TSB-Bragging Rights 2020-2021

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Fourteenth Annual


Texas School Business

COMMITTED TO TEXAS PUBLIC EDUCATION FOR MORE THAN 53 YEARS Today, more than ever, we have seen the incredible impact public education has on our everyday lives. The stories that shape education are the stories that inspire us the most. The triumphs of students are personal to us. They mean more, because they illustrate how learning and shared experience can change lives. At Huckabee, our heart is in public education. So today and every day, Huckabee will stand with Texas educators to support a bright future for all students.



From the editor


etween record-breaking storms, a global pandemic and a heated election year, 2020 has been one for the record books. If ever there were a year where educators and school administrators could use some extra kudos, this is it. This issue of Bragging Rights, our 14th, is testament to one thing — Texas public schools don’t let anything stand in their way of providing innovative and cutting-edge educational opportunities to students. When we set out to put this issue together, I was afraid that COVID-19 would mean we didn’t have as many submissions as we typically receive. That we’d have to dig deep to find some good news to share. I couldn’t have been more wrong. From El Paso to Beaumont, from Denton to Brownsville, and all points in between, Texas’ public schools continue to serve their students in the best possible ways, no matter what. That much was evident as I read through the nearly 100 Bragging Rights entries we received this year. In these pages, you’ll read about 12 exceptional programs going on in Texas public schools right now. I hope you’ll find inspiration in these pages. I hope that they will make you proud — of yourselves and each other. If there’s one gift I’ve received from working on this issue of Bragging Rights, it’s hope. Please share this issue with those in your community who might also need a dash of hope. A reminder that our public schools are ready to meet, and overcome, any challenge that comes their way.

DACIA RIVERS Editorial Director

Fourteenth Annual


Texas School Business BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021

Volume LXVII, Issue 7 406 East 11th Street Austin, Texas 78701 Phone: 512-477-6361 Fax: 512-482-8658 www.texasschoolbusiness.com

© Copyright 2020 | Texas Association of School Administrators



DESIGN Phaedra Strecher







▲ The Aledo Education Foundation supports Aledo ISD staff and teachers in many ways, including grants for classrooms.


A helping hand in times of need

ESC region: 11 Superintendent: Dr. Susan K. Bohn

by James Golsan

2019 enrollment: 6,100 Number of schools: 9


ledo is a small, close-knit town in Parker County, just west of Fort Worth. Originally a farming community of just a few hundred settlers in the Clear Fork Valley of the Trinity River, Aledo incorporated as a city in 1963, and is now home to just under 5,000 Texans. The city’s website describes Aledo as possessing “a uniqueness that preserves its historic character and citizens that appreciate the quaint, country feel the town possesses.” The website also describes Aledo ISD as “consistently recognized as one of the best in North Texas for its success in academics and sports,” as well as a major economic engine for the community. Success in public institutions such as Aledo ISD consists of many factors: driven, dedicated professionals, strong leadership, and in ideal

circumstances, a supportive, compassionate culture that looks to the needs and interests of its employees. It is this last component that Aledo ISD has in spades, best exemplified by their Employee Crisis Fund Program, which, per Aledo ISD Communications Director Mercedes Mayer, exists to provide financial support to teachers and other employees during times of need. “The Employee Crisis Fund was created to give employees that little extra nudge of help with things a school district doesn’t usually help you with,” Mayer says. “The idea is to provide support to help our employees to keep going with their jobs and past a hardship that in some cases might force them to quit.” BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


Incepted in 2015 at the suggestion of HR as a new and different way the district could support employees, the program specifically targets short-term financial hardships, with a focus on “problems that can be solved,” Mayer says. The “solvable problems” component is an important one regarding the structure of the program; each usage of the Employee Crisis Fund is intended as a one-timer for employees (with a maximum of $1,250 per request), not continuous support through long-term difficulties. The program is run in partnership with The Education Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose primary purpose is to “find and fill the needs of struggling students,” though their work extends to broader education support as well. In the case of Aledo, that means timely support for employees in need. To access the Employee Crisis Fund, an employee’s case must be referred through an application to the Aledo ISD human resources department for review. If the HR department determines the case to be an appropriate use for the fund, they make a formal request of the Education Foundation, who, per Mayer, will in most cases pay whatever needs to be paid to the approved employee. This approach both protects an employee’s personal ▲ Aledo Education Foundation board members pose with Executive Director information and enhances the impartiality Shawn Callaway at a board training session last year. Board members work to find of the process when it comes to Aledo ISD’s ways to support the Aledo ISD, including through the Employee Crisis Fund. district-level administration.

So what kinds of emergencies is the fund typically used for? Everything from medical expenses to car repairs are in play. “We (district administration) really try and stay out of the selection process all together,” she says. So what kinds of emergencies is the fund typically used for? Everything from medical expenses to car repairs are in play. “In one instance, an employee used the fund to pay for new brakes, which might not sound like much, but if you can’t use your car, you might miss work, which in the worst cases could lead to you losing your job,” Mayer says, adding that new tires and especially portions of hospital bills are items employees have used the fund for in the past. The philosophy, she says, is that problems at home and in one’s personal life can affect them at work, and the Employee Crisis Fund is uniquely suited to take on exactly that sort of personal challenge.

“We even had an employee whose family member had lost a job and just needed some new furniture to get back on their feet,” Mayer says. “The committee approved funding for that as well.” A personal financial emergency is an incredibly stressful time, and is often not something a person wants made public. This is why Mayer says confidentiality is of paramount importance when it comes to fund usage. While she knows anecdotally what some of the program’s usages have been, and that it is extremely popular amongst the employees of Aledo ISD, she cannot divulge anyone’s personal story related to fund usage, and even if she could, the application process described above prevents her from knowing who has used the fund in the past. Mayer says this is a core component of the program’s compassionate spirit, something that is not just at work in Aledo ISD, but in the community as a whole. “Our community always steps up to help our students and employees any way we can,” she says. “Speaking as an employee myself, knowing that we have that kind of care and support around us when hardships come about is pretty amazing.” A conversation with Mayer makes it clear that Aledo is a unique community, and that Aledo ISD is a uniquely supportive place to work. As Texas continues to find its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is most of us could use a hand one way or another. For employees of Aledo ISD, their district is ready to lend that hand if they need it. JAMES GOLSAN is a writer and education professional based in Austin.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business

Congratulations and thank you for your superior service to Texas public education! 2020 Superintendent of the Year Jose Gonzalez • McAllen ISD

2020 Outstanding School Board Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD

Congratulations The Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) congratulates the 12 Texas school districts selected for the 14th Annual “Bragging Rights” issue of Texas School Business.

Aledo ISD Bryan ISD Corsicana ISD Goose Creek CISD Gruver ISD Levelland ISD

Liberty Hill ISD Palacios ISD Pine Tree ISD Throckmorton Collegiate ISD United ISD Vidor ISD


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ Students at Bryan ISD’s Odyssey Academy participate in hands-on STEM lessons.


Students aim for Mars, by way of STEM careers

County: Brazos

by James Golsan

2019 enrollment: 15,906


e, the human race, are in all likelihood less than a century — maybe even fewer than 25 years — away from setting foot on Mars for the first time. Through the efforts of private corporations, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX Program and government-run entities including NASA and the newly created Space Force, we are in the midst of a push toward the stars on par with the space race of the 1960s, which culminated with NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk on July 20, 1969. Now, as it sets its sights on the red planet, Houston-based NASA might not need to go beyond its own backyard to find its next crop of brilliant rocket scientists. Bryan ISD, located fewer than 90 miles from Houston, is home to the Odyssey Academy, an innovative and nationally certified STEM Academy.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business

ESC region: 6 Superintendent: Dr. Christie Whitbeck

Number of schools: 25 The Academy launched in 2008, and while the emphasis has always been on providing Bryan ISD’s middle school students with cutting-edge learning opportunities, Odyssey Academy’s focus on space has recently been enhanced by a direct tie to NASA; the program’s lead teacher, Naveen Cunha, recently completed a two-year fellowship with the space program. “Our theme is Mission to Mars,” Cunha says of the scientific aspiration he hopes the academy will inspire in its participants. “Our students typically apply and come in at the fifth grade level and participate in a [STEM heavy] pre-AP curriculum through their four years in the program.” The academy provides for students, per Bryan ISD Communications Director Mathew Leblanc,

▲ Bryan ISD’s Odyssey Academy focuses on a STEM-rich curriculum, including robotics, a popular choice among students.

“an interdisciplinary, technology-rich environment that partners with local, regional and national programs to enrich the learning experience.”

with STEM content early is a draw for both students who are largely new to exploring science related course work, as well as students with an existing passion for robotics, such as Joshua.

That environment allows Odyssey Academy students to engage in a STEM-rich curriculum early and often.

“I’ve been doing robotics for a long time, before I even joined Odyssey,” he says, “That’s what drew me to the program.”

“Odyssey students have the opportunity to take an introductory level engineering course as early as the seventh grade,” Cunha says, “By the time Odyssey students reach eighth grade, they have the opportunity to take up to five high school level STEM courses.”

Sophia, another Odyssey student, adds: “In elementary school, I thought I wanted to be an engineer and build machines. One of the best things about Odyssey is how it lets me explore what those careers are like.”

In addition to classes that might be considered more traditional, such as physics and algebra, students have the opportunity to take Cunha’s robotics course, and the chance to participate in STEM competitions — both at state and national levels — throughout their middle school years. Those involved in the Odyssey Academy say one of the biggest benefits of the program is the way it opens students’ eyes to the potential of STEM careers from an early age. This potential to engage

Exploration of STEM careers at the Odyssey Academy often takes shape in the form of real world projects. Joshua cites projects that let him design roller coasters and bridges as among his favorites during his time with the Academy, saying that they allow him to apply and better understand the laws of physics in relation to structural design. Cunha adds that these projects include physical testing of the designs students create.

▲ Middle school students at the Odyssey Academy have the opportunity to explore several different STEM career options. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


“If we find competitions students can participate in using the lessons that they’ve learned in class, we do our best to enter them. It’s not only a good way to share their own knowledge, but to compare their knowledge and projects to those completed by students around the state, and sometimes even around the country.” — Naveen Cunha

▲ A student at Bryan ISD’s Odyssey Academy participates in hands-on STEM learning.

