A year into charter partnership, Fort Worth’s Jacquet Middle School struggles

File photo of a school bus as its stop sign is reflected through the mirror.  A year into a partnership with an Indianapolis-based charter network, a Fort Worth middle school continues to struggle.

File photo of a school bus as its stop sign is reflected through the mirror. A year into a partnership with an Indianapolis-based charter network, a Fort Worth middle school continues to struggle.

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When the Fort Worth school district partnered with an Indiana-based charter network to operate a struggling middle school, district leaders said they hoped the move would bring the stability that the campus had lacked for years.

But a year into that partnership, Jacquet Middle School is still in F-rated campus. Officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District say they’ll be taking greater oversight over the school, which is located in Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood.

Included in the district’s agreement with the Indianapolis-based Phalen Leadership Academies was a requirement that Jacquet, which had been an F-rated campus for years, would improve enough academically in the first year that it would receive a C rating from the state. The following year, the agreement dictates that Jacquet would be a B-rated school.

But one year into the agreement, the school is nowhere close to the C rating the agreement requires. In the 2022 AF accountability scores released last month, the Texas Education Agency gave the school a grade of 59. In a typical year, that score would translate to an F rating. Due to a change in state law, the agency didn’t issue letter grades for any campus or district rated below a 70.

David Saenz, the district’s chief of innovation, said district leaders are already taking steps to make sure Phalen has the support it needs to run the school, but also to hold the charter network accountable for outcomes at the school.

“We do want to work with them and make sure they have all they need to implement what they need to do to turn that campus around,” Saenz said. “But in the end, the expectation remains the same: that campus should turn around.”

Reading, math STAAR scores still lag at Jacquet

The school’s rating was driven in large part by its poor scores on last spring’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. Among the sixth-graders, 16% met grade-level standards in reading on this year’s state test, up from 8% last year. In math, just 4% scored on grade level on this year’s test, up from 2% last year.

In reading, outcomes were marginally better among seventh- and eighth-graders. A quarter of seventh-graders scored on grade level in reading, up from 18% last year. One in five eighth-graders scored on grade level in reading, down from 21% last year.

But math scores declined among seventh- and eighth-graders. Last year, 1% of seventh-graders scored on grade level. This year, virtually no one did. In eighth grade, 4% scored on grade level this year, down from 9% last year.

There were worrisome indicators about campus climate, as well. There were 254 fights and student-on-student assaults at Jacquet during the 2021-22 school year, more than during any year in at least the past five years, according to district records obtained through an open records request. Only three campuses in the district — Forest Oak, Rosemont and Meadowbrook middle schools — had more fights and assaults than Jacquet that year, district figures show.

Texas state law offers incentives for charter partnerships

The partnership is based on a framework outlined in the Senate Bill 1882, which state lawmakers passed in 2017. The bill offers financial incentives for districts to partner with charter operators, nonprofits or colleges and universities to run campuses in those districts. Those schools continue to operate under the auspices of the public school district, but the partner organization takes over day-to-day operations, including staffing decisions.

This isn’t Fort Worth ISD’s first experience with this kind of partnership. In 2019, the district partnered with Texas Wesleyan University to take over operations and management of five struggling schools under the newly-formed Leadership Academy Network. The following year, the district added a sixth campus — Forest Oak 6 Middle School, formerly known as Glencrest 6 — to the network. Each of those campuses except Forest Oak 6 received an A or B rating in this year’s accountability scores.

Jacquet was the third school in Texas that Phalen took over. In 2019, the Beaumont school district partnered with Phalen to run two low-performing schools in the district: Jones-Clark Elementary School and Smith Middle School. Both schools had received F ratings for several consecutive years before the takeover. Neither campus received a letter grade in this year’s accountability scores due to the change in state law. But Smith Middle School received a score of 59, which would be equivalent to an F in a typical year. Jones-Clark received a score of 65, which would be a D.

Fort Worth district to take greater oversight

Saenz said Jacquet’s reading and math scores need to improve. The school’s attendance needs to improve as well, he said. Students learn more when they’re in school regularly, he said. He hopes attendance numbers will improve as fewer students need to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19.

The district will take more oversight of the school since Phalen didn’t live up to the agreement in the first year, Saenz said. The district has a monitoring calendar for Jacquet that involves site visits, conversations with parents and reviews of test data to make sure that the changes Phalen is making are yielding academic gains. District leaders need to make sure the charter network has everything it needs to succeed, but also that it’s following through on what it said it would do, Saenz said.

“Our expectation is that campus still turns around,” he said. “That’s why we entered into the partnership.”

