Tonia Robertson has taught English at Jacquet Middle School for seven years. She has seen six principals come, stay for a couple of years and leave.
That cycle will begin again next school year when Robertson will see her seventh new principal.
The current principal, LeKeisha Sasser, will leave her position at the end of May — but not on her own accord. Fort Worth ISD trustees, in a 7-0 decision in late April, agreed to end Sasser’s contract after the school’s operator, Phalen Leadership Academies, recommended it to the district. Jaquet teachers see Sasser’s termination as another setback for a school that consistently has poor student outcomes and needs steady leadership to see change.
Sasser and Phalen did not respond to Fort Worth Report requests to comment. The district did not give a specific reason for her dismissal when trustees considered terminating five probationary contract employees.
Robertson was one of six teachers who told the school board to go against Phalen’s recommendation. She compared the rotating cast of principals to a football team bringing in a new coach. Keep changing the coach and you won’t have an effective season, she said.
“Every coach has a new idea and a different play. We’ve had six different coaches, six different ideas, six different plays. The only thing that remains is our students. They need some consistency so they know what to look forward to,” Robertson said.
Jacquet Middle School is one of Fort Worth ISD’s seven charter-operated campuses. Phalen Leadership Academies, an Indianapolis-based charter school network, runs day-to-day operations at Jacquet, including staffing decisions.
In April 2021, Fort Worth ISD tapped Phalen to run the failing school through Senate Bill 1882, a 2017 law that allows districts to have an outside entity operate a campus. The main goal of the law is to turnaround failing schools and infuse them with additional state dollars. The Texas Education Agency has to sign off on all proposed partnerships.
Jacquet Middle School is one of Fort Worth ISD’s worst-performing schools.
Texas grades schools and districts on an A to F scale. The state examines the performance of schools and districts in three main areas:
- Student achievement looks at how well children performed on the state standardized tests.
- School progress takes into consideration whether students have improved on the test year over year.
- Closing the gaps examines how certain 14 different student groups performed on the state test as well in certain areas, including career readiness.
The 2018-2019 school year was the last time Jacquet Middle School received an accountability rating. It earned an F. Schools did not receive accountability ratings in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school previously received an “improvement required” label — the equivalent to an F — from the state in 2018, 2016, 2014 and 2013.
Fort Worth ISD and Phalen agreed to a set of goals the charter network must meet every year for the partnership to be successful. For the current school year, Jacquet Middle School has to earn a C from the state. By the end of next school year, the school should hit a B and keep it through at least 2026.
Failing to hit these goals for three years ultimately could mean Fort Worth ISD ends its contract with Phalen. However, the goals can be adjusted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the partnership agreement.
Good principals positively affect schools
Rhondra Lewis is a seventh-grade science teacher at Jacquet Middle School. She has seen up close what Sasser, the principal, is willing to do for her students. Sasser has been teaching an English class because of how short staffed the school is, Lewis and other educators said.
Lewis feels like Jacquet Middle School is forgotten about. The campus is the heart of Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood. The vast majority of students at Jacquet Middle School are Black or Latino. Almost all Jacquet students come from low-income families. And more than eight in 10 students are considered at risk of dropping out.
Lewis is hopeful for her school — a sentiment she attributes to Sasser’s leadership.
“A lot of people have given up on us, but we promise you when these scores come out, your confidence will be renewed in Jacquet Middle School,” Lewis said to trustees.
Principals lead schools, but the job is much more than that. The Texas Education Agency details the hallmarks of a good, effective principal. They include:
- Ensuring all students at their campus get high-quality instruction.
- Make sure good teachers and staff are in all classrooms.
- Lead by example and focus on improving student outcomes.
- Establish a mission and have teachers, staff and students focused on it.
- Outline and track goals and how to meet those marks.
Good campus-level leadership can have an impact on a school, according to a Wallace Foundation report. The Wallace Foundation is an education research group based in New York City. The report examined the connection between school leadership and student achievement since 2000. Researchers based their conclusions on six studies in a few states and school districts.
Effective principals can lead to almost three additional months of math and reading learning each year, according to the report. Researchers determined the impact of a good principal on student achievement is almost as large as that of a good teacher. Additionally, a good principal can have more of an effect on a school than a single teacher.
The role of principals has shifted in recent decades, said Miriam Ezzani, a professor in Texas Christian University’s College of Education. Principals have gone from mostly managing schools to also being the instructional leader of a campus. Ezzani sees the rise of high stakes testing in the early 2000s as fueling the shift.
“The principal builds a culture and climate that’s conducive to learning. I’m not just talking about learning for the student, but learning for teachers and administrators,” Ezzani said.
Building a culture of learning can take at least two or three years, she said. It all starts with teaching educators how to better respond to the academic needs of their students. Teachers have to get in the rhythm of parsing through data and knowing how to change their lessons to target a particular subject. Ezzani did this when she was a principal. By the third year, her teachers knew exactly how to examine data and strengthen lessons.
“If I was gone after that first year, whatever initiative you’re implementing is going to fall apart,” she said.
Jacquet’s principals since 2012
Jacquet Middle School has had seven principals in the past 10 years, according to district officials. Here’s a look at who has lead the campus and for how long:
- LaKeisha Sasser, 2021-22
- Kristin Foreman, 2020-21
- Cheryl Johnson, 2018-20
- Reginald Terrell, finished the 2017-18 school year
- Latanya Sadler, started the 2017-18 school year
- Ricky Brown, 2016-17
- Howard Robinson, 2012-16
The Wallace Foundation report stressed principals’ effect on student outcomes is not the same as a teacher. Principals largely affect teachers because they create a good working environment that keeps, develops and encourages educators.
Ezzani described principals as being the lynch pin for a successful school. They mentor and coach teachers. They also put in place strategies that recruit and retain effective teachers. Principals also forge relationships with families, the education professor said. Those connections have to be nurtured. All of this takes time to see any change in student achievement.
Principals also have a positive effect on low-income students as well as students and teachers of color, according to the Wallace Foundation.
High principal turnover can be detrimental to a school, students and teachers. Turnover tends to be higher in schools that look like Jacquet Middle School — campuses with high numbers of low-income, low-performing students of color. The Wallace Foundation added a caveat, though: Turnover can be good if an ineffective principal is replaced with a more effective leader.
‘Same problem again and again’
James Stuer, a math teacher at Jacquet, has seen the effects of his school’s constant leadership change. For Phalen and Fort Worth ISD, it’s unreasonable to have high standards and goals when the principal is constantly changing, he said. He compared a school to a car.
“A mechanic goes in, diagnoses a problem with your engine, but you trade him out for a new mechanic and it’s the same problem again and again. Until the problem is resolved, you will never — never — get the adequate numbers that you want,” Stuer said to district officials.
Robertson, the English teacher, sees Phalen and Fort Worth ISD removing the principal as taking away the one thing that has been effective this year.
“Don’t take this away from your children,” Robertson told the school board in late April.
Nonetheless, a new principal is coming. As of mid-May, Phalen Leadership Academies has a job posting — along with 11 other positions — for a school leader for Jacquet Middle School. Among its top priorities for the school’s next principal? “A results-focused and data-driven turnaround leader,” the posting reads.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 16, 2022, to include principals who previously led Jacquet Middle School. Seven principals have led the campus since 2012.
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.