Lack of teachers, resources impeded Fort Worth middle school’s progress, ex-principal says

David Montesino

The former principal of a struggling Fort Worth middle school said teacher vacancies, a lack of resources and miscommunications between the school district and its charter partner created an almost impossible situation at the school last year.

LaKeisha Sasser served as principal of Jacquet Middle School in the Fort Worth Independent School District last year. The school is operated by Phalen Leadership Academies, an Indianapolis-based charter school network, as a part of a partnership with the district. Sasser’s contract was terminated in April.

The district brought Phalen in to operate the struggling middle school at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. Included in the district’s agreement with Phalen was a requirement that Jacquet would improve enough in the first year of the partnership that it would receive a C rating in the state’s A-F accountability scores. The following year, the middle school, which has been an F-rated school for years, was to receive a B.

But one year into the partnership, Jacquet received a score of 59 on the state’s accountability ratings. In a typical year, that score would give the school an F rating. But due to a change in state law, the Texas Education Agency didn’t issue letter grades for any campus or district scoring below a 70 this year. District officials say they’ll be taking greater oversight of the school as a result of the lack of progress.

But Sasser, who has more than a decade of experience working in turnaround schools, said expecting that amount of improvement within a single year was always unrealistic, especially given the staffing shortage the school dealt with last year.

“It takes a good three to five years to actually turn around,” she said. “And if you’re already coming in in a deficit, where you don’t even have the teachers, it’s really almost impossible.”

Frequent principal changes are a challenge at Jacquet

When Phalen hired Sasser to serve as principal for the 2021-22 school year, she became the school’s eighth principal in 11 years. But Sasser’s time in that position didn’t last through the end of the year: at Phalen’s request, the district’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously in late April not to renew Sasser’s contract for the following school year. After that, the charter network placed her on administrative leave for the remainder of the school year.

Sasser told the Star-Telegram that Jacquet was often caught in the middle of miscommunications between the charter network and the district. For example, when she requested 150 Chromebooks to give to students who were without an internet-enabled device, Phalen leaders told her it was the school district’s responsibility to provide those devices. When she checked with the school district, they told her to contact Phalen about the request.

She didn’t receive the devices until April 21, the day after Phalen officials notified her that she was being fired and just weeks before the last day of school, she said. The fact that students didn’t have access to those devices made it difficult to administer assessments, she said.

“You can test a campus within two to three days, but it took me over a week, because I didn’t have adequate supplies,” she said.

Sasser said the school was constantly short-staffed for the entire school year. When she arrived at Jacquet, there were 21 teacher vacancies because a large number of teachers had left the school at the end of the previous year. By the first day of school, she still had 13 vacant teacher positions, some of them in core content areas. She was missing math teachers in sixth and seventh grades and an English teacher in eighth grade. When another English teacher resigned in the middle of the year and wasn’t replaced, Sasser taught the class herself.

Phalen’s leadership was chaotic during the early months of the school year, Sasser said. In October, three months into the school year, the charter network fired its regional director, who was Sasser’s direct supervisor. The network replaced the regional supervisor with an interim who had served as an instructional specialist at the two schools the network operates in the Beaumont school district. The interim regional supervisor had never served as a principal and wasn’t certified to do so, which Sasser said created a challenging dynamic.

Both of those campuses had been F-rated schools for years when the Beaumont school district partnered with Phalen in 2019 to turn them around. Neither campus received a letter grade in this year’s accountability scores due to a change in state law. But one received a rating that would have given it an F score in a typical year. The other received a rating that would have equated to a D.

Sasser said there were problems with the building, as well. Toilets in student bathrooms were stopped up and weren’t fixed for months, she said. The building’s fire alarm system was inoperable for most of the year, she said, and district leaders told her it wouldn’t take months to fix.

“If there was a fire or anything, we would’ve been in pretty bad shape,” she said.

In an emailed statement, Fort Worth ISD officials didn’t directly address Sasser’s claims, but said they’re committed to improving academic outcomes at Jacquet.

Fort Worth ISD continues to work closely with our partner, Phalen Leadership Academy, to improve outcomes for the students at Jacquet Middle School,” the statement said. “We will closely monitor progress and take any necessary actions to meet our goals.”

Phalen officials didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

Jacquet teachers asked Fort Worth school board not to fire principal

At the April board meeting during which trustees voted to fire Sasser, a half dozen teachers spoke on her behalf. Some said Sasser had done the best she could under difficult circumstances. Others said that frequent changes in leadership caused instability at the school, hampering efforts to improve academic outcomes there.

James Stuer, a math teacher at Jacquet, said the constant leadership changes have prevented the school from making progress. He compared the situation to that of a mechanic fixing an engine: If one mechanic diagnoses a problem, and is swapped out for another mechanic before he has a chance to fix it, the issue will never get fixed, Stuer said. If district officials keep replacing principals at the school, they’ll continue to get the same lackluster academic outcomes they’ve seen for years, he said.

“You will never — never — get the adequate numbers that you want,” he told the board.

Jasmine Macklin, a math teacher at Jacquet, said she thought Phalen set Sasser, and the entire school by extension, up for failure at the beginning of the year. She doesn’t think the charter network did enough about the large number of teacher vacancies at the school at the beginning of last year. But Sasser was a strong leader, Macklin said, doing everything she could to support students and teachers in spite of difficult circumstances.

“When we lost our English I teacher, this woman stepped into the classroom and became the English I teacher, weeks before STAAR,” she said. “If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.”

Jacquet teacher: ‘There are children there.’

Tonia Robertson, an English teacher at Jacquet, told the board she had seen six principals at the school in the seven years she’d been a teacher there. Conditions at the school are difficult for teachers and students, she said.

Because of a lack of staff, students have been grouped together in the school’s auditorium, Robertson said, and little learning has taken place. The school has eight hallways and five stairwells, and only two campus monitors, she said. The air conditioner hasn’t consistently worked since she’s been there, she said.

That’s the situation that Sasser walked into when Phalen hired her to be the principal at the school, Robertson said. Despite those challenges, Sasser was “the one thing we’ve had that’s been effective this year,” Robertson said.

Sasser showed that she genuinely cares about students, Robertson said. Besides teaching English I, Sasser covered cafeteria duty, broke up fights in the hallways and contacted families of truant students to talk about why they weren’t at school, Robertson said. Although she’d been there less than a full school year, Sasser made an impact on students, Robertson said. She asked the board to give Sasser an opportunity to succeed.

Robertson said she thinks many people in the district forget about Jacquet. But she asked board members to remember that students who go to school there are not just Jacquet kids — they’re Fort Worth ISD kids, and as such, the district has a responsibility to support them.

“I know it’s very easy if you don’t drive in the area, if you don’t pass by and see the school. And I understand that sometimes, out of sight can be out of mind,” she said. “But there are children there. There are people there. There’s not a hole in that space. There are kids that need the opportunity to learn.”