Recognizing Core 4 in your department

Many departments and schools throughout the district already have ways to celebrate team members who embody the district’s Core 4 culture tenets. But for those that don’t, here are some tips. Student success is at the core of the district’s culture tenets. That’s why it’s important to model and recognize when team members exemplify them by being:

  • Focused on transforming student lives
  • Fast by working with urgency for all 
  • Flexible when striving for the yes
  • Friendly to make memorable moments

Department recognitions

Central departments are encouraged to hold monthly recognitions to highlight outstanding examples of those embracing the culture tenets. These employees can then be submitted for recognition in central quarterly recognitions. 

Departments can hold recognitions as frequently as every month by asking team members, parents and the community (when appropriate) to share instances where someone has exemplified one of the tenets in an outstanding way. The example should be specific and mention the tenet and how the person being recognized exceeded expectations during their interaction. We recommend that examples be submitted in writing or by creating a Google form using these instructions. We recommend designating a Core 4 coordinator or ambassador for each department to gather these nominations, to coordinate who is chosen each month for recognition, and to share them with the department and, later, the districtwide recognition committee.

Once team members have been chosen by departments, we encourage you to share their names with the rest of the team by:

  • Setting up a Core 4 Board in the employee lounge
  • Announcing them in meetings
  • Adding a Core 4 card to their door or workstation

Keep an eye on The Beat for the next call for Core 4 champion nominations. To see the winners from this past quarter, click here

Elementary school drumline inspires and builds community

A drumline with dancers, typical in a marching band, is not a common part of the elementary school experience—but that didn’t stop teacher Andra Birdsong from making it happen at her school. 

Birdsong, a music teacher at Daniel Webster Elementary School, first got the idea when her students were invited to participate in a community parade after Justin F. Kimball High School’s boys varsity basketball team won the state championship in the Spring of 2023. Kimball is the high school into which Webster feeds.

Nearly a year later, she has at least 25 students performing as either part of the drumline or as dancers. Birdsong, who used to be part of a drumline when she was a high school student, wanted to bring that experience to her students. She got the idea when she saw some orange paint buckets and turned them over to convert them into drums. She purchased more orange buckets and already had a small drum set—and that’s what she used to begin the student drumline. 

After a while, she realized her students were ready to advance. She then borrowed some percussion instruments from Jimmie Tyler Brashear Elementary School and Kimball High School. Through her resourcefulness, and with the support of her school and community partners, she’s been able to realize her vision of a drumline. 

To watch a video of her students performing, click here.

“Ms. Birdsong is not only expanding opportunities for our students through the drumline, as they are learning to play instruments at an early age, but she’s also giving students more tools to be successful beyond their elementary school years,” said Clement Alexander, Webster principal. “The students look forward to her class, and the sense of pride and joy that they exude onstage is contagious not only in the school but in the community.”

Birdsong, who began her teaching career at Webster in 2017, is a graduate of Texas Women’s University and is a certified music therapist as well as a modern band teacher at her school, in addition to teaching the drumline. 

“I know that musicians like to teach quarter notes,” Birdsong said. “But I like to teach emotions. Every time somebody comes into my classroom, I check-in on them.” 

She tries to keep the line of communication open and uses the strategies she has as a music therapist to help students express those emotions on their instruments. That’s why, she believes, that when people hear them perform, they feel happy—they are hearing the students’ emotions transmitted through their instruments, Birdsong said. 

Working with her colleagues, she is trying to help build community and unity. One of the things she has done is create songs for each house at Webster, which is part of the Ron Clark Academy House System. Birdsong is part of House Amore. To see her students sing their house song, click here.

She says her program not only gets students excited about learning, but also thinking of the future. Several of her students have already expressed interest in attending historically Black colleges and universities to pursue a higher education and be part of a marching band.  

She makes sure to include other genres that her students are interested in such as hip hop, music on TikTok, and is looking to incorporate mariachi music in the near future inspired by third-grader Jade, who performs with her family’s mariachi band and who wants to be able to sing mariachi at the school. 

Birdsong says that one of the motivations of bringing different music opportunities to her students is because of the important role music played in her education. 

“When I was a student, I lived and breathed music,” Birdsong said. “I’m also trying to provide something that I didn’t get as a student– the emotional support and the opportunity to play instruments at this level in elementary school. I’m giving them something that I wanted as a kid,” she said. She does it for the “love of music.”


Meet the Core 4 Champions: Tabatha Sustaita-Robb

Tabatha Sustaita-Robb has been in education for 32 years and with Dallas ISD 11 years, the last four of which she has worked as a Library and Media Services coordinator.  

What attracted you to education? 

I knew in sixth grade that I wanted to be a teacher with the help of Mrs. Lowry, my fifth- and sixth-grade social studies teacher at Lenore Kirk Hall Elementary School. Her passion and love for the subject and her students inspired me to follow in her footsteps.

Why do you think the district’s culture tenets are important? 

The district’s culture tenets are important because they help to create a positive, inclusive, and effective environment. They also help guide our decisions and actions, contributing to the overall success of the district.

Is there a time when one of the Core 4 tenets made a difference for you or someone else? 

After my husband passed away, it was Robert Abel who made a difference in my family’s life by exhibiting all the Core 4 tenets. Mr. Abel assisted me with information the insurance was requesting quickly, friendly, focused on what I needed and who could help me and I’m sure flexible since this was an unexpected request. Thank you, Mr. Abel!

What is your go-to Core 4 tenet and why? 

I think for many of us in education our go-to core 4 is flexibility. There are so many things that happen in and out of school that are out of our control that we have to be flexible and do the best that we can in our daily walk.

Is there something your coworker would be surprised to know about you? 

I think my coworkers would be surprised to know that our former Superintendent Michael Hinojosa was my seventh-grade P.E. coach and interviewed me for my first teaching job when he was head of HR in a nearby school district.


Prevention and innovation at the heart of health

High blood pressure, obesity and other risk factors continue to contribute to high rates of heart disease and stroke worldwide, including in the United States where annual deaths from cardiovascular disease are approaching 1 million.

That’s according to an exhaustive statistics report released annually by the American Heart Association that details what’s known about heart and brain health.

The “2024 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics: A Report of U.S. and Global Data From the American Heart Association,” published recently in the AHA journal Circulation, details the strides made in reducing cardiovascular disease risk—such as the decline in cigarette smoking. But major advances in how to prevent heart disease and stroke have failed to reap the benefits they could, said Dr. Seth Martin, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore and chair of the 43-member group that wrote the report.

“We know so much about what works to improve outcomes for patients, but there are still major gaps in translating that into daily practice,” said Martin, also a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “There is a strong need to innovate in our implementation so that we can close those gaps.”

Here are highlights from the report about some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

High blood pressure

Nearly half of U.S. adults—more than 122 million—have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. The condition damages and weakens arteries, making it easier for them to burst or become blocked. That can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other problems.

Blood pressure is considered high in teens and adults when the systolic, or top number, is at least 130 mmHg, or the diastolic, or bottom number, is 80 mmHg or more. Children also can develop hypertension.

Having high blood pressure in childhood can lead to serious health consequences earlier in adulthood, said Dr. Latha Palaniappan, an internal medicine doctor and a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University in California. Palaniappan is vice chair of the report’s writing committee.

“In the long term, we could be starting medications much earlier, and we really have to be on high alert for strokes, heart failure and other issues at an earlier age in the decades to come,” she said.

To lower blood pressure, the AHA recommends eating a well-balanced diet that’s low in salt, limiting alcohol consumption, staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, managing stress and taking medication as prescribed.

Physical activity

The report cites data from 2020 to 2021 that showed only 15% of teens met federal physical activity guidelines of an hour or more per day.

Adults are doing better, but still only 1 in 4 meet the guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, along with muscle-strengthening activities two or more days per week.


“Most of the U.S. population does not follow a healthy dietary pattern,” Palaniappan said.

Indeed, among all cardiovascular health measures in the report, diet was one of the worst. On a scale from 0 to 100, diet scores averaged 24 to 48 across various groups based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2013 to 2018.

Federal dietary guidelines recommend people follow an eating pattern that includes nutrient-dense food and beverages, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and nuts and seeds, while limiting sodium, added sugars, saturated fat and alcohol.


The report found 42% of U.S. adults have obesity, as well as 20% of children and teens.

“The proportion of people in the U.S. who are overweight or obese has steadily increased in recent years. It’s very alarming,” Martin said.

“This report tells us we need to promote healthier behaviors starting in youth, and we need to embrace evidence-based weight loss interventions at scale,” he said. “Obesity is a big problem that requires multipronged solutions.”

Tobacco use

The nation has made significant progress in reducing cigarette smoking, with consistent declines among U.S. youth and adults in recent decades.

But, the report found, many youth have turned to e-cigarettes. Among high school students, 1 in 7 reported using e-cigarettes, particularly the flavored versions, in the last 30 days.

A growing body of research suggests e-cigarettes are harmful to human health and much remains unknown about how they may affect the heart and lungs.

“We need to be very vigilant about the health effects of e-cigarettes,” Palaniappan said. “We are trending in the wrong direction.”

What’s next?

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke affect some groups more than others. For example, the frequency of high blood pressure among Black people in the U.S. is among the highest in the world, the report said.

“In terms of cardiovascular risk factors and disparities, there is a clear indicator that we need to redouble our efforts and really build on what’s been learned over the last century,” Martin said. “But we must also develop new, creative approaches.”

And it will be critical to make sure no one is left out of these strategies, Palaniappan added.

“We need to make sure we are reaching every nook and cranny of our population, including rural areas and those in the underserved parts of our country affected by adverse social determinants of health, including lower socioeconomic status and lack of access to education, health care, healthy foods and safe neighborhoods,” she said.

Source: American Heart Association

Master Teachers: A Series

Master teacher Michael Chang first came to  Dallas ISD in 2018 to teach fourth grade math and science at Annie Webb Blanton Elementary School, where he continues to impact students’ lives. Prior to coming to the district, he taught math and science in Tulsa, Okla., and is now in his 10th year as an educator. He is originally from Manitowoc, Wis., and graduated from Marquette University in 2014. 

What drew you to education?

Born and raised by immigrant parents in a low-income family, I was always told by my mother that education was the key to break the cycle of poverty in which my parents and grandparents lived. My junior high school principal once told me that she hopes I come back home after college and give back to my community. I was blessed to have had teachers and sports coaches who provided me with the support that led me to be the first in my family to graduate from college. Although I did not move back home after college, I believe I was drawn to teaching as my way of giving back to the community in which I serve. It takes just one teacher to make a meaningful difference in a student’s outlook on life. If I can be that teacher for my students, I will have fulfilled my duty as a teacher and my role as a changemaker.

How are you creating opportunities for your students?

I create a safe space for my students to be honest and vulnerable with themselves, in order for them to grow as a student and as a child with goals. I work closely with them to set social and academic goals. Then, I instill in them a growth mindset to be able to handle mistakes and setbacks and view them as opportunities for growth.

What is your best teaching tip?

Building strong relationships precedes students’ social and academic growth and success. Take the time to talk to students outside of instructional time. Ask them questions and watch their curiosity peak. Listen and show interest in what they share with you. Follow through with the things you tell your students you will do. Doing so will lead them to perceive you as someone they can trust, and thus they will feel cared for and heard. If students respect you as their teacher in the classroom, they will want to learn anything from you

What would your students be surprised to find out about you? 

In the spring of 2017, I was featured on Fox 23 News in Tulsa for receiving the Golden Apple Award. This award recognizes teachers who display commitment and excellence. I share the video with my students at the beginning of every school year to set the tone–that if they put forth their best effort and strive for growth, they will have the mindset and habits to be successful beyond my fourth-grade class.