“Once the students have the opportunity to model their designs in an online environment, they can print the designs and construct whatever it is that they have been working on to see if the structure works in the real world.” In many cases, Odyssey Academy projects are seen well beyond the confines of the campus. “Lots of the projects we did last year were submitted to the Technology Students Association,” Sophia says. The association provides numerous state and national competition opportunities for students in STEM fields. Cunha adds that part of his role as a teacher at Odyssey is identifying broader competitive opportunities for his students. “If we find competitions students can participate in using the lessons that they’ve learned in class, we do our best to enter them. It’s not only a good way to share their own knowledge, but to compare their knowledge and projects to those completed by students around the state, and sometimes even around the country.” When asked whether attending the Odyssey Academy had impacted what the students thought they would do with their lives regarding career choice, both said it absolutely had, though the shape of that impact was unique for each. For Sophia, a more creative path in the STEM arena is something she’s after.

▲ Naveen Cunha, Odyssey Academy coordinator, works with students at the STEM-focused school.

“I came into the program thinking maybe I wanted to be an engineer, but now I think I want to do something more like design,” she says, adding that she enjoys taking the engineering courses even if that’s not the career she sees herself pursuing at this stage. For Joshua’s part, he’s still passionate about robotics, and intends to do something with his life that puts him in that field. It’s an educational pathway he will be able to follow when he enters high school in the fall of 2021; the Odyssey Academy is just one part of a constellation of STEM initiatives in Bryan ISD, which include a full STEM track at one of the high schools and a Career and Technical Education (CTE) campus recently opened by the district. What is obvious in speaking with Cunha and his students is the academic passion at work at the Odyssey Academy. Students just like Sophia and Joshua will shape the future of American STEM. As it sets its sights on Mars, NASA should have its eyes on Bryan, as it searches for the talented individuals who will get us there. JAMES GOLSAN is a writer and education professional based in Austin.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business

▲ Odyssey Academy was recently recognized at TEAMS, an annual engineering competition for middle and high school students.

▲ Students in Corsicana ISD’s Penguin Project rehearse for a special production of “Annie, Jr.”


Penguin Project empowers children with special needs through theater

County: Navarro

by Autumn Rhea Carpenter

2019 enrollment: 5,996


n 2019, Kim Day, a parent of a child with special needs and a life skills teacher in Corsicana ISD (CISD) received an introductory letter announcing the Penguin Project — a performance program that connects disabled children and teenagers (in grades four through 12) with nondisabled kids as mentors. The letter guided her to Facebook, where she learned about the theater program designed to change the lives of children with special needs. By December, her son Deven had auditioned for “Annie, Jr.” and landed the roles of Bundles McCloskey, the dogcatcher and the sound effects artist. His confidence skyrocketed. The Penguin Project is named for the unique characteristics of penguins, which are extremely playful and curious and work well together but could be considered “disabled” because they can’t fly. Like students with special needs, penguins have adapted

ESC region: 12 Superintendent: Dr. Diane Frost Number of schools: 9

to the challenges of their environment and have not allowed their unique circumstances to interfere with their lives. Andy Morgan founded the Penguin Project in 2004 to combine his professional expertise with his passion for theater and give children with disabilities an opportunity to experience the performing arts. It’s now a national program with 43 established chapters across the country that produce shows in community theaters. The “Annie, Jr.” cast consists of 60 students, including peer mentors, with a team of helpers including a director, production manager, mentor/artist director, assistant director, parent coordinator, music director, choreographers, technical director, costume director, health coordinator and marketing assistant. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ The goal of the Penguin Project is to connect special needs students with their peers and give them an opportunity to participate in theater arts.

The cast includes a variety of special needs students who present unique challenges including physical disabilities, hearing impairments, nonverbal disabilities, Down’s syndrome and a variety of social and emotional behavioral concerns.

our schools and community, and I hope it continues for years to come.”

“The idea is to find a place for students to be included and to be successful. The main characters in the play were selected based on the audition process and their desire to participate,” says Cran Dodds, head of the Corsicana High School (CHS) theater department.

“After rehearsing twice a week for a couple of months, their true, wonderful personalities began to shine,” says Jessica Pfohl, CISD Penguin Project choreographer and deaf education teacher. “The choreography gave them all moments to be the star, and when their moments arrived, they lit up the room. What was even better was seeing the rest of the cast congratulate their fellow cast members on nailing their ‘star moments’.”

Students rehearsed one day a week through February 2020 for one hour and 15 minutes with the last 10 minutes of each rehearsal dedicated to snacks and social time. All students learned choreography and music and the main characters learned where to stand on stage and practice their lines. The Penguin Project has proven to be a confidence booster, according to Day. “I have witnessed so much growth with my child and the others involved. When we began practice, many students were very shy or had trouble following along or standing up front on stage,” she says. “As the practices continued, the students began coming out of their shells, projecting their voices more, and you could see the joy in their eyes when they performed. Deven has a significant speech impairment, and his speaking role has definitely helped him gain confidence in his speaking and reading skills. He also really loves the dance numbers and has done very well remembering the steps.” “These students have shown us their strengths, talents, personalities and determination, in spite of labels and stereotypes,” Day adds. “They have worked so hard learning their parts and it shows on stage and in the classroom. The Penguin Project has been such a blessing to


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business

The cast was about to begin practicing three to four times a week when COVID-19 hit and everything closed.

Mentorship is an important component of the Penguin Project. The students interested in mentoring (non-special needs students) participated in a daylong boot camp led by the CISD special education department. Mentors learned the expectations for the Penguin Project and strategies for interacting with special needs students, including how to be a good mentor and friend. “Mentors were paired with members of the cast based on gender, age and similar vocal tone,” Dodds says. “The mentor’s role is to assist their castmate with lines, props and music. The mentor stands two feet behind the special needs student

▲ Penguin Project participants in Corsicana work together to prepare their production of “Annie, Jr.”

all nine CISD campuses to discuss the project plans and how teachers and staff could get involved. Convocation 2019 also featured an introductory Penguin Project video with the superintendent, while participants handed out stickers to draw interest. Team leaders created an introductory letter announcing the project and sent it to families of special needs students. They used social media to solicit volunteers and mentors who were then guided to an online interest form. According to Dodds, these contacts helped in forming committees and scheduling information sessions for everyone who was interested. The project has received immense support from across the district.

and is dressed in black with an apron and accessories to match their character’s part. The person playing the role of Annie would wear a red dress. Her mentor could wear a red apron with accents that match the lead’s costume, but not distract from the lead herself. Mentors are trained to be ready in a moment’s notice to say the cast member’s lines or play the part.”

“We will be seeking sponsors for the show to build this program and continue offering this unique experience for all those involved,” Dodds says. “The culinary department at CHS has prepared the snacks for our practices and the construction technology classes have built some wooden penguins to help us promote the show. There are many ways to involve others in this experience.” Due to COVID-19, the first production of The Penguin Project’s “Annie, Jr.” has been rescheduled to April 2021. AUTUMN RHEA CARPENTER is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Many children with special needs have a limited social network, and the Penguin Project helps to enhance it. “The mentors and actors definitely formed a friendship, and even in the new school year, I have seen some of our actors and mentors mingling in the hallways at CHS,” Pfohl says. “I remember one mentor couldn’t wait to take a shirt that had a unicorn on it to Penguin practice because the actor she was paired with loved unicorns. She knew it would make her happy, and that’s what I saw a lot among our mentors and actors, simply wanting to brighten each other’s day.” Any school district interested in successfully implementing the Penguin Project should first seek support starting at the top of the educational organization. “The CISD board of trustees and Dr. Diane Frost, superintendent of schools, dedicated the fiscal and human resources needed to have a successful start,” says Associate Superintendent Elmer Avellaneda. “Additionally, the Penguin Project district leader must create a team of individuals, from across the district, that can clearly articulate the vision as an effort to create buy-in and excitement. My hope for the Penguin Project is that it will promote respect for differences and interaction among students with and without disabilities.” Additionally, members of the Penguin Project leadership team scheduled time with principals and department leaders, then visited BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ In a scene from the first Here, We Grow Giants video, Dr. Randal O’Brien, Goose Creek CISD superintendent, watches as students at Alamo Elementary head to class to take advantage of the opportunities the district offers.


Nurturing a culture of giants

County: Harris ESC region: 4 Superintendent: Dr. Randal O’Brien

by Leila Kalmbach

2019 enrollment: 23,765


f there’s one thing the city of Baytown knows about its local public school district it’s that Goose Creek CISD is a district of giants: academic giants, giants in health care, industry, robotics, sports, arts and more. Here, We Grow Giants is Goose Creek’s districtwide theme, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a way of life. The Here, We Grow Giants program exists to showcase the district’s course offerings and successes to the community at large, as well as to honor students, faculty and even alumni who are making a difference.


Goose Creek CISD

BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business

“We didn’t want it just to be a logo or a theme, we wanted it to have some power behind it,” says Matt Bolinger, executive director of strategic planning and innovation for the district. The idea of “giants” shines through in everything Goose Creek does, from the district’s logo and spiritwear to their faculty and staff email signatures. Giants from the district are featured in a video shown on convocation day, as well as in bus ads and even on a billboard on the side of Interstate 10. Each of the district’s 28 campuses has aligned their school’s theme with the district’s theme, so the Patriots might talk about “growing Patriots,” and the

Number of schools: 30

Crusaders might be “giant Crusaders,” for example. Perhaps the most visible aspects of the program are the giants of the month, three individuals recognized by the district each month: a student, a faculty member and an alumnus. “We have a committee that has the honor of reviewing nominees and selecting individuals who are making a giant impact in our community, in their careers, and in the world,” Bolinger says. Each month, once the giants have been chosen, the committee arranges top-secret visits to the selected individuals’ homes or places of work, where 10 to 20 committee members and executive council members show up to surprise the winners. Along with the celebration, each giant receives a plaque and a gift basket from a sponsor, and is recognized on social media and the district’s website. The giants recognized in the program run the gamut. They’re bus drivers, orchestra members, valedictorians, math teachers and custodians. This year there’s been an increased focus on first responders and others in the medical field, such as the director of infectious diseases at a local medical center and a night shift nurse, both Goose Creek alumni. The giant recognition is meaningful to the individuals who are chosen. “I’ve actually run into students and even parents that will say, ‘My child is a giant. Did you know my child is a giant?’” GCCISD Superintendent Randal O’Brien says. “And that could be at the register at Luby’s or at a gas station.” The program, which is funded through a partnership with the city of Baytown, started in response to a challenge from the former mayor. Randal O’Brien Each year, O’Brien gives a State of the District talk in front of the Baytown Chamber of Commerce. A few years ago after his talk, the then-mayor stood up. “He said, ‘You know, I know about all the wonderful things going on in Goose Creek because I have three children that graduated and have gone on and become successful, but our general public doesn’t always know everything that’s going on,’” O’Brien says. “And his challenge in front of 250, 300 people was, ‘You need to toot your own horn a little bit more.’”

