A Quality Education for All

Winchester Cathedral

High up in the Winchester Cathedral in England sits a stained glass window that is extremely unusual for the time in which it was created — the 17th century. It doesn’t represent a scene from the Bible. It doesn’t memorialize a saint.

It’s a kaleidoscope of colors, a very contemporary looking stained glass window. It’s as if someone from the 20th century traveled back in time to the 1600s and designed it.

This window is a relic from a destructive time. Troops from Oliver Cromwell’s army used iron bars to shatter the Winchester Cathedral’s ancient windows and break up all the statues. The troops left the ground outside the cathedral littered with fragments of glass.

What was for so long a unified whole was fragmented into many separate pieces.

For the last three years I have been working with several charitable foundations in Fort Worth supporting public education initiatives for kids. This fall that work became an organization that I now lead called the Fort Worth Education Partnership, which is dedicated to the proposition that every child in Fort Worth deserves access to a high-quality public education. I’m so grateful to be able to be involved in such meaningful work and want to share more about it with you.

Needless to say I have learned a lot over the last few years, and one of the things I have come to see is that the public education landscape looks a lot different today than it did when I was growing up in north Dallas in the late 70s and 80s. When I started kindergarten, I walked a couple of blocks over to my neighborhood elementary school with my best friend, Jon, who lived a few houses down. And then, as the years went by, Jon and I progressed automatically from there to our assigned junior high and high schools. There weren’t any other options to consider, other than private school, as far as we knew.

Consider, now, the patchwork quilt that is public education today. What was once a unified whole is now much more fragmented into many separate pieces. There are a number of different avenues in Fort Worth by which our children and their families are seeking out a quality education:

  • neighborhood schools like the ones I went to
  • district schools of choice like the I.M. Terrell, a school for vocal and performing arts and STEM and the World Languages Institute
  • single gender district schools like the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Leadership Academies
  • district charter schools like the Leadership Academy Network, which is a partnership between FWISD and Texas Wesleyan University
  • special programs of choice within neighborhood district school
  • early college high schools, which are partnerships between district schools and Tarrant County College where kids can graduate high school and receive and associate’s degree at the same time
  • a growing number of public charter schools.

All of these are state-funded schools open to all; if they run out of space, blind-lotteries are used to fill the slots.

That homogenous system we used to have is transforming before our eyes into an interesting, complex, diverse fabric of education for all— something like a quilt with many different pieces woven together and where the whole is greater than its parts.

The Fort Worth Education Partnership is working to support and grow this mix of quality schools—high-performing district schools, district charters, and charter schools working hand-in-hand to give all kids in Fort Worth access to the best possible public education.

The unfortunate reality right now is that many, many children in our public school system are struggling, for all kinds of complex social and systemic reasons, and they are not prepared for academic success beyond high school.

68% of Fort Worth third-graders are not reading at grade-level, and studies show that 75% of children who struggle with reading in third grade never catch up and are 4 times more likely to drop out before graduating.

Or consider this: a study of low-income Tarrant County 8th graders in 2006 shows that ten years later, just 10 percent of them had earned a two or four year degree—1,022 out of 9,919.

There are thousands of Fort Worth children mired in generations of poverty, inadequate education, and lack of opportunity. Some kids are getting a great public education in Fort Worth. But many are not— too many. And now we wonder what will happen during these days of closed schools and at home learning. Despite the best efforts of all involved, will the achievement gap between the “haves and have-nots” grow even wider?

If we are honest, many of us who consider ourselves strong proponents of traditional public education have used whatever resources and privileges we have to steer our own children into what we believe is the best possible school setting—whether that is a by buying a house in a certain neighborhood or by gaining access to a school outside of our attendance zone that we think is better for our child. Why wouldn’t every parent want to be able to do the same? Should any child’s access to a high-quality education and the life-transforming power that brings be solely determined by a boundary line on a map or how much his or her parents can afford to pay for a house?

For many children, traditional neighborhood schools are doing a remarkable job. And there are some district schools in some of our city’s most underserved areas that have found a way to achieve tremendous success in giving some of our most vulnerable kids access to the highest quality education.

But for far too many of our children in Fort Worth, this is not their reality.

This is why I am grateful for that patchwork quilt that is public education today. There are important options out there, accessible to all families, that broaden the opportunity beyond where a child happens to live.

