September 27, 2017

A bouncy tune booms in the background as little girls with hair adorned in bright bows, barrettes and beads swarm the elementary school gym. It’s time for Sisterhood Circle at Solar Preparatory School for Girls. For the next 15 minutes, a lively mash-up of movement, song, patriotism and affirmation kicks off the morning.

Students direct the all-school assembly, and on this April day, a kindergarten class runs the show. Each Wednesday is College Day, and the pint-size emcee polls her classmates about their aspirations: “I want to go to SMU and become a lawyer … doctor … archaeologist … teacher … coach.”

Beaming from the sidelines is Nancy Bernardino ’01, ’04, ’05. She’s the principal leading the new single-gender campus, a unique startup developed through the Dallas Independent School District’s Choice School program, a pitch contest of sorts for educators to sell the district on their plans for new public schools.

“Everything we do here is designed to prepare our students for life,” Bernardino says. “They’re learning to write code and problem-solve. They’re learning to express themselves and support one another. We’re seeing our students blossom and become confident young girls.”

HAIR BOWS, HUGS AND HAMMERS  It’s just another day in the life of Solar Preparatory School for Girls and Principal Nancy Bernardino as she makes her morning rounds, checking in on classrooms; pitching in as parents and students build lemonade stands, where students will learn about finance as they compete to sell the most beverages; and watching light bulbs flick on as students learn new concepts in the school’s makerspace. Pictured at the top of the page are the Simmons School alumnae leading Solar Prep: (from left) Olivia Santos ’05, ’16, instructional coach; Principal Bernardino; and Jennifer Turner ’16, assistant principal.

SHAPING A MODEL SCHOOL

From the girl power celebration that jumpstarts each day to the fusion of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and math) curriculum with social and emotional learning (SEL), this model school equips girls with the academic abilities and daring they need to unlock their full potential.

Who loves SMU? This Solar Prep students already knows whee she wants to go to college.

GIRL CODE Students use Tinkercad to create basic 3D digital designs. Coding is part of the curriculum that builds tech literacy and nurtures STEAM interest.

Conversations about the “super school” started in 2014 when Bernardino, assistant principal Jennifer Turner ’16, teacher Cynthia Flores ’00, ’17 and instructional coach Ashley Toole ’16 worked together at John Quincy Adams Elementary School in Pleasant Grove, a modest neighborhood in southeast Dallas. Like any entrepreneurs seeking venture capital, the team had to formulate a viable idea, identify data to support their concept and devise a feasible plan that could withstand DISD’s rigorous vetting process.

“When we started looking at the greatest need at the elementary level, we found compelling research about girls Conversations about the “super school” started in 2014 when Bernardino, assistant principal Jennifer Turner ’16, teacher Cynthia Flores ’00, ’17 and instructional coach Ashley Toole ’16 worked together at John Quincy Adams Elementary School in Pleasant Grove, a modest neighborhood in southeast Dallas. Like any entrepreneurs seeking venture capital, the team had to formulate a viable idea, identify data to support their concept and devise a feasible plan that could withstand DISD’s rigorous vetting process.

“When we started looking at the greatest need at the elementary level, we found compelling research about girls losing their voice in the classroom by the time they reach fifth grade,” Bernardino explains. “I started thinking about my own experiences as a very shy student and how things changed for me.”

Bernardino was born in Mexico but has lived in Dallas since she was a year old. She grew up in East Dallas, not far from Solar Prep’s location on Henderson Avenue.

“Neither of my parents had a formal education,” she explains. “My mother wanted us to have career options that she never had.”

Even though they didn’t speak English, her parents regularly attended school functions – demonstrating to Bernardino the importance of parental engagement. Solar Prep sponsors both a parent-teacher association and a club for fathers and other important men in students’ lives.

Poised and self-assured with a quick wit and sunny smile, Bernardino admits she wasn’t always comfortable wearing a leadership mantle. Winning a scholarship to the The Hockaday School, the prestigious all-girls private school in Dallas, was “life-changing,” she says.

