When Priscila Dilley immigrated to the United States from Brazil at age 11, she had only her family and a suitcase.
Dilley didn’t speak English at the time, but her love of learning served her well. She went on to become a respected educator; Dilley is now senior officer for the Leadership Academy Network, a partnership between Texas Wesleyan University and Fort Worth ISD designed to accelerate academic performance at four elementary schools and one middle school campus.
While the pandemic has no doubt been a challenge, Dilley has embraced the opportunity to find new ways to connect with students and parents. “We set up registration at apartment complexes. It was really neat for them to come out of their apartment and see our team—just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are you doing here?’”
Between Dilley’s gift for making the most of a challenging situation and her above-and-beyond commitment to the people around her, she’s put countless kids on a path to success.
Why did your family leave Brazil when you were young? My parents were coming here to do seminary. My dad has always been a pastor of a church. And so, he and Mom wanted to come and do seminary here and learn English. And then we ended up staying. At the time, it was a better opportunity in life for us as a family.
What do you remember about your early days in the United States? When we moved, I was going into the fifth grade. I spoke Portuguese. My very first day of school, I was so nervous about going and worried about fitting in or having friends. I remember my first friend also didn’t speak English; she was from Korea. She and I paired up and we couldn’t communicate. But somehow, we did. We learned together and had that experience together. I mean, it wasn’t easy. Everybody else around us spoke English.
Fifth grade is not necessarily a forgiving age group. I can’t imagine there were a lot of kids who readily accepted new students who didn’t speak English. Right. I remember immediately thinking, “I’ve got to get acclimated. I need to do this quick. I need to learn the language. I need to do everything I can.” You might say, “Oh, that’s good that you had that drive in you.” But I think now that when you’re going through that, you are also quick to want to dismiss another part of you. Let me just move past that. I don’t want to speak Portuguese to my parents. I’m embarrassed by their accent. I just wanted to hurry up and get acclimated.
In working with students now, I have the lens of, “Hey, this is a gift that you are bilingual,” or “You have these other cultural experiences. You can learn so much from it, and you should be proud.” Because I went through a lot of wanting to hide it. I didn’t want people to come over to my house because my parents might be cooking something different. My lunches at school—everybody had a PB&J or a turkey and cheese sandwich, and I was bringing rice and beans. There were many times I would be embarrassed and put my food in my lunch box and not eat it.
So I think about our kids who are going through that now: How we can celebrate that and put them in a place where they feel proud about who they are? It’s a very different experience when you go through it.
How does growing up with English as a second language help you relate to the children at your schools? I think there’s an empathy there on my end but also a no-excuses mentality. Working with kids that are learning English or whose parents might not know [the language], I see it as a gift and not as a deficiency. It’s okay. They can learn, and that’s just something we’ve got to incorporate and work around.
I think I’m the wrong person to give justification to, whether it’s low expectations or excuses, because I’m like, “No, I’ve lived it. I’ve walked it. I understand it. And these are the things that are needed for our kids to be successful.” I have more of a drive to ensure that all kids have an opportunity.
Is that what drove you to become a teacher? Actually, my first year out of college I started working for a mortgage company. I didn’t go into teaching right away. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but I didn’t start on that path. I remember sitting at the mortgage company; I was working for a foreclosure department, which is so on the opposite end of what I do [now]. I just hated it. I would come home and cry every night.
One day, during my lunch break, I went to a job fair that Irving ISD was having. I walked up and told the principal, “I’ve never taught. I’ve never even substitute taught. I just know that I love kids, and I want to make a difference. I want to be somebody that advocates for families and kids. I want to do this.” And he hired me on the spot. It was crazy.
The funny thing about all this, too, is that he hired me to teach bilingual education, which is instruction in Spanish. I told him, “Look, I know Portuguese. I don’t really know Spanish.” And he said, “Well, that’s close enough, in my head. So I’m going to hire you.” And I was like, “OK.” So I had to learn Spanish that summer before. The languages are similar enough to be able to learn it pretty quickly, but I had immerse myself.
Wow, what a way to start your career. How did that year go? It was just the most amazing experience. The kids were at this amazing age when their light bulbs were just going off. Then, making those connections with families and moms—I was young at the time; I wasn’t a parent yet and had no idea. I just loved it so much.
Then fast forward years later, when I became a mom, my son has some extreme needs of his own. It made me even more empathetic to parents who have their kids at the mercy of others for learning and for growing. I wouldn’t do anything else. It’s the heartbeat of my work. I just love being able to be an advocate for families who need that.
Do you mind sharing what learning differences your son has? ADHD, but also social pragmatic [communication disorder]. It’s a lot of language-type issues and processing and things like that. But he’s done amazing, because he’s had parents who are advocates for him. He’s had the interventions from the very start; when he was 3 years old, we were already intervening and helping.
Everything that I’ve experienced in my life that you would think of [as a] bump in the road, I look at it as a positive. “Nope, we’re going to take this and learn from it, and it’s going to make us better.” And my walk with him, even now that he’s in seventh grade, has made me even a better educator—because now I’m able to say, “Here are all the things that are working with him. We can apply it here.” Or, “Mom, I can sit down and have a conversation with you because I completely know your struggle.” So it’s been really good. I feel like God has really allowed me to be a part of all these different experiences so that I can help others.
