Six years ago, incoming Superintendent Kent Scribner pledged he would transform Fort Worth ISD.
He wanted the district to become a model for urban education. In 2015, Fort Worth ISD met standards in the state’s previous accountability system, but 21 schools needed improvement. Scribner wanted to be a student achievement-focused superintendent who moved the district past adult conflicts.
Today, Fort Worth ISD is a C-rated district. The number of underperforming schools has grown to include 18 F-rated and 20 D-rated campuses. By the measurement of shifting state standards, students have performed worse since Scribner took charge, and that has only been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you’re not seeing results within a couple of years of a strategy, you either have a major implementation problem that requires organizational urgency in addressing, or you don’t have a good strategy,” William Robinson, the executive director of Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education at the University of Virginia, said.
Superintendent Kent Scribner has led Fort Worth ISD since 2015.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from Carleton College in Minnesota; his master’s degree in counseling psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia; and a doctorate degree in educational leadership and policy studies from Arizona State University. He started his career as a high school Spanish teacher in Philadelphia.
Here’s a look at his career:
- 2015 to present: Superintendent, Fort Worth ISD
- 2008 to 2015: Superintendent, Phoenix Union High School District
- 2002 to 2008: Superintendent, Isaac School District No. 5
- 1999 to 2002: Executive director of department of human resources, Tempe Elementary School District
As Scribner, 55, is set to begin his seventh year leading Tarrant County’s largest school district, the Fort Worth ISD community is divided on whether the school board should keep him in charge. Supporters of the superintendent say he needs to stay because of his equity and inclusion efforts and his dynamic leadership and argue the district would be in much better academic shape if it weren’t for the COVID-19 pandemic. Those calling for his ouster, though, say Scribner, who has an annual salary of $330,000, has overseen Fort Worth ISD’s academic decline, hurting the city’s economic development push and future.
Scribner was not available for an interview with the Fort Worth Report, according to a district spokesperson.
The community’s division comes at what is considered a pivotal point in any superintendent’s career. On average, superintendents in the nation’s largest schools stay in their positions for about six years. On top of that, the question of whether it’s time for Fort Worth ISD to have a new leader comes at a time when education has become a political football at the local, state and national levels.
Fort Worth ISD’s situation is not abnormal for an urban school district. Robinson has worked with school leaders in 17 states to create environments where they can succeed. Community members underestimate how hard it is to improve student outcomes, but they must still ask for transparency and urgency in how the district boosts academics, the nationally recognized expert in school transformation said.
“The district needs a clear strategy. It needs a clear vision. It needs clear ownership over … what is it as a system is doing differently,” Robinson said. “That’s what I would demand if I were a member of the community because significant results are possible.”
‘Look at our superintendent … as a human being’
Among Scribner’s supporters are Norma Garcia-Lopez and Vanessa Rohrer Barker. Both community members agree the children in their lives are getting the education they need from Fort Worth ISD.
Many Scribner supporters argue his critics are using data they consider to be old and part of a flawed, one-size-fits-all accountability system created by lawmakers in Austin. For the past two years, schools have not been graded because of the coronavirus crisis.
“Accountability for what? Accountability for how the teachers are doing? Accountability for how the superintendent’s doing, the board?” said Barker, whose daughter attends Fort Worth ISD. “Is it truly a measure of what our kids are learning? I would say absolutely not.”
“They’re looking at numbers, not people,” the mother added.
Barker’s daughter attends one of Fort Worth ISD’s F-rated schools. Her daughter is making progress on her learning because she has the best teachers and principal.
“I stand behind the school because a grade doesn’t define what’s actually going on inside those doors,” the mother said. “You walk into that classroom masked, and you see happy kids, you see learning happening. … And so I think F stands for fabulous.”
Trustees and administrators, including Scribner, have acknowledged the district is not where it should be on academic performance. Even some parents and community members who support the superintendent recognize Fort Worth ISD needs to improve its academics, but it’s an issue they say is not a top priority as COVID-19 spreads in schools and the district works on racial equity problems.
Scribner needs more time to accomplish his mission, according to supporters.
Garcia-Lopez, who is an active community member because of her nieces and nephews enrolled in the district, says Scribner is making good on his promise to turn Fort Worth ISD into a model urban district.
“I wouldn’t say all the way, but he has been moving in that direction,” she said, describing Scribner as chipping away at the goal he set six years ago. “I think with the board that he had, especially the board that he has now, I think he can go all the way.”
Another concern for Garcia-Lopez and Barker is how Fort Worth ISD handles its diversity and inclusion efforts. Scribner gets a flying colors for that, according to both community members.
“I worry about the kids because Fort Worth ISD has such a high percentage of children who are economically disadvantaged who are victims of horrible systemic racism that aren’t getting what they need,” Barker said.
About 85% of students are economically disadvantaged. More than 64% of Fort Worth ISD’s students are Latino, and another 21% are Black. That justifies a racial equity-focused leader for Garcia-Lopez.
In 2016, Scribner introduced Fort Worth ISD’s Division of Excellence and Equity with the goal of fighting against systemic racism. As part of this new division, the district also set up its Racial Equity Committee, of which Garcia-Lopez is a member.
