How one school district in Texas is offering many choices to the community
The Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA) is one of the “Schools of Choice” in the Grand Prairie Independent School District. As a traditional, neighborhood-zoned middle school, it faced numerous challenges—most notably declining enrollment and disengaged students. However, after it became YWLA, the school is now bursting with over 1,100 students (and growing,) and is the largest all-girl public school in the United States.
This story of success is repeating itself across many schools in the Grand Prairie ISD. Only six years ago, GPISD experienced more than $15 million in revenue loss due to declining enrollment, attrition to charter schools, and less-than-desirable education outcomes. They were on the verge of closing schools. Through a series of bold moves, the district reinvented itself and today, it’s become a thriving school district with enrollment of 29,000 students. Many families are now applying to transfer their children to one of GPISD’s Schools of Choice, each one offering a specific focus or specialized programs. Schools of Choice make up over half the district. GPISD is clearly a case study in understanding resiliency in a school district. In order to maintain, you must provide the community the options they desire.
Dr. Susan Simpson Hull, the superintendent of GPISD, understands the importance of choice when talking about education. “In the 1970s, as you walked down grocery store aisles, there were a handful of cereal choices. Today, there is an entire aisle devoted to cereal choices to ensure everyone has something that appeals to them. We live in an era of choice. We want more and better in practically everything, including our choices in education.”
Dr. Hull spearheaded the change at GPISD. She had to keep the top half of the students from leaving the district, increase enrollment to prevent school closings, and provide engaging instruction for all students. She made it her mission to improve the educational outcomes and quality of life for everyone in the GPISD community.
Today, GPISD is an open enrollment school district, which means that families both living in and outside of GPISD can apply to any school in the district, based on interest. Choice gives the schools and the students a program area of focus—as early as kindergarten—and continues to career pathways in high school and, ultimately to college. This model results in a rich diversity of programs designed to meet the specific needs and interests of each student, regardless of his or her zip code.
The curriculum change and specialization has been a smart move for YWLA—but the final step is to renovate the physical space of the school to encourage the new programmatic needs. For some schools to transform their operational model, new construction or renovation of existing buildings is often required. The district hired Stantec to re-envision the space for YWLA. Currently, YWLA is housed at Bill Arnold Middle School, a facility designed 15 years ago as a traditional “stand and deliver” model where the students moved from class to class. However, according to Jennifer Oliver, principal of YWLA, “Information is abundant and learning can happen anywhere. We need to teach our young women to take responsibility for their own learning.” Our team is designing the renovation to align with this vision of learning.
YWLA is in the process of being re-designed to ensure its educational spaces allow for the successful implementation of its blended learning initiatives. For its high school students, this “flex” blended learning model is multimodal, combining self-paced, online learning with group project work, individual acceleration, and one-on-one/small group sessions with educators.
This content-based, self-driven learning (rather than teacher-driven learning) is the first step for young women to craft their own future. The architecture of this School of Choice has to reflect the aspirations and the learning needs of the young women that attend the facility as it will play an important role in recruiting, retaining, and empowering their students and teachers