Eighth Annual Bragging Rights 2014-2015

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Eighth Annual


Bastrop ISD Coppell ISD Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Deer Park ISD Garland ISD Kaufman ISD Keller ISD Lamar CISD Marfa ISD Prosper ISD Splendora ISD Wills Point ISD

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Eighth Annual



table of contents

From the Editor................. 5

Bastrop ISD...................... 7

Coppell ISD.....................11

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD....13

Deer Park ISD.................16

Business community rallies around school district

District serves up nutrition program that promotes healthier living for all

Profit-generating Club Rewind provides new level of child care

Outdoor Learning Center creates outdoor classroom for entire community

Garland ISD....................19

Kaufman ISD.................. 22

Keller ISD....................... 25

Lamar CISD................... 29

GRS Giving Place offers backpacks, clothes and peace of mind for students in need

Lunch and Learn program engages parents of ELL students

Anti-bullying program ROCKs the school district

District invents YouTubelike platform to improve staff training experiences

Marfa ISD....................... 33

Prosper ISD................... 36

Splendora ISD............... 39

Wills Point ISD............... 43

‘Eagle Nation News’ gives students real-world broadcast communications experience

Students fuel up with competitve biotechnology education, experience

Conference helps girls gain confidence as they transition to junior high

Unique public-private partnership is a win-win for district, youngest learners

Editorial Director Katie Ford


Advertising Sales Manager Lance Lawhon |

Design Phaedra Strecher

Texas Association of School Administrators Executive Director Johnny L. Veselka | Assistant Executive Director, Services and Systems Administration Ann M. Halstead Director of Communications and Media Relations Suzanne Marchman (ISSN 0563-2978 USPS 541-620) Bragging Rights 2014-15 • Volume LXI, Issue 3 406 East 11th Street • Austin, Texas 78701 • Phone: 512-477-6361 • Fax: 512-495-9955 www.texasschoolbusiness.com

© Copyright 2014 Texas Association of School Administrators

ISSN 0563-2978 USPS 541-620 Published monthly, except for July/August and November/December, and the Bragging Rights issue published in December by Texas Association of School Administrators, 406 East 11th Street, Austin, TX 78701. Periodical Postage Paid at Austin, Texas and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to Texas Association of School Administrators, 406 East 11th Street, Austin, TX 78701.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


88% “With additional flexibility now provided to school districts, we should expect graduation numbers to remain strong with all students better prepared for life after high school in college, the workplace or military.� TEA Commissioner Michael Williams

Texas Association of School Administrators

Texas high school on-time graduation rate sets another all-time high, reaching 88 percent for the class of 2013. n

Across racial/ethnic groups, the graduation rate for the Class of 2013 reflects all-time highs for Hispanic (85.1 percent) and African-American (84.1 percent) students.


Asian students in Texas had the highest graduation rate (93.8 percent) in the Class of 2013 Grade 9 cohort.


White students posted the second highest graduation rate (93 percent).


Females in the Class of 2013 Grade 9 cohort had a higher graduation rate (90.3 percent) than males (85.9 percent).


The graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in the Class of 2013 Grade 9 cohort was 85.2 percent, an increase of 0.1 percentage points over the Class of 2012. In comparison, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in the Class of 2007 Grade 9 cohort was 68.8 percent. Source: Texas Education Agency

TASA_TSB Bragging Rights 11-14.indd 1

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Eighth Annual


from the editor

Well, here it is: our Eighth Annual Bragging Rights special issue. What an experience to review all your amazing nominations (there were close to 100) and select only 12 for this annual publication. You people certainly made it tough to choose! Every spring we at Texas School Business invite school administrators and educators from across the state to nominate their brag-worthy programs for possible publication in this special issue. This year’s crop of nominations encompassed a cross-section of academic and administrative initiatives — all of which showcase innovative thinking, passion, determination and strong leadership within Texas public schools. In the 12 stories represented here, I hope you find the inspiration to start similar efforts in your district. That truly is the purpose of this special issue: to share best practices and evoke educators across Texas to take similar action. The people interviewed for these stories were kind enough to share lessons learned and tips for getting started. Please join us in bragging about these noteworthy programs by sharing your copy of Bragging Rights with other stakeholders in public education. We want as many people as possible to know what an amazing job all of you are doing. To all those who nominated programs this year, thank you for sharing your inspiring stories with us. And to the districts featured within these pages, congratulations on your achievements. You certainly do have Bragging Rights!

Katie Ford Editorial Director

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015



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Business community rallies around school district

Bastrop ISD

by Bobby Hawthorne

(Editor’s note: The following story is unique in that it showcases a chamber of commerce program — not a district-led program. However, Bastrop ISD Superintendent Steve Murray wanted to show his appreciation for Bastrop’s business community by bragging about their campaign, and we thought it’d be mighty fine to honor his gesture of gratitude.)


t wasn’t that the citizens of Bastrop hadn’t supported their public schools. For the better part, they had. It wasn’t that Bastrop’s public schools were failing. By and large, they were doing fine. It certainly wasn’t that the leaders of Bastrop ISD were hiding or denying their shortcomings. Truth is, they were working diligently to remedy them. In almost every way, Bastrop ISD was struggling in the same ways that most public school districts were. And yet, there existed a perception that Bastrop public schools weren’t that good, or, at least, they weren’t good enough.

Why this impression existed, no one seemed to know. Yet, it persisted: Iffy school district. Not the best place to relocate a business. Not the best place to raise a family. Those in the position to know knew the schools were better than the little credit they were given. Great things were happening in Bastrop ISD, but those stories were going untold — largely because good news is rarely considered “news.” A teacher who helps 25 sixth graders raise their reading scores was puffery. If it’s true that the media doesn’t tell people what to think, it certainly tells them what to think about. And when people thought about Bastrop schools, it was rarely positive.

Superintendent Steve Murray

Sometimes, it was really bad. Like the week before Thanksgiving 2013 when an incident at Cedar Creek High made headlines in the newspapers and on television, reinforcing old perceptions and causSee BASTROP on page 8

Bastrop ISD’s maintenance team was thanked and treated to an appreciation lunch as part of the “We Believe in BISD” campaign, spearheaded by the Bastrop Chamber of Commerce. TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


BASTROP continued from page 7

since then, test scores and graduation rates have improved. In 2011, Bastrop voters even passed a bond — $98 million to build a second high school, an athletic complex and a fine arts center. Things were clearly improving, but not well enough.

‘Everybody knew we were better than what we appeared to be. So, our goal was to get in front of the story, to start telling our story ourselves, to rebrand the school district.’

“There still didn’t seem to be a sense of pride,” Mutschink says. “Everybody knew we were better than what we appeared to be. So, our goal was to get in front of the story, to start telling our story ourselves, to rebrand the school district.”

— Ashley Mutschink, campaign leader

“The success of any community and any school district is pride and ownership — pride that good things are happening, that good leadership exists, that the leaders are ahead of whatever change is coming their way,” Mutschink says. “And that’s what we have here, so we’re working to be positive and to get the message out.”

ing deep-rooted accusations to resurface. Something had to be done and quickly. The Bastrop Chamber of Commerce and two or three civic entities decided to respond — to do something dramatic, even profound. They decided to leave their offices, go into the schools and say, “Thank you. Thank you for everything you do for our kids. We believe in you, and we’ve got your back.” This simple gesture has made all the difference in the world, and it’s part of a larger Chamber of Commerce campaign called “We Believe in BISD.” One of its co-coordinators is Ashley Mutschink, an insurance broker who has lived in Bastrop for 23 years. Over the past decade, he has watched as nearby municipalities have economically benefited from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA). He wondered why Bastrop was being left out. Fair or not, the schools caught much of the blame. Voters defeated three consecutive bond elections, despite the district’s huge facility needs. Passing a bond was essential to attracting ABIA business and families to the area. “We had to evaluate what had been done in the past and put together a plan that the community would support,” Mutschink says. “We had to develop greater confidence and remind people that we all have a patriotic responsibility to provide essential facilities to educate our children.” But first, they needed new leadership in the district, “someone who could get the diamond out of the rough and polish it,” Mutschink explains. They found their guy in Steve Murray, who was leading Little Elm ISD. He came on board with Bastrop ISD as superintendent five years ago, and,


The chamber started off small: brochures, window clings, bumper stickers. They ventured into social media: websites, Twitter, Facebook. But the fait accompli came when the campaigners began giving of their time, visiting schools and hosting appreciation lunches and the like. They became, as Mutschink describes, “fully invested.”

The “We Believe in BISD” campaign is steered through a Chamber of Commerce subcommittee chaired by Jolene Jaehne, a local mortgage officer. “I want to make sure it’s stressed that this isn’t just a teacher appreciation thing,” Jaehne says. “It’s a BISD employee thing. We went to after-school programs and special education classes. We talked to janitors and bus drivers. ‘We Believe in BISD’ is sending the message to every employee in the school district: ‘You’re not alone.’” Jaehne has made as many or more campus visits as anyone. During one school visit — after an appreciation lunch was served and T-shirts with the campaign’s slogan were distributed — she stood and asked teachers to share stories of the last time they were reminded of why they became a teacher and why they worked for Bastrop ISD. At first skittish, several teachers eventually stood and talked about this little boy or that specific class. “The impact of hearing these stories coming directly from the teachers just can’t be duplicated,” Jaehne explains. “The feelings that emerge from these visits — from seeing the teachers’ appreciation, from seeing the business community’s understanding and appreciation — it’s been a very overwhelming response.” Becky Womble, the Bastrop chamber’s new CEO, delights in the relationships being forged between the business community and schools. “Schools need tangible help in enriching the educational experience: internships, hands-on experiences, anything that will get and keep kids moving forward,” she says. “We must have well-educated, well-equipped students. Education is the foundation for job development. ” Still, she says it remains difficult to get positive news in the media.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

“You have to fight that every day. That’s the challenge we face,” she says. If anyone understands that, it’s Superintendent Murray. He says it almost seems fashionable these days to bash public schools. “Well, we don’t believe in that. We believe in what’s going on in our school district,’” he says. Murray points out that prior to the chamber’s campaign, Bastrop ISD already had a phenomenal education foundation, so the campaign’s objective isn’t about school finances. Its purpose is purely to express support for Bastrop ISD employees. “It’s not just a ‘show up, hand out pizza or tacos, and leave’ thing,” he adds. “We’re creating relationships, and when you create relationships, things tend to grow.” It’s also remarkable, he says, that this campaign was conceived by the business community — not the school district. “It’s one thing for the school district to blow our own horn,” Murray says. “We have an excellent communications department and all that, but the businesspeople made it clear they wanted to do this for the school district.”

that happens, there are 50 great things taking place on our campuses. It’s just hard to get those stories out there. But that’s what they’re doing, and that means everything to us.” Murray says he is confident the campaign will expand and that more people will visit the schools and see for themselves what’s taking place in the classrooms. “When people come into our schools to mentor or tutor, then it’s no longer … a matter of ‘I’ve been told this’ or ‘I heard that,’” he says. “They’ll see it for themselves. They’ll see some of the challenges we’re facing, but more importantly, they’ll see the great things that are happening in our schools.”

