The Conversation We Need to Have

By Rose Parker, Founder of Schools by Teachers

A little over a month ago, the structure of an innovative in-district charter school was presented to the Dallas Board of Trustees in an afternoon board briefing. The proposal included the first teacher-governed middle and high school in Texas along with a new twist on talented and gifted education, an innovative approach aligned with the state mission of giving students the time and resources to be creative producers in their talent areas.

Readers of this article probably never heard a word about this board briefing and the chance for trustees to approve a new middle and high school with a career focus on the visual and performing arts, a focus that adds a film school and gaming cluster to the traditional fine arts program. The teacher-designed innovative program combines a magnet-quality visual and performing arts program with Career and Technical Education (CTE) and tech entrepreneurship.

The proposed school, the School of Entrepreneurship in the Arts and Technology, would use a campus operating board made up of the nonprofit, Schools by Teachers, whose chairperson would report directly to the Board of Trustees. At almost no additional taxpayer expense, 730 students would have access to a year-round program in the arts and technology, led by some of the state's best teacher talent, by this summer. Dallas ISD would get the bonus of a new literacy model that could be ported to any other secondary campus where reading and writing scores need improvement.

All of this, along with a teacher-designed truly interdisciplinary curriculum focusing on student talents and interests, is possible with the choices granted by Senate Bill 2. Many more innovative, locally controlled Dallas schools are possible with existing legislation and the existing, democratically elected school board.

The only required tsunami of change is one of attitude that all Dallas schools must use the same curriculum, the same methodology, and the same layers of teacher management. The democratically elected Dallas school trustees already have the legislative approval to grant a variety of in-district charters, each using a different curriculum, different staffing formulas, and different methodologies than those mandated by the superintendent and central administrators at this time. There are no Texas Education Agency requirements in these areas other than meeting the needs of special populations, and those include gifted and talented learners who are artistic creators. State accountability standards stay in place, but the methods and curriculum used to meet those standards would be the choice of parents and teachers who write in-district charters for specific campuses. And yes, appraisal instruments and methods can be defined in the in-district charter proposals. Nothing is off the table as long as student achievement improves.

A Home Rule Charter is not necessary for grass roots campus innovation. A Home Rule Charter does nothing in itself to reformulate the delivery of education at the campus level. The paradigm shift that is needed is a change from a factory model of standardized inputs and processes to a portfolio of different options for teachers, students, and parents. This is already possible in the choices provided in Senate Bill 2.

Authentic school reform only happens at the campus level. No urban district has ever forced top-down, cookie cutter reform with good results. Dallas ISD is no different, but with each incoming superintendent, greeted like Caesar, Dallas citizens get a promise that is never fulfilled.

Innovation is driven by teachers in collaboration with parents and communities to solve problems of specific campuses. This was the original promise of charter schools. Educators will have increased accountability when they create plans in-district charters, but they are granted increased autonomy in determining how they choose to meet campus achievement goals. Teachers continue their participation in TRS and retain Chapter 21 rights.

Senate Bill 2 has been state law since June, 2013. So why hasn't it been used?

Dallas media and the business community, the two groups who usually jump on reform led by superintendent or Eli Broad, either are ignorant of the potential of Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 5, or they want to lead the charge to micromanage change from the top in structures that ignore educators, research, and the needs of students and parents.

It's time for teachers to have a conversation with parents about what they want in their schools. Not allowing that conversation is a violation of Senate Bill 2.

Senate Bill 2 clearly states that the Board of Trustees shall hear proposals for in-district charters when a majority of teachers and parents on a campus want change. The only way proposals get written is for parents and teachers to unite in their common goal of improved schools.

Senate Bill 2 doesn't ask the superintendent for approval for in-district charters. Senate Bill 2 doesn't require the permission of the existing campus principal in order to plan a complete redo of a campus. Parents and teachers ultimately need sturdy plans and the five votes of existing trustees.

If more than 15% of campuses bring valid proposals, the Texas legislature meets again in January, 2015. These state representatives look favorably on changes that improve public schools. If in-district charters become popular, accessible methods of urban school reform, it is doubtful a cap would remain on their numbers.

The next in this series of articles will explain what the conversations between teachers and parents might include in order to begin the planning process for in-district charters. Planning an entire redo of a school takes time, but the rewards to the community of learners could be permanent under new legislation. No longer will superintendents be able to eat away at the autonomy granted these schools.

Those who believe school reform can pushed from the top down have had decades to prove their approaches. It's time for communities to use Senate Bill 2 to improve campuses in a meaningful way, one that only occurs school by school, not in secretive meetings held by non-educators.