Dade Middle School in Dallas has had a history of problems. Some community leaders want the Dallas school district to boost neighborhood involvement and turn Dade into what’s called a community school. Some folks believe more community and parental involvement would make a difference there.
One weekend afternoon last fall, parents and children streamed into the auditorium at Dade Middle School. Music in English and Spanish blared from the speakers.
People from around the country showed up to speak at the school and they talked about getting parents and more of the Dade community involved in improving the school.
Yesenia Rosales was at the school with her two daughters ages 12 and 16. They moved to Texas from Maryland and she said things at Dade seem pretty good so far.
"Teachers seem very interested in helping students," she said.
Not long ago, though, things were pretty rough at Dade. Fights broke out regularly, principals were being replaced frequently and parent involvement was dismal.
Community leaders like Monica Lindsey told parents at that meeting last fall that it was time for a change. Together, she said, they could convince the district to adopt a new model at Dade and other troubled schools.
“And we’re pushing to have 20 schools turned into community schools by 2020. Can you repeat after me? 20 by 2020. 20 by 2020 …, ” Lindsey told the crowd.
So, what is a community school? According to the Coalition for Community Schools, it’s one that’s built on partnerships between the school and community groups.
A district’s best teachers work there and the school offers extra social services, like mental health counseling. There’s also more parent involvement and the school doesn’t automatically suspend students who act up.
The Dallas school district has worked to stabilize Dade by adding higher-paid and more experienced teachers. Texas Organizing Project and others involved in community school reform, however, envision a broader effort.
“At a community school, you would have 100 or 200 folks participate in some way or another in that planning process,” said Allison Brim, organizing director for the Texas Organizing Project. “You get real buy-in and also input from a larger group of parents and teachers at the school and students as well to make sure that we’re really addressing all of the needs of the entire school community.”
For the past school year, Brim and other members have been meeting with parents, Dade’s principal and district staff to talk about turning the school around. They’ve hosted several community dinners in South Dallas. And, Brim has sent school board president Eric Cowan a letter asking him to consider the issue at a future board meeting.
Brim says she sees some progress at Dade.
“I would say while it’s still not officially our standard that we’re working toward in terms of a community school, a lot of the foundation has been laid," Brim said. "And there’s been huge improvement in terms of the academics and a lot of the key indicators at the school as a result," Brim said.
Advocates point to progress with community schools in places like Cincinnati and Los Angeles.
Last month, The Center for Popular Democracy released a report citing two schools in Austin that went from facing closure to becoming two of the district’s highest-performing schools.
At one of the Austin schools – Webb Middle School – enrollment, attendance and the graduation rate went up. The school now has a full-time community school coordinator and a family resource center that offers parenting classes.
Dallas school trustee Miguel Solis said he’d like the board to consider adopting the community school model or some variation of it.
“That’s not to say that the model will be 100 percent effective if it is implemented the exact same way in Dallas as it is in these other school districts,” he said. “But the principles and tenets of the model are, I think, perfect for our community and particularly the areas that are the most underserved and need the most support.”
Even if the Dallas school board takes up the issue sometime soon, Solis said turning Dade or other schools into community schools wouldn’t happen overnight.
“What the board is likely to do is at some point just have a better understanding of exactly what a community school is, what the goals of community schools are … ” Solis said.
In other words, when it comes to making a commitment about community schools, Dallas school trustees will want to do their homework first.
This story is part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative.