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Innovative thinking: State clears path for Grand Prairie, other districts to boost local control

Article from Dallas News - Loyd Brumfield, Nanette Light and Valerie Wigglesworth - November 5, 2016

GRAND PRAIRIE -- Tracy Aldridge has spent the past two years volunteering his time mentoring students in the Grand Prairie school district's Career and Technical Education programs.

But the Realtor for United Realty & Associates never considered going into teaching because of the time-consuming, and sometimes expensive, process of becoming certified.

Aldridge and other industry professionals can reconsider their options now, after the Legislature in 2015 passed House Bill 1842, which allows school districts to get exemptions from certain provisions of the Texas Education Code - including teacher certification.

"I always get excited driving up to Dubiski [Career High School] just knowing what the possibilities are with this program," Aldridge said. "I feel like, with my experience, I have so much to offer that another teacher may not be able to give."

The bill created a District of Innovation designation that gives districts more local control in several areas over a five-year period, including setting their start dates, adjusting teacher-student ratios and establishing their own teacher certification criteria.

The state's certification process has sometimes had a chilling effect on hiring professionals with industry experience to help teach students who are enrolled in one of Grand Prairie's 29 CTE programs.

 Thanks to the district's new designation, Aldridge said he might one day consider teaching, but in the meantime he was one of dozens of professionals who worked with eighth-grade students at the district's third annual My Future My Way exhibit highlighting CTE programs Thursday at Asia Times Square. 

Qualified but can't teach

Texas Education Agency approval is not required for districts to become Districts of Innovation, although the TEA must monitor long-term results. In addition, districts must remain in good academic standing.

All of the district's CTE teachers have at least some practical experience, said Traci Davis, Grand Prairie's area superintendent of innovation and choice.

"All of our CTE teachers are certainly qualified, but sometimes there are those who are even more qualified, who have even more practical experience, that we couldn't bring in," she said.

Davis pointed to a dental instructor whom the district sought to hire a couple of years ago but couldn't because teacher certification took took too long.

My Future, My Way Exp
Alex Perales (top left) and Natalia Espino (bottom left) talk about engineering to students from John Adams Middle School as a part of the My Future My Way exhibit in Grand Prairie. Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News

"She was qualified enough to teach actual dentists, but not our students," Davis said.

According to the TEA, 37 school districts statewide have declared themselves Districts of Innovation. Around North Texas, in addition to Grand Prairie, the Mansfield, Red Oak, Kaufman and Terrell school districts have plans in place. Several others, including Coppell, Allen, Frisco, Richardson, Keller, Plano, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Grapevine-Colleyville, Midlothian and Lewisville are in the process.

Dallas ISD is in the early stages of exploring its options.

"This was my chance - as well as anyone's chance - to shape the district," said Doris Hill, a freshman English teacher at South Grand Prairie High School and a member of the district's Local Innovation Committee.

Grand Prairie sought exemptions in four areas of state regulation - class size in kindergarten through fourth grade; uniform start date; certification and minutes of instruction for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten students.

Other districts' thoughts

Mansfield chose two areas of exemption - certification and uniform start date. 

"Core curriculum teachers at Mansfield ISD are still required to have certification," but CTE teachers have more flexible options now, said Sean Scott, Mansfield's assistant superintendent of technology and information systems.

"As an example, being a District of Innovation has allowed us to open and staff a full-scale Computer Numerical Control shop," Scott said. "This creates incredible opportunities for our students."

Frisco ISD initiated the process to become a District of Innovation in October. A public hearing is scheduled for the Nov. 14 school board meeting. After that, if the board decides to move forward, a committee will be set up to develop a plan. 

My Future, My Way Expo
Grand Prairie ISD students preview career and technical educations programs at the My Future My Way exhibit at Asia Times Square in Grand Prairie.
NAthan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News

Frisco ISD officials still have a lot of questions about the designation and how it might work there. But the possibilities for more local control are promising. 

"We're looking at some of the flexibilities we have with this," Superintendent Jeremy Lyon told the board last month. "It actually will provide great utility down the road for FISD."

Allen ISD's board of trustees plans to vote on its plan at the Nov. 28 meeting. If approved, board president Louise Master said the plan will be sent to the TEA. The district hopes to have the plan in place by the end of the year.

For years, Master said the district has talked with legislators about giving local districts control over school start dates and the ability to hire professionals without teaching certificates to teach CTE classes.

"When they gave us the opportunity to become a district of innovation, we jumped at it," she said.

A cumbersome process

Even though TEA approval isn't required to become a District of Innovation, the process itself is complicated.

It begins with a school board resolution or a petition from a district-level advisory committee; then public hearings must be conducted to consider developing a plan. Within 30 days of those hearings, the board must decide whether to pursue the designation.

Once a plan is developed, it must be posted on the district website for at least 30 days, then the TEA commissioner, Mike Morath, must be notified about the district's intentions. Then the district advisory committee must approve the plan with a majority vote, then the school board must follow with at least two-thirds approval.

After that, the board must notify Morath that it has put a plan in place.

Most of Grand Prairie's exemptions will take affect with the 2016-17 school year.

My Future, My Way Expo
Austin Elliott (center) talks to Larry Hernandez about the Grand Prairie ISD dentistry program during an exhibit at Asia Times Square in Grand Prairie. 
Nathan Hunsiinger/The Dallas Morning News

"We did look into what the negative consequences and what the positive consequences could be," said Hill, the advisory board member and freshman English teacher.

Grand Prairie didn't pursue other exemptions that were available, including those involving teacher contracts or minimum pay.

"We believe in our teachers. We want to be able to pay and retain quality teachers," Davis said.

Changing the district's start date can help better align its calendar with those of most colleges, Davis said. With an exemption in place, Grand Prairie can adjust its start date so it can complete a semester before winter break without having students come back after two weeks off to take final exams.

Having flexibility in class size ratios at the elementary level helps schools cope with higher-than-expected enrollments and keeps teachers and students from having to move from class to class or even school to school to keep up with the mandated 22-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten through the fourth grade, Davis said.

Main benefits

But Grand Prairie expects the main benefit will come in its CTE programs -- which have more than 7,000 high school students enrolled.

Such programs help students become certified to work in several fields -- such as health and sciences, firefighting, law enforcement, media technology and others -- as soon as they graduate from high school.

"I think if I had been able to focus on what I wanted to do before I got to college, I would have saved my parents a whole lot of money," said Winston Minix, Grand Prairie's executive director of CTE.

Lupe Salazar, a longtime district volunteer with a daughter at South Grand Prairie High School and a son at Reagan Middle School, is director of operations at Pantego Bible Church in Fort Worth. He also has a long career in security and logistics.

"Imagine you retire or you win the lottery, and you think, 'I've got something to share and I want to teach,' but you have to be certified," said Salazar, who also serves on the district's Innovation Advisory Committee. "If you've got 30 years of experience, that's every bit as notable as a certification or even a degree.

"If you want to teach, now you can."