Parent Stephanie Banda watched as Nola Wellman, who is helping find Fort Worth ISD’s next superintendent, started to write a single word in black ink on a large piece of paper.
Wellman, who works with superintendent search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, wanted to know from the group of parents and residents gathered inside Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School’s cafeteria what challenges their school district is facing and will continue to deal with over the next five years.
Banda tossed out special education, a topic close to her. She works as a family engagement specialist at Boulevard Heights School, a Fort Worth ISD campus dedicated to exclusively helping students with special needs. She does not currently see the district making them feel included as other students who typically grab the limelight through their academic or athletic prowess.
Banda was one of more than a dozen people who attended a 50-minute meeting at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School. The meeting was part of 18 community gatherings in May focused on figuring out what parents, students, teachers and other residents want to see in the next superintendent. Their concerns — along with those raised in more than several dozen other meetings with local leaders, teachers and others — will be used to create a superintendent profile for Fort Worth ISD that will be used to cull applicants down to the right person to lead the district.
Fort Worth ISD board members are expected to see the profile during a board meeting on June 14.
“All right, I’m going to write a little smaller,” Wellman told the audience as she jotted one or two words about the district’s challenges on the giant sticky note. “What is this superintendent coming into?”
At Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School, parents threw out teacher retention as one issue. Some expressed concern about politics seeping its way into classrooms. Parents, students and other community members tossed out more than a dozen issues they see as problems the next superintendent has to tackle.
Other parents raised concerns about how Fort Worth ISD schools are inconsistent with the classes and extracurricular activities that they offer. Rachel Martinez’s daughter attends Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School and plays softball.
However, similar sized high schools in the district, like Benbrook Middle-High School, have a pitching machine, but Diamond Hill-Jarvis does not, Martinez said. Those things and even the little stuff matter for students.
“I cannot believe how much Diamond Hill-Jarvis doesn’t have compared to other schools that are the same status and have the same amount of students,” Martinez said. “They’re not treated the same. They don’t have the same resources.”
The district’s challenges were one of a few general areas Wellman asked parents about. Others included Fort Worth ISD’s strengths as well as the leadership qualities they wanted in the next superintendent.
Wellman, a former Eanes ISD superintendent, described the leadership discussion as the meat and potatoes of why she was at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School. She told parents to think about what qualities they want in Fort Worth ISD’s next leader. What about their skills, attributes or even administrative styles, she said pacing in front of the audience.
The first priority for the parents was ensuring the next superintendent has worked in a large, urban district like Fort Worth ISD. A person from a rural or even more suburban district won’t necessarily have the skills or experience to jump start Fort Worth ISD, parents told Wellman.
Fort Worth ISD’s issues are different from smaller districts, they said. First, academic performance is down compared to when the current superintendent started in 2015. Then there’s Fort Worth’s demographics. A majority of students in the district are Latino. The next largest group? Black students. Combined, those two demographic groups represent more than eight out of 10 students.
The parents also expressed frustration with how they feel like Fort Worth ISD’s current superintendent doesn’t listen to their concerns and actively seek their feedback. They want a superintendent who shows up at schools, community events and be an active presence in the lives of students and other parents, they said.
Parents also want more transparency in how the new leader reaches decisions and the outcomes.
“That way we can see,” a parent said. “We need to understand the intent.”
Wellman asked the group to confirm her suspicions: They wanted a superintendent with a system of seeking dialogue. Parents nodded and agreed. She added it to another sticky note with leadership written at the top.
Other leadership qualities parents wanted included an innovator, listener, knowledgeable, inspiring and a good financial steward. In all, Wellman listed 23 qualities from the discussion among parents and residents.
‘Sit back and listen’
Inside the red-and-black decorated cafeteria, parents realized their input likely will sway who next leads Fort Worth ISD. The school board member for this area, Roxanne Martinez, stood toward the back of the room as parents weighed what they wanted in their next superintendent.
“My role today is just to sit back and listen,” the trustee said.
The decision of picking a new superintendent falls onto the nine school board members. The decision will have ramifications for years in Fort Worth ISD.
Rachel Martinez, the mother of a Trimble Tech softball player, knows how she will measure the success of Fort Worth ISD’s next superintendent.
“To see him present, but to see him in our community,” Martinez said of the Diamond Hill-Jarvis area.
Banda, the mother who works at Boulevard Heights, knows getting the right superintendent for Fort Worth ISD is important. The district poses challenges. One is its sheer size, covering 210 square miles and its enrollment of about 73,000 students. Then meeting the expectations of the 513,333 people who live in Fort Worth ISD just makes it even harder. Finding the right candidate will be tough.
“I’m worried as a parent. Can we get somebody to do all that?” Banda said, pointing to the four large pieces of paper hanging on the cafeteria walls.
Still, Banda has hope someone somewhere is the right fit for her school district.
“If you find somebody who is hungry who wants that challenge? Give it to them,” she said. “I’m eager to find out who that is.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on May 26, 2022, to clarify parent Rachel Martinez’s daughter attends Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School and to which school she compared her campus. She compared Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School to Benbrook Middle-High School, both of which are 4A campuses.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.