Friday, July 20, 2012

A Prayer for Pinkston: SMU, DISD Team Up to Go Cradle-to-Career in West Dallas - Dallas Observer (blog)

By most measures, LG Pinkston High School is failing. The school, which neighbors Fish Trap Lake in a poor area of West Dallas, has higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and lower test scores than the rest of Dallas ISD. It is considered academically unacceptable by the state and has been for several years.

That's not to say that people aren't trying to improve things. A coalition of nonprofits and community groups, with a big assist from SMU, has focused on improving Pinkston and its feeder schools as a means of revitalizing a long struggling part of the city. But those efforts will enter the next phase come Saturday when, right after giving Mike Miles until July 2013 to obtain his Texas superintendent's certification, the DISD Board of Trustees will decide whether to sign an agreement with SMU's Simmons School of Education, the city of Dallas and about 20 nonprofits to transform West Dallas into a Promise Neighborhood, the federally assisted versions of the Harlem Children's Zone, the by all accounts very successful program that tracks every child's education from cradle to graduation.

The stated goal of the project, dubbed The School Zone, is to "improve school performance, raise graduation rates, and increase college readiness," which is straightforward enough, but it's the same goal that's has aimed for and missed for a long time. The key is the new cradle-to-career approach that tracks kids through their educational career.

The thought is, per the partnership agreement, "that if we increase early childhood educational opportunities, provide families with targeted resources from a coordinated social sector, improve teaching and learning, and engage parents in their children's development, then students will be more likely to graduate from high school prepared for college and careers."

Doing all that won't be free, which is the coalition will seek a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education. They seem poised to move forward whether or not they get it. Already, participating groups have pledged more than $6.5 million, which seems like a pretty good start.

Update at 1:45 p.m.: I spoke with Regina Nippert, executive director of SMU's Center on Communities and Education and the point person for the push for the DOE grant.

The School Zone initiative, she told me, is in its third year. The first was devoted to forging relationships and establishing trust between community groups and principals, building a foundation for future collaboration. The second was for establishing metrics by which they could measure the project's success.

"That was all happening under the old regime (of Michael Hinajosa), and there was not a lot of cooperation," Nippert said. The principals on the ground welcomed the input, but the administration kept the project at arm's length. "Then, all of a sudden, something changed. They got some new school board members who are really terrific, a new superintendent, a new team."

The district's full cooperation is what has enabled the coalition to vie for the $500,000 Promise Neighborhood grant.

Already, Nippert says she is asked to give talks to surrounding communities about The School Zone, but she's hesitant. HCZ was around for 11 years before organizers felt comfortable talking about the success, and The School Zone's been around for just three.

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