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Education through the Eyes of Sajade Miller

By December 4, 2016Education, Families

As some you may know, for the past few months, a group of men have been meeting up at The Center for Stop 6 Heritage on the campus of The Young Men’s Leadership Academy in the Historic Stop 6 Neighborhood to address the needs of Fort Worth as a whole. This group has recently landed on the name Community Frontline. I am a part of this group and I have been blessed to be selected as the “Narrator” of Community Frontline, but we have many units that currently make up CF including: Education, Business, Jobs/Finances, Criminal Justice/Law Enforcement, Community Development/Pride, Families, Health, and Resources.

Last Wednesday, at the Community Forum on Education put together by Community Frontline, Principal Sajade Miller took time from his very busy schedule to speak about his scope being on the ground floor of the Education front as the principal of Dunbar High School.

He graciously gave us some of his background: growing up in Stop 6, having a 30-year police veteran as a mother, receiving a full-ride out-of-state athletic scholarship and having to walk away from that scholarship to testify in a trial regarding his best friend being killed in a hate crime, overcoming all of this to transfer schools twice and still graduating in 4 years. He has taught at Meadowbrook Middle School among others and is currently at TCU working on a doctorate’s degree.

He also gave us a comprehensive view on what he saw as being the vision, core academic program, innovations, challenges, and collective impact currently implemented in his school.

Vision:

Some of the aspirations of the current Dunbar administration are counteract what they perceive to be a largely uninformed perception of the school (i.e. that it’s a generally violent student habitat, that it doesn’t have desired programs, that the student population may not be excelling where they might elsewhere). Dunbar desires to be a destination school in Fort Worth, and while Dunbar has always been a proud school, Principal Miller hopes to restore confidence in the community in where Dunbar is headed.

Miller has been with Dunbar for 2 years, and this is their 2nd year in a row to meet the state standard in annual testing and earn recognition in the state’s 7 distinction designations. Where many schools rely heavily on top preforming students and groups for these kinds of success, Dunbar prides itself in its recognition in the areas of closing the achievement gap (regarding the success of the lowest preforming sub-populations of a given school be it a racial distinction, specially educated classrooms, etc.) and measuring a year’s worth of progress in even the highest preforming students (and it is in this distinction that Dunbar was acknowledge by the state of Texas being one of its top 25 preforming school).

More initiatives being taken by the school’s administration are regarding post-secondary readiness and students “graduating on purpose, with purpose”. This means taking actions that intend to result in high-graduation rate, graduating with honors, endorsements, paying internships, alumni support, career days, and the best possible utilization of their AP program.

Core Academic Program:

As a father, Principal Miller takes his students education as seriously as he would his own. He has a unique young son named Jackson and a standard for educators accordingly named, “The Jackson Test.” “If Jackson can’t be in your classroom, you cannot work at our school.” This sets the tone for the hands-on, real discussions that take place in Dunbar’s classrooms and speaks to the commitment of the teachers at Dunbar to be facilitators of learning. Each third of every hour is strategically crafted to engage students regardless of their cultural background or needs to be accommodated in their learning process. This structure is literal and a requirement in the school’s effective engagement plan for all students regardless of interests, cultural backgrounds, or needs for accommodations in their learning process.

For students interested in learning vocational skills, Dunbar has one of the more advanced job training programs that I’ve heard of for a high school. If a student wants to be an airplane mechanic, they have access to an aviation hangar and the program necessary to receive their full Airframe and Powerplant certification. They also offer an engineering and robotics program, with their ultimate goal being to offer every program that any school in the state of Texas can offer.

Dunbar High School is named after the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, making it one of the few schools in the state, yet alone in our community, named after a black person. In that tradition and with the school’s current 74% black student body, the school offers classes on African-American History and Latino History for the near-quarter percentage of Latino students. Principal Miller is quoted as saying, “People have a right to know where they come from” and is open to having classes on more national-cultural histories as necessary and requested.

Dunbar also has an exceptionally advanced AP program, partnering with Texas Wesleyan University worthy of elaborating on, but it is also worth noting that central to all of these agendas is the focus on cultivating encouraging environments that are conducive to learning.

Innovations:

Principal Miller stated during the course of our meeting that in building a sturdy education program, one couldn’t start with what innovations one hopes to offer. One must examine and fix any core problems in the structure of the program first. That being said, Dunbar has some pretty exciting opportunities that look promising for North Texas teenagers.