What inspires you the most about being an educator?

What inspires me the most about being an educator is the daily opportunity I have to bring positivity and joy to my students despite how they may be feeling or going through outside the confines of school. They spend a third of their day at school, so if I can make their day better, then that’s an opportunity I will always take.

¿Sabes acerca del depósito directo?

Los miembros del equipo de Dallas ISD pueden recibir su salario directamente a sus cuentas de banco y puede hacer cambios en línea a través de Oracle utilizando la opción de Human Resources/Payroll Employee Self-Service. Para realizar cambios, pulse en Employee Self-Service, seleccione el folder de Payroll Information, y pulse en el enlace de DISD Direct Deposit. Los empleados deben de estar dentro de la red del distrito o conectados a través de VPN para acceder al enlace. El Departamento de Nómina no aceptará correos electrónicos o faxes con la nueva información bancaria. El banco del distrito imprime cheques de nómina y los envía por correo a aquellos empleados que actualmente no están registrados para depósito directo. Alentamos a los empleados a asegurarse de que su dirección esté correcta en el sistema o configurar una cuenta de depósito directo.

Four pillars of mental fitness

The importance of physical fitness in maintaining healthy and vibrant lives has been well researched. What is not as well known is that mental fitness is equally important. In fact, the two are intertwined. Supporting your mental health can make you more resilient to life’s ups and downs and more likely to make positive lifestyle choices. Likewise, if your body is functioning well, you’re in a better position to achieve mental fitness.

What is mental fitness?

Just as there are four components to physical fitness—cardiovascular endurance, strength, flexibility, and a healthy weight—there are four components to mental fitness. 

  • Emotional. This includes self-acceptance, self-esteem, resilience, and the ability to manage strong emotions.
  • Social. Friends are important because they bring companionship, support, and enrichment to our lives. Considerable research has shown that people who have friends are generally physically and emotionally healthier and enjoy a better quality of life.
  • Financial. A substantial number of people experience stress due to money issues. Financial wellness is not about having a certain amount of money at your disposal; it’s about feeling in control of your finances, being able to handle financial setbacks, and being on track to achieve your financial and life goals.
  • Physical. Mental and physical fitness and health are intertwined. You can improve both through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and enough sleep. You can also reduce your risk of developing chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

Taking steps to build your mental fitness can boost your ability to cope with stress and improve your physical health, productivity at work, relationships, and overall happiness. If you would like more support as you work to build your mental fitness, contact Dallas ISD’s Employee Assistance Program or visit  ​​

Source: LifeWorks

Going from teacher to librarian 

Library Media Services is excited to present a series of meetings for Dallas ISD teachers who want to learn more about library sciences. These informative talks will feature representatives from major colleges with well-known school librarian programs, providing insights and information for educators interested in pursuing a career as a librarian.

All meetings will be held remotely. Join on the dates and links indicated below to take the first step toward a new career. All sessions take place from 5 to 6 p.m. 

Virtual meeting schedule:

  • SHSU virtual meeting link – Feb. 12 
  • UNT virtual meeting link – Feb. 15  
  • TWU virtual meeting link – Feb. 20  
  • SHSU virtual meeting link – March 20 
  • UNT virtual meeting link – March 26 
  • TWU virtual meeting link – April 4 

If you have general library questions or questions about these meetings, email Tabatha Robb at or go to Library & Media Services.

Master Teachers: A series 

Sandra Urton, a  teacher at Wilmer Hutchins Elementary School, first  came to work as a teacher when she heard of the district’s need for bilingual educators. Urton saw this as an opportunity to make a positive impact for youth in the community.

Now in her 15th year teaching in the district, she had previously taught two years in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, at the Universidad Tecnológica de Cancún, as well as in a middle school and at a language school. 

Where are you from and how did you end up at Dallas ISD?

I am from Mexico City. I decided to work at Dallas ISD because I heard its need for bilingual educators, and I wanted to impact the community positively.

What drew you to education? 

