The ACE program is credited for improving failing schools, but its long-term impact is still unknown.
Paul L. Dunbar was an elementary school on the brink, just two points away from failing state academic standards in 2018, when the district tapped Alpher Garrett-Jones to serve as principal.
The school leader said “morbid” data showed more than half of her students failed state tests and nearly 1 in 10 received an out-of-school suspension. Most lived in poverty and — in their neighborhood just blocks from Fair Park — young kids have already navigated the aftermath of violent crime.
That made Dunbar the right fit for Dallas ISD’s signature turnaround program, which floods struggling schools with additional resources. And now because of the pandemic, Dallas has more students than ever who need this kind of intensive — and expensive — support.
Since 2015, DISD has relied on the Accelerating Campus Excellence model, known as ACE, to intervene when students at a school are chronically struggling. It temporarily provides longer days, extra tutoring and additional student support. The district offers stipends to encourage Dallas’ best educators to work at and lead ACE campuses.
Children at Dunbar saw an immediate boost on their state test scores. The percentage of students passing STAAR exams shot up roughly 25 points.
“We found teachers willing to roll up their sleeves and work around the clock to give our children the best experience possible,” Garrett-Jones said.
Exploring lessons from ACE could be critical as more than $700 million in federal aid flows to Dallas to help children make up learning losses suffered from COVID-19. The money — which includes the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds — must be mostly spent within three years.
The district’s results from ACE illustrate the potential for success when officials funnel additional, targeted help to students in need. But it also foreshadows the challenges that arise when those resources are withdrawn.
“The best lesson that was learned in ACE was that if you strategically place your resources, both human capital and financial, in front of students who need it most, they do better,” DISD board president Ben Mackey said. “That is the learning that Dallas ISD is walking forward with on the ESSER funds.”
The district has spent roughly $74 million on the ACE program since its inception.
While the turnaround program largely fulfilled its goal of lifting campuses out of the ranks of failing schools, questions of sustainability and scalability linger. The district also has yet to analyze long-term student outcomes to determine how the ACE program affects children years later.
ACE campuses in DISD — 23 in total — serve the very communities that were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, mostly low-income neighborhoods where many Black and Latino families live. But students across the district have suffered from food insecurity, unemployment in their families, inconsistent internet access and other trauma in the past year-and-a-half.
Dallas ISD plans to use some of its pandemic recovery aid on programs that echo the hallmarks of ACE, including expanded tutoring and after-school programming.
“The DNA of ACE was in our model for our recovery plan,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said.
But like in ACE, the additional resources can’t last forever. In a few years, campuses that benefit from the temporary federal dollars will have to prepare for what some have called the “pandemic funding cliff.”
‘Most important ingredient’
Students from disadvantaged backgrounds receive less effective teaching on average, research shows.
ACE aims to disrupt that pattern by offering teachers hefty bonuses to relocate to campuses in the program. In many schools, almost the entire staff was replaced.
Schools nationwide have tried turnaround efforts for years. ACE is different because it relies on a systemwide pay-for-performance evaluation model that clearly defines which educators are considered the “best.”
“My gosh, we used to commit malpractice before we had ACE,” Hinojosa said. “We would send baby teachers to these tough schools and wonder why they left by October or left within a year. ACE has helped us bring better teachers to the tougher schools, where they have a better chance for success.”
The Teacher Excellence Initiative replaced a longstanding model in which the majority of Dallas educators were deemed effective and pay was predicated on years of experience. TEI instead grades and pays teachers based on student achievement, classroom observations and surveys.
Re-staffing a school without the ability to differentiate between educators’ skill sets is akin to “just moving chairs around on the deck,” said former DISD Superintendent Mike Miles, who initiated ACE.
DISD previously tried a variety of turnaround efforts, including Imagine 2020 — an initiative Miles launched that included similar elements but did not involve a full staff restart based on TEI rankings. Hinojosa nixed the program during his second stint as superintendent after it failed to produce sufficient results.
