Fort Worth ISD schools are learning from successful partnerships on campuses to improve the district as a whole.
Chief Innovation Officer David Saenz said the district learning from partners like the Leadership Academy Network led to new practices and ideas, like the way it offers after school programs and tutoring to middle school campuses.
The education landscape of Fort Worth is changing — more charter schools are coming in, public school enrollment is declining and private schools are establishing themselves. Research shows competition in education does not lead to better performance, so public schools are left with needing to find new options.
A solution? Partnerships might be an answer to competition in the education market. Fort Worth ISD already has established such partnerships, but the challenge is executing them well.
Aaron Dominguez earned his doctorate in education at the University of Texas at Austin in the cooperative superintendency program. He conducted research on partnerships between public schools and charter schools in an effort to find a solution to competition in education.
His research recommends partnerships as a solution to Fort Worth’s education woes.
How was the research conducted?
This qualitative study employed a single exploratory case study design. Meaning Dominguez did not collect quantitative data — like numeric values — but data that can’t be easily expressed using numbers.
He conducted interviews with administration, board members, campus-level leaders and teachers about the partnership between the charter and public schools.
The study notes there is not much literature and research on this topic since it is so new and it hopes to add to the pool of literature.
Competition does not equal success
The rise of charter schools in the state certainly is creating a competitive market, Dominguez points out. However, research he cites shows it does not necessarily drive up student outcomes.
His thesis cites “there is little to no empirical evidence supporting the claim increased competition in the marketplace improves district public schools. They found competition fosters only minute change in district public schools, short-term impacts are not great, and observed changes may or may not be effective.”
Some of the literature he cites further states that the educational marketplace does not behave like the economy in which one competitor succeeds at the cost of another failing. “The time is right for portfolio or collaborative models of school districts.”
“What I argue is if we can take that energy that we expend competing with each other, what we really want is better outcomes for the families we serve,” he said. “Instead of competing with each other, stealing teachers from each other, stealing students from each other, what if we flipped that on its head?”
Dominguez argues schools partnering would better serve the community and the students served. In his research, he conducted a case study at a campus using such partnerships. The independent school district campus partnered with a charter school, and he explored how the partnership worked at all levels.
Fort Worth ISD is exploring a similar kind of partnership that’s encouraged by the state. Senate Bill 1882 gives the district extra money per student for a school district to partner with an outside entity to operate campuses for either innovation or turnaround.
The district has two partnerships. One with the Leadership Academy Network at Texas Wesleyan University operating Como Elementary, John T. White Elementary, Maude I. Logan Elementary, Mitchell Boulevard Elementary and Forest Oak Middle schools. The other partnership is with the nonprofit Phalen Leadership Academy, which operates Jacquet Middle School.
Some advocates for 1882 agreements say the extra funding is what gives the partnerships an edge. Dominguez, however, thinks it’s the collaboration.
The State of Texas funds schools with local property tax revenue and the average daily attendance of schools. The funding formula is calculated with how many students attend a school. If students leave a public school for a charter or private school, that funding goes down.
Dominguez is a principal at a Catholic high school in Houston, but he also worked in the public school system for years. He said he worked at some of the poorest schools in the city, but he does not believe money was the problem.
Too often, Dominguez said, school systems make excuses for a lack of outcomes when really school leaders are ill-equipped to do the job they were told to do.
When state accountability ratings were released Aug. 15, it showed the partnership with Leadership Academy Network might be working in Fort Worth ISD’s favor. Mitchell Boulevard Elementary earned an A, Forest Oak sixth grade was not rated — meaning it received a D or F — and the remaining campuses were brought up to a B.
Senior Officer Priscila Dilley said the sixth grade at Forest Oak was added later than the other campuses, but she’s confident the grade will go up next year.
Jacquet Middle School also was not rated this year, but Phalen Leadership Academy took over that campus in 2021.
Though the Leadership Academy Network’s campuses showed gains, so did other campuses in the district. That means there could be other factors than just the partnership causing improvements.
But Dilley still said the partnership is doing work other campuses are not able to do. Extra funds and philanthropic partners allow the schools to help with some of the poverty needs families have.
“These are really hard schools,” Dilley said. “There’s a lot that our babies go through and they come in and a lot of them are not on grade level and come in already behind.”
What makes a good partnership?
Partnerships have failed, but good ones start with buy-in from leadership, including the school board and superintendent, Dominguez said.
Another important part is mindset. In his research, he found when campus leadership, like principals, approached the partnerships with a mindset of opportunity, the partnership is more successful.
“That was their mindset, ‘Here’s an opportunity to collaborate with another leader and another school, we can have a mutually beneficial relationship,’” he said. “And they worked well together. They met together regularly. They weren’t in conflict with one another when things arose that were problematic, they would discuss it and talk about it, and come up with a solution that was mutually beneficial.”
But leadership also needs to invest time in teachers for collaborations to be successful, Dominguez said. If there is a new framework or curriculum to put in place, there needs to be time to develop and implement those ideas.
“What we know about highly effective schools is that great leaders will carve out the time in the schedule to facilitate collaboration and work around the things that are the most important,” Dominguez said. “So if you want teachers to collaborate, you’ve got to create the time for them to do so.”
This is something Dilley said Leadership Academy Network works on. The curriculum is not just one size fits all, but teachers work to make it more tailored to student needs.
In the future, Fort Worth ISD could explore other partnership options to help student outcomes improve. According to txpartnerships.org, a website designed to help explain SB 1882 partnerships, there is no limit on the number of partnerships that can receive benefits in a district.
However, Saenz said, Fort Worth ISD is focused on making sure the existing partnerships continue to be successful or are on the path to success.
Saenz does not anticipate funding being taken away. He said it’s a strong initiative from the Texas Education Agency. The district hasn’t discussed what would happen to the partnerships if funding was removed, he said.
But he did say there were legislative changes that led to less funding for the Phalen Leadership Academy partnership than for the Leadership Academy Network. Still, the district continued with the partnership.
As the district continues to look at these partners, Dilley and her team at Leadership Academy Network will have to show results to the school board this year when the contract is up for renewal.
“There’s a lot that the district has done to really work on improving schools,” Dilley said. “I think the reality of it is, the starting line for schools on the east side is further back.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.