15th Annual Bragging Rights Issue of Texas School Business Magazine

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From the editor


t’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s Bragging Rights time! Welcome to our 15th annual special issue, in which we highlight 12 outstanding programs going on in our Texas public school districts.

This year we received 100 unique entries from across the state, and pored over them to choose what we felt were the most innovative, the most beneficial and the most inspiring programs out there. It’s my hope that reading about these programs does inspire you. I hope you share this issue and that inspiration within and beyond your own district. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working on this special issue, it’s that providing outstanding education to Texas public school students is a team effort, and every administrator is on board. If you read about something in these pages that interests you, I encourage you to reach out to the district. Everyone featured in these pages is eager to pass the word along about the outstanding work they’re doing in their own district. We are all in this together, and as I’ve been told by administrators time and time again: It’s all about the kids.

DACIA RIVERS Editorial Director

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Texas School Business BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022

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

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Congratulations The Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) congratulates the 12 Texas school districts selected for the 15th Annual “Bragging Rights” issue of Texas School Business.

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▲ Instructor Cody McCleary works with CTE students at Athens Middle School.


Middle school opens pathway for eighth graders to skilled trades career options

County: Henderson ESC region: 10 Superintendent: Dr. Janie Sims 2020 enrollment: 3,128

by Autumn Rhea Carpenter


s America continues to face an unprecedented skilled trades labor shortage, the jobs of the future could be the jobs of the past: carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. Skilled trades jobs that often offer higher pay and on-the-job training might be the promising career choices for many people choosing a career path. According to a study conducted between May and June of 2020 by the industrial staffing company PeopleReady, there were 388,345 jobs posted for skilled trades workers — a 50% increase from prepandemic days. Most of the positions remained unfilled for 24 days due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Number of schools: 5

In response to this labor shortage, many schools are offering Career Technical Education (CTE), an education pathway that provides students with the academic, technical and real-world knowledge, skills and experience they need to be prepared for a variety of career options. In 2020, Athens ISD began exploring the possibility of adding CTE courses for Athens Middle School (AMS) eighth graders. The plan was to have students enter high school ready to jump into CTE courses and start earning their certifications faster and earlier than previously possible. The district analyzed which courses were offered at the high school and which instructors at both schools had open spots in their course load. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ An Athens Middle School student works on building a bench in a CTE class.

“In monitoring student requests in CTE programs at the high school level, we noticed the numbers continuing to increase. We conducted an interest inventory at AMS to gauge the level of interest if CTE courses were an option,” says Superintendent Janie Sims. “Knowing that early exposure can often lead to in-demand, high-wage careers, we next had to see if there was enough room in the budget to make this happen. Some of our existing CTE teachers, or other teachers who held certification in a CTE course, had room in their schedules to be able to teach a class. This gave the district an excellent opportunity to pilot a few CTE classes without adding additional staff.” “Our hope in adding CTE classes was to help students find ways to plug in to the school and see their paths more clearly before entering high school,” says AMS Principal Jennifer Risinger. “We offer the traditional band, sports, art and choir but that does not always appeal to all students. In 2020, we were trying to increase


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

elective and club opportunities to help students make meaningful connections to the school.” The middle school level CTE courses include Principles of Construction, Principles of Hospitality and Tourism, and Principles of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR). Ward Wilbanks, AST/CTE director at Athens High School, explains how these courses prepare middle school students for high school. “These classes lay the foundation for more advanced courses that students will take as they progress through their high school careers,” he says. “These classes give a broad overview of the content area but help to guide students into more specialized tracts. For example, Principles of Construction could lead to Construction Technology, HVAC, or Electrical Technology, and Principles of Agriculture could lead to Plant Science, Animal Science or Agriculture Mechanics.”