The “We Believe in BISD” committee visits Bastrop ISD Superintendent Steve Murray and his service center staff. Bastrop Schlotzsky’s treated district employees to a meal and thanked them for their service.

And then, they’ll believe too. BOBBY HAWTHORNE is the author of “Longhorn Football” and “Home Field,” both published by The University of Texas Press. In 2005, he retired as director of academics for the University Interscholastic League.

No one believes the “We Believe” campaign is a panacea. It’s not. However, as Bluebonnet Elementary Principal Bridgette Cornelius says: “For every one bad thing

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


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McNair Elementary – Denton ISD Moises E. Molina High School – Dallas ISD Montwood High School – Socoro ISD Obadiah Knight Elementary – Dallas ISD Paso Del Norte Elementary/Middle School – Socoro ISD Polytechnic High School – Fort Worth ISD Preston Hollow Elementary – Dallas ISD Richland High School – Birdville ISD Scoggins Middle School – Frisco ISD Sgt. Roberto Ituarte Elementary – Socorro ISD Shannon Learning Center – Birdville ISD Skyline High School – Dallas ISD Snow Heights Elementary – Birdville ISD South Oak Cliff High School – Dallas ISD Spc. Rafael Hernando Middle School – Socorro ISD Sunset High School – Dallas ISD Thomas Jefferson High School – Dallas ISD Vista del Sol Elementary – El Paso ISD W.H. Gaston Middle School – Dallas ISD W.W. Samuell High School – Dallas ISD Wedgewood Middle School – Fort Worth ISD Western Hills High School – Fort Worth ISD William M. Anderson Elementary – Dallas ISD

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District serves up nutrition program that promotes healthier living for all

Coppell ISD

by Raven L. Hill


or two years, the little boy skipped the new salad bar at lunch. Every day, cafeteria workers and parent volunteers asked him the same question: Do you want a salad? Every day, they got the same answer. No. One day, intrigued by what he called “the white thing” (cauliflower), he changed his mind. He wanted a salad. And much to his surprise, it wasn’t bad. Students in Coppell ISD are finding themselves enticed by veggies and fruits of all shapes, sizes, colors and flavors as part of the district’s emphasis on healthy eating. Taking a cue from First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to address childhood obesity, the district has spent the past four years implementing programs and activities designed to improve nutrition, physical fitness and overall student wellness. Helen Duran, the district’s culinary nutrition trainer, is the one spearheading most of these efforts. She writes campus protocols and staff training, educates students and families, and forges community partnerships. Known to students as “Chef Helen,”

she was hired with the mission to encourage children to eat healthier — and enjoy it. Young taste buds are often finicky and deeply suspicious of anything referred to as “good for you,” so Duran found a way around that: She stopped using the h-word — healthy and, instead, uses the d-word — delicious. “When you go for that, you’re going for things that are local and fresh,” Duran says. “It’s going to be something the students are involved with too — something that captures their imagination.” It’s not uncommon to see items like herb parmesan pumpkin sticks, strawberry and spinach salads, chili sweet potato waffle fries or burrito bowls on school cafeteria menus in Coppell ISD. The district’s cafeteria makeover applies to both their appearance and approach. All 15 cafeterias now offer salad bars, which are oftentimes staffed with parent volunteers, and seven schools have community gardens.

Superintendent Mike Waldrip

The high school cafeteria offers a fresh ramen bar, where students can top off their noodles with See COPPELL on page 12

The salad bar is a popular choice among the kiddos now that Chef Helen is in charge as a culinary nutrition trainer.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


Nicole Fridder’s son once staunchly refused to buy school lunches.

Chef Helen shows a Cottonwood Creek Elementary student how to make a nutritious snack.

“It didn’t look appetizing to him,” Fridder says and then admits: “It didn’t look appetizing to me.” Fridder, a former co-chair of Coppell ISD’s Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC), says she and her child are impressed with the changes. “They have done an amazing turnaround,” she says. “They have changed the culture of our whole school district, from people complaining about school lunches to kids being excited about eating lunch and especially excited about the salad bar.” That excitement has spread to school staff as well. Many teachers chose to eat from the salad bars, and the cafeteria workers get to show off their creativity, turning vegetables into pop culture references, such as Minions (from the movie “Despicable Me”) created from yellow watermelon. Duran works with teachers to find ways to encourage classroom conversations about food and nutrition — conversations that ideally continue with family and friends outside the classroom. She also gives students “behind the scenes” access to their school cafeterias, passing out chef hats and allowing them to experiment in the kitchen. COPPELL continued from page 11

garden-grown vegetables. When radishes from a school garden were featured in a salad bar, they were gone before the last lunch period. On a recent “Purple People Eater Day,” everyone wore purple and ate purple hull peas from the school garden. “It makes it more fun,” Duran says, “and opens the children up to less meal-phobia.” Superintendent Mike Waldrip appreciates the positive impact Duran’s efforts are having on students and their families. “The statistics in society are so dire in regards to obesity,” he says. “We’ve got to do something with our schools and help kids understand health and wellness and get them to begin practicing a healthier lifestyle.” The idea to hire Duran grew out of Child Nutrition Director Jean Mosley’s desire for more students to enjoy eating cafeteria food. Duran’s initial efforts focused on elementary schools, with the hope that students would carry healthy eating habits with them from grade to grade. That work is starting to bear fruit. (Pun intended.) Mosley says that some of those kids are starting their freshman year in high school, and they are leaning toward healthier options at lunch.


These activities have led to broader wellness initiatives through SHAC — such as Taste It Tuesdays, Walk to School Wednesdays and selling healthier snacks at school events. Through the Living Well in Coppell initiative, Duran spreads the word about the district’s community gardens and farm-to-school program, which supports regional growers. With all the positive growth, however, there have been some growing pains — quite literally. Duran once found herself with a 50-pound surplus of onions due to uncoordinated planning among the school gardens! This year, the district’s new initiatives include expanding elementary salad bars to three days a week, introducing a Grain of the Month program for elementary and middle school students, and adding more hot vegetarian options at the high school. Going forward — and growing forward — the district would like to expand the farm-to-school program and offer more vegetarian meals. Two elementary schools and the high school offer full vegetarian menus daily, but officials would like to expand that menu to middle schools too. SHAC also wants to increase staff wellness through afterschool walking groups.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

See COPPELL on page 15

Profit-generating Club Rewind provides new level of child care

CypressFairbanks ISD

by Raven L. Hill


From the beginning, Club Rewind was designed to be more than day care. Organizers wanted children to view it as another activity, like soccer, gym or cheerleading. The main focus is to improve social and emotional intelligence while enhancing classroom concepts.

n 2010, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District faced a cash crunch due to state funding cutbacks.

With few revenue-generating options and even fewer areas to cut, officials instead pursued another strategy: growth. They created a new Community Programs Department that was charged with implementing a fee-based, extended-day child care program at every elementary school in the district. The program, Club Rewind, almost made it look easy. In its first year, the before- and after-school program attracted 3,200 students at 52 schools and made $1.8 million. It is now in place at 71 elementary and middle schools with more than 5,600 participants. When Superintendent Mark Henry visits the Club Rewind sites, financial considerations are secondary. Henry is struck by how much fun students are having. “Our kids love the programs. We feel like they are learning and they don’t even know it,” Henry says. “It pays for itself, and then some.”

Kristina Perez

“We are ‘rewinding’ children back to a time where it’s just about social skills, emotional skills and relationships,” explains Kristina Perez, director of the Community Programs Department. “We’ve got to have basic emotional intelligence skills to get along in the world — some basic things, such as how do you say an apology, how can you be a gracious loser and a gracious winner, and how do you undo a behavior and work through it with a friend. We’re not just going to ‘un-friend’ them like one would on social media.”

Superintendent Mark Henry

Introducing Club Rewind at all campuses simultaneously allowed organizers to achieve the goal of See CYPRESS-FAIRBANKS on page 14

Children in Club Rewind at Sampson Elementary use their creativity to make nature art with items collected from outside.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


offers things like art, basketball, swimming lessons, foreign language classes and a special camp for children of homeless families. Also in the summer, Club Rewind pre-K students are paired with middle school students as “book buddies,” which reinforces in preteens the importance of giving back. It also helps deter the “summer learning slide” among the participating students. Hopper Middle School Principal Wendi Witthaus admits she was concerned Club Rewind would not be a good fit for her son, Chase. He was already spending so much time at school, but her long hours made child care a necessity. As it turns out, she had no reason for concern. Chase loves it. “He doesn’t want me to pick him up early,” she says. Witthaus attributes the program’s success to staff training. “It doesn’t matter how many employees they have, all of them know my son’s name. They do a good job of personalizing it for the kids,” she says.