Before entering education, I worked in a French geophysics firm, Compagnie Generale de Geophysique, CGG.’ I was a legal advisor in charge of reviewing bids and contracts between the company and Mexico’s state-run oil company, Pemex, writing and translating legal and technical documents in French, English, and Spanish. Then, I moved to the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, where I realized that some kids were without someone who could help them make good choices. I saw too many teens and young adults struggling with the party atmosphere of the area. They didn’t have anyone motivating them to think about their future, despite having the opportunity to do so. I realized there was a lack of role models, and I immediately understood that I wanted to be that person who could help them become successful, the one who could help them discover their talents and help them believe in themselves. I wanted to be the person who makes a difference in their lives and who would impact their future positively, therefore, I started counseling them. Later, I  became a middle school teacher and part-time college professor, and, not long after, I heard of Dallas ISD’s need for bilingual teachers. I packed a bag and moved to Dallas to start teaching at Dallas ISD. 

How are you creating opportunities for students?

First of all, I take the time to know my students, and learn about what they like to do, so I can plan and create meaningful and effective learning opportunities for them. Once I know my students, I self-reflect and think of ways to reach their fullest potential. I build language and social skills along with content knowledge. I want my students to become global citizens, so I create activities where students can collaborate and engage with their peers. I pair and group them strategically, so that they can support each other and grow together. This is a powerful tool for active learning. Collaboration is a skill that will follow them throughout their lives, fostering inclusion and community empowerment. When working in groups, students learn how to interact socially and the importance of their voices being heard. I create opportunities that allow them to connect their experiences with the content to construct knowledge.

Involving students’ cultural perspectives, experiences, and identities into the classroom  creates a more inclusive and relevant learning environment. I  recognize the importance of acknowledging and respecting students’ cultural identities and using them as valuable resources for teaching and learning. I create opportunities for students to become lifelong learners and independent thinkers through different approaches, such as real-world applications and blended learning activities. 

I foster students’ curiosity, to become innovative critical thinkers and problem solvers. I am aware of the importance of checking for understanding, so I ask students to paraphrase and monitor their own learning and justify their thinking so that misconceptions can be addressed early. I create opportunities to grow and set goals, therefore I implement constructive and timely feedback.  

As a bilingual teacher, I create language acquisition opportunities to develop oral competency in two languages and promote biliteracy, biculturalism, and bilingualism through the implementation of research-based strategies.

My students’ responses provide me with information that I use to make effective instructional decisions. I use this data as a tool to increase and drive instruction. When students make connections with the real world, they engage in their own learning. Self-reflection is also a powerful learning opportunity for my students to construct knowledge.

What is your best teaching tip? 

Provide students with experiences that promote deep understanding and thinking. I also provide clear instructions and communicate the expectations to avoid confusion and promote a focused learning atmosphere. Engage students with open-ended questions and then challenge them to think more deeply. Always ask students to justify their answers to make thinking visible and to enhance their learning experiences. Be aware of the diversity of the students and take the time to explore their background knowledge. Another tip is to create safe environments where students can experience positive feelings so they can associate them through their learning journeys. Making content comprehensible to students, using visuals, and collaborative strategies to help all students create meaning is an effective tip for all learners.  

Creating positive relationships in the classroom and building strong teacher-student relationships are important. A safe environment is crucial for students to learn and to allow themselves to take academic risks. Always provide constructive feedback. Students need to know how to improve every day and we need to set goals with them and celebrate when they achieve them. Always tell students that what they are learning is important and explain why.  All voices are important in the classroom. Promote listening skills and taking turns, as a leadership skill that will allow them to help their communities in the future.  Good instruction is essential and must be accompanied by differentiated techniques to allow all students access to content and accommodate it to their diverse abilities and to their diverse language proficiency levels.

Remember to stay current in the field of education, learn about new research-based strategies that have been proven to be effective, and share them with other educators. Don’t forget to involve parents in the learning process of their children. And finally, the most important tip is to have fun and enjoy what you do every day, students need to feel that we are there to help them become successful. 

