fundamental level you need to get to, and Dallas is at that level. I think we had the Robin Hood plan in the first place. You need a certain level of funding to bring equity to a child’s opportunity. That hasn’t been Dallas’ problem. We have been at that level and above it. We don’t need to be like some communities, very worried that they could bring very minimal experiences to their kids. We are far beyond that. There is enough money in our school district applied to our schools to expect achievement to be very strong.
Advocate: There seems to be an ongoing battle about how top-heavy DISD is in terms of administration. Is it still a problem? Was it ever a problem?
Woolery: Yes, it was a problem. Three years ago was when the problem was identified, and that was magnified when the first of the Robin Hood funding bills passed. I think, if you remember, Robin Hood won. On one day, we lost $56 million. We began making cuts which included teachers, which is the first time we have ever done that. Which then called into question: Before you cut a teacher, what else can you give up?
Then Dr. Edwards (the former DISD superintendent) asked the state comptroller, John Sharp, to come with an auditing team to look at our district to see if we were top-heavy administratively. His conclusion was that we were and gave 296 recommendations. Some very minor, some very significant. We wrote an implementation program to follow those recommendations, which we did that summer. I chaired that. We wrote it all summer long. We put it into place.
Last year, the Texas Research League that keeps up with those statistics showed that we went from the second worst to the second best of the urban centers. Administrative cost is way down in our district, and we cut 100 administrators out of this building that summer. That was $3 million per year. We put the money on the campus that year.
So you have two funding patterns you need to look for. What is your administrative cost ratio, and then what is your instructional cost ratio? One of them you want to be high, and one you want to be low. We are inversed. So now we went from, of the eight large urban districts, we were the second-worst in administrative costs. Now we are the second-best. Only one of San Antonio’s small districts does a better job than we do. We don’t think that will happen for long. We made additional cuts, so we probably will be on the top of the charts.
Our student costs have never been higher. We have $222 more per student on campus than we had this year.
As a matter of fact, in our budget presentation this morning, these are the points we are very pleased with. We think if you put money where the kids are and give the principals the right to spend it on things that they need, that will help improve the achievement opportunities. It has proven to be right. Yes, we were heavy, and we took steps, and we improved it tremendously.
Advocate: What are the teacher’s salaries?
Woolery: We are above the state and regional average. There are 15 school districts in this county, and we are above the 15 school districts. Our average salary is higher. There are two school districts that outpay us, but only two. Our turnover rate is less, which is an interesting story.
Advocate: If your teacher turnover rate here is less than…
Woolery: Less than the county and state average – seven percent. We have a higher percent of advanced teacher degrees here than the state average and the county average. When I say county, I mean the 15 school districts in this county.
Well over half of our teachers have master degrees, and a very large percent have the doctorate degree, which is nice. The average teaching experience in our district is 13 years. It is not all new teachers that get scared and run off. It is a pretty stable teaching staff.
Advocate: Why do you think they stay?
Woolery: They stay because they must enjoy their experience. Why don’t they leave? I’ll change the question. We have 15 school districts right around here that they could go to work in, so why don’t they? That is a fair question.
Advocate: That is a very fair question.
Woolery: It must be OK.
Advocate: There are white parents who will not send their children to schools where there are people who are not white. What do you do about that?
Woolery: I don’t do anything about it. I guess I’d let the parent make that choice. I wonder where those parents’ child is going to live. Those kids are here. Their families are here, too. That is the demographic future of this state. Is a parent doing what a parent needs to do when they put blinders up?
I think that comes back to a comment that you made a minute ago: What is a good education? Are you really preparing a child for the future they are going to have if a white parent says they are not going to send their kids anywhere that is non-white? That is an option they have, but is that a very good decision for that child? Where is that child going to live? Are they going to live in Dallas? If you are going to live in Dallas, that is not going to be his experience.
That is a choice they have to make. A lot of parents who are anglo make a different choice. They say that is not realistic, and it is not what I want my child exposed to. It comes down to choice.
The Woolery Family
Advocate: Your kids go to Bryan Adams. Does your wife teach there?
Woolery: My wife teaches there, and my wife graduated from there.
Advocate: How long has she been teaching?
Woolery: Two times. She taught when we first married for five years, until our first child was born. She stayed home until our last child was in middle school. Now, she has been teaching there five more years.
My son is a senior in high school. I have a daughter who is a senior in college. She also graduated from Bryan Adams.
Advocate: What are their names?
Woolery: Mark and Wendy.
Advocate: What is your wife’s name?
Advocate: How long have you been in the district?