Club Rewind students at Sampson Elementary learn about collaboration and problem-solving as they engage in a teambuilding exercise.

CYPRESS-FAIRBANKS continued from page 13

seamless integration. The Community Development Department uses social media channels to keep parents updated on program deadlines, cancellations, changes and announcements. “Our goal for that first day was to act and operate our program like we’ve always been part of the district,” she says. “We didn’t want anyone to see anything that would vary greatly from the standards and high expectations of Cy-Fair.” Parents can drop off students as early as 6:30 a.m., and children must be picked up by 6:30 p.m. The department staffer who designs and plans all Club Rewind activities is a former teacher, which ensures that program aligns with curriculum and district expectations. The morning elementary school program generally includes social games and art activities. Afternoon activities are more varied, ranging from arts and culture to literacy, math, science, healthy living and leadership principles. The middle school component has been in place since 2012 and is a natural outgrowth for parents who had enrolled their children in elementary school. Middle school enrollment has slowly increased to about 450 students. At this level, there is a greater focus on technology and music, and it also offers a “Community Circle,” in which students discuss character traits and values and current events. “We want to make sure what we do truly reflects what they learn during the school day or enhances it,” says Perez, who has three children enrolled in Club Rewind. Learning, fun and character education are woven throughout Club Rewind’s summer program, which


There are discounts for children of Cy-Fair ISD employees and for families with more than one child in Club Rewind. Witthaus says the cost of Club Rewind is less than most day care programs, but she still would like to see the district secure outside funding to cover the cost for low-income families. Both as a Cy-Fair employee and a mom, Witthaus is constantly impressed by Club Rewind. “This is a neat way that we are able to support the district,” she says. “We’re raising money and giving back to the community. … It has done a great thing for our district.” Club Rewind’s success has drawn interest from neighboring school districts. Perez and her colleagues did a presentation at an after-school conference and for the Texas Association of School Boards. The department frequently hosts visitors, especially during the summer, and takes calls throughout the year. As the growing district opens more schools, Club Rewind will expand to more sites. Costs have increased slightly over the past four years, but the program brings in about $1.4 million annually. The goal is to generate $2 million annually to reinvest in students. “One of the attractions of the program is that it does bring in revenue,” Perez says. “It’s expected to generate a profit. I think the school districts that have contacted us are really trying to figure out what makes ours so unique.” Club Rewind staffers are specifically trained to teach character traits that instill such values as compassion, conflict resolution and leadership. They are expected to be role models and constantly on their feet to entertain students in fun, creative ways.


TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

COPPELL continued from page 12

On a larger level, Duran hopes to shift the paradigm away from “lunch lady” and toward “lunch teacher.”

‘I believe the cafeteria is just as important as the gym or the library in terms of the child’s learning and the child’s future.’

Says Duran: “I believe the cafeteria is just as important as the gym or the library in terms of the child’s learning and the child’s future.” For other districts exploring ways to make school meal options healthier, Duran says that increasing vegetarian options is a great start.

— Helen Duran, culinary nutrition trainer

“It’s not like we’re forcing that on somebody, but to have that there as our world becomes more vegetarian is important,” Duran says. “Community gardens are also an easy way. Talk to your community and find out what they really want. Don’t just listen to words, but to what they are really saying.” Mosley suggests partnering with a local farmer and doing taste tests with students. “If the kids try it, then they are more likely to take it next time,” she says. The superintendent says he’s glad that Duran hasn’t limited her efforts to the cafeteria. “Her efforts have had the biggest impact on the things we do with food and nutrition,” he says. “But she’s taking these health and wellness ideas about nutrition into the classroom to educate children on healthier lifestyle choices in general.”

Waldrip is also a big fan of the school cafeteria salad bars, but he knows that if he wants a good selection, he needs to get there on the early side. That little boy who used to avoid veggies like the plague is now a satisfied repeat customer. RAVEN HILL is a former education reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

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Deer Park ISD

Outdoor Learning Center creates outdoor classroom for entire community by Elizabeth Millard


ocated between Baytown and Pasadena, Deer Park ISD’s name is something of a misnomer because there aren’t many parks in the district — and certainly no deer. “If you looked at an aerial view of our district, you’d mostly see smokestacks,” says Cindy Hart, Deer Park ISD’s director of mathematics and science. “This is an area that’s heavily reliant on industry, and the landscape reflects that.”

Superintendent Arnold Ardair

But thanks to a unique partnership between the district and major oil companies, there’s an oasis in the midst of concrete and asphalt: the Deer Park ISD Outdoor Learning Center (OLC), which offers four acres of trees, grassland and wildflowers. Students can wander down crushed-granite walking trails and see butterflies and turtles. They can note the differences among forest, prairie and wet-

land habitats. They can sit on a bench and watch animals they otherwise would never see near their homes and schools. There’s something for all grade levels at the OLC. Kindergarteners learn about plant identification, while middle school students use microscopes to examine pond water or use weather instruments to track rainfall and the water cycle. High school students have planted numerous trees and taken on high-level science projects there. Hart says that student engagement levels have soared since the center’s introduction. “Students are excited about being in that environment and that brings a higher level of interest to science activities,” she says. “They have more meaningful science experiences and that leads to much greater student achievement.”

Deer Park ISD students, who live in a mostly industrial area, are thrilled to spend time in nature at the Outdoor Learning Center.


TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Student engagement levels have soared because of the Outdoor Learning Center, says Deer Park ISD Math and Science Director Cindy Hart.

Deer Park ISD educators are finding significant benefits as well. Many come to the OLC for staff development workshops or for student field trips. The teachers enjoy the center just as much as their students.

granite trails or to raise the forest canopy so kids can walk through there. But we’re blessed by having these committed companies that give us funds for upkeep and send out volunteers all the time as well.”

“This has made such a big impact in our community and for our district,” Hart says. “Everyone loves to spend time there.”

In addition to hosting Deer Park ISD students, the OLC is a popular community destination. At any one time, you might see Eagle Scouts, private school students, community service clubs, church groups, Rotary members or even the city mayor — armed with shovels, wheelbarrows and tree trimmers and making sure the OLC stays accessible and beautiful.

With so much natural beauty, it’s hard to believe the site was a weedy, empty lot only 13 years ago. An infusion of funding from Shell Oil kicked off the effort. Other companies in the area, especially The Lubrizol Corporation, soon joined to provide funding that led to tree planting, the purchase of native wildflower and grassland seeds, and the development of the walking trail system. Another company, Rohm and Haas, regularly provides grant money so the district can develop a wider array of projects. Over the years, the wetland habitat has been deepened and widened, which has encouraged a greater breadth of wildlife. Also, the oil companies regularly send out volunteers for trail maintenance and other landscaping tasks. Because of those funds and volunteer hours, the district has never had to tap into its reserves for OLC upkeep. Top managers from Shell and Lubrizol sit on the district’s educational foundation board, which means they’re able to hear firsthand about the center’s benefits and future needs. “There’s so much maintenance involved, because about 7,000 students per year go through the center,” says Hart. “We need money all the time for the

“The Outdoor Learning Center has brought our community together in ways we never could have expected,” says Hart. “This isn’t just a district project it belongs to everyone, and that’s the feeling you have when you’re out there. This is a shared experience, where the whole community benefits from being in nature.” The OLC also provides a perfect setting for school fund-raisers, she adds. One well-attended event involves catch-and-release fishing. For some of the students, it’s their first time fishing. Hart says the excitement is infectious. “When people get exposed to natural landscapes like this, it changes them in such great ways,” she says. “That goes for adults as well as children. Walking through the center, you just feel more connected to nature and that’s a powerful feeling.” See DEER PARK on page 18

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


DEER PARK continued from page 17

Although the property doesn’t have room for expansion, Hart says there are opportunities to keep the center fresh and interesting. For example, she recently wrote a grant to create a turtle habitat. Another grant that recently was funded will create a seed propagation station, where students, teachers and volunteers will grow seedlings for anyone in the community who wants them. Hart also wants to plant an orchard, so students will be able to deepen their education about food and horticulture. Projects like these are what keep the OLC growing and changing, and it’s not just the students who are engaged with the center’s abundance. “The Outdoor Learning Center expands the learning environment for every classroom, K-12, and provides numerous opportunities to partner with our industry neighbors, as well as with several community service organizations,” says Superintendent Arnold Adair.

‘When people get exposed to natural landscapes like this, it changes them in such great ways.’ — Cindy Hart, director of math and science

He says his own grandchildren, who attend Deer Park ISD schools, are always asking him to take them out there for another visit. “Truly, it is a happy learning place,” he says. ELIZABETH MILLARD also writes for American City Business Journals.


TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

GRS Giving Place offers backpacks, clothes and peace of mind for students in need

Garland ISD

by Ford Gunter


onnie Barrett knows firsthand about kids in need. The Coyle Middle School principal and her husband have fostered several children over the years, mostly girls.

Bonnie Barrett

One January, they fostered their first boy, who arrived without shoes, pants or a jacket. Their stash of girls’ clothes was of no help, and neither was Child Protective Services, which usually depletes its inventory of clothes from their Rainbow Rooms every Christmas.

After realizing how many new clothes a growing boy needs, Barrett began to see how she could fulfill a need in Garland ISD, where she was, at that time, principal of Parsons Pre-kindergarten School and the president of the Garland Elementary Principals Association (GEPA). Like the CPS Rainbow Rooms sprinkled throughout the city, each Garland ISD school offered some sort

of clothing repository for children in need. However, the supplies were sparse and spread thin over the district’s 71 campuses and 58,000 students. Barrett decided the system needed to be centralized, organized and publicized — and, thus, GRS Giving Place was born. The GRS stands for the cities of Garland, Rowlett and Sachse, which the school district serves. “Everyone was meeting needs on campuses, but it’s good to have it in a centralized location where we don’t have to scrounge,” she says. Barrett first took the idea to the GEPA board, which decides annually how to allocate funds from school fund-raising events. Her vision was met with enthusiastic support. In the fall of 2013, GEPA approached Bob Morrison, who began his tenure as Garland ISD superintendent the same year Barrett was elected GEPA president.

