New Fort Worth ISD board President Tobi Jackson was blunt in assessing how her district is faring on the trustees’ trio of academic performance targets.
“Are we meeting them? No. Are we pleased with our student achievement? No,” she told the Fort Worth Report. “But I can tell you this much: Everybody is fired up … and I believe that when we get everybody back on campus we’re going to see a re-energized Fort Worth ISD.”
Jackson is the executive director of after-school program provider Fort Worth SPARC. Having represented District 2 for 11 years, she is taking charge of the school board as Fort Worth ISD begins to work on bouncing back from its pandemic-induced learning losses. The new school board president, who is in her second go as the top board officer, talked with the Report about Fort Worth ISD’s plans to respond to the challenges ahead for the coming school year.
Although the school board saw a shake-up with a mostly new slate of officers and the addition of two freshman members, its top priority remains unchanged: Improve student outcomes.
The school board has three main goals for academic performance: improve third grade reading scores, boost third graders’ math results and have more students graduating ready for college, a career or the military. The nine-member board uses a Texas Education Agency-developed strategy called Lone Star Governance to concentrate on student outcomes.
Trustees’ duties are limited. They include considering and approving a budget and tax rate; hiring a superintendent and holding that person accountable; and setting district policy. For Jackson, the board’s most important responsibility is to hold Superintendent Kent Scribner accountable, an aspect she says will be beneficial for the district’s top administrator.
“I think very tight accountability for the superintendent will allow him to show the city what he can do and will do for our students and our city,” Jackson said. “I believe that tighter accountability is going to be necessary.”
‘All hands on deck’
Student performance has been the Fort Worth ISD trustees’ focus in recent years. In 2019, the district earned a C rating on the state’s accountability rating report. That rating has almost certainly declined because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The next time the state will likely issue new ratings will be following the 2021-22 school year.
The Texas Education Agency recently released results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams that showed declines across the state. Just in math, 800,000 students fell behind. Fort Worth ISD saw declines across the board in math and reading.
Jackson recognizes her district has slipped behind — as have most districts across Texas and the nation. As administrators and teachers help students in the classroom, Jackson thinks the board needs to focus on communicating this situation to parents and other community members.
That community interaction will be key as Fort Worth ISD works to get students back in class for the first day of school.
“The big outcry from our board is going to be it’s all hands on deck. It is a community action notice — we need your help,” Jackson said. “We need everybody to check on every student and get them back in school, and that’s a priority because all of them did not come back and we need them back.”
To get students back, she said, Fort Worth ISD will have to partner with other local governments, such as the city, county and even other neighboring school districts. Fort Worth ISD is a large school district, covering about 210 square miles with an enrollment of 76,858 students, making it the sixth most populous district in the state.
Besides getting children back in school, Jackson expects the board of trustees to stay on top of the opportunity gaps where it can help students with the greatest need get caught up.
Projects, such as the targeted wireless internet plan, will help students get back to where they need to be. Other areas the board may have to examine are helping provide students with access to libraries, transportation, health care and other areas.
Partnering with city, other local governments
Jackson wants to see Fort Worth ISD, the city, Tarrant County and the other 19 school districts here on the same page. All of these entities, she said, see similar issues and should be able to partner together to solve them.
For example, the new board president pointed to mobility as a challenge for districts. Many lower-income families frequently move. That could mean children going from school to school in a district or even attending multiple districts in a single academic year.
“That’s a huge challenge because every time a kid moves from school to school, they lose six to nine months of academic prowess. … Put that on top of what COVID had done to them,” Jackson said, referring to the learning loss students have experienced from the pandemic. “It’s hugely important that we align.”
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker considers education a top priority. Parker, the former CEO of Tarrant To and Through and Fort Worth Cradle to Career, agrees the city and schools should work closer together, particularly as students recover from the pandemic.
“Rather than point fingers, what does it look like to partner with our superintendent, school board and teachers in the classrooms to say, ‘What do you need from your city government to help your students be successful?’” Parker told the Report. “I mentioned bold leadership because I think that’s what it’s going to take to have a full recovery plan.”
The city’s role in public education is limited to it supporting districts and communicating with school leaders to cooperate whenever possible.
‘Serving every one of our kids’
During the next two years of her term as president, Jackson expects the Fort Worth ISD board of trustees to stay above the political fray.
In recent weeks, board meetings saw dozens of residents speak out against critical race theory, a concept many conservatives have rallied against. Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines how racism is part of U.S. laws and systems.
Fort Worth ISD administrators have said the academic philosophy is not taught in classrooms. However, they consider the concept in allocating resources to Black, Latino and other minority students who often are academically behind many of their white counterparts.
“National and state politics will not supersede student achievement, and this board will stay focused on student achievement and serving every one of our kids,” Jackson said. “That’s our focus.”