Woolery: Twenty-seven years. I started as a classroom teacher at Hillcrest High School and then went into the administrative training and have been an assistant principal all over the City. I’ve been in every neighborhood. I’ve been in seven schools. I’ve seen the whole issue of which I think is an interesting perspective.
I’ve been in the best school in the City and what was considered the worst as an administrator. I’ve seen both points of view. I was the principal of W.T. White, assistant principal at Lincoln. I opened up the business magnet of Kimball High School as an assistant principal, then I was promoted down here from W.T. White. It was an all-black school, and I was the first anglo principal. The largest middle school in the state. There, I learned a lot.
You learn that parents are really not different from what they expect of their kids. You have to put a real quality program together and see great things happen. It’s exposure.
Kids are fundamentally not different. If they are given enriched opportunities, they respond, like all other kids of all other colors. It is an exposure, an enrichment, and it’s what they get, when they get it, and who gives it to them that makes all the difference in the world.
So from there, I started my role down here. First, middle schools. I ran the middle school improvement project when I was first promoted and then to secondary schools and then to secondary education and the deputy’s job, and then this job.
Advocate: How long do you plan to be superintendent?
Woolery: Until I retire.
Advocate: Is there anything else you would like to say about our schools?
Woolery: One thing, I think, what I would like to communicate is that I believe our school district is going to turn a completely new chapter. And with the business partnerships I have been holding and the reception that I am getting there and with the school’s people responding well – one thing about an insider getting this job is that you really know the district well. You know what it means.
I think that it is a do-able job. I think that we have to do an awful lot of things in a hurry that are very different than we have done in the past. We have to bring a lot of quality to our district in a hurry in several important areas. So that is why I have been assembling different players here. I don’t know if you have been watching the promotions that are happening, but there are some of our very best and brightest that can get this done.
We are going to change the performance of our school district. That is one important thing to say, and the other is that it is important to this City that we know what the facts are and all the facts. You tell the whole story about education. Tell what doesn’t work. Tell what does, because education is too important to the inner-city to let it die and to perceive it’s dying, when it may not be and with a little extra push and effort, it may be very effective.
I think that everyone, whether you have a child in school or not, is a partner in that process and has a huge stake in that process. If the City schools go down, everything else does.
Advocate: Why are you going to succeed in this when others have failed?
Woolery: Because I know what to do. I have been here. People seem to follow what I do. They have done that all along. I think that I have a real good sense for what happens to the business community and a sense that they are the right kinds of things to happen. I know that there are people out there who are highly effective. We have 16,000 employees.
When a new superintendent comes to town, it takes years just to learn who those people are. I have spent my years in doing that, and I think I can get key players and know where all the little warts are that need to be fixed, and I know where the strengths are. I know where the superstars are, too. We just need to blend those things into a plan. And that is what makes the district work.
Advocate: You have talked about being an insider, being in the district a long time. Surely, while you were out in the schools and teaching, you must have had sessions with other teachers and administrators about “if I’m ever in charge, I’ll do…” How does that apply today? What kind of things did you talk about?
Woolery: I learned very much from that experience. That is why I go talk to people in large numbers. That is one of the very first things I do as a superintendent. I have been to every cluster of schools and talked to every principal – personally, open agenda. Tell me about it. What works? What doesn’t work? What do you think? What do you need to fix it?
We do this through high school clusters. There are 20 high school clusters. Every principal in this City, I spend time listening to them. I do the same thing with the community. How do you see it? Where is it broken? I often asked: If I could give you three things, what would it be that would cause achievement to go up the fastest?
You would be amazed at how universal that answer comes to play. And when it does, and you haven’t thought about those three things, you really need to listen. When you ask that same question all over the City of Dallas, and you get similar answers, it tells you that there is an initiative out there that if you will spend time putting it together, it’s going to pay off.
First of all, it is the expectation. It is holding people accountable. Second of all, it is having a coordinated curriculum that does that, and third is to pay attention to human needs of kids. Because poverty and the economy is so low that some of our kids’ conditions of living are unbelievable. There are some things so foreign to your experience or mine that we do not think that it could happen in this City. It’s happening.
We have kids camping out with no utilities in large numbers who are hungry, who have no medical treatment, who have no real support at home, coming to school every day. And we wonder why they aren’t passing the TAAS test? We have to listen and think and take care of those things, and the rest of it is going to happen, too.
So when they say those things to us, then we need to pay attention. Listening is important. I think you have to get a lot of input. Ask a lot of questions, and you will get a lot of answers. Usually, those answers are not far apart. They say the same thing.
We try to do a lot of that.
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