Superintendent Bob Morrison

See GARLAND on page 20

Garland ISD Student Services Case Manager Emily Jandrucko equips a student with a new backpack, thanks to GRS Giving Place.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


Enrollment center adviser Maria Ruiz-Robles and student services coordinator Karina Trotter organize the inventory at GRS Giving Place.

GARLAND continued from page 19

Initially shocked that a district of Garland’s size didn’t have something like this in place already, Morrison acted quickly. He ordered an expansion and remodel project at the Student Services Building to create a 12-by-24-foot supply room. He also pledged about $10,000 of district funds to help stock the supply room with school uniforms for the standardized schools and civilian clothes for the other schools. Just like a retail store, the uniforms and street clothes were arranged on five rolling racks, arranged by size and sex.

districts are backed by the PTA or volunteer organizations, but GRS Giving Place is a district-run operation. “I stock, organize and fill requests, and I work with the clients in getting them the items that have been requested through the campuses, all through the enrollment center here,” Jandrucko says. Garland ISD receives about 4,000 new students every year. They enroll through Garland ISD Student Services, where they receive a questionnaire to determine if they have needs that GRS Giving Place can meet. “We really haven’t had to turn anyone away because people are pretty forthcoming about their situations,” says Babetta Hemphill, executive director of Garland ISD Student Services. “Many have nothing to begin with.”

“We didn’t want the students to get hand-medowns,” Morrison explains. “We wanted them to have a lot of pride in the clothes, just like all the other students who get excited for school.” GRS Giving Place also stocks backpacks, school supplies, hygiene products and nonperishable food. “The more stable a student’s home environment is, the better they do in school,” Barrett says. “If they are worried about what they are going to eat or what they are going to wear, school can get difficult. … When I met with Dr. Morrison, I told him: ‘I can tell from experience, when home is interrupted, kids act out.’” With Morrison’s avid support, GRS Giving Place was up and running in less than four months.

Emily Jandrucko 20

“GRS Giving Place is the first of its kind,” says Emily Jandrucko, a case manager for Garland ISD Student Services. She explains that similar operations in other

According to Jandrucko, some 51 percent of Garland ISD’s students are at risk for one reason or another. It could be economic, academic or social. Furthermore, the cities of Garland, Rowlett and Sachse are home to a lot of immigrant families from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela, among others. Babetta Hemphill

“If you’re coming from a foreign country, standardized dress doesn’t mean anything. You just want to be educated,” Hemphill says. “Some came over with only their clothes on their backs.” This school year, more than 250 students have benefitted from GRS Giving Place, and the inventory has turned over twice. Hemphill says each student in need receives up to three uniforms, as well as a backpack with supplies, shoes, socks and undergarments.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

While supplies for GRS Giving Place initially came from GEPA and district funds, as well as a districtwide staff Christmas drive, those sources can’t be counted on year after year. Maintaining donations and getting the word out in the community falls to Jandrucko. “It’s been very difficult,” she admits. “The market is kind of cornered, from shelters to food kitchens and things like that. We’re trying to establish our niche now. We’re just trying to find organizations basically willing to adopt us.” While many potential corporate donors have longstanding partnerships with competing charities, nonprofits and causes, the GRS Giving Place might have an ace in the hole. “A selling point for these big organizations is the simple fact that we reach the entire district,” Hemphill says. “We cover all three cities.” Getting the word out — and getting it out fast — is even more important in Garland ISD, which is a choice district, meaning that students can choose any school in the district to attend, regardless of zoning, as long as there is room. That means a never-ending shuffle of students. “Usually people think you’ve settled down after the start of the school year, but because of our choice process it really keeps going,” Hemphill says. “We’ll get a rush of folks in second semester because our choice-of-school period opens up in

‘School needs to be a warm, happy place, because, for some kids, home is not.’ — Bonnie Barrett, principal, Coyle Middle School January for high school and in March for elementary. GRS Giving Place will probably see another 300 before summer, and even then, we continue to enroll throughout the summer.” Barrett says GRS Giving Place has far exceeded her expectations since she first thought of the idea. “Our goal is to help all kids. What they need from us adults is a way to make life a little better, and sometimes a new backpack will do that,” she says. “School needs to be a warm, happy place, because, for some kids, home is not.” FORD GUNTER is a freelance writer and filmmaker in Houston.

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Kaufman ISD

Lunch and Learn program engages parents of ELL students by Bobby Hawthorne

If you feed them, they will come. If you offer child care, they will stay. If you shower them with ideas and resources, they will learn. If you build a relationship with them, they will return again and again.

Superintendent Lori Blaylock


his exemplifies everything this small North Texas school district is trying to accomplish with its monthly Lunch and Learn program.

“That’s what it’s all about,” says Kaufman ISD Superintendent Lori Blaylock, a former math and computer science teacher. “Our goal is to empower bilingual parents to support their child’s academic journey and to understand how to act as an advocate for their child, now and in the future.” That’s the long-term goal of the Lunch and Learn program. The short-term goal is to raise achievement levels among bilingual and ESL students by recruiting and training their parents to participate in the children’s education.

It all began two years ago when one of Blaylock’s elementary campus principals, Stephanie Frosch, suggested instituting a monthly bilingual “lunch and learn” event for Spanish-speaking parents. “I want to create a place,” Frosch told Blaylock, “where they can come, get to know each other, get to know us. A place where we can teach them how to help their children at home — not only teach them, but also to supply them with the tools they’ll need.” “Fantastic,” Blaylock replied. “How do we get started?” Of course, part of the answer was to find the right person to lead the effort. In this case, that person was Martha Pinto, an instructional aide at the Helen Edwards Early Childhood Center, where the first Lunch and Learn event was held. A passionate person with high energy, Pinto was trained as a teacher in her native Mexico, “so she has a strong

Martha Pinto

Helen Edwards Early Childhood Center staff members Belinda Carrier (second from left) and Martha Pinto (third from left) work with parents during the Lunch and Learn program.


TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

knowledge of learning strategies, and, of course, her bilingual gifts cannot be replaced,” Blaylock says. “We see her as the hub of this operation. She developed the nuts and bolts of the program and made it happen.” Pinto, who grew up in Guadalajara, followed her husband to Texas in 1999. She was barely able to speak a word of English at the time. “We started a family, and I knew I had to be confident to talk to doctors and teachers,” Pinto says, so she began taking adult ESL classes while working as a teacher’s aide. She says she understands why the parents of Mexican-American children might appear reluctant to speak up. “The Mexican culture is a little different,” she explains. “We have a lot of respect for teachers, and that’s why we sometimes are really quiet. We feel not so confident to ask questions.” That’s one of the first suggestions she offers to parents who attend Lunch and Learn events at the early childhood center: Speak up. Ask questions. Become part of the process. The Lunch and Learn events at the Helen Edwards center offer a variety of activities. Parents play games to win books to read to their children. They are given flash cards and taught how to use them. They are taught educational games to play with children, such as “I Spy” while riding in the car. Most parents catch on quickly, Pinto says. “Last year, you could really see the difference between the kids whose parents came to the Lunch and Learn and then worked with their kids at home, and the kids whose parents did not,” she says. A regular attendee last year was Bianca Ramirez, a homemaker with two children: a son attending first grade in Kaufman ISD and a 4-year-old daughter. “I used the lessons I learned to work with my children on their colors and numbers,” Ramirez says, speaking through an interpreter. “I could use traffic signals, road signs, anything with a number or a color. It was very helpful to work that way, and it was fun for the children.” This year, the Lunch and Learn program has expanded to each of the district’s primary campuses. The staff members there employed the lessons learned during the series at Helen Edwards. Invitations were written in Spanish and sent to parents in student folders. Child care was provided, and transportation was arranged for those who couldn’t attend without it. Because the district has strict policies regarding campus security and criminal background checks, administrators had to explain the steps required to get identification clearance. It was a delicate issue with many of the parents. Melanie Bowers

In fact, the district has been, in general, more sensitive to cultural

‘I used the lessons I learned to work with my children on their colors and numbers.’ — Bianca Ramirez, parent

norms and special considerations since the Lunch and Learn program began, says Melanie Bowers, principal at Helen Edwards. “It has definitely been a learning experience for everyone,” she says. “One teacher who helps us decorate wanted to find clip art that was representative of our Hispanic population in a sensitive way. She didn’t want clip art that showed only white children.” Another change in this year’s expanded Lunch and Learn series is the table seating. The event organizers at Helen Edwards found that the parents preferred smaller tables that encouraged interaction. Event organizers also assigned bilingual aides, teachers and staff members to serve as “table leaders.” “The intimacy of the small group makes the parents feel more comfortable, more secure in asking questions, than if they were in a large setting,” says Bowers, who is midway through her first year as an elementary principal. Blaylock says the effort put forth to support the Lunch and Learn series has been well worth it. She cited the following as evidence: • 2013-2014 Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System results showed an increase in the percentage of ELL students classified as intermediate or advanced and a corresponding decrease in the number of students identified as beginning; • teachers at Helen Edwards Early Childhood Center reported more frequency and depth of English conversations among bilingual kindergarten students; and • teachers cited increased participation of bilingual parents in other school activities. Where does the program go from here? Presently, the district’s bilingual program goes through sixth grade, so no plans exist to expand the Lunch and Learn program to the intermediate or secondary levels.

See KAUFMAN on page 24

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


KAUFMAN continued from page 23

“Right now, we are focused on building a foundation of trust, a foundation that starts at the beginning of school and trains these parents up,” Blaylock says. “I do see as these parents become more familiar with the school system, as they become more aware of what is offered, I can see that some of these same parents will say to the junior high principals, ‘We want to get together. We want this kind of support. And, of course, when that happens, we’ll be right there, ready and able to provide it.” As for advice to others who might want to implement a Lunch and Learn program: “Have all of your teachers, all of your support staff, buying into the idea that this is important, that they’re building a foundation of trust that will serve these children throughout their school years,” Blaylock says. “Make sure it’s a team deal and not about just one person.”


