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A Texas school restart experience: Q&A with a Dallas Independent School District administrator

Q&A with a Dallas Independent School District administrator

Q&A with Jolee Healey | March 9, 2022

REL Southwest and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) work together in our School Improvement Research Partnership to support low-performing schools in the state. A research study in progress, Effects of a State-Defined Restart Strategy for Low-Performing Schools in Texas, is scheduled for publication in 2022

In 2015/16, the Dallas Independent School District (ISD) implemented a school turnaround strategy referred to as a district-managed restart strategy in seven of its lowest performing schools. Based on preliminary evidence of the success of this strategy, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) began to offer grant funding for districts to implement this district-managed restart strategy in their low-performing schools.

The district-managed restart strategy requires schools to develop a new academic program and replace school leadership and 80 percent of the instructional staff. It has five core components:

  • Strategic staffing
  • Data-driven instruction and early interventions
  • Extended school day
  • Social and emotional learning (SEL) supports
  • Partnerships with parent and community organizations

Our thanks to Dallas ISD’s Jolee Healey, deputy chief of priority schools and leadership development, for sharing her experiences and perspective through this Q&A on implementing the district-managed restart strategy—the first district in Texas to do so!

Why did Dallas ISD choose to implement the district-managed restart strategy?

Dallas ISD has embraced a strong commitment to equity in our schools for years. When we exhausted traditional school improvement support strategies and found ourselves with 43 low-performing schools, while teacher evaluation scores were soaring, we knew a systemic change was required. The first step in the process was to redesign our campus leader and teacher evaluation systems to include frequent classroom visits and multiple metrics of progress that included actual student results. Believing that teachers make the greatest impact on student learning, our turnaround strategy was to identify the highly effective teachers and leaders then incentivize them to move to our schools with the greatest needs. This investment, averaging around $1,000 per student, demonstrated a commitment to equity by giving students with the highest need the best teachers to accelerate campus excellence.

How did you identify student and educator needs to be addressed by the restart strategy?

Longitudinal achievement data, teacher proficiencies metrics, and campus culture and climate data were used to identify the schools with the greatest needs for turnaround. Once identified, the research-based signature practices of the five core components were implemented and adjustments were made to ensure each school could be successful within its own context. Adjustments were determined by conducting a root cause analysis to create acceleration action plans with the new leadership teams. Weekly professional development, campus visits, data practices, and frequent cycles of observation and feedback supported the identification of needs and provided short-cycle progress monitoring for quick adjustment to maximize success.

What was the community’s involvement and response before the restart strategy was implemented and after the schools were reconstituted?

With our original cohorts, community meetings were held before we implemented the restart to share with the community the components and benefits of the strategy. After the restart, parent and community meetings were held to share updates on progress and to engage parents in data talks about their student’s progress and ways to partner and support their student at home.

What advice would you give district leaders who are considering implementing the district-managed restart strategy?

More than resources or programs, leaders and teachers make the most difference for student learning. Ensuring a way to identify those that are successful in actually improving student learning is the critical foundation for reconstitution and turnaround. After strategic staffing is completed, it’s vital to understand how to form strong teams united around common goals. Developing routines for professional development and progress monitoring is important for aligning instruction and creating replicable systems. The scope and sequence of adult learning are also important. Knowing that student culture is the first key lever. Once student culture is positive and inspiring, learning time can quickly be maximized and great momentum will follow.

Are there challenges and successes that stand out for you?

Schools that struggle to create positive schoolwide culture experience many challenges with academic progress. This contributes to daily work becoming exhausting, which leads to adult burnout. Setting the right culture from the beginning is the best first step to success. This requires creating a mission and vision that can be directly linked to what the school should look and feel like from curb to classroom. Then practicing every interaction from arrival, to transition, to classroom entry and exit, to redirection, and dismissal. Infusing joy and excitement in all things help make the transformation easier and enjoyable.

We’ve experienced many successes, like our Edward Titche Elementary moving from ten years of low performance to a State rated A school with all distinctions and the National Blue-Ribbon Award. We measure successes by student achievement and teacher retention for sustainability. We are still working on the best supports for long-term sustainability and feel incredibly proud that our district has invested in our most struggling schools for the long-term, knowing that the three-year grants alone are not enough.

For more information on school improvement and turnaround strategies:

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Author Information

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Jolee Healey

Deputy Chief of Priority Schools and Leadership Development

Dallas Independent School District