DISD superintendent speaks at CATALYSTS event
By Melanie Wisniewski
The National Council of Jewish Women Dallas (NCJW Dallas) held the second event in its ‘22-‘23 CATALYSTS speaker series on Tuesday, Jan. 17. CATALYSTS speakers are women leading in male-dominated fields, bringing their dynamic energies and passions to ignite transformation. The speaker at the Jan. 17 event was Dallas Independent School District (DISD) Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde.
With studies, stories and humor, Elizalde, the leader of the seventh largest public school system in the country, gave a captivating and wide-reaching overview of the challenges and opportunities DISD deals with daily.
What are the stakes?
After thanking NCJW Dallas for their many decades of strong support for public education and for DISD specifically, Elizalde led off her presentation with one fundamental, two-part assertion. First, she stated that the future of Dallas — for all of us — depends on how well stakeholders educate and invest in the 142,000 students currently in DISD. She followed up with another pronouncement: that DISD cannot do what needs to be done on its own. It also needs internal and external stakeholders and partners who publicly support and supplement its initiatives to get the job done.
Under Elizalde, DISD is committed to educating all its students; however, not all its students begin at the same starting point. Each student must be provided with the opportunities and any additional resources needed to end at the same goal — success in life. As a result, more investment and more community involvement need to be prioritized for those starting behind.
What is the program?
Elizalde was adamant in her discussion of DISD programs that “the teacher is the program!” Only three groups of DISD staff are compensated on their ability to add value and improve academic performance: teachers, principals and their immediate supervisors. They are the top of the DISD pyramid who serve students.
All other DISD staff — herself included — support those efforts both directly and with special programs and policies. Among those programs and policies, she described the identification and support of High Priority Campuses (HPCs), schools where historically students have been left behind. She also explained the success of Reset Centers, where students whose behavior might have once earned them a three-day suspension are instead provided with interventions, time to refocus and tools to better understand and manage their emotions. These programs exist in addition to Career Institutes, Magnet Schools, Choice Programs and others. Transportation is provided for all students in these programs.
Students with mental health challenges have received increased resources during her superintendency. They are provided with guidance programs and one-on-one support from trained, on-staff personnel. If needed, additional support is provided by community partners such as Parkland Hospital.
Elizalde has also shifted DISD’s teaching philosophy away from test prep, stating, “I want our students to be taught and prepared for the test of life” and “to conceptualize, not memorize.” She doesn’t want them to know the right answer, but to know how to ask the right question and that is where she focuses DISD efforts.
What else is needed?
Elizalde believes that student success is as much about what happens outside the school as it is about what happens within. If a student’s lived reality is completely at odds with their academic reality, students often don’t believe academic success to be either possible or meaningful and give up hope. Students need hope to succeed, and she sees this as a responsibility both of DISD and of the community.
She discussed some of the kinds of additional support that she’d like to see more of to help close the equity gaps that persist in neighborhoods throughout Dallas and cited NCJW Dallas’ direct service and mentoring support of four West Dallas Elementary schools as one example. These kinds of community programs are critical not only to helping students who start behind achieve more than one year of academic growth during the school year. Teachers also feel more supported and are more willing to continue in the face of sometimes daunting challenges.
Event attendees were also reminded that policy makers need to hear from supporters of DISD and its programs, not just from its critics, and encouraged them to also advocate for DISD’s legislative priorities. Finally, she asked that participants remember and share the good news with family, friends and neighbors: DISD has good schools and great, increasingly well-supported teachers.
Spread the word!