She also recommends assigning a strong leader to serve as a liaison for the various communities. Lastly, she says be ready to customize your program to what the community needs. “It can’t be just you sitting there talking,” Blaylock says. “It has to be hands-on. ... That’s the winning formula.” BOBBY HAWTHORNE is the author of “Longhorn Football” and “Home Field,” both published by The University of Texas Press. In 2005, he retired as director of academics for the University Interscholastic League.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Keller ISD

Anti-bullying program ROCKs the school district by Autumn Rhea Carpenter


n 1986, Hands Across America, a human chain comprised of 6.5 million people, was organized as a symbolic effort to fight homelessness, hunger and poverty. On Sept. 19, 2013, approximately 39,000 Keller ISD students, teachers, staff and community members revived the 1980s publicity campaign for a different cause — to launch Reaching Out with Character and Kindness (ROCK), the district’s anti-bullying and harassment program. Perhaps in the 1980s, many parents viewed bullying as part of growing up. But today we know that this intentional, aggressive behavior is much more than an adolescent rite of passage. It can be physically and psychologically damaging to the victims, leading to depression, anxiety and sleep difficulties. In 2012, Keller ISD decided it was time to eliminate bullying by taking its anti-bullying message beyond school walls.

Kevin Hood

“The ROCK initiative grew out of an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint filed against the district,” explains Kevin Hood, Keller ISD’s executive director of leadership. “We not only met all of the requirements of OCR, we exceeded them. I attribute that to the passionate, committed individuals who served on the committee.

We could have easily checked off the OCR boxes and moved on, but the team wanted more for our students and our community.” After researching best practices from other districts and data-driven programs, assistant principals and counselors from Keller ISD’s elementary, middle and high schools were called to join the antibullying and harassment team. The team was divided into subcommittees for parents, students, staff and community. The subcommittees then were posed with the question: How do we unite our schools as a community to eliminate bullying? Throughout the research phase, Jennifer Latu, director of guidance and counseling, learned that people did not truly understand the definitions of bullying and harassment, so the policy had to be rewritten.

Superintendent Randy Reid

“Oftentimes, when students have disagreements, they might call each other names. When this occurs, it is not always bullying. We find that it is peer conflict,” says Latu. “We intervene differently in these situations. We found that as we educated our stakeholders, they were able to understand what bullying really

Jennifer Latu

See KELLER on page 26

Students at the Early Learning Center join hands to kick off Keller ISD’s Reaching Out with Character and Kindness (ROCK) campaign.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


KELLER continued from page 25

is: persistent and pervasive behavior with an imbalance of power.” Bullying practices vary at different grade levels. At elementary and intermediate schools, students might tease each other by calling names and purposely ostracizing a student from a group. At the secondary level, these same behaviors occur, but technology plays a bigger role. Hurtful text messages and teasing on social media platforms extend the mental abuse. Technology fuels the harassment cycle. Andi Gowins, an intervention counselor for six elementary schools in Keller ISD, says that bullying adversely affects a student’s desire to concentrate, attend school and participate in activities. “If a student does not feel emotionally or physically safe, it can impact all areas of life and learning,” she says.

Students at the Keller ISD Learning Center show their unity for the ROCK campaign.


When this project began, the district solicited the community for an official slogan. Keller ISD received more than 100 suggestions, but the district ultimately chose a suggestion submitted by Alesha Watts, a fifth grade teacher at Bear Creek Intermediate: Reaching Out with Character and Kindness, or ROCK. The slogan was passed along to Keller ISD’s Career Technology students, who vied in a design competition to create the official logo. In Oc-

tober, during National Bullying Prevention Month, Central High School senior Carrington Elliott’s design was chosen, and it became the district’s first trademarked logo. Keller ISD next launched a special website that included anti-bullying educational materials and an incident reporting system. During the 2012-2013 school year, the district received 134 bullying allegations. In 2013-2014, it received 244 allegations. To date, for the 2014-2015 school year, there have been 23 allegations. “Each year the parents have been the primary reporter of bullying,” says Hood. “In addition, we are tracking the location of each allegation, so that we can target those areas in upcoming training documents.” Anyone can report bullying incidents online, by providing specific details regarding dates, campus, offender’s name, type of harassment, a description of the event and the names of any witnesses. Keller ISD also devised a checklist for allegations, ensuring that administrators and staff follow a consistent protocol when responding to bullying allegations. “Once a report is submitted, the assistant principal launches an investigation,” explains Latu. “This involves parents and those with a need to know. The counselor takes on the social and emotional concerns not only for the bullied, but also the bully.” The ROCK human chain idea was born during the 2013-2014 school year. During this one-time event, See KELLER on page 28

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KELLER continued from page 26

staff, parents, students and community members from 39 campuses joined hands in front of their respective schools to demonstrate “reaching out” to each other against bullying and harassment. “The act of surrounding our schools and standing together was really symbolic of KISD’s decision to promote positive change and our responsibility for eliminating bullying,” says Hood. The ROCK program is a community-based campaign, according to Independence Elementary Principal Mark Basham. “It has given us the opportunity to hold everyone — parents, students, teachers, staff and administrators — accountable,” says Basham. “In the few confirmed cases of bullying at our school, we’ve shown students exhibiting negative behavior more positive ways to gain attention. We want Mark Basham our students to know what showing kindness means and the best way to respond when it isn’t shown.” Independence Elementary has implemented Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), as well as an accountability system called PRIDE, which stands for Prepared, Respect, Integrity, De-

termined and Encourage. The staff holds students accountable by looking for these PRIDE core characteristics. “We ask them: ‘Are you prepared to learn? Are you making good choices? Are you determined to become the best and encourage others?’ This approach allows us to treat the classroom more like our community and teaches the students that the lessons they learn in school apply to the rest of the world,” says Basham. Each month, the Keller ISD Counseling Department works with each of the district’s counselors to select a ROCKstar, a student who exemplifies strong character traits that highlight the ROCK program, including responsibility, good citizenship, positive attitude, gratitude and courage. Once chosen, the student is recognized at a board meeting. Nesta Manzi, a fourth grader at Freedom Elementary, became a ROCKstar when he showed responsibility. He borrowed a social studies book from the library and after opening the book, discovered an envelope containing $20. Nesta immediately returned the envelope to his teacher, SaNesta Manzi sha Beavers, who contacted the principal, Steve Armstrong. The envelope’s owner was located and the student’s parents collected the money. See KELLER on page 46

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TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

District invents YouTubelike platform to improve staff training experiences

Lamar CISD

by Ford Gunter


t may sound counterintuitive, but the idea behind Lamar CISD’s iCafe, an online staff-training site, is to increase the effectiveness of face-toface training. By moving all the training that doesn’t have to be conducted in person to the Internet, the district has seen a tenfold jump in attendance at voluntary face-to-face training sessions over the past three years. “They know that if it could have been a simple video, it would have been,” says Chris Nilsson, Lamar CISD’s director of technology integration. “If they are going to come face-to-face, it’s going to be worth it.” iCafe went live as an instructional blog in October 2009. Two years later, Nilsson and Chad Jones, Lamar CISD’s director of technology development, started populating the site with short instructional videos to supplement the written materials.

Chris Nilsson

Next thing you know, the district had its own “YouTube” archive of how-to videos.

“We’d both felt for a long time that the majority of face-to-face trainings we had attended — or given — didn’t warrant face-to-face meetings, but we just didn’t have an alternate method,” Nilsson explains. “But then Chad and I saw a video training that compelled us to dig deeper into [that delivery method].” Inspired by the idea of producing training videos, Jones and Nilsson proposed building an HD broadcast studio out of a gutted lab in the district’s Development Center Building in Rosenberg. They received $25,000 from the district to do it, and, since then, iCafe has produced and posted more than 500 instructional videos.

Superintendent Thomas Randle

“iCafe is a one-stop shop for our staff to get training support for what they need to be successful,” says Jones, who handles the video side of the site. “We have hundreds and hundreds of technical, how-to training materials, videos and document resources available in ‘books’ on the main page. If someone needs to know how to do something, they can go there.” See LAMAR on page 31

Technology Development Specialist Mandy Bryan and Director of Technology Development Chad Jones make an iCafe video.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


LAMAR continued from page 29

Nilsson primarily handles the documents and training manuals posted on iCafe, as well as the site’s technical upkeep. Last fall, the district rolled out Skyward, a software package that tracks student management, human resources, financial data and Chad Jones more. Traditionally, that kind of rollout would have required every teacher to attend at least one three-hour face-to-face training session. A team of trainers also would need to be briefed on the new system and then sent out to campuses over the summer. With about 1,600 teachers, that effort would have involved at least 4,800 hours of training before the school year even began. Not with iCafe. “For teachers, we did zero hours of face-to-face training to roll out that system,” Jones says. “The entire training was in quick two- to three-minute videos, which were available throughout the school year on iCafe so that teachers could learn the system when it made sense to them.” “Districts around us did thousands of hours of faceto-face training, and they have to maintain a dedicated staff throughout the year,” Nilsson says, referring to the manpower needed to keep up with the 15 percent annual staff turnover common among school districts. “Everyone who comes on board needs that face-to-face.” Superintendent Thomas Randle quickly latched onto the idea of iCafe and supported the staff-driven initiative. “They were talking about being able to provide staff development without staff having to drive into the central office or to various campuses,” Randle says of Nilsson and Jones. “Lamar CISD is 385 square miles, so we’re a big district. To me, iCafe was a nobrainer.” With any program launch, Randle says he strives to provide just-in-time information for the staff and teachers affected. “With iCafe, when we launched our new student management system, the teachers were able to get the initial information and then come back and do follow-up updates on it,” he says. “It’s very, very beneficial for our staff. They can [watch the videos] during the school day, the evenings or on the weekends.” Additionally, iCafe boosted the reputation of the district’s training staff — and the value of what they have to say when face-to-face sessions are warranted. “We are no longer delivering ‘how to check your voicemail’ as face-to-face training,” Nilsson says. “The quality of face-to-face training sessions have gone up immeasurably because we have removed the piddly how-to stuff.” For the most part, the response to iCafe has been great.