▲ A giant graduate showed up at the GCCISD administration building to represent the district theme, Here, We Grow Giants.

O’Brien brought the challenge back to the district’s executive council, and after lots of discussion and ideas, Here, We Grow Giants was born. But the concept didn’t take off on its own. “Our community engagement team has worked hard to build consistency and awareness with the branding of Here, We Grow Giants,” Bolinger says. The district knew that for the theme to be a success, they needed every employee in the district to buy into it. And so, at the beginning of the next school year, every single administrator, faculty member and staff member in the district received a shirt with the new logo on it. “It’s a spirit shirt that is a districtwide shirt,” O’Brien says. “That didn’t exist before four or five years ago. It was every campus for themselves.” A districtwide shirt helped employees see themselves as part of a larger team, and allowed the district to share its vision on all GCCISD campuses.

◄ Zachary Charalampous, a student in the Health Science Academy at Ross S. Sterling High School, was the March Giant Student of the Month. Zachary continued to work at a nursing home during the COVID-19 pandemic. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


The impact the program has on those nominated is undeniable. “I think for the student, it’s instilling pride,” O’Brien says. “For the alumni, it’s recalling the pride that they had when they walked the hallways, so it’s nostalgic for them. For faculty members, it’s what we all seek to do — be part of something that’s bigger than ourselves.” The way the giants are celebrated has changed due to COVID-19, but the celebrations continue. In April, Goose Creek recognized their director of education technology, whose department had worked hard to prepare students and families to switch to online instruction, with a drive-by car parade. “There were probably 50 or 60 cars that showed up, and he was tearing up,” Bolinger says. “That was one of my aha! moments that this is more than just a giant of the month program. It’s a way to honor people.” The theme has caught on across Baytown. During the naming process for a new junior school last spring, multiple community members suggested naming the campus after former educator E.F. Green by calling him a “giant” and saying that he grew giants.

▲ Gentry Junior School STEM students are highlighted in a Here, We Grow Giants video as well as on posters and ads.

“These are community members who weren’t connected to the school district tapping into our theme to articulate his impact on our community,” Bolinger says. “That’s when I felt like hey, this has some momentum. This is part of our culture now.” The name was ultimately chosen, and Green Junior School is scheduled to open in fall 2021. One reason the Here, We Grow Giants program has been so successful is that it highlights all the great things happening in the district. For that reason, Bolinger’s advice to other districts interested in instituting a districtwide theme is that the theme itself is less important than what you do with it. “Find a way to tell positive stories so that the community and your stakeholders hear those stories,” he says. “Because if they’re only hearing one side, they’re missing out on everything that public education offers.” This is Goose Creek’s third year with the same theme, and administrators occasionally discuss whether it’s time for a new one — but they recognize it’s not up to them anymore.

▲ GCCISD graduate Gordon Schutze, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Texas Children’s Hospital, was named Giant Alumnus of the Month for February 2020.

“Even if we wanted to try going in a different direction, I’m not sure we could,” O’Brien says. “Our community would not let us. It’s a direct link to Goose Creek CISD now.” LEILA KALMBACH is an Austin native, writer and work happiness coach who helps entrepreneurs improve productivity and rekindle their passion for their work.

▲ The third Here, We Grow Giants video highlighted the district’s nutrition services team, who worked to keep students fed during remote learning.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business

▼ Members of the Here, We Grow Giants committee, along with administrators and staff, honor Alice Ricks, counselor at POINT Alternative Center, as the Giant Educator of the Month for November 2019.

▲ Elementary School students in Gruver ISD pose with a combine on the land that will someday help provide them with money for college.


Farm Scholarship Foundation helps students achieve their dreams through involvement, participation by Bobby Hawthorne


us Gifford, a junior at Gruver High School who resembles a young Warren Beatty, admits he’s not sure he’d have run for sophomore class Student Council president or perhaps some other club officer post if not for “the scholarship.” He wants that scholarship, and, in Gruver, if you mention “the scholarship,” no one asks, “Which scholarship are you talking about?” Everyone knows — it’s the Gruver Farm Foundation Scholarship. Everyone knows because almost every student attending Gruver High School is working to earn their share of it, and the good news is, they’re not competing against each other. They’re competing against themselves. So, they do what they have to do to earn points that will translate into financial aid they can use to attend

Gruver ISD County: Hansford ESC region: 16 Superintendent: Wade Callaway 2019 enrollment: 458 Number of schools: 3

any postsecondary institution, from Texas A&M University to the Amarillo Dental Assistant School. Students can earn points in all sorts of ways: by setting up and taking down tables and chairs at an area Heritage Days festival; by spending a Saturday power washing dust from downtown windows and doors; by signing up for a UIL debate or one-act play, even though they’re scared half to death to speak in public; by serving as sophomore class Student Council president. “It’s right out there, and kids can see it, so there’s greater participation,” says Gus, who’s collecting points for being a guard on the basketball team, a sprinter and high jumper in track, and a member of the National Honor Society. “Students can see a real benefit in taking part.” It is, as Gus says, “supercool.” BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


Parents can see it, too. Gruver Elementary School teacher Cassidy Livengood is one of those parents. She lives in Guymon, Oklahoma, where her husband is mayor, but she teaches in Gruver, which lies just across the border. If you nailed a map of Texas on a wall, you’d drive the nail right through Gruver. “The good thing about the Farm Scholarship is that it’s based off of you,” Livengood says. “It’s based on what you put in — to school, into the activities you participate in, into the service you perform. And it doesn’t take into consideration how much money your parents make. You’re responsible for your own destiny.” That’s all she wants or expects because she has two daughters — a second-grader who’s into basketball and competitive cheer, and a 4-year-old, who gets to tag along — enrolled in Gruver schools. The scholarship program wasn’t the sole reason she chose to work here and lug her daughters along, but it was a factor. “We’ll have two kids in college at the same time. That’s going to be tough for any parent,” Livengood adds. “We are a dual-income family, so, as far as government aid is concerned, that’s probably not going to be in the cards for our children. What we like about the Farm Scholarship is that it’ll provide an opportunity for our kids, when they’re older.”

▲ One the day of Gruver ISD’s corn harvest, elementary students get to visit the farm and shuck one ear of corn each.

And he does, every chance he gets. For example, on Oct. 8, he hauled four students to speak at a meeting of Panhandle-area school board members. This is what the kids told them: We have this scholarship program, and it’s supercool. Here’s how you do it: Get a plot of land. Four hundred acres will do. Find some volunteers to help farm it who’ll donate time, money, equipment, seed and fertilizer. Plant the corn. Keep an eye on it. Pick it in mid-October. Sell it at a good price. Use the proceeds — generally right at $400,000 annually — to fund scholarships for students. If you need to know the fine details, they’re available online. “As far as the actual work, my role is pretty minor, other than I try to get out and promote it,” Callaway says. “The lead farmers and the volunteers are responsible for 95% of it.” Chad Logdson is one of those lead farmers. A Gruver High grad and third-generation farmer, he serves as president of the Farm Foundation Board. Asked how long he’s been with the program, he says, “Since Day 1. Back in 2012, three or four of us got it off the ground. We had to collect enough money to sustain it, so we didn’t award scholarships the first couple of years. But I remember when the first class got their money, that was really special.”

▲ Sales of the corn grown on Gruver ISD’s farmland helps fund scholarships for the district’s students.

Wade Callaway arrived in Gruver 11 years ago as the boys’ basketball coach and never intended to move into administration; but when a school board member asked him, “Hey, why don’t you become the junior high principal?” he replied, “Well, OK.” A few years later, someone asked him, “Hey, why don’t you become the superintendent?” And he replied, “Well, OK.” Though he’s about to turn 50, he still looks like the former point guard he was at Crowell High and then at West Texas State (now West Texas A&M), where he lettered four years. Like almost all small-school superintendents, Callaway is basically a Swiss Army knife. He coaches tennis every year, and this year, he’s coaching eighth-grade basketball too, because there was a vacancy and all kinds of extenuating circumstances, and someone had to do it. He also drives the bus, cuts grass, mops, sweeps, washes and sells tickets, if necessary. Callaway is also one of the Farm Scholarship Foundation’s most fervent supporters. When I thanked him for promptly returning my call, he replied, “My pleasure. We like talking about it.”


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Even though the newness of it has worn off, every year, when they announce who’s getting what, it gets to him. It’s why he and others work so hard to line up volunteers and donors — such as the owner/ operators of four storage bins, each of which holds a quarter of a million bushels of corn. Volunteers pick the corn, and then business partners transport and store it, free of charge. From there, local feedlots buy the corn at a good price and feed it to their cattle. The district’s out-of-pocket expenses? Electricity and water, and it has its own well. On the day the corn is harvested, the school loads up its elementary kids — one grade at a time — and drives them out to the field. Each kid is handed an ear of corn that they can try to shuck, if for no other reason than to get a whiff of the tassel. “It’s funny, but a lot of these kids have never been exposed to that, even though they’ve grown up in a farm community,” Logdson says. “The local John Deere dealer brings a combine and a sprayer, and the kids get to crawl all over them and sit behind the steering wheel, and that’s pretty exciting.” It ought to be, given that a combine sells for around a half million dollars. How hard would it be for another small, rural school to replicate this effort? “We’ve had members of the Farm Scholarship Committee speak at various school board and administrator meetings, and people

▲ Gruver ISD brings in about $400,000 annually from corn sales, all of which goes to fund student scholarships.

▲ Gruver ISD students get an up-close look at a combine, the machine that harvests the district’s corn crop.

generally say, ‘That’s a great idea, but we don’t have land, or we don’t have this or that,’” Callaway says. “But they could. You just need a piece of land and people willing to work it.”

complain, ‘Oh, I’m so nervous to put myself out there,’ I’m, like, ‘I went through that in high school.’”

