Paschal: a tradition of academic excellence

Hundreds of parents wait in line anxiously every summer to make sure they secure the hottest ticket in the 109.

They’re not waiting to buy Horned Frog football tickets. The line is for parents trying to get their children transferred to Paschal High School, one of the best public schools in the FWISD. It’s not easy, though. Some parents camp out for days, according to some, because of the high demand.

Several factors may account for Paschal’s popularity. The school has a dedicated alumni base, many of whom live nearby. Paschal has a long history of academic excellence that stretches back to the 19th Century, and it boasts a learning environment that prepares its students for higher education while also helping them gain an idea of what they want to do in life.

In an education system that has declined, according to standardized test scores, Paschal has maintained its academic excellence.

Above the rest

Eight students from Paschal received National Merit Scholarships in 2010, more than any other school in Fort Worth ISD and more than any private school in the city as well. The school on its own had more National Merit winners than the entire Dallas ISD, which only had two.

Its test scores also impress. The average student scored an 1114 out of 1600 on the math and critical reading portions of the SAT, well above the state average of 995. The school also has a prolific Advanced Placement program that attracts upper-level students across the district — if parents are willing to wait outside for an opening. Advanced Placement courses have been available since about 1995.

Principal Terri Mossige sits comfortably in her office chair as she slowly leans back in her seat. “Do you want me to move over here?” she asked as she walked over to a chair usually reserved for visitors. It’s her first year as principal at Paschal High School, the largest high school in the Fort Worth ISD.

As she answers a question, the bell to signal the end of class rings, and students pour out onto the linoleum floors and toward their lockers. She stops for a second before continuing in her response. For the head of a school with more than 2,300 students, the ability to deal with a large group of people is essential.

Paschal’s exit-level TAKS scores are considerably higher than those of the district. According to the exam results, 82 percent of students in Paschal met the standards needed to pass, while only 62 percent passed all tests in the district.

Mossige disputes the notion that the education system as a whole is on the decline.

“You cannot base a whole educational system on SAT scores, ACT scores or TAKS scores,” Mossige said. “Back in the ‘80s, we didn’t have as much data to show how schools were performing. The age of accountability kind of just started up.”

She also said that comparing the education system of the United States to others around the globe can be misleading as well.

“When you start comparing countries to the U.S, the other piece of that is that the United States of America educates all of their children,” she said. “It is one of compulsory attendance, meaning that all children have the right to an education. When you look at other countries, that is not necessarily so.”

Mossige also pointed out that schools have a larger obligation to students than to just improve test scores.

“It’s not just about tests that make a school,” Mossige said. “It’s about what the school offers, both academically, socially, and physically that’s going to make a well-rounded child to help in our democracy.”

A history of excellence

The biggest advantage Mossige says that Paschal has over other schools in Fort Worth is its long and storied past. The school, founded in 1885, is about to celebrate its 125th anniversary. The sheer number of years the school has been around has allowed it to develop a strong foundation of academic success that has led to a reputation as an academically strong public school. One example of this history is the SAT prep classes Paschal offers over the summer for students in Fort Worth.

“I think that as a result [of the school’s age], we have developed a tradition, especially with John Hamilton and the SAT prep, to where people from all over Tarrant County want to come to Paschal to take those workshops,” she said. “I think that based upon that culture of academic excellence, that you have quality teachers, who are also very engaging in the classroom, and that are willing to go the extra mile for kids. We also have a strong alumni and parent base that support the school. When you have all of those pieces coming together, what you see is a positive outcome.”

It’s not just students who are flocking out to Paschal. The high school also seeks to attract new teachers to the team as well. Heather Denton, a math teacher for Paschal, joined the faculty two years ago after serving as a student-teacher the previous year. Denton said the diversity of academics and her history with the school was too hard to ignore when it came time to decide where she would teach.

“I really like Paschal for the high academic standards we have here,” Denton said. “I like that I have a wide range of ability levels among students, also. We have some low students, but we also have some super-high students, so we’re able to offer classes like differential equations or multivariable calculus, or electricity and magnetism in physics.”

Learning is the key

The ability to recruit the best and brightest among teachers is essential to create an intellectually stimulating environment, one where students can explore new ideas and ways of thought with current technology, Denton said.

“I felt that if I was teaching what I supposed to be teaching, I could be innovative if I so choose to be,” Denton said. “For example, our department chair for our math department also works for Texas Instruments. So we have the opportunity to introduce kids to new and upcoming equipment like calculators and other technological instruments.”

Paschal plans to add more unique programs to the school as well. While the school hasn’t announced what specific programs it plans to add, Mossige said, any new programs would be similar to those other high schools in the Fort Worth ISD added recently. For example, South Hills High School just added a culinary school to the available classes for students. She said these types of programs will get kids thinking about what they want to do after graduating from high school and college.

“When we look at Fort Worth, the goal of our school system is that, as we bring out the programs of choice, all high schools in Fort Worth ISD will become open-enrollment, based on different programs of studies,” she said. “We do that so children will have the availability to graduate with a certification, and the ability to go to college, something that has never been done in a lot of areas.”

Former graduates of the school have formed an alumni group that helps raise money for the school and add programs that attract new students and teachers.

Mossige said the alumni helped the school when finances became an issue recently. The school still has to deal with problems almost every other school in the country is facing: a lack of funding.

Texas has not increased the allotted payment a Title I public school, a school where 40 percent of the student enrollment is from low-income families, can receive each year since 2006. At that time, Paschal had an attendance of around 2,100 students, according to a Texas Education Agency Report. Since then, Paschal’s enrollment has jumped to 2,386 students, an increase of around 13 percent. Principal Mossige said the increase in student size, along with a stagnant budget, has forced the school to get creative regarding money.

“We are still at funding levels from 2006, and when we open up the legislature in January, it will be 2011,” she said. “From a public administration standpoint, we need to have some assistance with funding levels if we are to continue to do what we have done. We are in a state of exigency right now, and have had to go into $30,000 into our reserves. Each teacher that we bring on costs around approximately $62,000. So every teacher we add is about being good stewards with the public’s money.”

Mossige said that when that once state legislature opens up next year, she hopes to see an increase in the state’s budget for public schools. If not, she said, other steps would need to be taken.

“If we do not have funding, we have to start looking at cutting programs, and that’s not something that I believe,” Mossige said. “We want to make sure the programs are working to help kids, but we don’t want to cut programs that are beneficial to them as well.”

Paschal’s future

With the addition of specific courses for students to take, along with Paschal’s honors program and SAT workshops, Mossige said that Paschal wants not only to prepare people for college, but also for the workplace as well. The ability for the school to succeed also is benefitted by the number a well-rounded system of assistance.

“I think that Paschal has a lot of support,” she said. “We have made great strides here, in a time of increasing accountability standards regarding schools. With the help of the community, the alumni, and the great teachers, we feel very fortunate.”