Oh, Oak Cliff!

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

For Heather Holland, taking the principal job at Stockard Middle School was “going home.” The 30-year-old lives in Elmwood, just east of the school, and spent her own middle school years at Greiner. When she returned to Dallas after college as a Teach for America corps member, she was assigned to Cochran Elementary, whose fifth-graders graduate to Stockard. 

Holland then spent a couple of years teaching at Stockard before becoming the school’s assistant principal. She left to take the helm at Anne Frank Elementary School in Far North Dallas, but when Stockard’s top post opened up two years later, she jumped at the chance to return.

“It was funny, when I told my staff at Anne Frank that I was moving, they were like, ‘We can’t be mad at you because you’re going home. We know how much you care about the community and how much you love Oak Cliff,’ ” Holland says. “There is something about Oak Cliff that — it’s special. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s hard to put words to it. But it’s a calling.” 

She’s not alone in this sentiment. A number of Holland’s staff either live in or grew up in the neighborhood, too. The same is true for schools all around Oak Cliff. Based on anecdotal evidence, Oak Cliff has the highest concentration of Dallas ISD employees who both work and live in the neighborhood.

Softball coach and seventh-grade history teacher Xochitl Saavedra, whom Holland hired during her stint as assistant principal, believes that’s because Oak Cliff is “all-encompassing.”

“It’s a little bit of a mixture of people from varying backgrounds, and we all just kind of bring something to the table,” Saavedra says. “Culture is everywhere, art is everywhere, music is everywhere. You can open the window to your classroom and you’ll just hear the neighborhood coming into the classroom. 

“I guess if you’re not used to it, when you come to Oak Cliff, you’re just in awe of it, and if you’re local, if it’s home, it’s always going to be home.”

Even though Holland didn’t hesitate to return home, she also knew her Stockard house was in disarray. Two years ago, the state labeled the middle school “improvement required,” the lowest possible status. When the district surveyed staff and parents about the school’s climate, Stockard ranked rock bottom among DISD secondary schools.

“And of course that leads to parents wondering if this is the right school for my child — is this a safe environment for my student?” Holland says. “So we really needed to overcome this idea of ‘Stockard isn’t a great school,’ because we are. We have great kids, and I think that sometimes that gets lost.”

When Holland was assistant principal, roughly 1,400 students attended Stockard. That number has since dropped to 1,160. She spent last summer asking her staff, “What do you love about Stockard? What about Stockard needs to change?” At the beginning of the school year, she assembled a focus group of parents and asked them, “Do you know what your child does while they’re here at school?” 

When they gave Holland the answer she expected — “no” — she began hosting regular coffees and tours for parents, leading them through classrooms and asking for feedback. 

“Especially in middle school, they think, oh gosh, kids are fighting, ‘things’ are happening in this building — and actually, no,” Holland says. “I’m not saying that it’s always perfect. It’s not ever going to be always perfect. But they’re always in classrooms, always learning, and our teachers are 100 percent here for our kids.” 

It’s already working. Stockard saw substantial gains in its climate surveys this year. Holland says she knows the potential of her students and is determined that they realize it — both those already at Stockard and the 200 or so who are opting out.

“We want those kids back,” Holland says.

Stockard Middle School, by the numbers

57.5% of Stockard’s staff felt like the campus was headed in the right direction when surveyed in fall 2016.

93.9% of Stockard’s staff felt like the campus was headed in the right direction when surveyed one year later, in fall 2017.

92.4% of staff responded positively to climate survey questions this fall, compared to 73 percent overall last year.

30 after-school clubs and activities are offered at Stockard, in addition to after-school tutoring. 

100% of Stockard’s softball players met the college readiness standard on state exams, which Principal Heather Holland attributes to not just classroom teaching but also “because they’re working as a team. They’re going to tutoring [together] and they’re really supporting each other.”