Callaway thinks about it for a second, then adds, “I realize it’s a lot more complex than that, but other people could replicate it or do something like it. I know some school districts have created a similar model with cattle — a Ranch Scholarship rather than a Farm Scholarship.” Of course, the big question is: Why bother? Well, that part’s complicated. Callaway says it’s a matter of community pride, an expression of hope and faith and a steadfast belief that the Panhandle’s pioneering spirit still exists. “The small, rural towns in the Panhandle are drying up, for the most part,” Callaway says. “But there is still such a great need for and value in these communities because they represent an old-fashioned, ‘My barn burned down, and the whole community came out to help me rebuild it,’ spirit. It’s the, ‘We fought and made it through the Dust Bowl,’ spirit. It’s still alive, especially here in Gruver.” It’s one of those “You have to see it to believe it,” things. “Gruver’s like a slice of heaven that no one tells you about,” Livengood says. “I’ve never been in a community where there are so many people willing to give back. They give back to the school and the kids — and I’m not saying that to put Gruver on a pedestal. I’m from a small town myself, about the same size, and it’s just amazing to me. People here look out for each other, and they all want the best for the kids.” Kids such as Gus Gifford and Ariana Trejo, a senior basketball player and National Honor Society member who wants to go college and major in nursing, which won’t be cheap. She’s the third of six. Her brother and sister, twins, are juniors, and her youngest sister is a sophomore. The family has stacks and stacks of college tuition bills in their future. “My dad works at a farm supply place,” Ariana says. “My parents can’t afford everything for us, so this program has affected us and is going to affect all of us. It’s going to help us get the educations we want.” That’s why Gruver bothers. It’s also kids such as Sindy Gaspar, a 2019 GHS grad who’s now a criminal justice major at Sam Houston State. The oldest of four, she’s the first in her family to go to college, and it would have been much more of a culture shock if it weren’t for the Farm Scholarship. It’s helped her manage time and stress, as well as the books. “If you’re in the scholarship program, attendance really matters,” she says. “So do grades, clubs, leadership roles and UIL involvement. Juggling all of that really pushed me. When I hear now from kids who

In other words, Sindy played clarinet in the band, ran the 400 in track, was a senior cheerleader, competed in UIL Number Sense and was a member of Big Brothers, Big Sisters, in addition to holding down a part-time job at her father’s restaurant, El Vaquero. Two final benefits: • Sindy’s three younger siblings watched her. They now understand what’s possible if they’re willing to apply themselves. • The benefits are not strictly financial. They’re familial. Her high school teachers, with whom Sindy bonded by spending all those nights and weekends cheering, running, playing and serving, have assured her, “If you need help with anything, just let us know.” That’s the bottom line: Reach every single student, even those who don’t think they’re college material, because they don’t have to be. They just need to want to better themselves, and if that means Harvard, great. If it means South Plains Junior College, cool. If it means Larry’s Barber College in Fort Worth, no problem. Better still, the scholarship program isn’t student versus student, says Gruver High School Principal Kimberly Conyers. “It’s student versus self. Of course, the more you do, and the more successful you are, the more you have access to.” A former counselor, Conyers is in her third year at Gruver and second year as GHS principal. If anyone’s in charge of the scholarship program, it’s Conyers. She’s responsible for collecting, compiling and confirming data, and while she says she hasn’t been there quite long enough to witness all the benefits of the program, she’s heard plenty of stories, one of which, she’ll never forget. “This girl — she comes from a big family, a family of six — and she’s in the middle. She’s Hispanic. Her father is a farmer,” Conyers says. “We were talking about, ‘If you have a big family, it’s hard, no matter what, because college is expensive.’ And she said, ‘You know, when you come to Gruver with nothing, and you can still go to college and become something, that’s pretty important.’ It was such a remarkable thing to say. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.” One last question: How’s the corn crop this year? Is it a good one? “Yes,” Logdson says. “A very good crop. Now that I think about it, we really haven’t had a bad crop. I think the good Lord is looking after us.” BOBBY HAWTHORNE is the author of “Longhorn Football” and “Home Field,” published by UT Press. In 2005, he retired as director of academics for the University Interscholastic League. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ Arry the therapy dog poses with young students at Levelland ISD’s Academic Beginnings Center.


Therapy dog brings snuggles and stress relief to students

County: Hockley

by Leila Kalmbach

2019 enrollment: 2,904


hether she’s dressed in a pink bandana and rhinestone-embellished cowboy hat, brightly colored clip-on hair extensions and leg warmers, or leopard-print cap and shirt, this 4-year-old may just be the most popular attendee at Levelland ISD’s Academic Beginnings Center (ABC). “Hi, Arry!” students and teachers call out when they see her, rushing over. For some, spending time with Arry is a reward; for others, it’s a way to relieve anxiety and stress. “She’s become a superstar,” says Tammy Perez, a kindergarten teacher at ABC and Arry’s handler and full-time owner. Arry is a Pomeranian therapy dog (a “paraprofessional,” according to her ID badge), the first in Levelland ISD. ABC houses 10 kindergarten and 10 pre-K classes.


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ESC region: 17 Superintendent: Jeff Northern Number of schools: 6

This year, Perez has 12 students in her classroom and shares another 27 remote-learning kindergarteners with two other teachers. Arry is housed in Perez’s classroom, but the school’s counselor frequently comes to take her throughout the school as needed. Together, they’ll walk through the other classrooms, or spend some one-on-one time with kids. Arry’s a big help. “Coming to school is a scary, new experience for young kids, so Arry kind of relaxes them,” says Levelland ISD Superintendent Jeff Northern. If a child is upset, that child can spend time with Arry to help calm down. If a child is acting out or having a bad day, same thing. And if a child has particularly good behavior, spending time with Arry can be a reward.

“Who doesn’t want to spend time with a sweet, beautiful dog?” Northern says. The therapy dog program started after Perez’s mother passed away and Perez inherited her miniature Australian shepherd. The shepherd had a hard time integrating into her new home and being one of multiple dogs, so Perez sought out a trainer. What she didn’t expect was that her other dogs would also benefit from the shepherd’s training. “They kind of started learning the same things,” Perez remembers. “It was monkey see, monkey do. If one’s going to do it, they’re all going to do it now.” The training made Perez and her daughter interested in learning more about therapy dog certification. They quickly discovered that the shepherd was not a good candidate, but what about Arry? “She’s the calmest, most laid-back, most disciplined dog, and it came naturally,” Perez says. “We really didn’t have to teach her very much.” So, they called a therapy dog certification organization. “I don’t want to say they laughed, but they kind of giggled at us.” Pomeranians are known for being high-strung, yippy and loud — not traditionally great candidates for therapy dogs. “We said, ‘This dog is different. Please meet her, please evaluate her and see what you think,’” Perez says. “And within 15 minutes of the evaluation, the lady said, ‘This dog was born to do this job.’” Arry sped through her training, and within weeks was a certified therapy dog. Perez approached her principal once she knew Arry would pass, and after some convincing, the two approached higher administration in the district. They got approval from the school board and spoke with the school’s attorney.

▲ Pomeranian Arry is a certified therapy dog in Levelland ISD.

Superintendent Northern was easy to persuade. “I thought it was awesome,” he says. “I thought it was very much thinking outside the box.” Unfortunately, there was one little snag. Arry finished her certification right before spring break 2020, so the district had planned that April 1 would be a good day to start her in the school, just after spring break. “Little did we know, COVID was going to hit and we weren’t coming back,” Perez says. In the end, Arry started her new position in August 2020 — when she was probably even more needed. After being home for five months, many of the kids at ABC had a tough time transitioning back to being in the classroom, or being there for the first time, but they were excited to discover there was a dog in their class. And it didn’t take long before she was one of them. In fact, Perez says her students refuse to take a class photo without Arry in the picture. “Do you remember the sitcom ‘Cheers’?” Perez asks. “When Norm came in and everybody would yell ‘Norm!’ Now, when I come to school, it’s not ‘Good morning, Ms. Perez,’ it’s ‘Arry!’ Everybody, the kids, the staff, everybody’s greeting her.” Arry is a particular help in the school’s special education classrooms. One girl in particular started out the school year terrified of animals, but as she’s gotten to know Arry, she’s come around. “She has done a 180-degree turnaround,” says special education teacher Laura Chaney. “She went from running and hiding from her when she came in, to actually letting Arry eat food out of the palm of her hand.” Arry is also a great motivator for kids to work through difficult tasks. “Now sometimes all it takes is telling the students when a task is completed we can have another visit from Arry,” Chaney says. One parent, Devon Campbell Fuentes, shared on social media that her daughter Chloe had been having extreme anxiety about going into school — running away, hiding and refusing to enter the building, even though she came home happy each day. When time with Arry was offered as a reward for entering school calmly, Chloe “was a completely different kid” that morning, Fuentes reports. “She was calm, happy, and I never saw fear in her little eyes.”

▲ Makenna Luna, an ABC student, was so enthralled with Arry, she got pants decorated with Pomeranian faces.

A student in Perez’s class, 5-year-old Makenna Luna, loves Arry so much that she got pants with a Pomeranian’s face printed all over BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ Tammy Perez, Arry’s owner and handler, is a kindergarten teacher at ABC. She brings Arry to school each day to work with the campus’s kindergarten and pre-K students.

them. Makenna, too, has experienced anxiety around going to school, but says that reading with Arry is her favorite part of the day. When she’s feeling sad or anxious, “she makes me put on my dimples,” Makenna says of Arry. Besides being great for the kids, the therapy dog program was inexpensive to implement, given that Perez used her own dog, whom she chose to put through the therapy dog program herself. The district does have to provide liability insurance, but, “there’s a lot of bang for the buck,” says Northern. “We may look at expanding the program on other campuses.” That’s Perez’s dream as well. She’s currently working to get her newest dog, a toy Australian shepherd named Kodie, certified so that he can trade off with Arry and expose the students to a different temperament and type of dog. She’d loved to see a therapy dog at every campus in Levelland. So far, a counselor at one campus has reached out about getting her dog certified, and Perez is hoping to recruit other volunteers as well. “In the event of a crisis, not just COVID but any kind of crisis, therapy dogs are very well sought out,” Perez says. For Levelland ISD, it’s possible this well-dressed, anxiety-relieving Pomeranian is just the beginning. LEILA KALMBACH is an Austin native, writer and work happiness coach who helps entrepreneurs improve productivity and rekindle their passion for their work.


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▲ Trace Gavina, an ABC student, reads to therapy dog Arry.

▲ Participants in Liberty Hill ISD’s All Girls Considered program work together to create podcasts featuring inspiring, everyday women.


