Thursday, September 8, 2016

Dallas ISD Achievement Gains - Constant Improvement

The School Archive Project started in 2005. This note was posted in a December 2005 national school newsletter:

Once Quintanilla 8th graders started planning 10-years into their futures, graduation rates at Sunset High School, where most students attend, began a steady rise from 33% in 2006 to over 70% by 2013. By 2009 the Sunset Principal had noticed the differences in Quintanilla students and started the Sunset Time-Capsule Project. That same year a teacher at Greiner Middle School had read about the project and started the Greiner Time-Capsule Project.  There are now 11 DISD schools in 2016 with active Time-Capsule Projects. 

In the process to name "School Archive Project" changed into a more descriptive "School Time-Capsule Project" name.

Also in 2009 a Quintanilla Language Arts Teacher, Ms. Thomas, had the idea of asking parents to start the process with a letter to their child about their dreams for their child.  A letter was sent from the principal to 8th grade parents asking for such letters to the students.  That priceless parental letter was read by the child before they wrote their time-capsule letter, and was then placed with their child's letter into the vault for a decade.  That started a very positive process that continues to this day.  

Sadly, in the years that followed not all schools were able to get letters written each year.  Also, with the addition of parental letters, only 30% of parents on average would write such potentially priceless letters. That low response rate continued until 2016.  That is when the Language Arts Coach at Quintanilla, Ms. Lincoln, had the idea of having students themselves write a letter to their parents asking for that valuable letter back.  This idea was great! The results were parental response rates as high as 85%! 

Quintanilla had already achieved the highest School Effectiveness Index (SEI) of all 35 middle schools in Dallas ISD by 2014/15.  Since that achievement the 10-year class-reunions have started with the first one in May of 2015. With the 2016 Class reunion the tradition of returning students speaking with current students was started with very positive results. Also in 2016, not only was the parental response rate more than doubled, but this goal identification process and letter writing was spread to 6th and 7th grade students at Quintanilla, with plans for the updating of goals happening each year for all students and all parents. 

It is almost certain that the SEI for Quintanilla will continue going higher.  

Identified and updated goals affect motivation. That drives achievement.  In the process almost all negative behaviors, including crime, gang involvement, and unplanned pregnancy, are lowered! 

The goal from involving all grades is to expand the achievement gains to earlier grades while giving all students practice writing goal-centered letters.  The quality of the final 8th grade letters will improve.  The 8th grade letters are the letters that will remain in the Time-Capsule for a decade.

Students also ask in their request letter to their parents for one story from their family history to be included in the letter from their parents.  It should be a story the parent wants to be passed on to their grandchildren, an important piece of their family history.  Parents and grandparents have lived critical years in U.S. History.  Where were they when critical events happened in U.S. History? Such stories help a child realize their own place in U.S. History.

The resulting parental letters should be immediately shared at home by parents with their child.  They should be studied by the students at home so any questions can be answered by parents.  This will often lead to valuable family discussions.

Then these parental/relative letters are brought to school and used in Language Arts Class to give ideas to students as they write letters to themselves about their own plans for the future.

Parents and/or relatives should be prepared to write such letters to their child every year from 6th through 12th grade, until their child graduates from high school. 

A child changes greatly in just one year.  Each letter will be different. Each letter will contain a different story from the family history.  The more a child knows about their family history, both painful stories and wonderfully positive stories, the better.  It all helps ground a child in a valuable personal heritage providing a solid foundation for life, and for school work needed to better prepare for life. 

A written record is being created.

All the letters for each child (more than one relative can write a letter) are placed together into one self-addressed envelope for each student, along with the student's own letter to themselves.  This valuable envelope is then stored in the school time-capsule, a 500-pound vault bolted to the floor in a prominent place in the school lobby.

The vault is not necessary if teachers have other ways of storing such priceless letters. 

If parents immediately see how priceless these letters are, they can certainly ask to keep the letter at home and only send photocopies to school to place inside their child's time-capsule envelope. Or a photo copy can be kept at home with the original in the vault.  Such requests are certainly understandable regarding these valuable letters. 

Each year the letters from the previous year are returned to the child and their parents for use in preparing to write new letters. Reading of previous letters will help improve the 8th and 12th grade letters that are written with plans for 10 years into the future. The 8th and 12th grade letters remain in the middle school and high school time-capsules for a decade. 

A student can also choose to collect all the letters from each year leading up to the 10-year letter so all can be placed together into that one final envelope, the one kept secure in the vault for a decade.  It is a potentially powerful record of the evolution of life plans during middle and high school years. (This is why the vault should be at least as large as having 26 cubic feet of interior space.)

