Dozens of parents and kids crowded into a tent on Tarrant County College’s South Campus on a broiling hot morning earlier this month, talking with support service organizations and generally trying to stay in the shade.
Mariana Albarran was one of them. She came to the Tarrant County Back to School Roundup to find a few things she needed before her kids go back to school. Albarran has four kids in the Fort Worth Independent School District. The youngest three are in elementary school. Her oldest daughter starts middle school this year, and Albarran was trying to help her get ready for that transition.
“She’s still nervous, but I told her that everything’s going to be fine,” Albarran said.
Standing a few feet behind her mom, Albarran’s daughter shook her head nervously.
Albarran said she had plenty to do to get her kids ready for the first day of school. She came to the fair to get school supplies, and also to get connected with other community resources that could help her kids during the upcoming school year.
Although many students are still dealing with the academic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Albarran said her kids did OK during remote learning. They were glad to come back to school and see their friends when schools reopened, but they mostly kept up while they had to work from home — “not to brag,” she said.
Despite that, her kids still missed out on experiences that should have been major milestones in their school careers, Albarran said. Her youngest started pre-K in remote learning, so she didn’t get a typical first day of school. Another one of her kids was in kindergarten in 2020, when schools finished out the year in remote learning. That meant he didn’t get a kindergarten graduation, she said.
This week marks the beginning of the school year for most districts in Tarrant County. Although districts are a few years removed from school shutdowns, school leaders say students are still dealing with the academic, social and mental health effects of the pandemic. Helping students recover continues to be a top priority for schools this year.
“We have a lot of healing to do from the pandemic,” said Angélica Ramsey, superintendent of Fort Worth ISD.
Fort Worth students continue to feel pandemic’s effects
In schools across the country, the shift to online learning at the beginning of the pandemic had severe academic consequences for students, particularly those in low-income families. In Fort Worth ISD, third-grade reading scores rebounded last year to higher than they were before the pandemic. But Ramsey said the district still isn’t where it wants to be.
In the spring of 2022, 38% of third-graders in the district scored on grade level in reading on the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR. That year, 66% of the district’s third-graders either approached or met grade level in reading, test results show. Those results not only top those from the spring of 2021, they also represent growth over the years before the pandemic. In the spring of 2019, about a year before school shutdowns began, 64% of third-graders met or approached grade level in reading, with 33% scoring on grade level. Results of the 2023 STAAR exams are expected this week.
Despite those gains, teachers in the district still have to work to close gaps in students’ learning left over from school shutdowns, Ramsey said. Those gaps have an especially serious impact for younger learners, she said, because the early years of school are when students learn foundational concepts that everything else builds on. Many early-grade students struggled to master the fundamental skills that make up reading or numeracy because going to school online didn’t work well for them, she said. Now, teachers in later grades have to go back and re-teach those skills that students should have mastered in earlier years, she said.
That leaves teachers in a difficult position, Ramsey said. In a normal year, teachers were expected to teach students a year’s worth of material in 180 school days — a challenging task even in the best of circumstances, she said. Now, teachers not only have to teach the concepts students need to learn that year, they also have to go back and make up anything students missed during school shutdowns, she said.
FWISD starts school year with new administrative structure
The new school year is also the first after a major administrative staffing shake-up in Fort Worth ISD. Earlier this year, the district’s school board approved a plan to reorganize the district’s central office staff, cutting hundreds of administrative jobs. A district spokeswoman said the cuts were necessary because of years of declining enrollment and “the need to reallocate resources from central administration to impact student learning more positively.”
Ramsey said her goal was for the district to come out of the staffing changes more nimble and better able to operate as a single organization, rather than a collection of campuses, each following its own plan.
Following the changes, the district’s central office will operate as a school service center that exists to provide each campus with the support it needs, she said. That model allows the district to manage the different needs of each campus in a way that it couldn’t before, she said. Central office will offer a “menu of supports,” she said — a school with a large number of bilingual students might get extra bilingual teachers, while another campus that has a large number of students who receive special education services might get more special education teachers.