All Girls Considered Podcast places girls at the center of every story

County: : Williamson

by Autumn Rhea Carpenter

2019 enrollment: 4,378


he term “podcasting” entered the collective conversation back in 2004. The digital concept, similar to a radio show, is 16 years old, and some 1.5 million podcasts and 34 million episodes are now in existence, according to PodcastHosting.org. Since 2017, the podcast of 25 girls from Liberty Hill ISD can be counted among those numbers. That’s when Jennifer Dean founded All Girls Considered (AGC) at Leander Middle School. “I wanted to create a space for middle school girls to connect with inspiring, everyday women so that they could see the vast possibilities of what they can accomplish,” Dean says. “The conversations that resulted from these connections led to the girls producing their own podcasts and sharing their stories along the way.”

ESC region: 13 Superintendent: Steven Snell Number of schools: 7

“Since then, AGC has been on a mission to place girl-identifying and non-binary youth at the center of every story. In our community, girls are engaging with diverse stories in imaginative ways. We believe that when girls decide how their stories are told, it creates profound shifts in narrative ownership and power structures, giving them greater agency in determining their futures. And we believe the future starts now.” The AGC chapter at LHJHS launched in December 2019 with a kickoff meeting for girls who were interested in joining. At the time, teachers nominated 40 girls. Today, 25 girls remain committed to the project. “Teachers selected girls who were not normally outgoing in class but showcased a strong point of view based on the work they produced,” says Katie Ann Prescott, an AGC sponsor. “Some girls were more tech savvy and interested in that aspect of podcasting BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


whereas others were focused on meeting and interviewing strong female role models. Other participants were excited about making a difference in the lives of other girls. Some girls wanted to be behind-the-scenes, working through the interview questions and the marketing aspects.” Before COVID-19, LHJHS hosted six group meetings with the goal of producing four podcasts per year. In each of these meetings, group members discussed various topics that corresponded with creating a podcast from start to finish. Each meeting began with a team-building activity that helped build camaraderie and respect among the girls. They discussed their mission and analyzed an AGC podcast episode. The students were divided into teams consisting of three girls and assigned a sponsor: Katie Ann Prescott, Julie Patterson or Amber Dattilo. The sponsors taught mini lessons about the podcast process, focusing ▲ All Girls Considered participants hold regular meetings to discuss potential podcast topics. on topics such as asking good interview questions, using proper email etiquette, brainstorming possible in“Girls noticed that the interview with their teacher was a bit too roterviewees, contacting potential interviewees, learning about podcast botic and needed to be more of a natural conversation,” Prescott says. equipment, and listening to example podcasts. They discussed email “They also recognized how close and how far they needed to be from etiquette and broke down a sample email that girls could send to their the microphone in order for it to clearly pick up their voices. The potential interviewees. The girls completed a mock interview with an girls realized that listening is actually more important than speaking LHJHS staff member; this low-stakes opportunity gave them valuable and that it is important to ask open-ended questions that allow the feedback on the entire podcasting process. conversation to flow smoothly.” So far, AGC has produced podcasts about Williamson County Emergency Management Services Deputy Director Shantelle Brannon, beekeeper and founder of Two Hives Honey Tara Chapman, and Texas’ 26th District Court Judge Donna King. “My favorite part of AGC is researching the people we want to interview. It’s inspiring seeing women who have achieved a lot in their lives,” says LHJHS student and podcast member Monique Achumama. “Before the interview with Mrs. Brannon, we researched what EMS deputies do so we could ask her job-related questions. Gabby [her podcast partner] and I talked to Mrs. Brannon about the COVID-19 pandemic. It was easy talking to her, and now it’s easier for me to communicate with people. I find myself wondering more about people’s backgrounds, what inspires them, and what goals they’re trying to accomplish.” Achumama’s interview happened on the last day before school was released for spring break. Her group had planned to start editing the podcast the week they returned to school. “Our school year switched to online, so we couldn’t edit it in person. Gabby and I had to change our plans, but we still ended up making an amazing podcast,” she says. “That taught me that even if things don’t go as planned, you can still find a way to make something great.” AGC is designed to teach students many lessons in effective communications, including how to actively listen and participate in a conversation. ▲ An All Girls Considered member shares why she participates in the group.


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“AGC is undoubtedly teaching these students how to engage in active listening and facilitate a conversation confidently and intelligently. As they navigate life, these skills will allow them to make the most of

future opportunities, as they will have the confidence to pursue their interests without regard to gender,” says Judge King, a past AGC podcast interviewee. “My AGC experience was fantastic! Two AGS participants, Hannah and Brenna, were prepared with questions that focused on my profession and actually listened to the answers and asked great follow-up questions. I was really impressed with their acuity and recognition that women have not always had the opportunities of our male counterparts and that the hard road has paved the way for endless possibilities for them.” AGC sponsors suggest that school districts interested in launching a chapter should begin by researching the group, purchasing professional equipment and making sure to allow students to lead the program. “We are fortunate to have a dedicated group of teachers that took on this initiative and worked with our girls to make it happen,” says LHJHS principal Travis Motal. “One of my constant goals for our students is to ensure all students have a connection to school. AGC allows our girls to blend social skills, technology, leadership and the community all in one.”

▲ All Girls Considered participants hold a practice interview with LHJHS visual arts teacher Marie Layne.

Prescott adds that learning from the initial challenges LHJHS’s AGC team faced could also help other districts. “Our challenges were coordinating schedules with everyone because all of our girls were involved in multiple activities, so that made it difficult at times, and finding the right equipment to produce the podcasts,” she says. “This made a huge difference in overcoming some initial technology fears.” Another factor potential AGC sponsors must consider: Teachers need to be willing to let the students do the work. “Since we are a girl-led organization, it’s important that the adults are comfortable serving as facilitators, connectors and mentors rather than leaders,” Dean says. “It’s difficult to step back and let girls lead when we’ve been conditioned to do that work ourselves, but we are consistently inspired by the ideas and activism amongst our girls. We do a lot of work to make sure that we’re stepping back when we need to; and, as it turns out, we all end up feeling a bit more hopeful about the future when we do.” AUTUMN RHEA CARPENTER is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon

▲ Students join All Girls Considered for many reasons, including learning more about potential future careers.

◄ During All Girls Considered meetings, students participate in team-building activities.

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▲ Dr. Julia McMains, director of curriculum and federal programs, and Adriana Whitwell, special education coordinator, were part of the team that worked to bring Palacios ISD’s special education department in-house.


A rewarding challenge: the move to in-house special education

County: Matagorda

by Dacia Rivers

2019 enrollment: 1,428


hile providing the best possible education to each and every student is the primary objective of all of Texas’ public school districts, the reality, the challenge is doing so on what is, often, a shoestring budget. This is especially true in small and rural districts, the kind that Dr. Brian Williams calls home.

Dr. Brian Williams


Currently the director of administrative services in Palacios ISD, Williams came to the district three years ago, after working in the East Texas area. Palacios, a district of some 1,400 students, lies on the Gulf Coast between Houston and Corpus Christi. While its relative humidity and coastal breezes denote how

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ESC region: 3 Superintendent: Dr. Missy Glenn Number of schools: 4

geographically diverse Palacios is from East Texas, the coastal district’s size and rural setting make it very similar to the East Texas districts in terms of operations. When Williams arrived in Palacios, the district was part of a countywide special education cooperative, a choice many small and rural districts make to help share the costs of providing these special services. During budget Dr. Missy Glenn discussions, the administrative team of Williams, Superintendent Dr. Missy Glenn, Director of Federal Programs Dr. Julia McMains and Director of Finance Christie Miller began to consider the amount of funding required to continue in the co-op.

“We’re always looking at operating costs and how to make wise use of the funds available to us,” Williams says. “We got to looking into some of the numbers, and one thing that stood out to us was the cost of participating in a co-op for the district each year. We began to explore the costs associated with creating our own in-house special education department to provide equal or better services at a reduced cost to the district. Once we put the pen to the paper we realized the difference was significant.” Williams says the rough estimate for how much the district could save by bringing its special education program in house was approximately $400,000 — a significant savings for a school district of any size. The potential savings led to many questions: Could the district better serve its students by creating its own special education department? Could Palacios do a better job with its available funds if it took special education in-house? The district decided the potential pay-off was worth taking the leap, so a team formed to create a new, in-house special education system, consisting of Glenn, Miller, McMains and Williams. “I have to thank the Palacios Board of Trustees for having the faith to back us on this,” Williams says. “We were able to develop the groundwork for creating our own department, designating Christie Miller someone to supervise that department and beginning to hire to fill the department.” The initial planning started in the fall of 2019, with the hard work ramping up in the beginning of 2020. The first step, and possibly the toughest, took the biggest leap of faith. Palacios had to leave the co-op it’d been a part of for several years. The co-op had done a fine job of educating Palacios’ special education students, and administrators in the district were concerned that leaving the co-op would put some neighboring districts in a difficult situation. “Whenever you come together as a co-op, there are shared expenses,” Williams says. “For 2A, 3A schools, that’s a huge deal sometimes. There was a little bit of concern about creating a burden for some of our neighbors here in Matagorda County.” The district left the co-op with another big challenge looming overhead — would they be able to hire locally for all of the positions that would need to be filled? Palacios would have to go from not staffing any special education positions beyond teachers to staffing numerous professionals: a special education coordinator, diagnosticians, speech language pathologists and more. The district had to find a licensed school psychologist with whom they could contract. They needed to find an occupational therapist available for contract work. The list was significant. Being a rural, isolated district made staffing these specialist positions a challenge. “One of the big hurdles was basically creating this from the ground up,” Williams says. “We had a lot of consultations with lawyers and legal teams to make sure we were following the proper procedures the TEA, U.S. Department of Education and most importantly our families and community expect from us.”