“That was needed with the diverse population of students that we have … to make sure that there was equity in all aspects throughout our district,” said Garcia-Lopez, a Fort Worth ISD graduate. “There’s still more work to be done, but Dr. Scribner is really here to make an imprint on students’ lives.”
State of Education
Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner will participate in an education discussion next week. Scribner and Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller will talk about schools at a Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce event starting at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. Registration is required to attend.
What cemented Garcia-Lopez’s support of Scribner was how he dealt with the controversy that surrounded his decision to issue policies protecting transgender students. The guidelines stressed students must feel safe in their restrooms, and if not, a school must let a student use a gender-neutral bathroom or a restroom where no one else is present.
The policies drew the ire of two of the state’s top elected officials, Republicans Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Patrick called for Scribner’s resignation. The superintendent pushed back, defending the guidelines as a way to make students feel more comfortable at school.
That situation led Garcia-Lopez, a suicide prevention advocate, to view Scribner as a bold and fearless leader who stands up against the status quo.
Barker and Garcia-Lopez are hopeful for Fort Worth ISD. They argue community members should not be focused on tearing down Scribner, but on how they can help schools.
“I just beg people to look at our superintendent, not as a position, but as a human being right now in a global pandemic,” Barker said.
Other residents who want Scribner to continue stewarding the district argue now is not the time to change leaders.
“I want to thank our superintendent for his leadership and ask you to support the long-term stability of our district by staying the course with Dr. Scribner,” parent Alex Vorse told the school board in late August.
‘Time for the school board to get real’
Other Fort Worth ISD parents and community members disagree and say Scribner has had enough time to make progress on his goal of improving student outcomes. Now, they say, is the time to right the ship and find a new superintendent.
Those who want the school board to remove Scribner have pointed to Fort Worth ISD’s consistent lackluster performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness as their main reason to let go of the superintendent.
Kathleen Hicks, a former Fort Worth City Council member, is among the people in Fort Worth ISD raising red flags with the district’s direction under Scribner. She says she wants quality public schools for her nieces and nephews; the performance of Fort Worth ISD students makes her want to cry.
Hicks, who represented City Council District 8 for seven years, sees only one way to move Fort Worth ISD forward: Dismiss Scribner.
“When I see these numbers, they are horrific and, sorry, (Scribner) needs to go. He needs to go,” said Hicks, who understands this is a tough decision for school board members. “It is time for the school board to get real. I understand COVID happened last year, but the numbers were really bad before that.”
Scribner detractors have inundated school board meetings in recent weeks. Some have brought signs that say, “Enough is enough,” and, “Scribner must go.”
Some have brought up Scribner’s previous superintendency in Arizona as evidence that he cannot achieve his goal of improving Fort Worth ISD.
Before coming to Texas, Scribner was superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District, Arizona’s largest high school district, for eight years. Phoenix Union had an enrollment of 26,000 and, last school year, Fort Worth was at 76,858. Under Scribner’s leadership, both earned the same grade in their state’s accountability rating system: a C.
Fort Worth ISD received a C rating in 2019, the last time the state issued accountability ratings. Administrators often point to the fact that the district missed a B rating by a fraction of 1 percent. In 2019, Scribner said Fort Worth ISD was heading in the right direction.
“The goal is to become an A school district and the goal is to eliminate D and F campuses in Fort Worth,” Scribner said at the time.
A group of Fort Worth ISD community members plans to hold a march calling for a new superintendent. The march begins at 4 p.m. Sept. 28 at Capps Park, 907 W. Berry St.
The stakes are high if a school or district consistently underperforms. Districts and campuses that earn a D or F through the state accountability system are required to put an improvement plan in place. However, a new law requires schools that get an F for three years to enact a Texas Education Agency-approved turnaround plan. If Education Commissioner Mike Morath determines that plan won’t result in a C rating or higher within two years, the law allows Morath to place new school management, appoint a board of managers or close a school.
While many Scribner critics have pointed to data to back their positions up, others trace their opposition to his push for diversity equity. Some accuse Scribner of injecting critical race theory, an academic concept that looks at how racism has shaped government and society in the United States, into classrooms. The district only uses an equity framework when analyzing student performance and has repeatedly said critical race theory is not taught in classrooms.
Hicks, who disagrees with anti-critical race theory residents, appreciated the way Scribner made sure transgender students were included in Fort Worth ISD’s policies. Beyond that, she has not seen any real results from his diversity push. She called the district’s lackluster academic performance “the ultimate form of racism” because education is considered the great equalizer.
“When we don’t give our kids a quality education, we can say that parents are taking their kids out because of COVID or whatever, but, from the numbers that I’ve seen, they’re going to other school districts,” the former City Council member said. “The time is now. It is urgent that we get it together and do the right thing for our kids.”
Growing gaps between Fort Worth ISD, state averages
Fort Worth ISD has consistently lagged behind the state averages on the reading and math portions of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness since 2015, according to an analysis of Texas Education Agency data by a new Fort Worth organization.
