Story By Michael Hubbard & Photos By Grant Meeks
Academic achievement has been lacking at A. Maceo Smith High School for many years now. As a Texas Education Agency “Unacceptable” ranked school, low reading and math scores have been the norm since the school moved from the old Nolan Estes Plaza in 1989 to its current location in Oak Cliff.
Two years ago the DISD Board of Trustees voted to convert the school into a New Tech campus. The New Tech Network (NTN) is a non-profit organization that helps high school students gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life, college, and the careers of tomorrow.
Founded in the mid-90s in Napa, California, NTN currently supports 86 public schools in 16 states. “The idea of having a New Tech High School in Dallas ISD was proposed by me and Adam Medrano after attending a school board conference a few years ago,” said DISD Board Trustee, Dr. Lew Blackburn. The opportunity to have a school with so much technology was intriguing.”
But could A. Maceo Smith, a school that grew comfortable wearing a cloak of underachievement, be a good candidate for the New Tech model? According to Tim Presiado, Senior Director of New School Development for the New Technology Network, the answer is yes. “NTN works with many different types of communities and schools and identifies individual needs from the very beginning,” Mr. Presiado said.
The official re-branding of A. Maceo Smith began in December of 2011. That’s when head principal Brian Lusk, a 15-year veteran of DISD, began working with his staff and the NTN to transform the school’s culture for the inaugural ninth grade class.
Transforming the culture on each campus in the New Tech Network cannot be understated. “Each New Tech campus is created with a culture of trust, respect and responsibility. This culture is as important to a New Tech campus as project-based learning and technology in the classroom,” Mr. Presiado said.All of the students work is connected to real life situations allowing them to see the relevance of what they do.
The innovative New Tech approach requires a specific type of teacher. Principal Lusk was very intentional when it came to choosing his staff. “We have veteran teachers that had to have certain skill sets coming in the door. We were very careful making sure they had technology skills and that they were strong in their content,” Principal Lusk said. “They also needed to be willing to put in extra time to make sure our students are successful.”
A. Maceo Smith faculty and staff receive ongoing training from the New Tech Network. “Intense training is provided to all teachers and leaders at a New Tech school. This training is ongoing over the four years that we engage with direct support for a school,” Mr. Presiado said.
Conversion to the New Tech model did not exempt A. Maceo Smith from state specific achievement standards. “All curriculum development begins with achievement standards in mind. Within our projects students take exams that measure content acquisition of the standards addressed in that project,” Mr. Presiado said. “So, our school-wide approach to project- based learning enables our students to still gain valuable content knowledge and provides them with real, meaningful applications for this content.”
When Dr. Blackburn and Mr. Medrano initially proposed conversion to the New Tech Network, it was important that students in the neighborhood be given the opportunity to attend the school. A. Maceo Smith is now classified as a Technology Magnet School but there are no admission requirements and it remains a school choice campus.
“Part of the assurance I gave to the community when making the decision to convert the school was that 25 percent of its student body would come from the neighboring community,” Dr. Blackburn said. “In essence, we turn a bad situation into a good opportunity.”
Principal Lusk added, “We want to make sure that when students walk out of these doors in four years that they not only have content knowledge but that they are prepared for college, that they are ready to engage in collaboration and that they have a strong work ethic.”
A. Maceo Smith, a school previously on life support, was revived when it became a New Tech campus. Students at the school are now enthusiastic about learning and academic achievement. That description wasn’t applicable a few years ago. A. Maceo Smith is now poised to forge a new identity, one that would make its namesake proud.
“It is one of the newest shining stars in Dallas ISD,” Dr. Blackburn said.
Michael Hubbard is a freelance writer and blogger. A native of Dallas, TX, he is a proud graduate of James Madison High School. Michael brings a unique, hometown perspective to his political and social commentary. You can follow his opinions at mikeondallas.blogspot.com, and Mike can be reached at Mhubbard23@aol.com