“Right now, based on the feedback we’re getting, we’re moving in the right direction.” — Dr. Brian Williams

Besides the obvious financial benefit, Williams says the district has seen other positive outcomes from making the switch. “We have deeper personal connections with both our students and their parent-guardians,” he says. “We’re no longer operating under a co-op where people travel back and forth to provide services. These are our people, with our students, and our community, and that’s providing a superior level of support.” Williams adds that while there was no issue with the services the coop provided, just having the special education department within the district has been a better experience for those involved. The special education team in the district is able to spend more individual time with students, and it’s easier for them to reach out to parents to check in and see how things are going. In the classroom, special education teachers have seen more participation from students and their parents as well. They feel better connected, knowing that the team serving them is based in the district. “Everybody so far has been complimentary,” Williams says. “Parents and educators say they appreciate that they can get in touch with somebody, that there’s somebody they can call with their concerns, that this is being done locally now.” Williams notes that co-op Palacios used before did a good job, and that no one has mentioned significant changes in the quality of services provided. The driving force behind the move was simply to provide equal or better services at a lower cost, and offer a more personalized experience for students in the district. Since the implementation of the new system, the special education team in Palacios has met every two or three months to have a checkin to see how things are going. Administrators sit down with the coordinator, diagnosticians and everyone involved to see what, if anything, needs to change, what can be done differently, what can be done better. “Right now, based on the feedback we’re getting, we’re moving in the right direction,” Williams says. “One thing we committed to was if we found that at any point we weren’t providing appropriate and reasonable services to our students, we would look at other options. But so far, so good.” Having made the move swiftly and successfully, Williams has some advice for other administrators who might be considering changing from a special education co-op to an in-house department:

As good fortune would have it, the district was able to make the necessary hires, an exciting accomplishment for the development team. They also received help from nearby Bay City ISD, which welcomed Palacios’ adult special education students to participate in the neighboring district’s Bridges Transition program.

“Do your homework. Know what your numbers are. Know what funding you have available. And know the needs of your students. Be open to exploring ideas of ways you may be able to provide those services in-house. And then just have faith and assurance that you’ll be able to hire people to staff those positions.”

In the end, Williams says the district saved about $300,000 by taking its special education department in-house. He says the slight discrepancy in savings was due to the district having to buy its own equipment, including covering costs for some testing kits that used to be shared through the co-op.

Williams adds, “I cannot thank Dr. Glenn, Dr. McMains, Ms. Miller, the Board of Trustees and our community enough for allowing this change. It was very much a team effort and without their help and participation this would have never worked out.”

“It wasn’t as big a savings as we thought, but we feel like, for a school of our size, $300,000 is incredibly significant.”

DACIA RIVERS is editorial director of Texas School Business. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ Students in Pine Tree ISD paint their faces as part of the district’s Day of the Dead celebration.


Day of the Dead program connects students with their cultural roots

County: Gregg

by Dacia Rivers

2019 enrollment: 4,486

ESC region: 7 Superintendent: Steve Clugston Number of schools: 7


estled in the piney woods of Northeast Texas, Pine Tree ISD welcomed Steve Clugston to the superintendency in 2018. One of his top priorities when he took the helm was to better reach the district’s Hispanic students, who make up nearly 36% of enrollment, and get their families more involved in the schools. Clugston shared this goal with Lesly Suarez, who serves as a bilingual parent liaison in the district. If you travel to Mexico anytime during late October or early November, you’re bound to see street corners, shops and churches decorated in celebration of the Day of the Dead. From sugar skulls to bright paper flowers, celebrants use the day to recognize and honor the dead in a cheerful, colorful way. Inspired by this tradition, Suarez decided Pine Tree ISD needed its own Day of the Dead celebration, to


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engage Hispanic students and their families and help them connect with their roots. “There’s a lot of holidays that as Latinos, we don’t celebrate; we usually celebrate whatever the American culture celebrates,” Suarez says. “We kind of forget out Latino roots.” Starting last year, Suarez, working with Claribel Navarro, a bilingual aide in the district, developed a month-long Day of the Dead program. Kicking things off with fifth and sixth graders at Pine Tree Middle School, Suarez invited any interested students to participate. The program revolves around a competition to see which group of students can create the best ofrenda, or altar. To drum up interest in the event’s first year, Suarez built an altar of her own and displayed it

▲ Pine Tree Middle School students pose with the Day of the Dead ofrendas they created.

in the school cafeteria. During each lunch period, she’d make an announcement about the Day of the Dead program and hand out flyers to students who expressed an interest in participating. As part of the program, students meet after school to work in teams, with their friends, to design and create their own altars. “During that whole month, they’re learning a lot about the Hispanic culture,” Suarez says. “It’s a great way for them to get connected with their Hispanic roots, with a holiday they might not be accustomed to celebrating.” The event is open to all middle school students who want to join. Many students who don’t have Hispanic backgrounds also participate in the Day of the Dead program, Suarez says. “I was proud of them because they ventured into unknown territory. We were throwing around lingo, talking in Spanish sometimes. They very much embraced the culture, and they took a lot of pride in it.” Decorating the altars is a hands-on, creative activity. From making flowers out of tissue paper to creating papel picado, tissue paper banners featuring intricate, cut-out designs, students come together after school to work in teams while learning about the history and culture of the holiday. Once the altars are complete and the holiday arrives, Suarez and Navarro hold a celebration, welcoming students and their family members to come and see the designs. In 2019, family members were invited to bring traditional Mexican dishes and join in the festivities. Due to COVID-19, Pine Tree ISD held a scaled-back Day of the Dead event this year, with social distancing and a pause on sharing homecooked foods, but Suarez hopes that in 2021, the event will be able to flourish. “I dream very big, and so I want it to be huge,” Suarez says. “An annual celebration where not just the middle school is involved, but other campuses.” When Suarez had the idea for the Day of the Dead program, she was almost shocked at how quickly the district was on board. Having worked at a university in the past, she says starting up a new project in Pine Tree ISD was refreshingly easy. “I just went to the principal and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” she says. “It seemed like every person I went through, whether one of the assistant superintendents or a principal or vice principal, everybody was supportive, and they made sure to tell me that cost wasn’t an issue.”

“I dream very big, and so I want it to be huge.” — Lesly Suarez

The response from students, families and staff in Pine Tree has been overwhelmingly positive. Suarez says that as soon as school began BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


“Make sure you select a campus where the age group is willing to participate, have fun and bring Mom and Dad.” — Lesly Suarez

this fall, students, parents and even principals approached her to make sure the Day of the Dead celebration would continue. Navarro says that some of the teachers she works with at the elementary school asked if they could also bring their students to the event. It’s her hope that interest will grow in the district to where it will be a multi-campus event in the future. “The bilingual teachers were very excited,” she says. “They wanted to help.” Suarez’s advice for anyone looking to start a similar program in their school district is to not be afraid to ask. “Talk to your superior, because once you have that support, you really can go anywhere.” She also recommends starting at a campus where the students are interested. Initially, Suarez reached out to junior high school kids in Pine Tree ISD, but didn’t get much interest. She found that younger students were easier to get involved at first, and she’s hoping they’ll drive interest across Pine Tree as the event continues. “Make sure you select a campus where the age group is willing to participate, have fun and bring Mom and Dad,” she says. “Then hopefully once the other schools see this one campus did a good job and had fun, then maybe other campuses will be willing to get involved.” DACIA RIVERS is editorial director of Texas School Business.

▲ Students at Pine Tree Middle meet after school, working in groups to design and create their own ofrendas.


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▲ Throckmorton Collegiate ISD’s P-20 Model aims to empower students to take control of their own educations.


P-20 Model prepares all students for what’s ahead

County: Throckmorton ESC region: 9 Superintendent: Michelle Cline

by Bobby Hawthorne


s a first-year teacher, Michelle Cline got stuck with the “rough crowd” — that is, the at-risk kids, the occasional troublemakers, the kids who’d been labeled “flunkies” because they failed their TAKS tests. None of the other teachers wanted these kids, and when they walked into her room for the first time, she wasn’t sure she did, either. “When the 11th and 12 grade boys walked in, towering over me, I wondered for a split second if I was up for the challenge,” Cline says. “A day or two in, getting to scratch the surface of who these students were, I knew I had made the right decision. I was where I was supposed to be.” She also realized, on day three, that these kids were more than the sum of their grades, test scores and attendance records.

2019 enrollment: 147 “When they figured out it was about relationships and mutual respect, those students performed any task I would ask of them,” Cline says. “I’d say to them, ‘Look here, this is the assignment calculus is doing. Y’all are going to do it today, too. We’re going to do it together, and we’re going to be successful.’”

Number of schools: 1

And they were. Her informal geometry kids did the same work as the students in trigonometry. Her TAKS math students blew the top off their TAKS test benchmarks. By the time the spring test rolled around, more than 90% of them passed their math TAKS test. “We were doing those kids such an injustice by labeling them,” says Cline, who is now in her fourth year as superintendent of Throckmorton Collegiate ISD. “They could do so much better if their teachers just believed in them. All kids deserve that. Just because they’re poor or they’re Black or white or purple, it doesn’t matter. They all can perform up to your expectation.” BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ Young students in Throckmorton participate in Montessori-based lessons, in furniture-flexible classrooms.

Throckmorton’s one and only claim to fame is Dallas Cowboys’ legendary defensive tackle Bob Lilly, who grew up there and would have graduated from Throckmorton High in 1957 had it not been for the horrible drought that drove his family to move to northeastern Oregon, where his father found a job driving a bulldozer.

Not only that, they wanted graduates who fit their newly defined Throckmorton learner profile. They wanted students who were college/career ready, lifelong learners and researchers, effective communicators and responsible citizens.

Throckmorton itself is surrounded by ranches, big and small, and its population has dwindled over the past 20 years to just under 800. Of course, school enrollment has shriveled, too, and for a while, the district tottered on the verge of closing, which was unthinkable, given that the kids would have been shipped to Woodson ISD — their archrival.

“Being from East Texas, once I got west of Fort Worth and saw fewer and fewer trees, I knew I was in for a landscape change,” Cline says. “Trees were sparse, but the view was magnificent. I could see for miles and miles, and on my drive over to the interview, I saw wind turbines for the first time. I had to stop and pull over and take pictures. I was mesmerized by them.”

If the town and the school were going to survive as anything more than a convenience store filling station, someone had to come up with something audacious. That someone turned out to be Cline. An East Texan, she was born to be an educator. By the age of 5, she was arranging her dolls in a half circle and teaching them algebra, although she had no idea what algebra was.

They wanted a mover and shaker.