The partnership between Dunbar High School and Texas Wesleyan University came about through Principal Miller writing a grant and getting 10 million dollars to be received over a period of 5 years for that grant. From there, TWU Provost & Senior Vice President Dr. Allen H. Henderson took the time to research with Principal Miller how to best put this grant to use, and this led to Dunbar becoming designated as an “early-college” high school. If a student wishes to, they can potentially earn up to 60 hours worth of college credit toward their bachelor’s degree. 29 students of the school’s student body will be the inaugural group to pursue their college education while attending Dunbar, 76% of which will be first-generation college students.

These are kids with all the same opportunities to play basketball, football, cheerleading, band, etc., but it just so happens that in their initial year in the program, they’ll one college course in the fall semester, one in the spring, then subsequently, another college course is added to their regimen.

In order to make this possible, the school must hire educators qualified not only to teach not only regular high school students, but also have certification to teach a college course on the specific subject they are teaching, including either a master’s degree, or 18 college-grad hours.

On top of having highly capable educators, Dunbar has made notable use of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative started by President Obama, which empowers young males in the U.S. racial/cultural minority to go to college, stay in college, and learn to communicate their needs to their community in the process. The initiative was created in response to the statistics that 50% of male minorities do not attend college and that 65% drop out. My Brother’s Keeper stays with the youths in their program from the time of high school until they fully graduate from college. The minimum amount of students that must be a part of the program to be an official chapter is 12, with a minimum requirement of at least 4 high school seniors. MBK makes sure that the community is involved in making sure these students are provided for (including sheets, pillows, plates/bowls for their college dorm, etc.) and also works to make them believe that their community cares about them and wants them to succeed.

[The Paul Laurence Dunbar Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA) is hosting a movie night on December 13th at 6 pm at The Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Historic Stop 6. A discussion will take place at 7:30 pm where the students and attendants can introduce themselves to each other and the students are given an opportunity to relay what they are in need of on their journey to higher education.]

Between the DHS administration, TWU’s participation, My Brother’s Keeper, and Dunbar alumni (also known as The Legacy Wildcats), DHS hopes to breed not just an on-campus sense of innovation, but also a communal one.

Challenges:

In the midst of pursuing a great education for Stop 6 youth, there arise many challenges. The faculty may do everything in their power to inspire our future leaders on campus, but when Dunbar’s kids exit through the building’s front doors, they will still face the abandoned, dilapidated house (one of several) right across the street from the school as another direct reminder of their surroundings, of which they are constantly made to be more and more aware of as they grow.

Principal Miller believes this this calls for new economic development in his school’s district. In addition to that, there is certain need for role models and positive male influences in the youth culture that Dunbar serves. Many of the home lives of the young people in Stop 6 do not mirror the encouraging environment conducive to learning that DHS hopes to achieve. Homelessness, poverty, mental health, neglect, and literacy are all things that affect Dunbar so greatly, that the school’s administration feels a need to constantly vigilant each day to combat these factors for the benefit of our community’s young men and women. The school takes part in some widely impacting initiatives to in response to these initiatives including, but not limited to: a drop-in center for homelessness, a district-wide mental health classroom de-escalation training committee, and Dads of Dunbar, an organization designed for the young people of the Historic Stop 6 Neighborhood to become as familiar as possible with having positive male role models and influence in their lives.

A particularly moving story I heard Principal Miller tell, was of a young female student who he and other faculty members had noticed moving through the hallways of the school rather aggressively, and being familiar with the student and circumstances he noticed the potential for the situation to escalate. Instead of focusing on treating the girl like a threat, he engaged the young lady with concern, asking her what was wrong. She responded angrily, and combative, but with every, “Forget you”, he would respond with, “Okay, but I love you” and proceed to find out what was going on to make her feel this way. After opening up a bit, the student was in tears revealing what was happening in her home life, and this left Dunbar High School’s principal at a loss for how one of his students was capable of surviving their conditions.

“Everyone needs to be loved”, said Principal Miller. “We all want to be safe. We all want a place where we feel we belong.”

The school’s faculty is intentional in trying to engage its students in healing, but there are many academic hurdles to climb. In the words of Principal Miller, “Literacy is the biggest struggle in education for our generation.” “The math problems are word problems, the science tests are vocabulary exams…” And getting a student who is behind to read at grade-level is no small task. 8th to 9th grade transitions are huge hurdle Dunbar faces, but educating at Meadowbrook Middle School taught Principal Miller that a factor in educating kids at that age is often making up for where they get behind in elementary school, same with elementary and kindergarten and pre-k, same with pre-k and the child’s learning from ages 0 to 4 years-old, and here lies the real problem. While having 6 to 8 months to catch a child up on sometimes multiple years worth of progress they haven’t retained is a mission that Dunbar’s staff takes very seriously, it is a simple fact of life that poorer kids, from birth to age 4, lack the resources of the majority of the state’s other children, and this creates a vicious cycle in our education system.

