Change is on the horizon for Fort Worth ISD — a new superintendent is coming, and it’s now a B-rated district by the state. But the lingering question remains:

How can the district keep up academic growth and sustain a high rating?

The Fort Worth Report hosted local leaders to dive into these issues Aug. 25. Panelists pointed to supporting teachers, community partnerships and business agreements to help schools improve.

The city needs to focus on education in all of its school districts, said Tom Harris, chair of the Mayor’s Council on Education and Workforce Development. He wants Fort Worth to be able to create a funnel of qualified, trained individuals coming out of all Fort Worth schools.

That means focusing on improving reading and math scores quickly, he said.

“Even though those scores improved year over year, they improved from a year where we were struggling mightily to cope,” Harris said. “So even though people were happy with those scores, I hope that nobody’s content with those scores.”

In March, Mayor Mattie Parker announced the new council, which aims to help more students graduate with an associate degree or industry certification.

Watch the full conversation here:

Outgoing Fort Worth ISD Superintendent Kent Scribner has celebrated a 14-point gain in accountability ratings; he said the district was at a score of 67 out of 100 five years ago and is now at 81. Others say the starting line is different and the district experienced growth because scores were so low in the pandemic. 

The 67 score is from 2017, which was a trial run for accountability ratings. The first official ratings came out in 2018, in which the district scored a 75.

“It’s fascinating to me …. that when we were 14 points ago at 67, there was no conversation about the validity or reliability of the data,” Scribner said. “Now as we are improving, it’s interesting to hear that.”

The pandemic dramatically impacted students in low-income families and people of color, Scribner said. Keeping that in mind, many schools in Fort Worth ISD with high poverty levels were A or B rated schools this year. 

There are 87 campuses in Fort Worth ISD with a low-income percentage of 90% or higher. Of those campuses, 42 received an A or B rating from the state.

When looking at schools for ratings, the Texas Education Agency takes poverty rates into account. The agency compares how the school is performing with other schools with similar poverty levels.

Panelists talked about various partnerships that can help improve education in Fort Worth, such as charter schools.

Rockership operates as a partner to the district, its superintendent, SaJade Miller, said. Rocketship in Fort Worth is not interested in a parallel system, he said. Rather, his hope and goal is for Rocketship students to attend other schools in Fort Worth ISD after completing pre-K through fifth grade in the charter.

“We want to be additive to the education ecosystem,” Miller said. “As the population grows, we have to have some more options for our community.”

Even with population growth, enrollment is declining at Fort Worth ISD and charter enrollment is increasing. The only new charter school approved by the state this year is coming to Fort Worth.

The panelists rooting for each other is a heartwarming sentiment, but Scribner believes public education is under attack, which means democracy is, too, he said.

“We need to be careful that we’re not complicit in this kind of momentum toward undermining public education,” Scribner said. “We can work together. We wanted to work together with some charters, we are working together with the charter here in Texas Wesleyan, you’re seeing great improvement.”

Highlighting the district’s bright spots is a great opportunity, Scribner said. One bright spot he mentioned is improvements in reading, as 38% of third-graders in the district are reading at grade level, up 26% from 2021. 

“You can find dust in anybody’s house,” he said. “And when you have 143 schools, it’s easy to find dust. I can find dust in your house, too.”

Though 38% is an improvement, there still are many third-grade students in the district not reading at grade level. In 2016, the Fort Worth literacy partnership’s announced goal was to have 100% of third-grade students reading at grade level by 2025. The district has three more years to increase that reading level.

However, the next superintendent needs to do better with English-language learners, Scribner said. Only 17% of third-graders are at reading level in this year’s Spanish STAAR data.

Public education can impact business development in a city, and improving reading scores can help. A conversation Harris commonly has with potential businesses about coming to Fort Worth is about the state of public schools, he said. Sometimes, he said, this can be a difficult conversation.

The city has to focus on continuing improvement in reading and math levels, Harris said. Corporate America has to start finding ways to get young people engaged in industries. The business community can do this by offering mentoring, internships, part-time jobs or other pathways for students in new technology.

Before preparing students for employment starts, the magic happens in elementary school, which Miller said is part of the reason the Rocketship campus serves pre-K through fifth grade. The campus wants to make sure the students have a strong foundation, he said.

Part of that foundation is parental involvement. Parents at Rocketship are actively involved in education, Miller said.

“You have to be careful telling parents what they ought to do until you facilitate the environment to where they can do it,” he said. “That’s what parent power is about. It’s about breaking down this hierarchy. It’s about inviting parents and it’s about creating teaching opportunities for them to engage. It’s about going to them.” 

Another part of that foundation includes the science of reading, a teaching method that helps students not only recall words, but comprehend their meaning. This type of learning and improvement will add to the school district when the students enter middle school back in the traditional ISD reading above grade level, Miller said.

Fort Worth ISD also is making changes to revamp its reading curriculum.

Scribner’s last day in the district is Aug. 31, and he said he and his wife are taking a trip to Mexico where he will be “toasting all of you.” But he wanted to be on the panel because the topic caught his attention.

The Report originally asked Chief Innovation Officer David Saenz if he wanted to serve on the panel. The district said Scribner would instead.

“Actually, David, to his credit, said, ‘I don’t think I’m the right guy,’” Scribner said. “He has the job that SaJade used to have in Fort Worth ISD. And he said, ‘They’re talking about the school district, perhaps the individual responsible for the school district should be the one on the panel.’ Two things I thought were curious. One is the title. How do you turn around the school district that seems to be in a positive trajectory?” 

What is missing from the conversation is how the community must invest in teachers who are the heartbeat of school districts, Scribner said. 

The Report also planned to have a teacher on the panel, Essence Flowers, but she had a last-minute scheduling conflict.

“Teachers navigated us through the pandemic from their dining room table. They provided social and emotional support to students and to each other,” Scribner said. “And they are receiving unwarranted attacks from ideologues, and I think it’s incumbent upon our reporters to say that that is only a sector of our population.”

Sustainable growth in Fort Worth ISD has to be a community effort, Scribner said. 

“We’ve had some efforts in this community, on reading, for example, that the way we actually can change and can get traction is to get into the community,” he said. “Get into the community centers, get into abuelita’s house, get into the barber shop. We in Fort Worth are not going to solve reading from the 12th floor of the Fort Worth Club. We have to get out into the community and work with the people who are doing the learning.”

Business leaders and the council can assist by helping, not getting in the way, of teachers and administrators doing their jobs, he said.

Harris said everyone is interested in trying to figure out how to get students’ academic performance where it belongs. 

“We can’t be satisfied with what’s going on today,” Harris said. “We’ve got to keep improving.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.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.

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Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...