Transforming a school through teacher compensation and leadership

Photo by Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune

As the 86th Legislature kicks off, few topics are getting more attention than school finance. One of the key recommendations of the School Finance Commission ― which listened to more than 80 hours of testimony on strategies for fixing Texas’ system of funding schools ― is to create an educator allotment for differentiated compensation. This recommendation was inspired by Dallas ISD, the district where I serve as a distinguished teacher.

I began my teaching career in one of Dallas ISD’s lowest performing schools in the fall of 2014. Our school was a mess. Students filled hallways instead of classrooms. Teachers ran out of their classrooms crying and frustrated, at a loss to know what more they could do. Parents were constantly concerned that the school environment wasn’t safe or conducive to learning. At the end of the 2014-2015 academic year, my school was set to enter its fifth year as an “improvement required” campus. The atmosphere was dismal and our staff was discouraged. 

Fortunately, Dallas ISD took a gamble on us. In the fall of 2015, my campus served as a pilot school for the Accelerated Campus Excellence Initiative, known as ACE. DISD recruited the highest-rated, distinguished teachers and provided higher pay for their achievements. These teachers brought a high level of expertise, determination and commitment to our students that went far beyond standard school hours. We extended our school day, provided additional tutoring hours three days a week, sponsored extracurricular activities and built strong relationships with our students through social-emotional programing.

After our first year, more than 90 percent of the staff remained on campus. Now, instead of running into the hallways, our students run to class. I witnessed previously defiant students becoming leaders in the classroom. Make no mistake: The additional ACE funding was essential because it enabled us to attract and retain the top teachers our students needed, freeing those educators from worries about personal finances or having to take on second jobs. We could pour all of our time and energy into our kids. And it worked. In just two years, we led our campus from “improvement required” to earning all six state distinctions from the Texas Education Agency.

I could list the dramatic double-digit gains each grade level attained, but to me, the greatest achievement is the positive impact on student lives. Isaiah is one of those students you remember forever. As a fourth grader, he was too cool for school. We were more likely to catch him laughing at a teacher, tripping students in the hallway or sitting in the principal's office than working in a classroom. His two older brothers were involved in gang activity and his single mom worked endless hours to support their family. In his mind, he had more important things to worry about than school. 

We were ill-equipped to meet his needs and he was in danger, bound to follow in his brothers’ footsteps. Yet, with the ACE program and the highly-qualified teachers that it attracted, his trajectory changed forever. In fifth grade, a teacher met Isaiah where he was and worked with him closely. That year, he passed his STAAR exams for the first time. That year, he realized college might be better for him than street life.

In our third year of the ACE program, we hosted visitors from around the country who were trying to figure out our secret to success. In my eyes, it’s simple: To transform a school, recruit the highest qualified staff and provide them with extra compensation, not only to motivate them, but to allow their focus to be in the classroom instead of their personal finances. These programs changed my students’ lives. 

This year, the Texas Legislature will consider school finance legislation that could provide funding for districts that choose to adopt locally-designed programs like ours. Our students cannot afford to wait. In order to advance the success of our students, we need to provide highly-qualified teachers in front of them and we need to do it now. 

Katie Benningfield

Teacher, Dallas ISD