“Very rarely am I on a campus where I’m not stopped and thanked for the resources we create,” says Jones, who appears in most of the iCafe videos. “There are still people out there who don’t want to learn by video and like to maintain status quo of the way things are normally done. We work to get them the resources they want, but, for the most part, this has been very positive.” “Some teachers pop popcorn and watch the videos together,” Randle adds. More than 30 organizations have visited Lamar CISD’s iCafe studio, including some school districts that haven’t wasted any time in creating similar programs. “Four or five different districts have created their own studios to develop an iCafe,” Jones says. “The engine that hosts it has been downloaded over 80,000 times by users wanting to create their own

‘Lamar CISD is 385 square miles, so we’re a big district. To me, iCafe was a no-brainer.’ — Thomas Randle, superintendent libraries. Not all are school districts, but many are.” Nilsson personally helped one district build its studio. The crown jewel of Lamar CISD’s studio is a TriCaster box that enables most post-production work to be done in real time. “So, in essence, there’s really no post-production,” Jones says. “We can get a finished video online in minutes. We can even go live.” Mandy Bryan is Jones’ lone full-time employee. A technology development specialist, she oversees the studio, produces videos and sometimes even appears in them. “We want the videos to have a natural feel to them so [the viewers] are comfortable with the content,” Jones says. “When you’re delivering training in person and you stumble, if it’s not a big, disastrous mess up, you just keep rolling with it. If you wouldn’t start over in person, we don’t start over here.” “We want this on-demand training to feel as much like a conversation as possible,” Nilsson adds. “We try to make content so compelling that users want to spend their time with us.” Jones admits that before iCafe was born, he had no training in video production and had never appeared on camera in a professional capacity. “I am a teacher,” he explains. “I have a personality that works well on camera.” FORD GUNTER is a freelance writer and filmmaker in Houston.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


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TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Unique public-private partnership is a win-win for district, community’s youngest learners

Marfa ISD

by Shelley Seale


n the West Texas town of Marfa, something exciting is happening in the schools. Parents are lining up to get their 3- to 5-year-old children into Montessori school — and it’s free! — thanks to an innovative public-private partnership. It all began when Superintendent Andrew Peters was hired in August 2012. Marfa ISD had been experiencing a declining enrollment over the past decade and was operating at a deficit. A new board had been elected that May, and the members were ready to work with Peters to make some changes. “During my first year, I reached out to anyone and everyone,” Peters recalls. One of those individuals was Katherine ShaunesseyMichael, a former Marfa ISD board member who had become the president of Marfa Montessori, a

private pre-kindergarten school that had been in existence for three years. She invited the superintendent to visit the school, which was thriving and accepting 20 to 24 students a year. Peters and Shaunessey-Michael began to wonder if, and how, the two school systems might work together. “I thought [the Montessori method] was really good for the children, and we wanted to be able to offer it to more students,” Peters says. “I was losing my pre-K teacher, so I was looking for options. At the same time, I was trying to unite the community in Marfa so that there would just be one school, and we would all work together.”

Superintendent Andrew Peters

See MARFA on page 34

Marfa Montessori Director and lead teacher Emily Steriti enjoys a little sunshine with students Jonea Acosta and Belen Soto-Torres.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


MARFA continued from page 33

By May 2013, the two had come up with a visionary idea: combine forces and integrate the Montessori school with Marfa ISD, creating a powerful program for pre-K students ages 3 to 5. “By bringing the private Marfa Montessori into our fold, we were able to add state funds to the private foundation funds to put together a public Montessori PK3-K5 program that serves our entire community — without charging tuition,” Peters explains. The Marfa ISD Montessori program opened for enrollment for the 2013-2014 school year. The formerly private school moved into a renovated space at the public high school, and all the Montessori students became public school students. “The community was skeptical, but the program astonished all,” Peters says. “Locals stood in line to get this ‘private’ education for free. The ISD gained new students, which paid the bills and provided a quality, full-day education for the community’s 3- to 5-year-olds.” Marfa Montessori, under Marfa ISD, offers a multiage classroom in which 3- and 4-year-old students are mixed with kindergarteners. Special needs students and English language learners are also in the Montessori classroom. The younger students learn from the older ones, and the teachers use handson, multi-sensory teaching methods that respect and follow each child’s development.

Three-year-old students must have turned 3 by Sept. 1, and 5-year-old kindergarten students must have experienced the Montessori method as a 4-year-old. (In the future, Marfa ISD does not expect to require kindergarten students to be in the Montessori classroom in the previous year.) Last year, 37 students were in the Montessori program. In 2014-2015, 50-plus students are in Montessori. While the Montessori program is free for all children residing in Marfa ISD, children from outside the district can enroll at $450 a month. In this area of West Texas, however, where the nearest neighboring town is more than 20 miles away, no one has taken advantage of that offer yet. Marfa Montessori remains a separate 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. As such, it can still accept donations. It has an online shop where items, such as branded tote bags, can be purchased through taxdeductible donations. Emily Steriti founded the Montessori program in Marfa and she continues to serve as the program director and lead teacher at Marfa ISD. She is supported by three assistant teachers. “We just want every child in Marfa to be able to have that early childhood, enriched environment,” Steriti says. “It was always my goal to open a public program in Marfa; however, it was the open-mindedness of a changing school board and superintendent, conflated with community support, that allowed for our actual merger.

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TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Montessori students Daniela Fernandez and Aylin Angel-Perez make prints with apples.

“Andy and I have worked as partners since early 2013 to create and grow an authentic Montessori within MISD,” Steriti says. “For me, the most remarkable part of all this is how well he and I work together. I really could go on and on about my passion for Montessori.” Developed by Dr. Maria Montessori around 1900, the method focuses on three key points: independent learning, positive discipline and hands-on learning. Its multi-age classroom supports peer learning and creates a learning triangle among teacher, child and environment. “The feedback that I’m getting [about the publicprivate merger] is increasingly more positive,” Steriti adds. “I think people are realizing that it’s a philosophy that loves and embraces children.” Marfa ISD first grade teacher Johanna Nevares is a firm believer in the value of Montessori education. “As a receiving teacher of several Marfa Montessori students, I have noticed that the students are extremely well-equipped and well-prepared for learning. Each of the students I have taught or currently teach from Miss Emily’s Montessori program possesses many of the same qualities: They are all extremely teachable, exceptional critical thinkers, polite and well-spoken, and academically selfmotivated. I always get excited when I have one of Miss Emily’s students on my classroom roster.” To handle an expected jump in enrollment, Peters says his immediate focus is to find a second lead teacher, and possibly even a third. Next, the district will explore expanding the Montessori method into other grade levels.

Peters offers these tips to other districts that want to form a similar public-private partnership: Know the political environment. Political leadership must be in place, with a strong policy statement and the will to change the system. Know the statutory environment. What are the state and federal rules for instruction and certification? Be organized. You need to have a plan, develop an agreement (memorandum of understanding) and know each party’s responsibilities. Secure guaranteed revenue. There should be a fair plan for funding that considers potential savings and is understood clearly by all parties. Gain stakeholder support. Who are the stakeholders (usually parents, teachers and board), and are there competing interests? This requires an open and frank discussion among all parties. Pick your partners carefully. View this as a longterm relationship that requires verified experience and financial capability. Steriti emphasizes that a solid vision is one of the most important factors in the success of such a partnership. “The public school board trusted my vision, and for this rarity, I am quite fortunate,” she says. “That vision — solid, holistic curriculum and strong leadership — would be my greatest advice to other districts.” SHELLEY SEALE is a freelance writer in Austin.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


Prosper ISD

‘Eagle Nation News’ gives students real-world broadcast communications experience by John Egan


tep aside, CNN. You’ve got some competition from Prosper High School in Prosper ISD.

Superintendent Drew Watkins

Each school day, students at Prosper High create and broadcast “Eagle Nation News” (ENN), a 10-minute live program seen by more than 1,800 students, along with administrators, teachers and staff. The show comprises a mix of feature stories, announcements, sports, weather and entertainment. Since the debut of ENN in September 2013, students have produced more than 130 episodes. With Prosper High’s students acquiring that sort of broadcast journalism experience, Anderson Cooper might want to look over his shoulder. “We are fortunate to be in a community that values providing these kinds of opportunities for our students,” Prosper ISD Superintendent Drew Watkins says. “Many of our students are now moving on to pursue a degree in broadcast journalism, editing and all other facets of video production.”

Brian Kennedy

“However, we believed that it was best to give the students a real-world experience by immersing them into a true newsroom and media experience,” Kennedy says. The principal of Prosper High thought a daily show would fit the bill, Kennedy says. Taking that one step further, the school decided a live broadcast would elicit “water cooler talk” among students and staff at Prosper High.

Prosper High students Trey Maynard, Joshua Fisk and Austin Garcia provide commentary for “Season Pass,” the district’s pre-game show.


Brian Kennedy, ENN’s adviser, notes that most high schools in Texas offer some kind of audiovisual production course as part of the career and technology curriculum. In many cases, that takes the form of a weekly magazinestyle program or tried-and-true bulletin-type announcements.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2013-2014

Prosper High students Brennan Bell, Austin Garcia, Taylor Moore and James Graham report live for “Eagle Nation News,” or ENN.