“It’s all resources,” Ramsey said. “So it can be people, it can be services, programs, professional development, and it could be actual dollars.”
During a school board workshop Tuesday evening, Melissa Kelly, Fort Worth ISD’s associate superintendent of learning and leading, told board members that the district’s highest-need schools will get a range of extra support, including help from expert content coaches who help teachers hone their craft. Students at those schools might notice those coaches coming into their classrooms and co-teaching alongside their teachers, she said.
Teachers at those campuses will also get more time to collaborate with their colleagues, Kelly said. Those schools will begin scheduling monthly sessions for teachers to meet in groups, along with their building administrators, to look at student performance data and develop lesson plans based on what students need, she said.
Those highest-need campuses represent the top level of the district’s three-tiered support structure, Kelly said. Schools in the middle tier will also get support that’s tailored to what they need, she said. At the lowest-need campuses, the focus will be on closing achievement gaps between demographic groups, she said.
As the district’s central office staff adapts to a new administrative model, it’s also moving into a new building. Over the next few weeks, the district will move its central office from its current location on University Boulevard to a converted department store on Camp Bowie Boulevard. The building is the former home of the International Newcomer Academy, a school for students who are new arrivals in the United States, many of them as refugees fleeing conflict in their home countries. The academy moved into a vacant school building about a mile east of Arlington Heights High School in 2021.
Move toward science-backed reading instruction continues
Another priority for this school year is continuing to push forward with the rollout of a new literacy curriculum based on the science of reading, Ramsey said. Although the district is a few years into preparing for the change, last year marked the first year it began using classroom materials based on the new curriculum in every elementary school in the district.
That implementation wasn’t without its hiccups, Ramsey said. When Ramsey arrived in Fort Worth ISD in September, six weeks into the school year, she learned that, because of logistical issues at the state level, teachers were just getting instructional materials for reading. Teachers had access to online tools, she said, but they didn’t have physical materials like workbooks that students could highlight or write in.
“If I was frustrated, I can only imagine how they felt,” she said.
In the second year of district-wide implementation, there’s still plenty of work to do, Ramsey said. In the weeks leading up to the beginning of school, new teachers went through training on how to teach students using the techniques the curriculum emphasizes, and principals and assistant principals got training on how to work with teachers to develop their instructional skills, she said. Texas state law now requires that colleges of education train their students on the science of reading, so every first-year teacher the district hires from a Texas university should theoretically have a background in it.
But Ramsey said there’s a difference between learning the theory behind those teaching techniques in college and putting them into practice in an elementary classroom. During professional development sessions at the end of the summer, district leaders worked with teachers on how to use those skills in a real-world classroom situation, including how to adapt them for the varied needs of their students, she said.
The new curriculum represents a departure from a model of reading instruction called balanced literacy, which was common in school districts nationwide for years but has fallen out of favor more recently. Balanced literacy combines phonics instruction with a now-discredited reading instructional model called whole language.
Where phonics instruction teaches students to decode written words by sounding out the letter combinations that make them up, the whole language model de-emphasizes teaching students to read letters. Instead, it encourages them to look for cues about what the word might be, including pictures on the page, how the word fits in a sentence and the letter it starts with. Education researchers and cognitive scientists have concluded that the whole language model is less effective than phonics instruction in teaching kids to read.
Shift to science-based reading framework can take years
The switch from balanced literacy to a science-backed reading curriculum represents a fundamental shift in the underpinnings of how the district teaches its youngest learners to read. It’s a change that has taken years to complete in other districts, much as it’s expected to in Fort Worth.
Gary Kandel is the director of teaching, learning and innovative programs for the Canton City School District in Ohio. The district piloted a new literacy curriculum based on the science of teaching reading at two schools in 2016, three years before those efforts began in Fort Worth.
