For Brent Wilson, Life School is more than a school. He sees the Dallas-area multi-campus charter school as an opportunity to live out his faith by helping instill character attributes to develop the potential of every child who walks through its doors.
What started almost 25 years ago with just 266 students in one location has expanded to 10 campuses and more than 5,600 students. Serving many families who may struggle to make ends meet, the tuition-free school quietly centered on faith-based values boasts stellar attendance and graduation rates.
“I’m inspired by seeing the bigger picture of the potential for each child,” says Wilson. “We need to see that potential, to see how what they’ve overcome will inspire other people as well.”
He and his staff teach students that life isn’t about their successes or failures, but about what each one does with those events. “It sounds cliché, but God designs each person with unique abilities and talents, and I love to help people discover those,” he says. “I like to see people win.”
As superintendent of Life School, Wilson oversees the outworking of a vision of his father. Dr. Tom Wilson was a pastor who loved his community and had a big heart for the church serving that community through helping feed and clothe the homeless, community cleanup and more.
When the family moved from Austin, Texas, to Dallas, Wilson’s dad believed that the church he was called to lead in Oak Cliff could find ways to better serve its area. The families attended church, but needed leadership training and more investment in children. Dr. Wilson often said, “Knowledge and understanding can be instilled in these young people and it will carry them to the top of the mountain. But they will fall off a cliff if they do not have character that is able to keep them there.”
When, in 1995, public charter schools became available as an option in Texas, he saw an opportunity to open a school with character education rooted in faith concepts, but designed to operate within a public-school environment.
Life School Oak Cliff opened in 1998. A year later, Life Middle School Oak Cliff was established, and in 2000 Life High School Oak Cliff opened its doors. By then enrollment had nearly tripled to more than 700 students.
Now Life School has over 650 on staff and serves Dallas County and Ellis County, the former including downtown Dallas and the latter a mostly rural area outside the city. More than 45% of students are African American, almost 40% Hispanic, and the remaining students a mix of white, those who identify as mixed race, and other groups. Almost 65% are considered economically disadvantaged, according to school statistics, with about 11% accessing special education services.
The nonprofit public charter school has a 95.6% attendance rate and four-year longitudinal graduation rate of 100% at the high schools. There are no fees: part of Dr. Wilson’s dream to offer highest-quality education to all, regardless of ability to pay. The system has a Gifted and Talented program, offers career and technical education and has a dual credit program. One of the school’s unique initiatives is encouraging adults to read to younger siblings of early-grade students.
While three of the schools have lease agreements with churches and are located on church property, Life School adheres to public school policy for the state of Texas (no chapel, for example). “We are here to educate students first and foremost and let them know they belong at Life School,” says Wilson.
Per-student funding comes from state and federal moneys, though historically less than what a typical intermediate school district (ISD) receives. The remainder of the funding comes from donations and grants run through the school’s education foundation. “We receive less funding per student, so we seek grants and extra funding to support learning and get the resources our students need,” says Casey Ballard, Director of Community and Public Relations.
Life School offers “a safe place, a nurturing and caring environment” for students and parents, says Wilson, who took over as superintendent in 2010 after working for 14 years in the oil and gas industry.
He believes he is able to live out his Christian values by “loving people and loving them well,” and thrives on seeing kids develop to their full potential. “I was quieter and introverted while other family members were more open and were characters,” he explains. “I never wanted to be them, but I didn’t know my place. Yet as people gave me opportunities, I saw how God made me, my strengths and how I could use them. I want people to unlock the potential of who they can be.”
While pursuing its distinctive approach, Life School also looks to build relationships with nearby ISDs and area private schools. “Any school model that takes care of students, we cheer on and collaborate with,” Wilson says. “If you’re an ISD taking care of families, if you’re a charter, private or home school, we’re a fan. We’re about unifying and deepening people.”
Life School has implemented the LifeLeader program, which it describes as “a common language that makes it easier for us to understand each other and focuses on our efforts.” The program champions 15 attributes, many of which are faith-aligned, that are designed to build leadership skills in students, staff, and parents and are divided into Ready to Learn, Ready to Lead, and Ready for Life sections. Within these sections are lessons about critical thinking, humility, ethical leadership, citizenship, financial literacy and more. Lessons are taught in classrooms, through action cards and via videos and podcasts for parents to access.
“LifeLeader creates a common language around a moral compass, in how we treat people especially in this culture war,” says Wilson. “I’m idealistic. I believe we can be friends with people outside ourselves.”
Wilson sees further growth for Life School and is dreaming big—but with caution. With its charter status, Life School has permission to open campuses across the state of Texas. Expansion is occurring in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area now.
“We’re on a path to expand current campuses and we have churches reaching out to us and asking to open schools through our host church/school model. We are assessing these opportunities,” he says. It’s a two-year process to build the church/school partnership, with careful attention to not intermingling church and school funds and the fact that Life School can’t build a school on church property.
“We want to be known as an effective school. We want all levels of government saying that Life School is doing it right,” says Wilson. “We want to focus on people unifying, on choosing to get along.”
This article was extracted from Issue 3 of Inspire Magazine (Fall 2021). Learn how to get your copy of Inspire Magazine.