Among the highlights of ENN are news packages, humor-filled segments, social media elements, sports reports, musical performances and student profiles. ENN also produces a 30-minute pregame sports show called “Season Pass,” which is shot 30 minutes before a high school athletics game starts. Kennedy compares it to ESPN’s “College Game Day,” which airs each week during college football season from a different campus. In existence for just a year, ENN has picked up its share of plaudits. Texas’ Interscholastic League Press Conference has given five first-place awards and five second-place awards to the program. In addition, the Student Television Network, in a national competition, recognized the show’s anchors as the third-best anchor team. Finally, the Journalism Education Association named two ENN pieces as finalists for national awards. Not just anyone can join the award-winning ENN team. Kennedy says students must complete certain course work before moving on to the Broadcast News Teams I course. “Students at this level produce content and packages for the show once they have learned all the basic broadcast skills necessary for production,” Kennedy explains. “Student work is evaluated after a pitch to the instructor and submitted to student producers and student news directors for review.” In higher-level classes, students jump to the Advanced Broadcast Teams program, which oversees production of the live ENN show. Students of this program operate equipment and serve as anchors, hosts and reporters on the daily show. At the next level, students work as news directors, producers and writers. In all, 47 students have been putting together ENN this fall.

Nicole Phillips, one of the students who contributed to ENN in its inaugural year, now attends Stanford University. Phillips says the Prosper ISD program taught her about resourcefulness, time management, leadership and public speaking — skills that she says have allowed her to excel at Stanford and in the workplace. Says Kennedy: “Students have learned how the industry works and are exposed to a real-time experience that shapes them for a career in communications.” Students who work on ENN are getting a taste of what a career in communications is like. For instance, they’re immersed in promoting the show through social media. As of late October, the show’s Twitter account had more than 1,800 followers. Students also have created promotional videos for the Prosper Economic Development Corporation and have undertaken projects for charities, such as Relay for Life. “The student body, district and community have been overwhelmingly supportive of our program,” Kennedy says. “‘Eagle Nation News’ has become a household name on campus, in the district and in the community. Several of our videos have reached viral status and have been featured on both news and radio programs in the Dallas market.” The show could gain even more traction. Kennedy says he’s mulling over the idea of portable TV studios, which would allow students to take ENN on the road. Digital radio and online media formats also are under consideration. “We would like to look at various forms of network programming, such as game shows, sketch comedy, reality and situational formats,” Kennedy says. See PROSPER on page 38

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


PROSPER continued from page 37

“Students need to learn the many aspects of television in our culture.” Whatever aspects those may be, Kennedy wants students associated with ENN to hone their problem-solving and critical-thinking skills and to gain experience that rivals what they’d find at professional news organizations.

‘If you have a motivated teacher to inspire students, truly anything is possible. I realize that might sound sort of corny, but it is completely true.’ — Drew Watkins, superintendent “We’d like to be a training ground for high school students who are serious about following a career in communications,” he says. Kennedy offers these tips in starting a similar program: Know your audience. “Students come in many shapes and sizes. Before you begin to set up a me-

dia outlet, you need to understand your viewers. It is important to speak the language of your audience and to get an understanding of what is important in the community.” Recruit the right students. “Who is in front of the camera is just as important as who is behind it.” Encourage teamwork. “You have to sell your vision to your team first and then pass that on to the student body.” Focus on the content. “Without quality content, your program can easily become irrelevant to the ever-changing landscape of the high school adolescent.” Market the show. “A program of this magnitude needs to be visible at community events and school athletic events.” Get buy-in from school administrators. “It’s key to make sure that school administrators understand how a media program can impact the culture of the school.” One administrator who is certainly supportive of ENN is Superintendent Watkins. “Don’t think that you have to have a fully equipped production studio to get started,” he says. “If you have a motivated teacher to inspire students, truly anything is possible. I realize that might sound sort of corny, but it is completely true.” JOHN EGAN is a former editor and managing editor of Austin Business Journal.

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TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Students fuel up with competitive biotechnology education, experience

Splendora ISD

by Elizabeth Millard


ome districts grow vegetables for the school lunch program or raise small animals to help 4-H students get a strong start in agricultural management. Splendora ISD takes a different approach. There, it’s all about algae. To prepare students for the highly competitive and global biotechnology market, the district implemented a program that relies on algae cultivation to teach students about photobioreactor construction, biodiesel production, species selection and other biofuel fundamentals. In addition to providing hands-on learning, the program acts as a high school research facility that has potential for providing alternative fuels and products for academic and commercial sources.

Originally, Splendora ISD science teacher Ron Riley proposed an aquaculture program, but he quickly realized that it would falter during the summer, when no one would be available to take care of the fish. Switching to algae seemed like the ideal solution. Ron Riley

“I knew it would be perfect for an advanced biotechnology class, because we already offer aquatic science,” he says. “It’s turned out to be a very popular program, and students are very excited about this kind of highlevel learning.”

Superintendent Genese Bell

See SPLENDORA on page 40

Student Jacob Clendennon feeds the reactor.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


SPLENDORA continued from page 39

hears exclamations of interest from middle school children who tour the labs.

Started three years ago as the result of a $164,000 grant from the Texas Education Agency, Splendora ISD’s biofuel class has two facilities that house a wet lab and a dry lab. The facilities are used for aquatic science, advanced biotechnology and a scientific research class.

“We always get a ‘Wow!’ or ‘Cool!’ and so many say they can’t wait until they’re in high school so they can be in the program too,” he says. “When you hear that level of enthusiasm for upper-level science classes, you know you’re doing something right.”

In the biofuel program, students first research the types of algae that can be most successfully cultivated. Then they begin initial small-batch cultures before gradually moving the species to larger densities, sufficient for inoculating the reactors. This process involves de-chlorinating water, adjusting pH levels and injecting the cultures into the reac-

In addition to providing education for students, the biofuel program also provides a unique publicprivate partnership by involving researchers and marketers who can turn Splendora ISD’s algae into products.

‘We’re the only high school that I know doing this, so best practices from other schools were nonexistent. We had to develop curriculum and align with student expectations the best we could. It felt like building a plane while you’re flying it.’ — Ron Riley, science teacher tors at specific ratios. The algae grows in the reactors for one to two weeks to gain more density and then is harvested and dried to form cakes that can be used for numerous purposes, such as biofuels, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and feed additives. The biofuel program, at times, has involved students from other disciplines, such as construction technology, welding and auto technology. These students assisted in building the labs, which gave those students real-world project experience. Before the program’s creation, the district had only the aquatic class, anatomy and physiology for its upper-level course offerings, so Riley admits the learning curve was steep in getting the biofuel program started. “We’re the only high school that I know doing this, so best practices from other schools were nonexistent,” he says. “We had to develop curriculum and align with student expectations the best we could. It felt like building a plane while you’re flying it.” The district turned to national associations and research institutions, which helped with advice on everything from building photobioreactors to selecting algae based on its end-product use. After only three years, nearly 300 students have participated in the biofuel program. Riley often 40

Superintendent Genese Bell says: “Our biotech lab and algae production program is one of the state’s most unique offerings at the high school level. It allows our students to benefit from working in a realworld lab and allows them to exchange products with research universities and commercial labs.” This year, the students are growing a specific strain of algae that could boast up to 80 percent protein, which would make it ideal for a food supplement. A company in India is testing the strain and has expressed interest in partnering with the district to turn the algae into supplements. If that project goes well, the supplements could be used in developing nations to help alleviate malnutrition issues. Splendora ISD students also are working with Texas A&M University to determine whether any strains would be suitable for cattle feed. Other companies have contacted the district to ask about strains that might be suitable for jet fuel and carbon sequestration. For the future, the high school students will be doing more work in algae oil extraction because that product would have high levels of omega 3s that could be turned into nutraceuticals. The program also has garnered recognition from the National Algae Association, a nonprofit trade organization. Students can work toward a certification from the association, and nearly 30 students have been certified so far. “They leave school with a foot already in the door at biotechnology companies,” Riley notes, adding that the students also graduate with an understanding of how to use high-level equipment. In addition to the photobioreactors, the lab is outfitted with 3-D microscopes and 3-D projectors. Students wear special goggles to see images that Riley projects into the room, allowing them to see objects “floating” in midair. Riley says that having this type of experience prepares them for advanced research. “The students definitely have a head start when it comes to using research tools and understanding how those tools can be helpful in the biotechnology process,” he says, adding that students with this level of education in biofuels would be qualified for entry-level employment at global biotechnology companies or well-positioned for continuing their education at colleges and universities. Just as Splendora ISD’s algae thrives under student care, the program itself is likely to keep growing strong, thanks to careful tending by the district.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Corporations have expressed interest in using the biofuels, and Riley is working on expanding the program to include more marketing in the curriculum. That way, students can understand how algae production works from strain selection to cultivation to product development. The district is likely to benefit in other direct ways as well. A forklift in the CATE program uses the biofuel generated through the program, and it’s likely that school buses will use the fuel within a few years.

Riley says he hopes other districts will consider implementing similar programs, which could lead to greater education about biofuel production. He points out that on the same acreage, algae can produce 400 times as much oil as corn used for ethanol. Some algae species can double their population in a mere few hours. Expanding research into this biofuel source can boost its use and also help high school students become more excited about science, he says.

The long-term goals for the program include: more algae oil extraction so that additional nutraceuticals can be developed, construction of vertical photobioreactors, large-batch biodiesel production, DNA manipulation for transgenic algae creation, and continued partnerships with companies and corporations.

“The programs demonstrate that a dedicated teacher and supportive administration team and school board can provide outstanding opportunities in public high schools that allow for students to advance in the STEM areas,” says Superintendent Bell. “There are no limits to what our teachers and students can achieve.” ELIZABETH MILLARD also writes for American City Business Journals.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


The sense of brotherhood and culture of ambassadorship in our “district has never been stronger. Ambassador training has helped unite our team around our schools and our profession.”

-- Scott Niven, Superintendent, Red Oak ISD


hen my country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.”

