Change is More Than Just a Name at Marsh

Mike Morath’s primary role with Dallas ISD is that of a trustee, but sometime he feels more like a salesman.

Morath represents District 2 on the school board, which covers the eastern half of Preston Hollow. And he spends much of his time trying to tout the district’s initiatives to improve curricular offerings and diversify academic programs, partially in an effort to appeal to middle-class families.

In a neighborhood in which private schools are so prevalent, that’s a challenge, but one that Morath thinks is starting to pay off. Whether it’s a popular dual-language program at Kramer Elementary School, or a growing International Baccalaureate initiative at Preston Hollow Elementary, or a simple rebranding at Marsh Middle School, Morath and his colleagues have more amenities to sell. And they’ve found that more parents and students are buying in.

[pullquote-left]”There’s a growing recognition that the schools are improving and middle-class families are getting great outcomes in DISD,” Mike  Morath said.[/pullquote-left]

“There’s a growing recognition that the schools are improving and middle-class families are getting great outcomes in DISD,” Morath said. “There’s a younger generation of parents that are maybe beginning to recognize that.”

One example outside of Morath’s district is at Marsh, in the feeder pattern for W.T. White High School. Last fall, the school was rebranded to Marsh Preparatory Academy as part of a five-year plan to increase academic rigors at the campus.

“Where we’re kind of falling behind is in the academic rigor for our kids,” said Marsh principal Nicky Niewinski. “Rebranding sends a message that we’re trying some innovative programs.”

When Niewinsky arrived in 2013 from Colorado Springs — where she also worked for current DISD superintendent Mike Miles — she began implementing changes at Marsh, which is one of the largest middle-school campuses in DISD in terms of enrollment and is better known for its extracurricular activities than its academic achievement.

The rebranding is part of those efforts, but it’s more than just a name change. The school now has a program called Matadors Exploring New Directions, which allows students to participate in an elective class for the last 30 minutes of each school day.

The topics vary widely, from chess to gardening to guitar to crime-scene investigation — with the results able to stimulate teachers and students alike. Students rotate among the electives every six weeks.

“The kids love it and the teachers love it, and I’m getting great feedback from the parents,” Niewinski said. “It’s still academically focused. We want to challenge the ways people are thinking about education to do what makes sense for all of our kids.”

Niewinski also recently applied for a Gates Foundation grant that would help personalize learning for students as part of her vision for the school.

Such improvements might lead to more families choosing DISD over private schools, but it’s not a competition for Niewinski, whose school has ongoing partnerships with Parish Episcopal for its robotics program and Hockaday for its interactive Girl Talk program.

“Trying to get those families to come back to our school would be fantastic, but it’s also about developing those partnerships,” Niewinski said. “There are things they can offer us, and there’s things we can offer them. We’re all trying to offer kids a great education.”

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