Dr. Dana Barnes, Principal
Chisholm Trail High School
Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD
Raise Your Hand Alumna ’16 (Harvard)
“Our families are our key to our success. Our students deserve all of us to be one.
And you have done an amazing thing to get us there.”
Go visit Dr. Dana Barnes at Chisholm Trail High in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw independent school district in Ft. Worth and you’ll feel right at home.
It’s part of the school’s culture. A culture that places a priority on building strong relationships with families en route to improving academic achievement. The jovial staff meetings, the idea that parents are welcome to walk in for a meeting at any time without appointment, the fact that students call their principal Mama Barnes – it’s not by accident, rather by heartfelt design.
And, the approach is working.
Barnes is in her third year as principal at Chisholm Trail. When she arrived, the new school – which had previously only had 9th and 10th graders – was just adding 11th and 12th grade to its roster. Add to that an influx of residents, and Chisholm Trail quickly became a fast growth school. Almost immediately, the student population doubled. The students were from all over Tarrant County – a wide range of ethnicities, cultures, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds – 60 percent from low socioeconomic households. The student population growth necessitated Barnes hiring 50 percent more staff. The new principal found herself at a new school, with a lot of new, diverse students, as well as new staff.
For leaders with less vision, fortitude, and determination, this combination would make for a daunting scenario. But Principal Barnes had a plan. And it would take buy-in from the whole community for her plan to succeed.
“When I took this job,” Barnes said, “the one thing I told the superintendent was if you hire me, I’m going to focus on family engagement and culture. I’m going to focus on social-emotional relationships. And if you’ll give me a couple of years to do that, I can assure you the academics will just automatically come.”
Not that the school was failing; since 2013, Chisholm Trail had met state accountability standards each year (the state didn’t assign ratings in 2012, the year the school was established.)
But that was when the school had less than a thousand students and a pretty uniform student body. Now that the school was home to thousands of different children from all across the area, Barnes was concerned student performance might suffer.
“My first year I was here, we did a survey and found out that 70 percent of my students’ families either did not graduate high school or only graduated high school,” she said. “And so, I immediately brought in families and had a focus group just with them. I asked them, What are your goals for your child? What are your hopes for your child? What is it that you would like to receive help for? And it was the overwhelming majority of people who said they wanted to see their kid succeed.”
Each year since 2012, under Barnes’ leadership, Chisholm Trail has continued to meet state standards and in 2016 received a distinction for being in the top 25 percent of schools closing the achievement gap.
The key to the school’s success, she said, is working closely with the families of the students and asking for their input on everything from curriculum and college preparation to choir and the homecoming game.
On August 15th, 2016, the event in the Chisholm Trail High School auditorium felt like more of a late night variety show than an all-day, back-to-school affair for faculty and staff.
There were rousing performances by the school’s student band, cheerleaders, and dance troupe, and faculty members delivered an impressively produced, hour-long comedy show complete with original videos, live comedy, and exercises requiring audience participation.
When Dr. Barnes took the stage, she stood under white hot lights, looked out into the energized crowd and said, “At Chisholm Trail High School, we made the decision that we were going to be a family. You have taken the time to build relationships with your community, with your family, and with your students. And because of that, it has in turn caused the academics to come naturally.”
Later, so quietly you could almost hear a pin drop, Barnes said, “Our families are the key to our success. Our students deserve for all of us to be one. And you have done an amazing thing to get us there.”
Chisholm Trail House Principal Daniel Goodner manages over 700 students, and he’s in charge of mathematics, world languages, and the career and technology teachers. During the rally, he took to the stage to talk about the power of community. Goodner briefly shared how he was dismayed by violence around the world (particularly gun violence which had recently occurred in Dallas.) “If we were all friends — all 7 billion of us — maybe we’d stop hurting each other,” he said. Goodner then initiated a 15-minute Tweet-a-thon; the audience mingled, took selfies, and shared them on Twitter with #7bilBFFs (his attempt at getting all seven billion people on earth to commit to being best friends forever.)
“What we all try to do is build a community between the students and the faculty and then the community around us,” he said. “When we’re wrestling with students with discipline or attendance, they can come sit in my office and say ‘I need to talk to somebody.’ We’re really looking at trying to help them come up with skills they need to manage life. And, as Dr. Barnes always says, we work for them, they don’t work for us. We approach everything we do that way.”
Chisholm Trail High School is a young campus celebrating its fifth birthday this year. Yet, the palpable pride and strong campus culture resemble that of a more established school. Under principal Barnes’ leadership, faculty and staff invested in building a culture of trust and high expectations. As a result, they have seen incredible gains in student achievement in both academics and in extra- and co-curricular activities.
Dr. Barnes’ appreciation for the kind of real value families and communities can offer students led her to apply for a Raise Your Hand Texas sponsorship to The Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE). The annual application process is comprehensive and the competition stiff.
The Principals’ Center offers seated principals one-week courses in everything from mastering leadership to improving struggling schools. One of the graduate school programs is called Family Engagement in Education, a track popular with elementary school principals since families tend to be more involved when their children are very young.
But, that was the course Dr. Barnes wanted to attend.
“When I was interviewing for (the sponsorship) and they asked me which institute I preferred, I said Family Engagement. I vividly remember, at that point I thought I’d lost the interview because both individuals interviewing me put their pens down and asked, ‘Aren’t you a high school principal? Why Family Engagement?’ I said, ‘Well, because if I don’t have family engagement, I’m not going to have successful students.’ As schools, we have got to open up our doors for families. We have got to quit cutting families off and thinking that we’re the superior, knowledgeable ones. We’ve got to quit telling them to just go raise their child.”
Dr. Barnes was selected to attend the course.
In the Family Engagement in Education cohort, she was the only high school principal, which she says made her feel special, but also saddened her.
“As high schools, family engagement is key,” she said. “You can Band-Aid problems all day and all night and you’ll barely get your academic results. But if you truly want to see your kids be successful then you need to step back and realize it takes a community effort to come together to help our kids today.”