Education is a community affair – or community failure

Panel at State of Education program

The message from the panelists at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s State of Public Education luncheon Oct. 31 was clear: Fort Worth rises or falls on the strength of its public education system and it is the responsibility of everyone in the community, and by extension, the state, to make it work.

It was an appropriate message on Halloween, because the results of getting it wrong are more frightening than an unfettered demon.

There was plenty of good news as well.

“We’re a school district on the rise,” Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner said.

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The Texas Education Agency named Fort Worth as one of two top districts in Texas in year-to-year positive growth in academic achievement.

The gains were across the board, the district says, including substantial increases in the percentage of students reading on grade-level. Fort Worth cut the number of campuses rated Improvement-Required in half. Scholarships earned by Fort Worth ISD graduates have risen from $36 million ]three years ago to $102 million today.

“The economy and education again are inextricably linked. Our commitment to universal pre-K, pre-Kindergarten, is also an investment in the future, the best investment we can make. And our 100×25 initiative, our collaboration with Read Fort Worth is a heralding, a groundbreaking work that we believe will be a model for the rest of the nation,” Scribner said.

Anthony Edwards, senior vice president of Talent for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, was moderator and emphasized the importance of education in the future of the city, and some of the challenged.

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The Chamber’s recently concluded strategic planning process highlighted some talent challenges facing the city.

The Fort Worth region holds 30 percent of the jobs in the Metroplex and the percentage of Fort Worth’s adult population with a bachelor’s degree is below the national average and below most of the national benchmark cities, he said.

“And at least 60 percent of the jobs in 2030 are going to require education beyond high school,” Edwards said.

“And whether you’re an educator, a business leader, or community leader, we can all agree that we need to increase the percentage of students that are college and career-ready, that are earning industry certifications, enrolling in college, and finishing college,” he said.

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Agreeing is one thing. Doing something about it is another that requires wide area focus, cooperation and determination.

There is a combination of factors involved – teacher quality, early childhood education, adequate and quality childcare programs for working parents and equitable state funding for local school districts.

Mike Morath, the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, praised Fort Worth ISD efforts focused on teachers in the classroom.

“If you are not relentlessly focused on supporting teachers on helping support effective instructional environments, virtually everything else that we do will not yield fruit,” he said. “And in Fort Worth, you do see a very relentless focus on instructional quality, on curricular quality, in terms of how the students are supported.”

Morath noted that Gov. Greg Abbott called together a coalition of the Texas Workforce Commission, the Higher Ed Coordinating Board and his agency the Texas Education Agency, “to create some sort of an aligned ecosystems to support students in a more effective way than it happens in the past.”

“We need to re-engineer the high school experience so that that last bit of high school is as effectively connected to career as effectively connected to college as is possible,” he said.

“If they are not sweating their tail off by the time they graduate 12th grade, we have failed to launch them into modern America and you are seeing that kind of re-engineering aspect happen in schools all over the state,” he said. “We’re trying to support that work through our triage and see a collaboration between Higher Ed and The Workforce Commission at the agency.”

The Texas Legislature will be in session next year and Morath said work is already underway on a funding formula.

“Those conversations have been happening for six months or more now. They’re discussing a whole host of very substantive changes to the school finance system,” he said.

The talk is less about how to pass out money in a slightly different way to increase equity than on whether structural incentives can be “embedded in the school finance system that drive outcomes in a very substantial way,” Morath said.

Abbott wants to ensure pathway supported through the school finance system so that teachers in Texas have the opportunity to make six figures.

“This is something I think that would be fundamentally transformational to public education, but it has to be done obviously in a thoughtful way,” he said.

Mayor Betsy Price was quick to raise what has become a sore point with school, county and city local officials and the legislature.

“We have to get the state to own up to their piece of what they owe in education. It can’t fall back on the backs of local taxpayers,” Price, a former Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector.

“We’ve shifted the burden from 60 percent state, 40 percent local to 60 percent local and 40 percent state, and that’s got to change. That’s kind of one of my bully pulpit items and it’s got to change. [Tarrant County] Judge [Glen] Whitley would kill me if I didn’t say that anywhere.”

But there were no disagreements about the ultimate objective.

“Every child deserves a quality education, doesn’t matter where their ZiP code is or where they live, and so the city has to be a partner working on that,” Price said.

That’s the reason behind Read Fort Worth – the program to have every child in the ISD reading on grade level at the third grade. That statistic is a consistent indicator of future success in both education and afterward.

“We simply have to recruit talented people and we never can import enough education to cover the workforce. We have to grow our own,” she said. “And Fort Worth ISD is our largest partner in growing those and if we’re going to grow them, then the whole community has to stand up and say, ‘Education is our No. 1 priority,’ ” she said.

“As mayor, you realize it’s all about economic development, it’s about crime, it’s about poverty levels, it’s about neighborhoods that are struggling, it’s about the community health. There isn’t an area that we deal with in the city that education doesn’t touch,” Price said.

Child care is a significant piece and efforts are underway to change that the fact that there are major areas of Fort Worth without quality care available.

“Imagine a young family with two kids, and they’re spending $1,000 minimum to, generally, $2,000 or more, for their childcare, for the first five years of their child’s life. And oftentimes, that’s not the quality,” she said.

She said that is beginning to change – Lena Pope Home and the Early Learning Alliance are making huge strides.

“But if we don’t change that pipeline, we will never get to where our third-grade literacy should be, and where middle school math has to be,” Price said.

Anel Mercado, the newly selected executive director of Read Fort Worth, said that the goal cannot be reached without the involvement of the community.

A next step is harnessing the expertise in the business community and with other community partners.

“Let’s have some different conversations about what that could look like,” Mercado said. “It could mean reading with children, but it could mean working at a whole different level, so I really want to have the opportunity to talk about what that could look like as we use the data and we think strategically about where we want to go next. This community is poised for that. I am so excited to be here because of that.”

Public education is a challenge, and the point of the spear are the teachers.

“If you don’t spend a great deal of time walking the halls and watching teachers – masters of the craft – ply their trade, it’s actually easy to forget how unbelievably difficult this work is,” Morath said.

He compared teaching to brain surgery. Neurosurgeons prepare for years, study the literature and read the patient’s case history and consider everything that could go right or go wrong.

“And then they walk into the operating room, and there’s one brain that they’re responsible for, and it’s asleep on a table,” Morath said.

“And our teachers, every day, walk into operating rooms, and there’s not one brain, but there’s 20, and those brains are very much awake and giving active feedback during the surgery. This is incredibly difficult work.

“It takes people with missionary zeal and passion, but it takes people with high levels of cognitive skill, and, who are dedicated to a refine and improvement of the practice. And this happens when you only see the kids 15 to 20 percent of the time,” he said.

“We forget sometimes, when we talk about public schools, that these are schools that the public owns. … This requires all of us to step up, all of us to be involved and to take ownership for each one of these children as if they were our own biological children,” he said.