In far northwest Fort Worth, nearly three-quarters of all public schools are A or B rated, and no school performs below average in state accountability measures. Meanwhile, in less affluent parts of the city, nearly every public school student attends a school that’s struggling.
Overall, students in the most affluent parts of Fort Worth have better access to high-quality schools than their peers in poorer parts of the city, according to a report released by a new education policy group.
The Fort Worth Education Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for access to high-quality education for all students, created education scorecards for each of Fort Worth’s city council districts using the Texas Education Agency’s school accountability scores.
The report shows stark disparities in educational outcomes from one council district to the next. In District 7, which covers far northwestern Fort Worth, only 31% of students are economically disadvantaged, the lowest rate in the city. The district has no D- or F-rated schools, and 71% of the schools in the council district are rated A or B.
But council districts with higher percentages of economically disadvantaged students consistently had fewer A and B rated schools and more D and F schools. In District 8, which primarily covers southeastern Fort Worth, 90% of students are economically disadvantaged. Only 6% of schools in that council district are rated A or B and 63% are rated D or F. In District 5, which covers a large swathe of southeastern and eastern Fort Worth, 87% of students are economically disadvantaged. Students in that council district have some of the lowest access to high-quality schools, according to the report. Of the 23 public schools in District 5, 14% are rated A or B and 82% are rated D or F.
One noteworthy factor in the disparity in school quality is which school districts serve which neighborhoods. Nearly half the 35 schools in District 7 are in the Northwest school district, which received an A rating from the Texas Education Agency for the 2019-20 school year. In council districts 5 and 8, most campuses are in the Fort Worth school district, which received a C rating from TEA that year.
Many in the city, including policymakers, think of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth school district as being one in the same, said Brent Beasley, president of Fort Worth Education Partnership. But the reality is more complicated, he said. A dozen school districts and 12 public charter networks have schools in the Fort Worth city limits, and only about half the public school students in Fort Worth go to schools in the Fort Worth school district. Beasley said his organization advocates for city leaders to take a whole-city approach to education.
“The education of Fort Worth kids is not a single-ISD issue,” he said. “It is a city issue.”
Beasley, who presented the report to the Fort Worth City Council on Tuesday, said his organization isn’t proposing any specific policy changes based on its findings. But the disparity in school quality from one part of the city to another is troubling, he said. From an economic standpoint, weaknesses in the city’s education system can be a drag on the city’s current and future workforce, he said. When some students have access to a high-quality education and all the benefits that come from it and others don’t, it also creates an ethical problem, he said.
Mayor Betsy Price sounds the alarm
Outgoing Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the report makes plain what she and many city officials have known for some time — “that Fort Worth kids are in trouble.” Fort Worth doesn’t have as many college graduates in its workforce as other cities its size, leaving the city at a competitive disadvantage, she said. Strengthening the city’s education system is a key part of solving that problem, she said.
Price, who leaves office Tuesday, said education is a foundational issue that affects everything else in the city. It’s a workforce issue, a crime-prevention issue, a poverty-reduction issue and a public health issue, she said. The city can’t hope to thrive unless it continues to focus on improving its education system.
The city’s schools have made progress over the past decade, she said, but the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted some of that momentum. The city had set a goal of having 100% of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025, and the educational disruptions of the pandemic likely set those efforts back, she said. In the spring of 2019, 33% of third-graders in the Fort Worth school district were reading on grade level, according to TEA records. State testing was canceled in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic.
Inequities in American education system
Charles Martinez, dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin, said many of the inequities built into the American education system are a product of housing patterns. Neighborhoods in American cities are heavily segregated by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, he said. Because school attendance patterns are generally based on geography, that means that segregation bleeds over into schools, he said. That means students with the most resources tend to be concentrated in certain schools while their poorer peers are concentrated elsewhere, he said.
Martinez said he couldn’t speak to local issues in Fort Worth’s schools. Nationally, school districts have a few tools available to try to mitigate some of the structural inequities built into the education system. But many of those solutions have their own inequities baked into them, he said. Before coming to Texas, Martinez served on the school board in Eugene, Oregon, where the school district has several magnet schools that focus on specific fields of study, like technology or the arts. Those schools take students from all parts of the district.
School officials hoped those schools would become places where students from all neighborhoods, races and socioeconomic backgrounds would go to school side by side, Martinez said. But because the district didn’t provide transportation from all parts of the city to those schools, only students whose parents had cars and could take the time to drive them to school every morning could attend, he said.
Martinez said he wasn’t optimistic that school boards could solve structural inequities at the district level. But more effective solutions might be possible within individual schools and classrooms, he said. He’s seen high-poverty schools in the Rio Grande Valley where students thrived because of the way teachers and administrators approach their jobs. Teachers structure their instruction around the goal of making students feel like they’re part of what they’re learning. Principals reach out to parents and made them feel genuinely welcome at school.
The problem, Martinez said, is that there isn’t any silver bullet in those schools. Their success isn’t the product of a single policy or district leader, but rather the payoff from doing hundreds of small things right. But, he said, those examples also show that it’s possible for teachers and school leaders to help students succeed in the face of challenges.
Incoming city council member hopes to lend support
Chris Nettles, the incoming council member for District 8, said he was disheartened by the report’s findings. But he wasn’t entirely surprised, he said. During his campaign, teachers from Polytechnic High School told him about large numbers of students coming into ninth grade reading at a third grade level.
Nettles said the city council can play a role in supporting the schools that operate within the city limits. He plans to convene a panel discussion with school leaders and a representative from TEA to talk about possible solutions. He’d also like to see if there are projects like after-school tutoring, where the city could offer financial support.
Nettles ran for city council on a platform of bringing development and new businesses to his district. But that’s only possible with stronger schools, he said. Business leaders look at school quality when they decide where to locate their businesses, he said. And once those businesses are established, Fort Worth residents will need to have enough education to compete for jobs with potential employees who might move in from elsewhere, he said.
“If we’re going to grow as a city, we need to be educated,” he said.