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Lessons From DISD’s Principal for a Day Program

Part of the mural lining North Dallas High's hallways in honor of alumnus Tex Avery.
Part of the mural lining North Dallas High’s hallways in honor of alumnus Tex Avery.

For the first time in 10 years, I got dropped off at school this morning. As I made my way to the front doors, I eyed the couple huddled near the entrance and the other student hanging out on the stairs. I tried the doors. They were locked. I took a look at my phone and saw it was only 7:38. I was 22 minutes early. I thought about asking the students when the doors opened, but I was a little intimidated. They seemed like the cool kids. I’ve never been a cool kid. So I waited until the custodian noticed me lurking outside the doors and let me in. I slowly made my way to the principal’s office and sat down.

Thus started my day as principal at North Dallas High School.

I wasn’t alone. There were 156 other adults who had flashbacks of school days as they participated in DISD’s Principal for a Day program, which was started in 1999. All 157 of us spread out, descending on elementary, middle, and high schools in hopes of learning what it takes to educate on a daily basis. Everyone had a different experience. I saw one friend took doughnuts to his school (that’s how you become a cool kid) while others taught classes. I followed Principal Dinnah Escanilla, who’s on her fourth year as principal at North Dallas, around for the morning. I attended her administration meeting with her four assistant principals, walked around to several classes, attended a meeting to discuss the school’s TTIPS Grant, and made an announcement. My head is still reeling from everything I observed and was taught. But here are just a few takeaways from my experience.

1. Spot observations (where admins drop in to a class for 15 to 20 minutes and evaluate teachers) are terribly interesting. And I’m pretty sure I’d be awful at administering them. The admin staff went through a few to see what was working and what wasn’t. They admitted they’re harder on teachers who teach subjects they’re familiar with. With teachers that are focusing on different areas, they take the approach of, “Does this lesson make sense to me?” If yes, the teacher is doing a good job. If they’re left with questions, something’s missing. The point is to “improve teaching skills of all teachers, regardless of what they teach,” Escanilla says.

2. A lot of people have connections to D Magazine. I met a teacher whose daughter interned here last year and a teacher whose mother was hired by Bernie Kraft many years ago. It’s a small world.

3. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to education. North Dallas High has 87 percent of its students on free- or reduced-lunch, and it has the district’s largest population of homeless students (150). If you walk around and observe classes, you may notice that the students aren’t interacting a great deal with each other. The reason: there are language barriers. But the principal and staff have work hard to overcome these challenges. They have found ways to teach around the obstacles. These approaches wouldn’t work at all the schools in the district, but they have worked here. (For the first time in nine years, North Dallas is on the academically acceptable list.)

4. Calculators have gotten scary. (See photo below.)

5. Looney Tunes’ creator Tex Avery graduated from North Dallas in 1926. There is a hallway dedicated to him that has murals painted by each graduating class. It’s a fun hallway to walk down.

6. I’ve always respected principals. Now, I respect them even more. As I’m sure you’ve heard, 12 students were arrested two weeks ago at North Dallas High. There was a lot of talk about this situation and how it was handled. Some of the students have come back to the school. They must check in with the principal every afternoon and then serve community service at the school. The dad of one of the students joined in on the punishment yesterday because he said he was partially to blame for his son’s behavior. The administration said that they felt the morale at the school is better. Students feel safer knowing that some of those students are gone, and they’re relieved to see that punishment was doled out. Principal Escanilla had five community meetings last week addressing the arrests. Though it’s a tough situation, she has been open with the community. She has developed programs to foster her students in good behavior and learning. “We’re trying to do good here so that it will go back to the community,” she says.

An art project; the scariest calculator I've seen; another shot of the mural; an English assignment
An art project; the scariest calculator I’ve seen; another shot of the mural; an English assignment