The Commit! Partnership believes poverty is not destiny. While students at schools with high levels of poverty generally perform lower on standardized assessments than their high-income peers, there are schools across Dallas-Fort Worth with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students succeeding academically and even outperforming their high-income peers.

With our fifteen Early Math Network principals from DeSoto and Grand Prairie ISDs, we set out to learn what practices from these high-performing outlier schools could be shared and implemented across Dallas County. During the past two months, over 25 campus leaders, district administrators, and teachers visited seven elementary schools in four districts: Fort Worth ISD (Briscoe Elementary, Peak Elementary, Moore Elementary), Dallas ISD (John Adams Elementary, Knight Elementary), Lancaster ISD (Lancaster Elementary), and Uplift Education (Peak Preparatory).

Across these seven schools, four common themes emerged:

    1. A school culture that emphasizes trust and high expectations: At every campus, the theme that “every student is my student” prevailed—creating a culture where collaboration and support were second nature and where teachers, staff, and administrators worked together to ensure that every student achieved.
    2. Teacher and student ownership of data, which drives instructional practices: Teachers and administrators used rigorous and aligned assessment data to plan and execute instruction. Teachers emphasized using data to determine student gaps, target review and re-teaching efforts, and group students for small group instruction. When principals hold data meetings, it is not to evaluate teachers, but rather to understand what is wrong and what the team is going to do about it.
    3. Hiring teacher-leaders with high expectations for themselves and students: Principals repeatedly emphasized the incredible work of their teachers. Many stressed the importance of hiring teachers who fit the campus culture and showed a desire to grow every day by asking questions to prospective teachers around their belief in students’ capabilities. Those who emphasize all students’ ability to learn and the teachers’ responsibility to unlock and develop that ability were more successful in the classroom.
    4. Building community trust and partnerships to reinforce and support the learning in school: At some campuses, community members are involved through health and wellness classes (like Zumba and healthy cooking) offered at the school, acting as reading partners for students, and parenting classes. Many principals stressed that the more specific they are in defining their needs, the more engaged and supportive community members are.

We want to thank all of the principals, teachers, staff, and students at these outstanding schools for welcoming us and sharing their experiences.

As we begin to form deeper relationships with schools and community partners for the upcoming 2015-2016 school year, we look forward to supporting our Early Math Network principals as they seek to implement what they learned on these visits on their own campuses.