She says she arrived at the school, met the board members and answered all their questions. “Afterwards, I called my husband and told him, ‘This is home. If they don’t offer me the position, I will be shocked.’ They called that night

At Troup High School, she was a mover and shaker. Student council president. Drug Free Youth In Texas president. Drum major. Actor in a one-act play. Yearbook staff. All-State trombone player. Pizza Hut waitress on the weekends. She missed being valedictorian by 0.05 points because the school didn’t count band toward GPA. From there, she whizzed through her undergraduate and graduate degrees, earning her doctorate in educational leadership from Texas A&M Commerce in 2013. She taught briefly, then entered administration, serving as a curriculum director and elementary school principal in West Rusk ISD and then as an assistant superintendent in Fruitvale ISD. After her oldest three children graduated from high school, she began looking for a superintendent’s job and learned that a little town out in West Texas had an opening, so she applied. The board wanted an innovative leader who’d drive the district toward a model that was different and better than what it had been. They wanted someone who’d rally the troops, set lofty goals and craft a plan to obtain those goals. ▲ Teachers in Throckmorton Collegiate ISD design all student projects to be local and tangible.


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around 11:30 and offered. I immediately accepted. The Lord placed me exactly where I was supposed to be.” He put her back in the situation she’d been in as a first-year teacher, where a lot of people thought, “Those poor country kids are never going to college, and they are never going to trade school, either. It’s impossible.” It was possible, but crafting a model that could break the chains of poverty would not be easy. It’d also force everyone to face a harsh truth: A high school diploma doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to. “We knew we had to provide more for our students,” Cline says. “They needed a college degree and an industry certification.” So, she gathered together a group of teachers and administrators who were willing to sacrifice a few sacred cows if that’s what it took to empower students to take control of their own educations, to become lifelong learners, to break the poverty cycle, contribute to the community, and stay there to start their own business, or work from home, even pursue a four-year college degree. And so, they put together what they call their P-20 Model. That means pre-K through four years of college. It consists of nine components: Montessori, Technology Integration, districtwide 4H enrollment, project-based learning, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), Harvard Instructional Rounds, common instructional framework, college/career through earning an associate degree and an industry-based certification. When the program was rolled out two years ago, some teachers recoiled in horror. “We don’t really want students to be sitting in rows,” says counselor Amy Anthony. “We prefer they work in groups, so they can collaborate and bounce ideas off each other.” So, the classroom setups change constantly. “We use tables a lot, especially in elementary,” Anthony says. “Everything is natural wood. We have a lot more floor space so they can work on the floor. If they want to sit on a couch, that’s OK. If they want to sit on the floor, that’s OK. It’s a lot more flexibility, more independence than the traditional six-across and 10-down seating grid.” Were teachers afraid this flexibility might lead to chaos? “Yes,” Anthony says. “We had a bunch leave, but the new ones who came in, bought in. They knew right away that we were different. When we interviewed them, we told them right off that this was our instructional model. ‘How can you help to contribute?’ So, they knew what they were getting into.” As for the veteran teachers who stayed, “They were nervous at first,” Anthony says. “But once they got into it, they’re enjoying teaching a lot more.” For example, in typical years, third graders — with help from first graders — build gardens.

▲ Project-based learning is one component of Throckmorton’s P-20 Model.

For example, does the teacher give the student sufficient time to answer a question. Typically, they don’t. “It should be between 5 to 15 seconds, but we were waiting only 2 to 3 seconds after a question,” Cline says. “Now, we’re up to about 5 to 10 seconds, and then, if the student still doesn’t know the answer, we scaffold. We’ll reword the question or break it into pieces. But we don’t move on until the student has demonstrated mastery.” As for the other components, everything spirals so that by the time students reach high school, they’ll understand how to select a project, map out a plan of attack, collect and organize information, and manage time. All projects are local and tangible: crow count, water recapturing, feral hog control and cow production, for example. “This is one of my favorite aspects of the P-20 Model,” Cline says. “Students are asked to solve problems that are here, right now.” Along the way, they learn study skills, organization skills, how to write a resume and how to prepare for and survive a job interview. “They learn ‘employability,’” Anthony says. “They learn pretty much anything you can think of to be successful after high school. AVID gives all students, regardless for where they come from, the opportunity to be successful in college and careers.” How much parental involvement is required? Not much, Cline says.

“This year, they planted pumpkins, so they’re doing maps, talking about soil composition, seeds, weather, all the things that go along with gardening,” Anthony says. “They have to be able to explain what they’re doing to their teachers and to their community. The self-paced research environment contributes to what we have going on at the upper grades.”

Does the program require greater technology?

As for the Harvard instructional rounds, Cline compares them to the medical TV show, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Today, Throckmorton is a one-to-one district. All high school students have a MacBook, and all junior high kids have a Chromebook.

“Doctors either watch from above or they’ll do rounds within the patients’ rooms, where they’ll diagnose the patient and then talk about the best prognosis for that patient and the best treatment plan,” she says. “Similarly, our teachers go in groups and observe a teacher, but they’re not really observing the teacher. They’re observing the student to see if what the teacher is doing is the best practice.”

Of course, she adds. Did the district already have enough technology? “No,” Anthony says. “But we’re very good at seeking out grants, especially technology grants.”

Has COVID-19 adversely affected the program? No. “Our kids went on like life was normal,” Anthony says. “They took their work home and continued it, and I think it was because of our

▲ The P-20 Model is designed to treat students as individuals, offering them input in creating their own educational paths.

instructional model. We have all these support systems in place. We tested them coming back in early October, and very few exhibited a decline in their learning.”

years for free while in high school. Also, I do not have to take any more basic classes, so I’m able to take classes specific to my major right off the bat.”

The district’s next task is to roll out a bachelor’s degree program.

So, what’s the big takeaway?

“We see students and parents who thought college was only a pipedream become a reality,” Cline says. “We also see some of our students ready to enter the workforce with a high paying, high demand job.”

“We treat every kid as an individual,” Anthony says. “Every kid is talked to. They tell us what they want to do. That’s what we take into consideration when we’re building their education plan. We don’t just fill in the parts because that’s what everyone else does. We are very flexible with our scheduling and how we deliver instruction.”

Ana Sanchez is one of those students. She’s the first in her family to attend college, and she gives full credit to her specific high school pathway, Throckmorton Collegiate. “Before taking the college classes at Throckmorton, I really had no idea what I needed to do or how I was even going to get into college, but Mrs. Anthony was always there whenever I needed help,” Ana says. “She was there for me from start to finish, from picking out a career pathway that would best fit my strengths and interests to filling out and sending off my final paperwork.” She concedes that college is different from high school, regardless. “But, having had the help from all of my teachers made it a lot less intimidating,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it without the collegiate program and all the high school staff.” Two other recent THS grads — Landon Leal and Jackson Spencer — agree. Spencer says his experience with the P-20 instructional model positioned him to become a nationally certified EMT. “For those students who choose to go straight into the workforce, the instructional model helps shape them into hard workers,” he adds. Those who need a technical degree to advance their careers get a big step-up, also. “I would highly recommend the P-20 instructional model to all parents, guardians and students,” he says. “This is an opportunity you do not want to pass up.”

She knows this because it’s her job, but also because she’s the mother of a very active 3-year-old boy. “We were told, ‘This is what you teach, and this is how you need to teach it, and you should be able to get across to everyone,’” she adds. “Well, no. Not every kid can sit in a desk for 30 minutes and remember what he or she’s been told. I knew he was not going to be able to sit at a table all day and color. He actually hates to color.” Montessori has been amazing for him, she adds, because, “He’ll come home and say, ‘I did my job today,’ and then he’ll tell me about what his job was, and what he had to do to finish his job. He really enjoys that.” Cline echoes those sentiments. “Today’s school system can no longer continue as it is and meet the demands of what the workforce is asking us to do,” she says. “We know that a one-child-fits-all model does not work, especially if we hope to break the cycle of generational poverty. We have to individualize and figure out what these students’ interests and sparks are if we are to have any hope of producing citizens who are effective, who have certificates, who are creative, who are researchers, and who are thinkers.” In short, no first-year teachers in Throckmorton Collegiate ISD will ever be stuck with kids no one else wanted. All students will be challenged, every day. They’ll do it together, and they’ll be successful.

Perhaps most importantly, the program saves parents tens of thousands of dollars.

“These days,” Cline says, proudly, “it’s expected that you will go to college if you go to school here.”

“Taking college classes in high school has helped me when it comes to the cost of college and being farther ahead than the other students my age,” Leal says. “Instead of having to pay for all four years of my college education, I only have to pay for two because I completed two

BOBBY HAWTHORNE is the author of “Longhorn Football” and “Home Field,” published by UT Press. In 2005, he retired as director of academics for the University Interscholastic League.

â–˛ David Gonzalez and UISD counselors Maria Guajardo and Rosa Gutierrez share a poster encouraging students to ACT.


Suicide prevention: moving past the stigma

County: Webb

by Dacia Rivers

2019 enrollment: 43,278


rom 2007 to 2018, the rate of suicides among young people between age 10 and 24 increased by more than 57%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents between ages 15 and 19, and for many Texas school districts, those stats have already hit far too close to home.

ESC region: 1 Superintendent: Roberto J. Santos

Number of schools: 48 In United ISD, just north of the Texas/Mexico border at Laredo, losing a student to suicide spurred administrators and counselors in the district to kick off a multifaceted suicide prevention plan. Now 11 years later, that program continues, and, according to folks in the district, has changed the way staff, students and parents in the district address suicide and mental health in general. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


▲ Dr. Scott Poland visited UISD in 2019 to provide suicideprevention training to district staff.

▲ UISD hosts an annual parent training festival, which includes discussions on student mental health.

“We said one death is too many,” says Linda Garza, a licensed specialist in school psychology in the district. “It was important for us to have a standardized protocol for responding and intervening, and I think as a district, we’ve gone above and beyond.”

prevention expert, and he has traveled to the district to provide training to all high school teachers on suicide prevention methods. These teachers receive updated training every year, and the district is working toward providing this training for all teachers at all grade levels.

The first order of business in developing United’s suicide awareness, prevention and intervention program was to create a detailed suicide prevention manual that would delineate a comprehensive approach to identifying and helping students experiencing suicidal ideation. A 40-page document, the manual provides step-by-step details for responding to a student in need, from performing an assessment to communicating with parents and offering help to at-risk students. Each year, psychologists in the district review the manual to keep it up-to-date. There’s even a checklist on how to help a student in distance learning or when campuses are closed, something that’s especially handy due to COVID-19.

Parents of UISD students are also involved in the district’s suicide prevention program. Each year, the district holds a parent training festival, where mental health and suicide prevention are among the topics discussed. Throughout the school year, the district holds numerous additional training opportunities for parents. They’ll host a training session whenever a campus requests one, including during PTA meetings or online via remote sessions. “Those trainings are always filled with parents,” says David Gonzalez, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the district. “There’s multiple going on, and they’re always full.”