Though in the midst of these challenges the state standard continues to increase, Principal Miller is aware that any sense of pressure is not just on the schools’ students and faculty, but also on the community surrounding the school, and in that, he sees solutions. He sees potential for all of us to come together, invest in our youth, and treat them with care for the benefit of society as a whole, a process he describes as “collective impact”.

Collective Impact:

Principal Sajade Miller began his talk with us addressing the importance of diversity. Through an interactive questionnaire, he made it visible to us some differences in our lives that we were able to learn about each other, even though we at Community Frontline have been getting to know each other more and more over the past 5 months. He noted that even if people grow up or live completely fundamentally different, what they’ll have in common, what ties them together, are the things that are most beautiful about being human.

“Education is the playground where diversity can be understood”, he said. “It is a mechanism for acceptance.”

Dunbar doesn’t feel like the pride of just Stop 6 when Principal Miller talks about it. It feels like a group of real kids whose future we all can affect positively. He encourages people who want to help to see the school and through this, a network is weaved of public and private organizations focused on a variety of initiatives. Fidelity Investments just recently donated $30,000 worth of equipment to the Dunbar band, who previously needed to share instruments to play. But Dunbar still requires resources.

Currently, Dunbar is seeking opportunities for paid internships for its students and potential employment opportunities for the youth and their parents. If you’d like to help in any way, there are many areas in which one may do so, but one thing that Principal Miller made clear was that Dunbar’s staff consists of 103 people, including administrators, and they could always have their day made brighter with some teacher appreciation.

Dunbar’s students and families are consistently looking for ways to serves their community. You drive past a mural designed and painted by the kids in the neighborhood, you might see Dads of Dunbar handing out turkeys this holiday season, on Tuesday, the 13th, you might even get to see the young men of YMLA address plans for their future in the midst of and educational movie screening concerning black economic and political strife.

The future generation is already beginning to lead the way and I am happily more convinced than ever of the necessity to find new ways to invest in them.

Conclusion/Updates:

In hearing all of this, Community Frontline is on the move. We hear the need for renovation in Dunbar’s surrounding area and we are connecting that to a note from a previous meeting that featured guest speakers Deputy Chief Vance D. Keyes, PhD and East Division Captain Michael A. Shedd of the Fort Worth Police Department. They said that Aubrey Thagard, the director of Fort Worth’s Neighborhood Services, was trying to get more money from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to aide construction costs for a Stop 6 renovation initiative currently in effect. They mentioned that Chief Fitzgerald was writing to TDHCA to appeal to this cause, stating that if they were to invest in the Stop 6 neighborhood, FWPD already has initiatives in places to protect the area. Based on this, I’m going to do my best to get in touch with a few people involved and see if it may help to organize a write-in and/or call-in to TDHCA to let them know Fort Worth wants to see improvements in Stop 6. Our Community Development unit will be looking for creative ways to help in this situation.

We are currently in the midst of a suit drive for Dunbar’s Distinguished Gentlemen program and we were able to offer the young men in the program some great clothing! We appreciate greatly the people who have donated, as we know the kids will as well! We are still looking for more suits to be able to donate, so if you have one that you’d wish to donate, feel free to contact any one of us!

Joel Jacob Snead, a teacher and the head of our Families unit, was able to plug in LaTasha Jackson-McDougle, the founder of Cheryl’s Voice and the speaker at our October meeting, into his school and she will be speaking to the kids during February, Teen Violence Awareness Month, about healthy relationships and how to end domestic violence. Way to go, Joel!

Kendrick Releford, the head of our Health unit, has Police Athletic League-sponsored boxing gym opening up on the Eastside of Fort Worth towards the start of the New Year and we’re all very excited about it! Be on the look out for more posts and information on the grand opening!

Since we meet on the last Wednesday of every month and that is very close to the holiday season this month, we won’t be having one of our regular meetings for December, but if you’re interested in hanging out and getting to know some of the members of Community Frontline and how you can apply your interests, talents, and passions into serving our city, feel free to come hang out with us at Derek Carson’s (one of our founding members) get-together at his place on Wednesday, December 14th.

We plan on having a meeting on Health in January, Business/Jobs in February, and Community Development in March, but in between all of those moments, we at Community Frontline, will be serving Fort Worth together.

Thank you! Peace!

#CommunityFrontline #PLDUNBAR

 

Torry Evan Finley – Community Frontline Narrator

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