Leadership Insights: How Dallas ISD principal Gabbi Dickson leveraged her PIC experience to reimagine student achievement outcomes
After 22 years in education and four years in the principalship, Gabbi Dickson, 2019 PIC Cohort Aluma and principal at Young Women’s STEAM Academy in Pleasant Grove, has gained valuable insights on how to inspire others and lead well. She’s passionate about the community and determined to make Pleasant Grove proud by leading her school and the young women they serve toward new levels of success.
Most recently, she has accomplished this mission by using the design-thinking process to drive double digit gains in her school’s Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) scores. We are proud to have supported her through this process and eager to share her leadership insights from the experience.
Using Design-Thinking to improve student achievement outcomes
Gabbi began her project by identifying a campus issue. “My campus leadership team and I noticed that some of our girls were masters level on STAAR yet beginner or intermediate for speaking on TELPAS. That just didn’t make sense to us,” she explained.
While this issue seemed easy to fix at first, the empathizing process revealed a different reality. “My initial assumption was that girls weren’t confident speaking out loud and that I could solve the problem by giving more speaking practice exercises. Conducting empathy interviews with students, however, shifted that mindset. I realized that I was part of the problem. I was not knowledgeable about all the parts of the test and was honestly not giving it enough attention. I realized that I needed to educate staff and students on why TELPAS was just as important as STAAR if I wanted to get the same results.”
Given this new insight, Gabbi prototyped a faculty bootcamp to educate staff on the importance of the assessment. “We started educating teachers on how important TELPAS is and how it not only impacts our campus accountability but also impacts our girls' academic experiences and whether they can take extra electives in high school,” Gabbi explained. “I made a slideshow with snapshots of different TELPAS score reports and showed it to the staff. I showed examples of students who had scored masters on every test and were classroom tutors or campus ambassadors yet still weren’t passing TELPAS.”
This slideshow put the score discrepancies into perspective for teachers and helped them get on board with Gabbi’s project. “That really got people moving because they realized that these scores were not reflecting what our students are capable of. We’re now on a mission to make sure that this exam ends up being a real reflection of their abilities.”
The next phase of the project addressed student attitudes and readiness. Gabbi and her team began to incorporate speaking and listening into every content-area aso they could help students grow in these skills. They were also intentional about informing students of the importance of the assessment. “We learned some students who get pulled out of class every year to take the test didn’t even know why they were taking it. We helped them understand their score and set new goals,” Gabbi explained.
While impact evaluation of this effort was limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Young Women’s STEAM Academy has already seen a drastic improvement in data as a result of this effort. The percentage of eighth graders that scored advanced or advanced-high in speaking on the 2021 TELPAS assessment grew 11% compared to Spring 2019 and was 24% anova the district average. The percentage of eighth graders that increased at least one proficiency level also grew from 31% in Spring 2019 to 50% for the Spring 2021 assessment.
Ms. Pyle, the ESL teacher at Young Women’s STEAM Academy, also shared that the project has had a noticeable impact on campus morale and teacher attitudes about testing. “It's been an interesting shift in paradigms from my first year to now. When I first arrived at Young Women’s STEAM Academy teachers seemed to view TELPAS as a burden because it took so much time. Now teachers have gotten on board. Instead of being another test, teachers see it as a way to support our girls and set them up for success,” she shared.
After multiple prototypes and a successful solution, Gabbi now has her sights set on program amplification. “It’s time to amplify the project and take the four-week test preparation strategies we used and turn them into the norm and the culture of our school year round,” Gabbi said. “Classes are going to have more projects and girls are going to have opportunities to speak aloud and present. We’re going to talk about the correct way to form complex sentences or elaborate, and we're not going to back away and let the students who think they don’t speak well be quiet. Ms. Pyle is going to lead an annual training, and this project will become the routine of how we do things around here.”
By re-imagining what speaking opportunities on campuses looked and felt like, the young women were able to not only practice for their assessment, but were able to hone in on and build their confidence in their public speaking skills.
Leadership takeaways from project success
Reflecting on her design thinking experience, Gabbi shared she has grown as a leader and learned valuable lessons about enacting change on a school campus. “PIC and design-thinking have taught me that I can't just put an idea out there in August and assume it's going to happen. Success takes clearly defining the problem making sure teachers have the support, training, and resources to execute a solution,” she shared. Gabbi also believes that she is more comfortable embracing challenges as a result of PIC and the design-thinking process. “PIC and design thinking have given me the confidence and the vulnerability to step back and get more people on deck before fully figuring out what the problem is. I don’t have to know how to fully attack the problem before I assemble a team. Pivoting is okay.” she shared.
Gabbi also thanked PIC and her cohort of fellow principals for supporting her throughout the process and helping her stay accountable to results. “Having PIC ask us where we were on our project and what we were doing was good because it provided a way to think through where we were, process new ideas, and just keep moving forward. It also helped to be in a group with different people who are working on a similar project and to hear about their experiences.”
Thinking about how other principals might similarly achieve results for their campuses, Gabbi encouraged leaders to partner with staff for answers and to always keep students at the forefront of their mind. “Don't be afraid to gather a group of people, put information out there, and ask how might we do this. Pose the question to everyone and just listen to the input. You get amazing ideas when you allow people to feel empowered... and of course, always remember the user. When it comes to finding solutions for student achievement we have to go straight to the students to experience things from their lens.”
While this TELPAS project was one of the first design-thinking projects Gabbi Dickson has enacted on her campus, it certainly won’t be the last. She is an innovative and inspiring leader and we can’t wait to see how she continues to reimagine what is possible for the girls at Young Women’s STEAM Academy.