As a part of that pilot program, teachers at those schools got training through a program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, more commonly known as LETRS. The training is designed to show teachers how to diagnose the issues that are keeping their students from reading well, and correct those problems with each student individually. The district eventually got a bigger grant to provide that training to teachers at every other elementary school.
“The best way I can describe it is it’s all the training in reading that teachers never got in college,” Kandel said.
But even at the schools that were a part of the 2016 pilot program, the plan took a few years to implement, Kandel said. Some teachers adapted to the change immediately, he said, but others needed a few years and extra support to make the shift. After the first year of implementation, district officials talked to teachers about how they were using the new curriculum, what was working and what needed to be changed, he said.
Eventually, most teachers who struggled with the change got on board, Kandel said. The new curriculum allowed teachers to work with students based on their individual needs, he said, and soon enough, many teachers began to see struggling students make progress. That doesn’t happen overnight, he said — it takes years for a school district to finish rolling out a new curriculum, and once it does, its effects don’t show up immediately.
“You have to be very specific and on purpose for every single kid,” he said. “Every building is different. Every teacher is different. And this is something that’s going to take time.”
Improving reading requires community effort, schools chief says
Ramsey said adopting a research-backed reading curriculum by itself isn’t enough to give every student a chance to become a reader. That’s because teaching students how combinations of letters turn into sounds, which go together to make up words, can only take them so far. To understand the text they’re reading, students also need to know what those words mean — an area in which many students are already behind before they enroll in school.
Education researchers say kids who grow up in poverty are exposed to millions fewer words by the time they turn 3 than students from more affluent families. That means those students are already a few steps behind by the time they start kindergarten. Ramsey said that’s a problem the district can’t fix on its own.
The district has a wide range of partnerships in the broader community, including philanthropic foundations, local corporations and colleges and universities across North Texas. Those partnerships are vital, she said, but they mostly focus on efforts to graduate students who are ready for college, a career or the military. Ramsey said she hopes to see similar partnerships that focus on children up to age 3. Those early years are a crucial time for brain development, and they play a big role in determining how students will do in school, she said. But because those students aren’t old enough to enroll in school yet, the district has to work with community partners to support those kids, she said.
“While (it’s) not necessarily the work of the school district, there are a lot of things that aren’t necessarily the work of the school district that we know we have to do,” she said.
FWISD trustee wants more progress in reading scores
Fort Worth ISD school board member Wallace Bridges, who represents portions of central and southeastern Fort Worth, has expressed concern during school board meetings about the district’s lack of progress in improving reading scores, particularly among Black students. During a June 27 board meeting, Bridges said he’s worried the district is spending too much money for too little progress.
Bridges told the Star-Telegram that parents in his district regularly tell him they’re concerned about their kids’ reading scores. The issue dominated conversations while he was running for office, and it continues to be a primary concern today, he said.
Bridges said he’s encouraged by Ramsey’s plan to offer different types of support based on what each campus needs. By acknowledging the problem and developing strategies to address it that go beyond giving every school the same resources they’ve always gotten, district leaders can give families assurances that they’re taking the issue seriously, he said.
“It lowered my anxiety about it,” he said.
The performance gap between Black students and their peers isn’t unique to Fort Worth. Average reading scores declined from 2019 to 2022 among students in all racial and ethnic groups, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress released in June. But that decline was sharpest among Black students, who were already lagging behind their peers in reading nationwide, test data show. Education advocates say that Black and Latino students, and also those from low-income families, suffered the most from pandemic-related disruptions.
Although it’s district leaders’ job to come up with a plan to fix the problem locally, Bridges said the responsibility extends beyond schools, and beyond the parts of the city that are most affected. The fact that Black students are lagging behind their peers in reading affects the entire city, he said, because those students will eventually graduate and enter the workforce. That means community leaders across Fort Worth, including school board members, need to find a way to get involved with solving the problem, he said.
“It’s upon all of us to find what role we can play and what we could do to make an impact in that area,” he said.
This story was originally published August 10, 2023, 5:30 AM.