Students must know that upon their return in 10 years to get back their letters they will also be invited to speak with current students about their recommendations for success.  Such priceless mentoring has already started at Quintanilla Middle School with the reunions now happening every year.  It is an event that will be making the future ever more real for Quintanilla students. Achievement at Quintanilla will continue to improve.

Imagine how powerful high school 10-year reunions will be as students read their letters, and their parents letters, once again.  Most important, imagine the power of what these former students can say to students sitting in the same seats they were in a decade earlier!

These are the plans working within the School Time-Capsule Project as of Fall of 2016. We are now planning the third 10-year reunion at Quintanilla Middle School this April or May for the 8th grade class of 2007.

Here are links to the most recent School Effectiveness Index (SEI) for Quintanilla, the highest of all 35 middle schools in Dallas ISD!  The chart below was made from the listing of all SEI scores for middle schools in DISD found in the DISD Data Portal at  
School Effectiveness Indices (SEI) details and history are online at 
These achievements happened in spite of the 96 percent poverty rate for Quintanilla students, which places Quintanilla within the most poverty stricken third of all middle schools in Dallas ISD!  In addition, discipline problems and pregnancy rates at Quintanilla have dropped dramatically since 2006.  

The best birth control is active personal planning for the future!

Again, this year was the first year that all students from all three grades wrote letters for the Quintanilla Time-Capsule.  It used to be only an 8th grade activity, but Quintanilla wants to raise their record SEI score even higher than the 59.3 in the above chart.  This change will intensify the focus on a future grounded in family heritage for all students in all grades.  With the return of the previous year's letters it should help lead to improved letter writing and planning in the 7th and 8th grades.  

Quintanilla will stay on top with the highest SEI unless the other 7 middle schools who have their own Time-Capsule Projects continue to have an increasingly active and ever more effective future focus with all of their students as well.  

This is the best competition possible for Dallas ISD students!

A shortened report on the project was published in the Dallas Morning News on Ocober 4, 2016.  It is found at

************  Technical Notes  **************

1) Addressing of the envelopes to contain these valuable letters is critical.  It is recommended the envelopes be addressed first, before the letters are written. Thus teachers will have time to walk around checking each of the envelopes to verify that the address form is correct with all needed information. 

2) Envelope information includes the schools return address with the date and grade in school for the student above the schools' return address.  The date the letter is written is critical as is the grade the student is in.  You do NOT want letters getting mixed up with other classes.  Next, be as certain as possible that address is correct and complete.  Email addresses and cell phone numbers should be included to help in locating students if they move.  

3) The envelopes for the 10-year letters need to have students place on the back side of the envelope two additional addresses of relatives or friends to help in their being located in 10-years, along with phone numbers and email addresses for these two people.  We want to be able to locate students in 10-years to return their letters, which remain in the library for at least one additional decade to be picked up, with proper ID. 

4) To help students collect all of the above mentioned envelope information you may want to send a blank form home to help the student.  They can then have all the address information recorded in one place to bring it back to school.

5) The vaults we have been using in Dallas ISD since 2005 are 520 pound vaults with about 26 cubic feet inside. They each serve schools of about 1,000 to 2,000 students.  We now have 11 schools.  The initial 2005 vault was only 16 cubic feet and is now jammed full of letters with all 10 shelves full.  It is proving to have been too small due to above recommendations to now have letters written by all three grades each year.  There is no space for the extra letters these two overlapping years.  It should have been a 26 cubic foot vault. It needs to be replaced with a new vault.

6) The best location for the vault is in the highest visibility location possible,a place of respect, where the most students will pass it each day.  Our first vault we bolted to the floor inside a closet in the wall with a glass door.  I now think that was a mistake and minimizes vault visibility too much.  Vandalism fears have been unfounded. Since 2009 an additional 10 vaults have been installed and there has never been vandalism other than stealing of the knobs to the vault.  That problem is solved with superglue being used to seal the knobs to the vault permanently. It is best to have the vault out in the open and very visible. The practice of bolting vaults to the floor in one permanent location has continued, but that remains a school decision. The more students see the vault and are reminded of the contents inside, and the letters from their mother or father or relatives, the better.  It appears that a respect for the vault develops in each school as the contents become well known. The goal is to reinforce a focus on the future and increase the number of opportunities that exist for parents, teachers, and students to discuss plans for the future. 

Bill Betzen