-- Thomas P a i n e


Thomas Paine’s political declaration in Common Sense helped direct the energies of the rebels and point the way to American independence from England. The Ambassador Training Academy staff development program is inspired by Thomas Paine’s work. There are many parallels between educators today, condemned by blinded reformists, and early Americans, condemned by a blinded Crown. Just as Paine “enunciates... the specific right of the people to challenge unjust laws and an unjust government”, we are mobilizing an army of educators to challenge unjust criticism and false accusations of widespread failure.

Class of 2011 Red Oak ISD Ambassadors Academy

Friends of Texas Public Schools is educating Texans about Texas public schools and their many strengths and achievements through Ambassador Training and other initiatives in order to: 4 4 4 4 4 4

Underscore the significance of them; Unite Texans around them; Restore pride in them; Strengthen confidence in them; Lift spirits among them; and Inject resources into them…

…all of which will lead to even greater performance.

Stir your team into champions for your students, district, and profession by enrolling your school district in our Ambassador Training Academy.

It’s time for every educator to stir Visit www.fotps.org to learn more, or email us at lmilder@fotps.org. 42

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

Conference helps girls gain confidence as they transition to junior high

Wills Point ISD

by Jennifer LeClaire


hen Wills Point ISD Superintendent Suzanne Blasingame read a newspaper article about a girl’s church conference that was transforming the lives of youth in East Texas, she determined in her heart to bring the concept to Wills Point Middle School. She wanted to prepare middle school girls in her district to make the leap to junior high with confidence.

“It’s a tough transition from middle school to junior high. They get involved in athletics, band, cheerleading, student council and other things for the first time,” says Blasingame. “Our girls need hygiene skills and social skills that they don’t always get at home. We started thinking about how to help these girls transition, and the answer was a girls’ conference.” Blasingame cast the vision to Anita Nance, who was then the assistant principal of Wills Point Middle School. Wills Point is located in an economically disadvantaged region, and many children come from broken homes. With those realities in mind, the goal of the conference is powerful: to inspire Anita Nance young girls to develop confidence, to help them understand their beauty inside and out, to survive and take care of each other in this world, and to motivate them to achieve their dreams. The first girls’ conference launched in February 2012 as an all-day event that focused on forming strong leadership roles, developing resilient anti-bullying skills, encouraging daily fitness goals, establishing good eating habits, creating and sustaining self-care routines, searching for potential careers paths, and increasing self-worth and self-esteem. The girls’ conference began with an introduction in the lecture hall, where students were assigned to groups. Each group attended two sessions before lunch and three sessions after lunch. The 2014 conference, slated for February, will feature a leadership session with Jamie Laney, a Wills Point Junior High School social studies teacher; yoga and Pilates with coach Lacey Rotan, a physical education teacher at Wills Point Primary School; personal care with nurse Amber Wampler; career and technology with Donna Rowland, a Wills Point

High School career and technology education teacher, and “Pursuing the University Route” with Cyndi Fields, a structural engineer. All sessions will include hands-on activities. Also during the event, the girls will discover their “career color,” based on a test that represents specific career paths, and receive a motivational kit and a personal care bag. The bag includes a journal, a bracelet, hygiene products and other items that aim to improve a girl’s self-esteem. “One of the most powerful exercises is the balloon release,” says Blasingame. “The girls write something on a piece of paper and tie it to a balloon, representing something they need to let go of in their life. The girls go outside and release the yellow balloons and let go mentally of those issues.”

Superintendent Suzanne Blasingame

Organizing the conference is a group effort. Each year, the Wills Point High School Culinary Arts Department prepares a special lunch for the girls. During the lunch, the department shares advice on how to make healthy food choices and demonstrates proper table etiquette and table-setting techniques. Students from the high school’s floral and design course create the table centerpieces. A critical component of the conference is a Q&A panel after lunch. At this Q&A, girls can ask questions they would be otherwise too embarrassed to ask. “These girls ask questions that just blow you away. You think they know some things but they don’t, especially around hygiene,” says Nance, who is now principal of Wills Point Elementary School. “We’re busting myths and sharing good information. The girls feel safe enough to ask us those embarrassing questions.” Nance says the biggest challenge in pulling off the annual event is the lack of official funding for the program. She relies on donations from community sponsors, as well as volunteers from district schools and area businesses. Fortunately, so far, she has found plenty of willing donors and volunteers who believe in the vision. Says Blasingame, “At past conferences, we have included as many female employees at the junior high as we could possibly get, because we wanted See WILLS POINT on page 44

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


Photos on this page and page 45: The Girls’ Conference encompasses a myriad of topics, to include anti-bullying, leadership principles, culinary arts, yoga and Pilates, career counseling and personal hygiene.


TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

WILLS POINT continued from page 43

‘I like that you teach us things that are going to happen to us in the future. Also that you take your time to do this for us.’ — Christa, sixth grader, feedback from her evaluation card prime motivator for creating a similar conference for boys. A conference attendee named Angela wrote: “I liked it because it showed me that I am unique in every way and I am beautiful no matter what they tell me.” Another girl named Christa wrote: “I like that you teach us things that are going to happen to us in the future. Also that you take your time to do this for us. What I really love is the personality test and helping us find a good career. My career was an inspector, and today you pass the inspections of how to carry ourselves as young ladies.”

the girls to recognize their faces and feel comfortable going to them on campus if they had a problem.” There also are plenty of logistics to consider, such as a venue for the event. A church hosted the event the first year. The high school was the venue for the second year. There’s also meal planning, connecting with the school nurse about student food allergies, preparing for transportation from the school to the venue, sourcing the materials and putting together the gift bags, and getting permission slips from parents. The list goes on and on, but Nance says it’s more than worth the effort. “This event changes our girls. It gives them confidence,” she says. “It is so impactful that this year we’re also planning a boys’ conference. These young men need the same kind of help transitioning to the next level.” Students who attended the conference can share their feedback on “exit cards.” Nance says the comments on these cards give her motivation to continue doing the conferences. They also were a

“These exit cards bring you to your knees — they really, really do,” says Nance. “Sometimes, as an administrator, you wonder if you are making a difference. You might find out you impacted a girl’s life when they are a senior and come back to visit you. But this girls’ event offers instant feedback and shows us we’re making a difference in their lives right now. You can actually see the difference the same day.” Beyond the emotional aspect, Blasingame reports a reduction in discipline and bullying problems at the junior high level. She attributes this, in large part, to the anti-bullying segment of the leadership breakout session at the conference. “The reduction in discipline problems, like bullying and harassment — that petty girl stuff that happens in junior high school where the popular girls mistreat others — we don’t see that like we used to,” Blasingame says. “That event — that one day — helped those girls bond together. Some of the girls shared things about their lives that other girls didn’t know. It is an experience none of us will ever forget.” JENNIFER LECLAIRE also has written for The New York Times and the Associated Press.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015


CYPRESS-FAIRBANKS continued from page 14

relationship, but you have to train your staff to do that.”

‘You can capture that time and teach such strong values in a mentortype relationship, but you have to train your staff to do that.’

Early on, the department developed a set of belief statements to guide the work. As new ideas emerge, they are run through a series of questions: Does it match our belief system? Is it going to bring in revenue? Is it going to encourage positive interactions? Is it going to inspire people? Does it meet a need for the community?

— Kristina Perez, director, Community Development Department

This work is “mission-driven,” Perez says. “The way we do business is unique, and when we hire someone, that inspiration really comes out. You are going to be working for something that’s a bigger movement in our district that families really need.

Perez encourages other districts to focus on staff training. “There’s a strong component of quality time before and after school that you can capture. Kids want that engagement,” she says. “You can capture that time and teach such strong values in a mentor-type

“Parents have to go to work and they must have peace of mind,” she says. “If we can provide that and make their lives that much better, that’s our ultimate goal. If a child goes through Club Rewind and through Cy-Fair ISD, they are getting an amazing education.” RAVEN HILL is a former education reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

KELLER continued from page 28

“The money wasn’t mine, and I wanted to be an honest person,” explains Manzi. “It’s important to always respect other people’s stuff.” Manzi’s good deed not only earned him ROCKstar status and a mention at the Keller ISD board meeting, but he and his parents also enjoyed a special dedication breakfast. Student involvement has proven important to ROCK’s success. As part of the Keller ISD Ambassador Program, students and the district’s Media Department created informative videos for the elementary, secondary and parent resource sections of the district’s website. These videos define bullying, depict harassment situations and illustrate how one act of bullying can spread throughout a school. This resource center also provides Keller ISD student training, tips for parents and online security guidelines. “The heart and soul of this program is centered around ensuring that every student feels emotionally and physically safe from bullying. We attribute the success of ROCK to our community-wide antibullying approach,” says Randy Reid, Keller ISD superintendent. “Parents, teachers, students and local business owners all have a role and are committed to this effort. In Keller ISD, we want our students engaged in the classroom and enjoying their educational opportunities, both today and in the years ahead.” In 2012-2013, Keller ISD’s budget for ROCK awareness bracelets, window decals and brochures was $786. In 2013-2014, the budget was $4,460. This year, the district has approximately $9,000 budgeted for merchandise and potential guest speakers, with all merchandise proceeds to be deposited in the ROCK account for future programs and speak46

‘The heart and soul of this program is centered around ensuring that every student feels emotionally and physically safe from bullying.’ — Randy Reid, superintendent ers. In an effort to gain increased support from the community for the ROCK program, business owners were asked to commit to the initiative by displaying a ROCK decal in their store windows. In 2014-2015, the team anticipates more opportunities for ROCK partners to contribute to the anti-bullying effort. Basham encourages other district’s to implement similar programs, even if their funds are limited. “There are all kinds of aspects of this program that are free; money shouldn’t be the deterrent,” he says. “I’m proud to be part of a community that took a positive stance against bullying and is teaching students coping skills, instead of focusing on the consequences of their actions and pretending that bullying simply doesn’t exist.” AUTUMN RHEA CARPENTER is a freelance journalist in Kingwood. Follow her writings on Twitter @arheacarpenter.

TEXAS SCHOOL BUSINESS . Bragging Rights . 2014-2015

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