Tell us about the Leadership Academy Network. It’s a program based off of Senate Bill 1882, which provides an opportunity for school districts to partner with an outside organization, such as a higher education institute, a nonprofit organization, or an existing charter.
There are five schools in Fort Worth Independent School District that have traditionally been low-performing schools. Fort Worth ISD did all sorts of really neat interventions for these schools and turned them around. When we did that, it costs the district, I don’t know, a little over a million dollars per campus. They knew it wouldn’t be a sustainable thing to always pump that amount of dollars into those campuses. So Fort Worth ISD partnered with Texas Wesleyan University. They’re still Fort Worth ISD schools, but they are completely managed and operated by Texas Wesleyan. It’s a first-of-its-kind partnership, and we’re seeing all sorts of really neat successes come out of it. For example, LAN students participate in an extra hour of instruction for acceleration and enrichment opportunities, and they’re demonstrating growth even in the midst of this pandemic, based on their weekly assessments. They also recently had the opportunity to receive coats, hats and gloves as a benefit of the partnership.
What has been your biggest challenge during the pandemic? In our setting, we’re probably around 60–70% [of students] in person, and the rest are virtual. I think the biggest challenge right now is teachers having to manage both [virtual and in-person instruction], because they’ve never had to do that before.
So they might be teaching in class and then they have the kids on Zoom who are watching live. They’re having to go back and forth, and that doesn’t feel natural. You don’t always know who’s really attentive and who’s not. When you have all your kids in front of you, you know who’s engaged. I know I can track and see what they’re doing, versus our kids that are virtual right now. We hope they’re doing everything. Assignments are being turned in, but you don’t know who’s helping them.
Also, we really push a relationship-based model in our network. We’re really big on celebrations and let’s do this or that for teachers. We can do it [now], but it’s all modified. It’s very strange because everything is so, “Don’t get close to me, get on the computer and let’s do this.” It’s not the personable approach that we’ve been pushing. But we’ve been managing and doing our best.
How do you connect with families when they’re not on campus? When everything closed down, we started getting creative in rewarding our kids for getting online and engaging. We did crazy things like somebody delivering a pizza to a kid’s house if they had a certain number of logins. We would show up and do baskets at their doors or little gift cards. With the partnership, we’re able to do those types of things, because we have all these outside people who are supporting us.
What I see now is our work going out more toward families and community versus having them come into the schools. We did that with the registration at apartment complexes and outside Fiesta. We have some teachers who have done virtual home visits with our families. Maybe they say, “Hey, let me see your pet,” just to build those relationships. That’s really been key.
And for our schools, we’ve seen an increase of parents logging on and coming to our meetings than we have in the past, because it’s really easy to hop on a Zoom.
It’s so important to build that parent teacher relationship, especially now. Yeah. We actually built in time for the teachers to solely dedicate to that. Our families that have close relationships with our teachers—that’s where we see the highest student success. It’s across the board when you see that a teacher has that relationship with the kid. Because of that, we said, “OK, we’re going to craft their schedules where they have a half-day where they’re just dedicating to connecting.” I think that made a big difference. We even had some parents who were like, “Can they stop calling? They’re calling a little too much.”
What do you think COVID-19’s long-term impact on children’s education will be? If I had to guess, the students that are virtual are going to be most impacted. The kids that have come back in person will be impacted on the social aspect of things. Because right now, the schools have a very different feel. Kids are in their little partitions; they have the masks. They’re on the computers and can’t mingle with others. For that social piece of it and the emotional piece, I think we’re going to have some work there.
For the students that are virtual, they don’t have all the [visual] supports [that are found on classroom] walls. If you think about kids walking into a classroom, they’re able to see all this vocabulary and all these exemplars of what the learning should look like.
That has a big impact on kids’ learning. They’re able to make all those connections through what’s around them, and [at home] they don’t have that. All they have is a little screen. In my opinion, that’s not the best learning environment, especially for our kids.
As a teacher and a parent, how do you instill a love of learning? You’ve got to connect it to what they love. Right now, I have five elementary campuses and one middle school that I work with. My middle school kids love their music, they love their social media. The teachers who incorporate those things within [lessons] are the ones who hook the students.
When it comes to learning to read, when kids are reading what they love about, that’s key. There’s a program called myON—myon.com—and it’s almost like a Netflix for books. Kids take a little survey; they’re able to say what they like, and then the program populates their bookshelf with electronic books about whatever is it that they love—dogs, baseball or whatever.
So they’re learning to read and they’re getting better and better, but it’s because they’re interested in what they’re reading about. I think we just have to make sure that we can make those connections for kids.
Hails from Brazil; moved to Crowley when she was 11
Alma Mater Dallas Baptist University
Current Career Senior Officer for the Leadership Academy Network
Previous Roles Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal and Executive Director in Fort Worth ISD
Partner Mike Dilley
Children Son, Ryder, 12, and daughter Valentina, 9
Dream Job as a Child Teacher
Photo courtesy of Nick Prendergast.