“I feel like I found my voice at Hockaday. It was an empowering environment. We learned to speak up for ourselves, and I became my own advocate.”

She used that voice as a “super involved” SMU student. She was active on the Program Council and with Mustang Corral, and she served as layout editor for The Daily Campus while studying public affairs and corporate communications at Meadows School of the Arts.

“It was a great program for me. I still rely on the research skills I developed and tools I learned to use,” she says. “Even graphic design skills, which I didn’t think I would use again, have come in really handy.”

In 2001 she became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, a milestone that thrilled her parents. While working in SMU Student Activities, she completed a graduate certificate in dispute resolution and a master of liberal arts degree, both offered by SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. She went on to earn a master of education degree from Texas A&M–Commerce before joining DISD in 2005, where she served as a teacher, academic coordinator and assistant principal before becoming an award-winning school principal.

Currently a candidate for the Ed.D. in educational leadership at Simmons, Bernardino says, “We learn practices in class that we can then apply immediately to improve our schools.” For example, a discussion about character-building and core values sparked the idea for the backbone of Solar Prep’s social- emotional learning component: the “Solar Six.” Students explore and discuss curiosity, self-awareness, empathy, humility, leadership and grit.

Simmons School programs also profoundly influenced Solar Prep’s assistant principal Turner and instructional coach Olivia Santos ’05, ’16. Both received master’s degrees in educational leadership with a specialization in urban school leadership.

The creative Makerspace at Solar Preparatory School for Gilrls in Dallas.

MAKERSPACE A Lego wall sparks the imagination and encourages collaborative discovery in a space dedicated to hands-on creativity and interdisciplinary learning.

“It was career changing,” Turner says. “It opened my eyes to the pivotal role school leaders can play in creating a learning environment that supports student achievement across the board.”

“Before I completed my master’s, I thought education was mainly about curriculum,” Santos says. “Now I see the importance of implementing systems and practices that create a culture where all students feel welcomed and valued and that support students of all backgrounds, helping those who need it the most get up to speed. Addressing our students’ needs as an entire school has tremendous impact.”

NOW IT’S TIME TO SHINE

Bernardino embraces the Simmons mission to find evidence-based solutions and to “roll out our successes to benefit other schools.”

Solar Prep made its debut in August 2016 with 199 students in kindergarten through second grade from neighborhoods across Dallas. The school will add one grade level per year until students can complete eighth grade at Solar Prep. They will have the option of continuing their public education in an all-girls setting at DISD’s nationally ranked Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

The new school exemplifies the district’s first attempt at a socioeconomically balanced campus, a decision informed by mounting evidence that achievement gaps can shrink when low-income children learn side-by-side with their affluent peers. By design, 50 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and the other half do not.

The student body is also racially diverse, comprising 51 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black, 22 percent white, 2 percent Asian and 3 percent other races.

Perhaps its most unusual pioneering step is a partnership with Girl Scouts of the USA. Solar Prep is the only public school in the nation to enroll all students in the organization. Once a week, as part of the regular school day, teachers become scout leaders as students focus on activities to earn badges in such areas as financial literacy, computers, inventing and making friends. The program ties to an extended day schedule adopted so that all students can benefit from enrichment activities.

Bernardino already sees signs that Solar Prep is living up to its ambition as an incubator for postmillennial trailblazers.

When an academically gifted student who is not athletically inclined joined the track team, Bernardino cheered. “We want students to push themselves because they know that even if something doesn’t work out, all of us – teachers and students – will help them push through it and figure it out.”

By the way, that little girl exceeded expectations.

“She didn’t do well in the 100-meter race, but she placed second in the 200 meters,” Bernardino recounts. “Afterward, she said, ‘See, I knew I just needed more time, and I would get there.’”

– Story by Patricia Ward and photography by Kim Leeson