Under ACE, the more highly rated teachers on a participating campus, the more progress students generally made, district evaluators found.
Research shows that the teacher is the “single most important ingredient” in helping students progress, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has said.
The district often touts the ACE model’s success stories: Annie Webb Blanton Elementary, which improved enough to best the results of a campus in affluent Highland Park, and Edward Titche Elementary, which was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2020.
Six of the original seven schools in the initiative met state standards after just one year in the program. One outlier — Edison Middle — struggled to make the same gains and eventually closed. Others made progress only to later tumble.
Roger Q. Mills Elementary, for example, soared to passing state academic accountability standards all three years it was part of the ACE program. But after the resources receded, the campus scored an F.
Teacher turnover and leadership changes precipitated Mills’ decline, district officials say, which triggered them to research how to diagnose and solve the issue.
Roughly 10% of Dallas schools have participated in ACE since its inception.
The ACE model of 2021 contains markedly different elements from when the program launched seven years ago, though it still focuses on increasing family engagement, strengthening teacher effectiveness and raising expectations for students.
Under the current program, campuses require teachers to work extra hours, focus intensely on student assessment data and do extensive training on both academics and children’s social-emotional needs.
Before the pandemic, school leaders searched for ways to expand the supports beyond the small cohort of ACE campuses. They designated about one-third of schools as “high priority campuses” that get some — though not all — of the resources.
Garrett Landry, who helped launch ACE and is now a consultant, said ultimately, focusing on teacher quality and supplying these additional resources are best practices that should end up on every campus.
“Those social-emotional supports are invaluable to students and really shouldn’t be pulled back,” he said.
The ACE program demands additional time and energy from teachers, which can lead to burnout. Some campuses struggled with retaining teachers over the years, while others have watched their percentage of top-rated educators soar.
But the district doesn’t have an infinite supply of “highly effective” teachers. And many of them are content working at magnet and other less-challenging campuses.
When Dunbar joined ACE, school leaders had a hard time recruiting enough effective teachers to fill all the open jobs.
If you are coming from an A-rated campus to one that’s close to failing, “are you going to accept that challenge or not?” Garrett-Jones asked.
Another concern: How should campuses end their time in ACE, which was originally branded as a three-year initiative?
Officials first thought after that time period, “everything would be great, you’d go back to your feeder pattern, and we would touch base with you,” said Jolee Healey, DISD’s deputy chief of priority schools and leadership development.
But after the district withdrew most of the stipends and other supports, students’ scores dipped again.
Dade Middle School — a campus that had five principals in the four years before joining ACE — received passing grades during its three turnaround years. But immediately after losing many resources, and yet another principal, the school earned a D.
In fact, middle schools consistently had a harder time making gains in ACE. Older students, district officials say, often come with more entrenched learning gaps. Plus, they said, Dallas has a smaller pool for “highly effective” middle school teachers. The program now more strategically targets elementaries.
At Umphrey Lee Elementary, which maintained its B rating after leaving ACE, staff feared what would happen next.
“The school is already teetering either way,” teacher Michele Willis said. “You’ve achieved what you wanted to achieve, but then you take all the resources away. What do you think is going to happen?”
Willis’ concerns were shared by many, prompting the district to change how it transitioned schools out of the program.
Millions in new state money allowed the district to fold campuses that had gone through ACE back into the program — renewing stipends and support at schools like Umphrey Lee. They also developed a “more robust transition plan with some metrics,” Healey said.
Campuses must now meet certain benchmarks before they can exit the ACE program. Among them: Schools must maintain certain test results; score among the top campuses districtwide on teacher and student surveys; and count 70% of their teachers in a certain effectiveness level.
After hitting those marks, ACE campuses will stay within the “high-priority” cohort and maintain a reduced level of support and monitoring before their budget returns to normal.