Phalen officials declined requests for an interview for this story. In an emailed statement, officials pointed to the five points of growth Jacquet posted since 2019, when the school received a score of 54 in the state’s accountability ratings. The charter network is implementing systems that school officials said they expect will lead to higher levels of student achievement. As an example of such a system, school leaders pointed to Phalen’s Reading Advantage Program, which they said helps teachers work with students to meet their reading goals.

“While scores improved in our first year of the partnership and are moving in the right direction, there is much work to be done and we are fully committed to that work,” Phalen leaders said. “We are grateful for and appreciate our teachers, school leaders, parents and scholars for their commitment to achieving success. Together, we will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that our scholars are growing and thriving.”

Some charter networks try to grow too quickly

Brian Beabout, a professor of educational leadership at the University of New Orleans, said it isn’t uncommon for large organizations to struggle when they move into a new area. In some cases, those organizations try to grow too quickly and take over low-performing schools in several areas in a short span of time, he said. The danger is that those organizations could end up overextending their own ability to find strong leaders for their campuses or adapt their model for local conditions and local curriculum, he said.

One key factor in how well a national organization does when it partners with a new district is its ability to build good will in the community, Beabout said. He said he’s seen the best and worst examples of how to go about this in New Orleans, which moved to an all-charter model after Hurricane Katrina.

In some cases, the school district brought in three or four charter operators to present their proposals to parents and students. Families got a chance to ask questions and offer their input to district leaders before a decision was made.

At the other end of the spectrum, the district also partnered with The Future Is Now Schools, a charter organization based in Los Angeles, to operate John McDonogh High School in 2012. The school was the site of a 2003 gang-related shooting that left one student dead and three injured. The organization signed on with the Oprah Winfrey Network to produce a documentary series called “Blackboard Wars,” which billed the campus as “one of the most dangerous schools in America.” The documentary damaged the organization’s relationship with the school community, Beabout said, and soon after it aired, the district brought in a different partner to operate the school.

One of the biggest challenges that partner organizations that specialize in school turnarounds face is that it takes time to make the kind of sustainable change the districts are looking for, Beabout said. It can take three to five years to turn around a struggling elementary school, and five to seven years to do the same for a struggling high school, he said. It may be possible to make measurable improvements at a poorly-managed school in one nine-month school year, he said. But sustaining those improvements over time requires staff training and building up the expectations of the community the school serves, he said. None of those things can be done overnight, he said.

‘The only thing that remains is our students.’

One major change Phalen adopted at Jacquet is a change in leadership. At a meeting in late April, the district’s school board voted unanimously to approve a proposal from Phalen to fire LeKeisha Sasser, who had served as Jacquet’s principal since the beginning of the school year. The move marked the latest change in leadership at a campus that has had seven different principals since 2012. Several Jacquet teachers spoke at the meeting, asking the board to consider how that revolving door of principals affected students.

Tonia Robertson, an English teacher at Jacquet, told the board that she had seen six principals come and go in her seven years teaching at the school. That lack of stability is a problem for students, Robertson said. She compared the school to a football team: Without consistent leadership and a consistent strategy, the team can’t be expected to win, she said.

“When you continue to change the coach, you’re not going to have an effective season. Because every coach has a new idea and a different play,” she said. “We’ve had six different coaches, six different ideas, six different plays. The only thing that remains is our students.”

Jacquet has a long way to go to meet requirements

Saenz, the district’s chief of innovation, said district leaders hope the school’s new principal can bring stability to the campus. Next to the teachers, the principal is the person most responsible for a campus’ academic outcomes, he said. They set campus culture, offer feedback and coaching to teachers and provide consistency so that students and parents know what to expect with regard to academics and discipline, he said. They also serve as the face of the school in the community, he said, someone to whom families can talk about what’s going well at the school and what needs to improve.

While he acknowledged that Jacquet has a long way to go to meet the B rating it’s required to achieve under the district’s agreement with Phalen, Saenz said district leaders are committed to doing everything they can to turn the school around and doing right by students and their families. Other campuses in the district have seen rapid growth in a relatively short period, he said, so there’s no reason to think it’s impossible at Jacquet.

“We did have campuses that moved from Fs and Ds to Cs and Bs and some even to an A,” Saenz said. “So it’s possible. We’re not writing them off yet.”

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Silas Allen is an education reporter focusing on challenges and possible solutions in Fort Worth’s school system. Allen is a graduate of the University of Missouri. Before coming to the Star-Telegram, he covered education and other topics at newspapers in Stillwater and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He also served as the news editor of the Dallas Observer, where he wrote about K-12 and higher education. He was born and raised in southeast Missouri.

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