What would your students be surprised to find out about you?

My students would be surprised to find out that my bachelor’s degree is in law, and that I speak four languages: French, Italian, English, and Spanish. They will also be surprised to find out that when I moved to Dallas, I arrived with only one suitcase and that I started from scratch in the Dallas ISD Alternative Certification program. They will also be surprised to find out that  at the beginning, I was very scared, because I was in a new country without knowing anybody in the program and not having anything but my dreams and a passion to impact lives.

What inspires you the most about being an educator?

Knowing that students have acquired the social-emotional and academic content and that they have learned lifelong and global skills that will follow them  for the rest of their lives is what inspires me. It also inspires me to know that I have impacted them positively.

Former Dallas ISD ESL student inspires students as their teacher

When Gustavo Zaragoza, a teacher at Career Institute East, was a student and a newcomer to the country, he never imagined going into the education field. Through his work as a teacher, he is now able to identify with his students and empower them, as teachers once did for him.

Having grown up in Mexico, and not knowing the language when he first arrived in the district, he said he felt intimidated at times, and that it was in his ESL classes that he felt safe. He says he’s committed to create that type of environment for his students, where they feel confident and secure.

He credits former teachers like Elena Bates, who is now the executive director of Personalized Learning, for motivating him and helping him feel seen as a student. He recalls a moment when he and other students were taking a state exam and how Bates waited with them past school hours until they finished their exam. Zaragoza said that by doing that, she sent a powerful message, one that he would never forget on his road to becoming a teacher. 

“She made us feel comfortable and would let us be ourselves,” Zaragoza said. “And that’s what I want to show my students.”

Now in his fourth year of teaching Spanish heritage for careers, an elective class designed for native speakers, which meets the foreign language requirement for graduation.

Before working in the education field, Zaragoza worked as a behavior technician in a community clinic. After graduating from the University of North Texas with a degree in sports medicine, he found challenges finding a job in this field, and worked with children who have autism. In his behavior technician role, it was a parent who suggested he become a teacher because she noticed he had great rapport with children. 

That motivated Zaragoza to go through the district’s alternative certification program. It was at a district career fair that he met Career Institute East Director Kyna Eberhardt and Assistant Principal Victoria Davis. Zaragoza came on board during COVID and most of his students were virtual with only a few in the classroom. Davis and Eberhardt knew that he was the right one for the job. 

“You can tell through his language, he has such a growth mindset,” Davis said. “He always wants to be the best for the students. He’s always wanting to learn, and he’s always thinking about what he can do next to help his students.”

Davis added that Zaragoza sees himself reflected in his students, and he puts all of his heart and soul into his work. 

Zaragoza said that if there’s one word to describe how he feels about the work that he is doing  is “grateful.” He said that his students make him happier, and he’s able to identify with his students, especially his ESL students. His students might not notice, but they give him more than what he gives them.

Zaragoza’s hope for his students is for all of them to be successful. He says he wants to change his students’ mindset, and for them to know that they are smart, that they are good enough, and that they can accomplish their goals. 

“That’s what I want to be able to accomplish,” Zaragoza said. “To have at least one of my students say ‘Mr. Zaragoza, your work changed my mindset and helped me.’” 

Davis describes Zaragoza as a teacher who works hard and is a role model who lets his students know they can be anything they want to be. 

“He’s thinking positively and speaking positively to them and helping them problem solve and become critical thinkers,” Davis said. “His level of professionalism and commitment to excellence is executed every day.”

Zaragoza says he understands what his students are going through as newcomers to the country, and wants to make sure that he not only is a professional, but a professional who is a human being, expressing empathy and understanding to his students. He says his students often express themselves in the classroom because they tell him that they trust him. 

His work has earned him the award of “Teacher of the Year” at Career Institute East. 

Despite the praise and accolades, Zaragoza said he remains focused on the work and on making a difference in the lives of his students, always reminded of what his grandmother used to say: “Stay grounded, keep learning, and keep developing.”