“We know that it’s not about, ‘Three years and you’re out,’ or ‘Four years and you’re out,’” Healey said.
Stephanie McCloud became Umphrey Lee’s principal the year her campus exited ACE. She immediately grappled with how to retain teachers and maintain momentum.
“We still have to put in the work. We still have to tutor,” McCloud said. “And those things were an expectation and a nonnegotiable under the ACE umbrella because the funding was there. And now, I’m asking you to do the same thing that we did before with less money.”
What did teachers need to stay on campus? A good relationship with your principal and a positive culture can be more valuable than a stipend, they stressed.
“Sometimes that’s better than money, point-blank,” Willis said. “We’ve all had opportunities to go elsewhere. If she’s here, I’m here.”
Research shows that effective principals have a positive impact on student achievement and attendance, as well as on teacher satisfaction and retention.
Evaluators encouraged district officials to research the most effective way to transition an ACE campus and avoid losing gains. DISD has looked at research on turnaround programs across the nation to guide its plan.
Principals like Garrett-Jones feel confident that ACE is working for her students, and her resolve is stronger in the face of everything lost since March 2020.
The turnaround model reminds her of the work done in the mid-1980s, when a judge ordered that resources be pumped into certain schools in southern Dallas, dubbed “learning centers,” as part of a remedy to segregation.
Then, about two decades later, the longtime educator watched as those resources were removed by the school board.
Asked if she knew when Dunbar’s ACE resources might recede, Garrett-Jones responded: “Hopefully never.”
From the start, DISD’s own evaluators cautioned that it is important to track the success of students as they move on from an ACE elementary.
Do students continue to succeed years after they leave an ACE campus with improved test scores and, eventually, graduation rates? Dallas ISD has not yet definitively answered this question.
Now that several years have passed, officials said they can “truly embark” on that research.
“It takes several years before those elementary kids start getting into high school and, of course, graduating, so some of those long-term outcomes we couldn’t research until several years down the road,” said Larry Featherston, a DISD evaluator who has studied the ACE model. “Now of course with the pandemic, shutting down, we lost a lot of data.”
Critics say this kind of longer-term analysis is overdue.
Once former ACE students get to middle school, “did it make a difference or didn’t it?” said Lori Kirkpatrick, a district parent and former trustee candidate who has raised concerns about DISD reforms.
Evaluators expect an analysis on ACE student outcomes to start this year.
Elsewhere across Texas, other districts have already adopted their own ACE-like programs, including Richardson and Garland. Some began replicating DISD’s efforts only a few years into the program, when Dallas leaders were still making changes to the model.
When it came time to overhaul school finance in 2019, lawmakers created a permanent funding source with the intent of sustaining such turnaround programs.
The Teacher Incentive Allotment awards bonuses — ranging up to $32,000 — for high-performing teachers who work at campuses in impoverished or rural communities, helping to answer the sustainability question.
The district will leverage this funding, officials say, to encourage highly effective teachers to work with the students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.
Knowing what methods work to help youngsters catch up is key in how DISD should spend its federal pandemic aid. Officials are looking at research-backed interventions like tutoring and expanded after-school programs.
Some say there should be near-immediate feedback, given the limited time to spend precious dollars and the high stakes of kids’ learning loss.
And then there’s the bigger question: What happens when that federal money goes away?
The district has found a way to reserve a portion of its federal aid for use after the expiration date to continue some proven programs. And while the pandemic’s disruptions present a massive challenge, Hinojosa is optimistic.
“You better not bring any excuses because there are none. We’ll need more time. We’ll need more muscle,” the superintendent said. “We need to be humble, hungry and smart. But if we do those things, we can overcome this. We will overcome this in three years.”
Note: This article is part of our State of the City project, in which The Dallas Morning News explores the most critical issues facing our communities. Find more topics in coming days as we examine the issue of public education.
Stay connected to the latest in education by signing up for our weekly newsletter.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.