The Center for Achieving Student Success, a data-focused nonprofit established in July, used a gap analysis to examine the district’s student performance dating back to 2012. The center is funded by community members and volunteers, and is in talks with several foundations and organizations for additional backing.
Nancy Sticksel, a school turnaround consultant who worked for Fort Worth ISD for 15 years as a math teacher, assistant principal and principal, is the center’s president. She said a gap analysis neutralizes many outside factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and changes to the exams, to provide a better way of comparing a school district to statewide averages and other districts.
The analysis examined students who met grade level standards and the gap between Fort Worth ISD and the state average.
On the math test, Fort Worth ISD saw its gap grow from 8 percentage points behind the state average in 2015 to 17 percentage points in 2019. That divide grew to 19 percentage points this past year in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic — mirroring a decline seen across the state.
“It appears when you look at it back in 2012, 2013, we were above or trending right along with Dallas ISD,” Sticksel said. “Now, Dallas has continued to get closer to the state average where Fort Worth ISD has maintained its distance or declined.”
Fort Worth ISD has fared better on reading, a skill that students constantly use once they have it and does not introduce new concepts as math does. However, the gap on reading has hovered between 11 to 14 percentage points since 2016. This year, the gap was 14 points behind the state average.
The Center for Achieving Student Success also examined the gaps for third-grade students. The third grade is important because it’s the first year in which students take the STAAR test and gives administrators an understanding of how children are progressing.
In 2015, third-graders in Fort Worth ISD were 11 points behind the math state average and were ahead of Dallas ISD. By the next year, third-grade students had fallen behind Dallas ISD and the gap hovered between 12 to 16 points behind the average until 2019. This year, the gap was 15 points.
Fort Worth ISD made some gains on the third-grade reading test, an area on which administrators and other local leaders focus. The district was 13 points behind the state average in 2016. Two years later, it was 8 points behind. Now, Fort Worth ISD is 12 points behind.
“Everyone looks at third-grade reading a lot because it is considered one of the gatekeeper courses, and it’s a very large indicator in the future literacy of students,” Sticksel said. “It’s a huge goal to get kids reading on grade level by third grade. There are a lot of initiatives and lots of movement in that area in our city.”
‘A good leader’
The divide on Scribner really encapsulates the two lenses to view school leaders, according to a Texas Christian University professor who focuses on educational leadership. Miriam Ezzani, an assistant professor at TCU’s College of Education, said good school leaders are equity minded and data informed, two areas important for a district like Fort Worth ISD.
But there’s more to leading a school district than those two mindsets, Ezzani said. The community must know who their district leaders are and be engaged with them.
“Because really the field of education is all about relationships — the relationship that the superintendent has with the community, that the superintendent has with the (campus-level) school leaders, that the school leaders have with the teachers and students and their families and their local community,” she said.
A good superintendent also must be looking at qualitative data even if community members and other school officials may dislike the system in place, Ezzani said. That includes ensuring schools are addressing students’ needs in an equitable and culturally responsive way, she said.
“I think that all has to do with this idea of presence,” Ezzani, a former school leader in California, said. “Because if you’re connected with what’s going on in the classrooms, then you have a pulse on the curriculum that’s being taught, the instruction that’s being carried out and why the assessment data is showing what it’s showing.”
When a school leader loses sight of these crucial areas, it may be time to consider changing leadership, according to the professor. For example, if a leader does not consult others before making a decision, Ezzani said, it would not be a good sign for the direction of a system’s leadership.
Other signs of bad leadership include if an administrator becomes a bully and creates a climate of fear or ignores data and makes decisions as a way of asserting power.
Any time leaders make a decision, Ezzani said, they need to carefully think it out, lay out the data to back up their choice, and provide a clear plan for how they will accomplish their goal.
“They should be able to articulate that to the community,” she said. “If they’re not able to do that, then that’s a problem, too.”
Decision falls onto school board
The Fort Worth ISD board of trustees spent more than two hours behind closed doors at its Aug. 24 meeting. Part of the discussion was evaluating Scribner. Before going into executive session, board President Tobi Jackson announced the trustees would not consider two items on the regular agenda, including taking action on Scribner’s appraisal.
Scribner’s full performance review will not be released to the public, according to his contract. Administrator evaluation documents are not considered open records, according to the Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Education Code.
Since Scribner’s hiring in September 2015, almost the entire school board has turned over. Only two trustees remain: Jackson and trustee Jacinto Ramos, who was president when the board tapped him to lead Fort Worth ISD.
The school board is expected to meet for a workshop on Tuesday. Trustees are scheduled to have their regular meeting Sept. 28.
Ultimately, the decision of whether Scribner stays or goes falls to the nine-member board of trustees. The superintendent is the only district employee who directly reports to the school board.
Most of the calls Jackson has recently received from parents have been focused on how the district plans to help students recover from pandemic-induced learning losses. Still, the board president — currently the most senior trustee, having served for 11 years — said it is her job to be accessible to residents and be an engaged listener when they reach out.
“If you listen to the community with an open mind, you will hear challenges, but, oftentimes, the solutions,” Jackson said. “We are a team and must continue to build trust with our community and rely on their ideas to jointly build a stronger school district.”
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.