photo via

photo via

This week Dallas ISD students are beginning the 2014-2015 school year. And although the students, faculty, and parents of  T.C. Marsh Middle School are returning to the same campus, many new changes are already underway.

The new logo for Thomas C. Marsh Preparatory Academy

Principal Nicky Niewinski, now in her second year as Marsh principal, has announced, along with DISD trustees, that Marsh is being “re-imagined” this year. This includes an official name change — Thomas C. Marsh Preparatory Academy — plus a new logo, higher academic standards, and more elective choices than students had before. (Despite the name change, Marsh will continue to serve students in its current neighborhood and will not become a magnet school with an admissions process.)

So what spurred all of this change? It’s just one part of a larger picture.

Marsh is one of eight DISD schools, including Thomas Jefferson High School, chosen to develop a strategic plan for personalized learning with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s NextGen Systems Initiative.Currently, Marsh is in the development stage, and it will take a few years before the campus will be able to fully implement the new teaching model. The schools spend June to December 2014 in an intensive design and planning phase that culminates in a completed business plan detailing full implementation of personalized learning. Marsh will present its plans in December to a selection panel to apply for another round of funding from the Gates Foundation to support implementation for the 2015-16 academic year.

Ashley Bryan, director of planning and special projects for DISD, says that so far the Gates Foundation has awarded $841,000 centrally to DISD. The funds have been allocated among the eight schools for a Personalized Learning Coordinator to lead project management during the planning year, site meetings, software and device prototyping, and support a series of design workshops to help schools build their instructional models.

So far, the district has invested $1.3 million to support the Personalized Learning initiative, Bryan says.

Niewinski explained the vision to Marsh parents and students during the recent sixth grade back-to-school night, telling the filled auditorium that she believes middle school is the missing link around the country, and the data proves it.

“Kids come out of elementary school doing well, and when they start high school they aren’t doing well all of a sudden,” she said.

Parish Episcopal and Marsh students working on robotics during a recent summer camp: Photo via Parish Episcopal

Parish Episcopal and Marsh students working on robotics during a recent summer camp: Photo via Parish Episcopal

“We’re doing the same thing over and over again and our kids are underperforming.”

Niewinski continued to say that a transformation, not a reform, is needed, which is why trustees and administrators created the Marsh Innovation Initiative to better prepare students for high school and college with 21st century skills.

This year, Marsh has added a new 30-minute period at the end of the day, named Matadors Exploring New Directions (MEND). The rotating, six-week electives include everything from guitar and chess to gardening and crime scene investigation. Class topics are based on what teachers are personally passionate about, with the goal of inspiring students to cultivate passions of their own.

Students will have access to iPads and laptops at school, and through a partnership with nearby Parish Episcopal School, seventh and eighth graders will be able to attend Lego robotics classes. (Read more about the partnership with Parish Episcopal’s award-winning STEM program on Parish’s website here.)

Additionally, the school has a partnership with Fidelity Investments to support student learning with financial literacy courses.

Marsh partnered with Fidelity five years ago. Company employees would do volunteer projects at the campus such as painting classrooms and landscaping over the summer.

unnamed-2Many corporate and DISD partnerships end there, but Niewinski says the partnership with Fidelity evolved into assisting with academics as well.  Now that financial literacy is a new state standard for eighth grade students, having the resources of Fidelity’s Junior Achievement program has been integral for Marsh.

Principal Niewinski says that she’s heard positive feedback about the changes at the school. Especially, the new name.

“We are circled by private schools in this neighborhood. Our kids feel special when they hear the new name because you sound different too. It’s a mindset perception shift. But now we have to live up to that name. We have to live up to the expectations that we say we will do: increasing the academic rigor and excellence of all of our students. All 1,200 of them.”