Teacher training is another significant part of the prevention program. UISD has partnered with Dr. Scott Poland, a suicide

▲ Counselors and administrators in UISD pose with the suicide prevention hotline cards they give out to students.


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Cynthia Ramirez, UISD’s executive director of special education, was an administrator at one of UISD’s high schools when the program first started, and she says the changes since then have been notable. “The culture has definitely changed; it’s no longer a stigma,” she says. “This program has contributed to an atmosphere of open communication, of students building trust with their counselors, taking care of their friends. I see it at every level.” Gujardo agrees and adds that the program has made a big difference in how well she’s able to do her job. “The students pay attention. They cooperate. And they make us aware of what’s going on,” she says. “It gives them the opportunity to express even more with us. This program has opened a huge door for me.” Ileana Moreno, a licensed specialist in school psychology, says that UISD is one of just nine school districts in the state of Texas with a suicide prevention program in place. “We feel like we’re doing something really positive here,” she says. “We’re having conversations about of course suicide, but also mental health.”

▲ Licensed specialists in school psychology in United ISD include Thelma Cavazos, Ileana Moreno, Linda Garza, Claudia Villarreal and Marilyn Brice.

The district also hosts a parent portal and videos on its website, in an effort to provide as many resources and as much support for its families as possible.

While programs like United’s might be in short supply in Texas’ schools, everyone involved would love to see the district’s mission spread throughout the state. And they’re all open to helping make that dream a reality. “If a district were to reach out to us to help them start a program I’ll tell you right now, every single member, our board of trustees, our superintendent, we’d all invite them to come in,” Gonzalez says. “Because at the end of the day, it’s not just about our students. It’s about every single student.” DACIA RIVERS is editorial director of Texas School Business.

Three years ago, United added a third piece to its program, bringing the entire effort full circle with student involvement. UISD joined the SOS Signs of Suicide program, which provides guidelines and materials for educating students on this sensitive, but important topic. At the beginning of the school year, UISD hosts informational sessions for its students. Counselors in the district serve as captains, while the students watch videos and have a discussion about the realities of suicide. Students receive assessment forms, where they can note if they’re having troubling feelings or if they’re concerned about any of their friends. Counselors then reach out to any students who might be in need within 24 hours of the event. “We saw a lot of students who referred a friend they were worried about,” says Selina Moncivais, a high school counselor in the district. “Had we not had this program, they probably would not have ended up in our offices.” At the event, counselors hand out cards printed with a toll-free crisis line students can call, and Moncivais says she’s been pleased to see how many students keep those cards in their wallets, just in case. Maria Guajardo is a middle school counselor in UISD, and she says the videos provided are appropriately tailored to each age group. “We have to make sure we’re passing on a message to the students that they understand,” Guajardo says. “The videos present real-life scenarios that students can relate to.” Counselors in UISD say this program has changed the culture in the district and has removed the taboo that often keeps people from talking about suicide. “Suicide is kind of taboo, but it’s not something we should keep quiet,” Moncivais says. “Kids need to talk about it.”

▲ United ISD provides suicide prevention resources to parents in English and Spanish. This year’s training sessions were held remotely.

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▲ Art therapy is one method educators in Vidor ISD use in the district’s behavioral health program.


A mental health lifeline for traumatized students


Now in its fourth year, the behavioral health program initially targeted students who went through tough times after the storm. About 400 to 500 of the district’s 4,200 students are involved with the program at any given time, says Sally Andrews, the district’s director of community relations. In Vidor, 67% of students receive free or reduced lunches. The program offers individual and group sessions to students with the goal of providing strategies to help them learn how to handle their emotions and function better in the classroom. Some students are


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ESC region: 5 Superintendent: Dr. Jay Killgo 2019 enrollment: 4,545

by Merri Rosenberg

After Hurricane Harvey flooded two of the district’s seven schools, and three-quarters of the community’s homes and businesses in 2017, Vidor ISD developed an initiative to help students better manage their stress and trauma.

County: Orange

Number of schools: 7

referred to the program by their parents, some by teachers or school psychologists, and some students even refer themselves. The program, which costs $165,000 a year, was initially launched with financial support from the Meadows Mental Health Institute, using funds received from the American Red Cross. Currently the Southeast Texas Emergency Relief Fund and Hancock Whitney Bank provide financial support. Texas Children’s Hospital provided telepsychiatry services, and FirstBooks contributed books. “It’s a blessing to our students and community,” says Superintendent Jay Killgo. “Harvey was tremendously difficult for our district. Once we got past the initial storm, there were still residual effects. Families were still sharing housing, living in substandard housing.

The question was, how do we provide for our students? We wanted to show our students that we love them.” As Amanda Chism, one of the behavioral health specialists, observes: “There were high amounts of stress and trauma. Harvey made it more obvious. Students couldn’t handle it.” Subsequent blows, such as the repeated flooding during Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019, and COVID-19 this year, only exacerbated these issues. Families were evacuated, or moved in with other family members, parents lost their jobs and couldn’t provide emotional support to their children — resulting in kids suffering from PTSD, according to Chism. “When the entire community is traumatized, adults aren’t there as support. Students will say, ‘I don’t want to burden my parents.’” As Devin Wade, a first grade teacher at Vidor Elementary, says, “Some children had damage in their homes after they were flooded with Imelda. They can’t go to sleep, they’re devastated, and still scared.” The behavioral health program, which continued to deliver services to students remotely during the spring’s COVID-19 shutdown, has expanded since its inception to include students who are dealing with other issues, such as a parent’s divorce, unemployment, or displacement from their home. Barbara Butler, a counselor at Vidor Elementary School, says, “It started with the traumatic experience of Harvey. There’s also poverty, and violence, and now COVID. Having someone safe to talk to makes it a nurturing, wonderful experience.” With a focus on offering students techniques and strategies to handle stressful situations, or alter behaviors that are interfering with their ability to learn or manage social interactions, the program is also more palatable to parents.

“The question was, how do we provide for our students? We wanted to show our students that we love them.” — Superintendent Jay Killgo

▲ Behavior health services in Vidor are designed to help students better handle stressful situations. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2020-2021 Texas School Business


emerge in a student’s work, such as angry imagery that might suggest a student’s emotional state. She also provides students with strategies, such as blowing through a straw to regain control if they’re feeling stressed, or doodling in a sketchbook.

▲ Since instituting its behavior health program, Vidor ISD has seen a significant reduction in discipline referrals.

Jannise can’t stop thinking about an 8-year-old in one of her classes. When Jannise worked on her birthday, she brought in a cake to share with her students. One child said, “Nobody’s ever made a cake for me. Why would you do this? Everyone knows we’re the bad kids.”

“Parents may not be open to the idea of therapy, that ‘there’s something wrong,’ instead of being proactive,” says Wade.

Countering that message, and building self-esteem and confidence, is one of the ways Jannise hopes her art therapy works with these students.

So, what kinds of issues might lead to a referral? A child who previously behaved appropriately, but now talks back or out of turn in class could be struggling with issues beyond her control. One student, for example, couldn’t sleep because he didn’t have doors on his room after Hurricane Harvey and was frightened by the shadows he saw on his wall. A student may be unnaturally buoyant, hiding what’s troubling her. Some children in Vidor have been so traumatized by storms that they start crying the minute it rains. Stacey Smith, a third grade teacher at Vidor Elementary School, says she refers students to the program when “the student is having difficulty managing their emotions in the classroom. There might be angry outbursts, or they’re anxious, or having problems getting along with other students.” “Angry outbursts and defiance are red flags,” Butler adds. “It can also be subtle, like kids who are unmotivated.” The behavioral management specialists use a variety of techniques to work with students. Students might play games such as Monopoly, Jenga or Mad Dragons with the specialist, build with Lego or work with squeeze balls, whatever helps manage their uncomfortable emotions or behaviors. “We do a cognitive reframing with students,” Chism says. “The message is, basically, you’re fine. Here’s how to draw boundaries. Parents are going through their own traumatic experiences, and students may take on parents’ emotional dumping. If students have an unhealthy response, I try to give them an alternative. Sometimes kids just want to blow off steam.” For some students, expressing themselves through an art project is more effective. “If you try to start a conversation with a 6-year-old, you get zero, nothing,” says Anastasia Jannise, a working artist for 40 years, who has been with the program since its inception. “Art work starts to relax them. You can say, ‘I really like that color’, and that opens the door to a conversation like, ‘Dad likes this color, but he doesn’t live with us anymore.’” Besides drawing and painting, students can work with watercolors, clay and collages. Jannise looks for consistent themes that may


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The program has clearly provided benefits, ones that can be measured and others that are less tangible. After Hurricane Harvey, there were 2,131 discipline referrals in the district. Last year, there were 900. Fourth grade math and science teacher, Ashley Schexnider, who works at Oak Forest Elementary School, attests to the impact of the program. One of her students who’s on the autism spectrum has problems expressing himself when he’s frustrated. “He’d melt down, scream, cry,” says Schexnider, adding that the student’s home was flooded during Harvey and Imelda. “Since he started going to the program, he could recognize when he was out of control and needed to do something. We didn’t have screaming or loud crying fits as much. He’d come back from art therapy and show his design. It helped with his social skills and gave him a springboard to be social.” “Going to see [one of the counselors] is the best part of their day,” Smith says of her students who are involved in the program. “They enjoy every bit of it. They come back in a good mood, with their coping abilities greatly improved.” For one high school student, the program has made a real difference. In an email, she says, “From crippling anxiety and self-doubt to learning how to control my thoughts and having a better mindset, I’d say Mrs. Amanda Chism, my counselor, did a better job than any counselor that I’ve ever met. She has helped me regain the selfconfidence I lacked. She has also helped me regain my self-esteem. She has honestly helped me through everything I struggled, and still struggle with. “ When students return to class able to participate in activities and regulate their behaviors with their peers and teachers, it makes things easier for everyone. “It gives these kids coping strategies to deal with their issues,” Schexnider says. “I can’t stop my class to teach these kids. This has been so helpful.” Teachers, staff and students hope the behavioral health program remains a distinctive feature in the district. I hope it doesn’t take a catalyst like Harvey to have a program like this,” says Smith. MERRI ROSENBERG is a freelance writer specializing in education issues, based in a northern suburb of New York City.

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