There are some innovative and unique district schools of choice, Like I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and Vocal and Performing Arts, Applied Learning Academy, and Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Young Men’s Leadership Academy, just to name a few. And there are excellent programs of choice within district schools, like the International Baccalaureate program within Western Hills High School, for example.

And there are the best of the public charter schools that are doing remarkable work with children, particularly those in poverty.

A charter school is a school that is funded by our state government in a similar way that our district schools are funded. Families apply for their children to attend a charter school, and the school must take all applicants (they are not selective) until they run out of space.

Not all charters schools do a great job. A few of them aren’t very good at all. But there are a number of high-performing charters that do amazing work raising the bar academically for economically disadvantaged students. And because you don’t have to live in a certain “attendance zone,” these schools provide a great opportunity for any child to have access to a high-quality public education.

Here in this area, one charter, IDEA Public Schools, opened two schools in Tarrant County this year and is on track to open several more in the coming years. 87% of the children IDEA serves statewide are classified as economically disadvantaged, and they have a track record of remarkable success. IDEA earned a B (an 89, actually) rating by the state last year. And they send 100% of their high school graduates to college every year—the vast majority of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

And then there are district-charter partnership schools, such as the Texas Wesleyan Leadership Academy Network, an innovative initiative approved by the FWISD school board where five mostly low-income and chronically low-performing FWISD schools have received new life in recent years and are doing remarkable work for children.

In many cities around the state and country, school districts and charter schools fight each other tooth and nail to protect their own interests, and we see people sometimes try to pit traditional public education and charters against each other for their own political purposes.

But in Fort Worth we are trying to see public education not as a disjointed jumble of adults’ competing interests but as that beautiful patchwork quilt.

Here in our city, school districts and local charter schools are working together every way they can with the best interests of Fort Worth kids at heart.

We are fortunate in Fort Worth to have a FWISD Superintendent and board members as well as charter school leaders and city leaders who are willing to set aside adult interests and agendas and put the needs of kids first.

We have charter and district leaders coordinating with one another about school locations.

We have charter schools and district schools pairing up to hold school tours for community members.

We have FWISD schools of choice and charter schools holding a “Choice Fair” where parents can learn about the best options for their children.

And we have charters and districts creating partnership schools, taking advantage of the best that both have to offer—for the sake what is best for our kids.

The Fort Worth Education Partnership is honored to be a part of this good work on behalf of Fort Worth kids. We are focused on improving educational access and options for Fort Worth area children by growing and supporting high-quality public schools. Through partnerships with non-profit and charter school operators, traditional districts, families, and the broader community, we aim to dramatically increase the number of students enrolled in high-quality schools (schools rated A or B on the TEA’s performance rating system).

We talk sometimes about improving public education in Fort Worth as a matter of economic development. Companies don’t want to locate here if their employees don’t want to send their kids to school here. Businesses can’t hire the needed qualified workers if our schools are not producing them. I know these things are true.

But 68% of Fort Worth children not reading at grade level is not first an economic crisis. It is a moral crisis. And nine out of 10 low-income 8th graders not having a 2 or 4 year degree ten years later. It is a moral crisis.

I believe the work we are about in Fort Worth right now— working to provide quality education and opportunity that will transform lives for generations—is God’s work. When we shine a light on the children and commit energy and resources to them and open ourselves up to creative community partnerships and solutions for the sake of children— this is God’s work. And I am grateful to be a part of it.

My good friend, Ralph Emerson, Pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in southeast Fort Worth, made this his theme for all of last year; he called it “Stronger Together,” because we all have a deep need for each other — whether we admit it or not — and we all need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And when we weave our communities together, it is almost always stronger and more beautiful.

The people of Winchester in England were devastated that they lost their beautiful, ancient stained glass windows when Oliver Cromwell’s troops destroyed their cathedral in the 17th century. It was all they had ever known. What they did in response was gather and save all the fragmented pieces of stained glass that littered the ground.

Years later, when this violent time had passed, one cathedral worker volunteered for the difficult task of re-installing the windows. High on a scaffold, he assembled all those broken pieces into an abstraction of color.

It resembled nothing in Europe at that time, and even today it stands out. And no one can deny that those windows of reconstructed bits of glass are a work of great beauty, a work of art. The light from the sun filters through to illumine the cathedral with a constantly changing mosaic of colors.

Even when the unified social fabric we used to know comes apart, new life and beauty can come from the pieces when they are put back together. The pieces can become raw material for the creation of something new and beautiful — something that establishes connection, builds relationships, offers care, creates trust, educates children, and makes our communities better places for all.

 

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