The state of Texas deemed Elisha M. Pease Elementary a substandard school. Teachers and principals kept leaving the struggling Dallas campus. The kids were out of control. Pease Elementary is one of several Dallas schools the district is trying to turn around with a new program.
Two assistant principals are bundled up, wandering down the street by Pease Elementary on a freezing, early morning. One has a megaphone.
“Hey! Let’s go,” yells Johnny Gassaway, an assistant principal. “Let’s go! School starts at 7:55; you’re playing down there."
"Let’s go!” chimes in interim principal Alphonso Warfield.
In the apartment parking lot next door, Warfield explains the strategy.
“See, when you get cold, it’s very important, because our students decide they want to stay in the house because it’s too cold,” Warfield says.
The morning ritual is new this school year at the southern Dallas school. It's a major reset of rules and expectations. Be here. On time.
Gassaway has moved to the front door of the school, greeting kids as they come in.
“You almost here, almost here! I got you, I got you. Trust me, I got you. Good morning. Good morning, y’all. I knew I got to see your face. Who is it? Crawford, come on in,” Gassaway greets child after child.
When Gassaway first got here last school year, he remembers marijuana smoke pouring from a car as parents dropped off their kids. He suspected the kids were high from the exposure. That wasn’t all.
“You hear a lot of cussing, then you may hear: ‘I love you,’ so we’re like 'OK; how does that work?'” Gassaway wonders. "Drop the F-bomb, 'OK, I’ll pick you up later, you better not be late, don’t eat all the noodles when you get home,' that sort of thing.”
That kind of thing is no way to start school. Gassaway says the culture had to change.
“We’re bringing that sense of normalcy, I think, back to the school,” he said.
A struggling community
The top staff here want to make Pease Elementary a safe place in a tough community.
“It’s below poverty. So it’s ‘hood,’" explains single mom and school volunteer Kaylan Trevino. “There’s a lot of drug activity and stuff in the surrounding apartments.”
Trevino’s two kids attend Pease. She also works a couple jobs and takes courses in health administration.
This year, volunteers are welcomed. Last year, they weren’t.
Instability used to rule, according to counselor Jennifer Brent.
“We’ve had three principals, a sub-principal, an interim principal, as well as a principal facilitator," Brent said. "That’s just in three years."
Brent’s been here through those years. Absent leaders led to teacher turnover. She says to these kids, constant change equals chaos.
“Last year, the students really got accustomed to teachers not coming back," Brent said. "They kind of joke about it. Some of the jokes among our fifth graders – ‘Oh, she’s not coming back. We ran her off.’ That’s what they think. They think it’s them. Think of their home life. They think they’re running off their fathers, their mothers, people who aren’t in their lives."
Warfield said there were so many challenges at this school.
“My first day here I told a student, I asked him to do something in the cafeteria,” Warfield recalls. “He said 'I don’t have to listen to you. You won’t be here in two days.’ I was shocked!”
Changing the system
Starting this school year, Pease is an ACE -- or Accelerated Campus Excellence -- campus. The system was set up by former superintendent Mike Miles. ACE sends extra administrators and top teachers into the school.
Most of last year’s instructors are now somewhere else. The new ones reined in the out-of-control kids. Teachers say last year, many students escaped their classrooms for the last two hours of the day. This year, the district says the campus is improving.
Imposing discipline and rules this year, like walking single file through the halls or scheduling afterschool homework and tutor sessions led to initial pushback that surprised Gassaway.
“They said it was 'white people stuff,'” he says.
More than 90 percent of the student body is African-American. Gassaway says kids want and need discipline. They'd just never seen it or didn’t know what decent education looked like, he says.
Sabrina Lloyd's child attended Pease before and after the changes, and she says she's noticed an improvement.
"He’s learned more this year than he did the year before," Lloyd says. "It was kind of shaky-rocky the first time, until he got familiar with the teachers. I just say kudos to the teachers and the school.”
Gassaway isn’t worried about the skeptics.
“This is a thing that’s going to be consistent and this is a necessary thing," he says. "We’re not going anywhere. So if you’re mad today, get over it because we’re going to be back tomorrow.”
For this assistant principal, Pease Elementary is on the right track. It’s got a ways to go, but it’s getting better.
KERA’s American Graduate initiative tracks the journey from childhood to graduation.