North Texas Schools Move Toward ‘Districts of Innovation’

A recent change in state education code allows administrators to hire non-credentialed, skilled workers to teach students from a hands-on perspective as well as increased flexibility in school hours and class sizes.

Denton ISD’s vocational welding program, which is called Denton ATC (Advanced Technology Complex) Welding [Courtesy Denton ISD]

Book-learning has taken some knocks, and rightfully so: Reality doesn’t always play out in textbook fashion.

Along those lines, a recent change in state education code that’s been adopted by roughly half of Texas’ 1,011 school districts — called “Districts of Innovation” — allows administrators to hire non-credentialed, skilled workers, such as welders, engineers, and even bankers to teach students from a hands-on perspective.

Where before teachers had to obtain teaching certificates, now, a school district can employ individuals with professional experience and academic credentials. Credentialed community college instructors are also permitted to instruct high-school students enrolled in dual-credit courses. 

School districts that adopt the Districts of Innovation designation provide assistants to help non-certified instructors with the ministerial tasks of instruction, such as completing paperwork, creating curricula, administering tests, etc.

The logic is clear.

“If you bring a Mark Cuban (type) into a district to teach entrepreneurship, he’ll automatically get responses,” said Nancy J. Hong, a longtime advocate for connecting education to industries. “But if a professor teaches it, they might study and pass the tests.”

“If you bring a Mark Cuban (type) into a district to teach entrepreneurship, he’ll automatically get responses.”
Nancy J. Hong

But, she adds, the lesson, delivered by a more conventional instructor, would unlikley be given the same weight.

Hong readily acknowledges that she doesn’t know all the provisions of the Districts of Innovation designation, which is more about modifying the strictures of the state’s education code than about a particular technical innovation. Key points include giving districts flexibility in setting the school year calendar, school hours, and the length of school days as well as class sizes and teacher contracts.

Denton ISD Coordinator of District Improvement & Innovation Chris Shade said the Districts of Innovation law would have been more aptly named “Districts of Local Control,” considering the flexibility the law has given the district. Denton ISD was one of the early adopters of the law.

“The school calendar was created back at the turn of the century, when they needed the summer off for the crops,” Shade said. “Less than 3 percent of the population is in agricultural production now. To me, one of the things we need to look at … is that our calendar is not good for learning. For example, my background has been with kids in poverty. The achievement gap widens over the summer, during the summer slide.”

Proponents for the Districts of Innovation model say the law gives districts the flexibility to adopt an earlier start date, allowing for more classroom time. They say the extra instruction will likely improve state and federal test scores such as STAAR and AP exams, and will help independent school districts complete against charter schools, many of which already have earlier start dates.

“To me, one of the things we need to look at … is that our calendar is not good for learning.”

Chris Shade

In May, the Dallas ISD — the second-largest school district in Texas — signed on as a District of Innovation. DISD Deputy Superintendent Israel Cordero said the amended education code allows his district to better align its school year calendar with community college calendars.

This is especially important to those enrolled in 18 DISD high schools that allow high school juniors and seniors to pair up with major companies (including IBM, AT&T and Accenture) and to earn college credits tuition-free via community colleges. The program, called P-TECH (which stands for Pathways to Technology Early College High school) started in 2016 in Dallas and is expanding statewide this year.

Cordero said when community college start dates don’t align with K-12 school years, it can be a challenge for school districts to wrangle P-TECH students back to school early.

From a staffing perspective, provisions of the Districts of Innovation law can help districts fill teaching vacancies with individuals who have relevant, real-world experience, he said. 

“Several courses have diesel mechanics as an offering, and it’s hard to identify someone who is a diesel mechanic and have them [complete] the process of being a certified Texas teacher,” said Cordero.

For example, at Skyline High School it could take up to six to nine months to find a candidate from the diesel mechanics field who also is teacher certified, he said. 

Cordero said DISD will wait until the next school year before implementing some changes under the District of Innovation law.



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