Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert's focus on schools seen as plus

By KENT FISCHER / The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, June 14, 2008

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert acknowledges that his public education projects won't by themselves slash the city's dropout rate or dramatically boost literacy.

But by creating city-sponsored programs focused on specific high-need areas, Mr. Leppert has joined mayors around the country who are increasingly involved in education reform, even though their offices have little authority over city schools.

Their reasoning is simple: A high-quality public school system is fundamental to urban renewal, to creating jobs, to keeping families from fleeing to the suburbs.

In launching his four education projects – scholarships, summer jobs, early literacy and sprucing up old schools – Mr. Leppert has created programs that complement reforms under way in the Dallas Independent School District. And, if those are successful, more city-school ventures could be on the horizon.

"In good communities, everybody works together," Mr. Leppert said. "Just this week, [DISD Superintendent] Michael Hinojosa and I were talking about some other problems we need to tackle."

In some cities – Chicago and New York, for instance – mayors have actually wrested control of schools away from school boards and are now operating their city's schools out of city hall. But such instances are still relatively rare.

By contrast, the efforts of Mr. Leppert and other mayors depend on their ability to marshal civic resources and to recruit corporate leaders to address specific problems that schools have identified.

Mr. Leppert is relying on grants and corporate donations to fund his initiatives, and he's using his bully pulpit to call attention to the district's needs.

"He's using his office to raise the public attention to the needs of children, and he's not working at cross purposes" with the school district, said Kenneth Wong, a professor at Brown University who has studied mayoral involvement in public education. "I would say he's right on track with what's going on nationally."

Dr. Wong said he sees more school district/city government cooperation across the country.

Children's issues – especially public education – play well with parents, and voters generally expect different government agencies to work together to solve big problems, he said.

Parents "don't understand why mayors shouldn't be part of the [education] solution," Dr. Wong said. "Mayors are playing an important role – a more formal role – because voters see it as the mayor's obligation" to improve the health of the city, and that includes good public schools.

Dr. Hinojosa said he does not expect Mr. Leppert's programs to work in isolation. He said the mayor's efforts were designed to complement DISD's Dallas Achieves! reforms.

"[Former mayor] Laura Miller and I – we didn't talk on a regular basis," Dr. Hinojosa said. "... [Mr. Leppert] was the only candidate for mayor who came to visit me and ask what it was we needed."

The two continue to meet regularly.

But the work of mayors in other cities suggests that Mr. Leppert could go further.

In St. Louis, for example, the mayor has successfully backed a slate of reform-minded school board candidates – twice. Denver's mayor helped negotiate a teacher contract and advocated for a controversial teacher pay-for-performance plan.

In Stamford, Conn., City Hall oversees purchasing, payroll and IT for the school district.

Dallas has dipped its toe in that water. As part of the 2002 school district bond campaign, DISD and the city built two city libraries on the campuses of two new schools. The facilities serve both as city libraries and as the schools' media centers.

Mr. Leppert and Dr. Hinojosa said there have been no discussions about a further blurring of the administrative lines between City Hall and DISD, although Mr. Leppert said he is "open to anything."

For now, both the mayor and superintendent seem content to build the mayor's initial four programs into successes, and then use them to launch more partnerships.

"These programs are complementary right now," Dr. Hinojosa said. "We're going to see how these [programs] roll out. Will they work? We don't know, but they'll make for an interesting study."

Mayor's education initiatives:

Mayor Tom Leppert has concluded his first year in office. Here are the education initiatives he's unveiled:

Summer internships: Corporations provide eight-week paid summer internships for above-average students from Adamson, Carter, Madison and North Dallas high schools. The program is designed to show students a "realistic view" of the corporate workforce and the education needed to be successful in it.

College scholarships: $1.45 million available to students at North Dallas, Madison and Adamson high schools. Students must agree to mentoring, learning life skills and to maintaining at least a 3.0 grade point average. The scholarships, funded by corporate and private donations, pay the "gap" between the student's financial aid package and the cost of college.

Operation Front Door: Corporations provide landscaping, beautification and other building improvements at 23 Dallas schools. Companies can pledge to projects ranging from $3,000 to $50,000.

Ready to Read: Dallas public libraries provide early literacy programs for toddlers and preschoolers, such as story hours and phonics, as well as workshops for parents on how they can teach children the skills needed to learn how to read.

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