‘Culture of trust, accountability’ at the center of North Forest turnaround success

Over six years ago, HISD faced an enormous challenge when it agreed to take over North Forest ISD, which had been plagued by years of low academic performance, a laundry list of state sanctions, and financial mismanagement – which eventually led to the order from the Texas Education Agency to close the district. 

Since taking on the seven schools in the North Forest district, HISD has made significant strides in improving the long-struggling campuses using strategies such as mobilizing effective teachers and principals, implementing reading mastery and corrective reading, extending the school day, and streamlining bus transportation to boost attendance.  

Five of the seven original transition team members are still part of Team HISD to this day, and the experience left an indelible impact on each of them. 

“During that time, it was all hands on deck,” HISD School Support Officer and former Thurgood Marshall Elementary School Principal Hilarion Martinez said. “With the leadership provided, we narrowed our focus and changed expectations on what it meant to come to school.” 

For the first time since the official annexation, all North Forest feeder pattern campuses – Fonwood Early Childhood Center, Elmore, Hilliard, Marshall, and Shadydale Elementary Schools; Forest Brook Middle School and North Forest High School – achieved a “Met Standard” rating in the 2019 TEA accountability ratings. North Forest High School, the last campus to exit IR status, did so this year while earning a distinction designation in Postsecondary Readiness.  

“I feel like a proud mother,” said HISD School Support Officer and former Shadydale Elementary School principal Tammie Daily, who helped lead the school out of IR in 2015. “The staff that came with me and stayed with me, that’s the best of HISD. It was about getting the right people on your bus to move in the right direction.” 

The data from the North Forest area schools truly showcase this success story. When comparing the current year’s data over the 2014 data – the first year that all six campuses were under HISD’s charge – the changes in STAAR performance is staggering.  

STAAR scores in Reading and Math among third, fourth- and fifth-graders at all four elementary campuses saw double-digit increases, with Shadydale fourth-graders showcasing an impressive 46% gain in STAAR Math scores. Forest Brook eighth-graders boosted their STAAR science scores by 41%, and North Forest High School students’ passing rates jumped 23 percentage points on the Algebra I test.  

“Just look at the increases in scores between 2014 and 2019 — We have some really significant gains,” Assistant Superintendent for Research and Accountability Carla Stevens said. “From a 2014 to 2019 standpoint, the trajectories are up, and, we can continue to expect that.” 

This transformation is nothing short of remarkable considering the Texas Education Agency closed North Forest ISD in 2013, citing years of underperformance and mismanagement, and handing the reins over to HISD on July 1 of that same year.   

While the district had been planning for the transition for some time, there was still a lot of uncertainty as to what those next few weeks would hold. Just before the annexation, the district oversaw the hiring of veteran school leaders, whose turnaround experience was crucial to today’s success.   

Once the annexation was approved, the work kicked into high gear, according to HISD Officer of Elementary Curriculum and Development and former Elmore Elementary School Principal Maggie Gardea. In just a few short weeks, the team was faced with rebuilding the schools from the ground up. From hiring teachers and staff, to enrolling students and putting district systems in place, what these principals did in a month, some people do in a year. 

“It was a complete transformation,” Gardea said. “You hear about turnaround work but don’t know what it’s truly about until you’re in it. Everything that I thought I knew about being a principal went out the window.” 

The foundation that was created by the North Forest Team during that first year was monumental, according to Julia Dimmitt, HISD’s Chief Human Resources Officer, who was tapped to lead the transition. Today’s impressive gains, especially in the areas of math and science, can be attributed, in her opinion, to strong campus leadership, committed teachers and the laser focus the North Forest team placed on reading mastery and corrective reading during those first years. 

“What is at the core of this success is that students reading ability has improved,” Dimmitt said. “Improved reading success will affect other scores and everything else along the way.” 

During her time as the area’s school support officer, five of the seven North Forest feeder pattern campuses received a “Met Standard” rating with distinctions. 

“The district support was phenomenal,” said Shadydale Principal Kimberly Agnew Borders, who served as principal of Fonwood ECC at the time of annexation. “Every department was there, everybody was deployed upon this area, and anything we needed we received. We knew that people were listening, and district resources were being sent this way.” 

So much has been achieved in just a few years. HISD has made major investments in the North Forest feeder pattern schools, and will continue to do so, but, according to Martinez, more than just the academics have improved.  

The culture has evolved. The schools have moved beyond their troubled label, and the community’s past no longer hangs over their heads. 

“They are no longer thought of as ‘those schools,’” Martinez said. “They’ve really assimilated into HISD. They are just one of us, and I think that is a huge accomplishment.”