Principles of Construction is a one-year, eighth-grade course that covers basic shop safety, the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear, how to use hand tools and power tools and how to read a tape measure. Wilbanks says students’ favorite project was building a cedar double chair bench, which required them to follow plans using various hand and power tools. The assignment required the students to read the plans and assemble the bench. They used rough-cut cedar and cut it into the various required lengths. When they finished assembling the bench with screws, they sanded it down with palm sanders to give it a finished look. Two of the benches are now displayed in the middle school’s front office. “We’re trying with my class to grow students’ interest in the construction trade,” says teacher Cody McCleary. “Before you can take HVAC or a construction class or welding, you have to take a basic principles class. Now students can start sooner and have the option to take more classes.” “I’m surprised how fast the program is growing and how excited the students are to learn to build something,” he adds. “They have taught me that even though they are young, when given the opportunity to learn these trade skills, they can perform them just as well as someone who is out of school. This is our second year to offer this course and the enrollment numbers have already doubled to include 20 male students and four female students.” At 15 years old, Diego Pinedo completed the Principles in Construction course and says his favorite project was building a picnic table. “I learned how much work goes into a small project,” he says. “There were a lot of angles to cut, and I learned that even a small angle that isn’t measured right can mess up the whole project.” Pinedo learned how to measure and pay attention to details but mostly he learned about independence. “The hands-on parts of the class gave me confidence and I realized that I was capable of creating on my own. I’ve been working with my dad in construction and the class helped. I can see myself working in construction in the future and maybe even starting my own business.”

“Our hope in adding CTE classes was to help students find ways to plug in to the school and see their paths more clearly before entering high school.”

Student Aaliya Pinedo Ramirez is already thinking about how she can take what she’s learning now and apply it toward a future business. She also says the class is a lot of fun. “We’re learning and doing things for others, and it’s also the most fun thing at school, especially during COVID,” Aaliya says. She plans to sign up for a culinary arts class as a freshman. While tracking students’ careers is difficult after graduation, there are companies that inquire about Athens ISD graduates every year. The district conducts signing days with certain companies in the area. According to Risinger, the CTE classes have been able to integrate into the community by building projects and serving others. Offering CTE courses at the middle school level is an investment in both the students and in the Athens community. “The skills that our students obtain through CTE that give them the ability to find a good job or career is of the greatest importance,” Sims says. “The byproduct of having strong CTE course offerings (and earlier in the education process) is a trained, skilled workforce for the surrounding area. Now, more than ever, skilled workers are needed, and we feel our students will have an edge in obtaining any job because of what we offer them in Athens ISD.” AUTUMN RHEA CARPENTER is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business



BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

▲ Burkburnett ISD’s 18+ Transition Program helps prepare special education students for post-high school careers.


An off-ramp to careers for aging-out special needs students

County: Wichita

by Merri Rosenberg

2020 enrollment: 3,258


About 50 to 60% of the district’s special education population remains with the program until they age out. The district funds the instructional staff and job coaches.

Recognizing that concern, Burkburnett ISD in Wichita County decided to offer an 18+ Transition Program. Launched in 2020, with placements starting last spring, the idea has resonated with the district and community.

Currently there are about four students in this transition program, with two being trained in welding and two already placed in jobs. Students have been selected based on their interests and skills, with these paid positions most successful for higher-functioning students with lowincidence disabilities, Owen says.

Special needs students are eligible to remain in the district, receiving services, until they are 22.

Superintendent: Dr. Brad Owen Number of schools: 7

ew issues matter as much to parents and guardians of special needs students as knowing what will happen once those students graduate from high school.

“We’re always looking for ways to help our students transition out of our high school,” says Brad Owen, superintendent of Burkburnett ISD, with the goal of “moving them toward independence.”

ESC region: 9

“We are focusing on the students who have demonstrated through the regular high school career the type of intensive prerequisite skills training and have needed the ongoing training in the most basic and hands on in the exact BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ A student in Burkburnett ISD works in a school cafeteria as part of the 18+ Transition Program for special needs students.

environment the skills or tasks need to be taught and practiced.” As students are placed in actual jobs, such as working in the cafeteria or student store, they work with job coaches to troubleshoot any issues or offer them specific guidance as they perform their tasks. The district has partnered with Texas Workforce Solutions to pay these students’ salaries and provide them with checking and savings accounts to learn personal financial management skills. Part of the program’s goals is to make sure students understand how to manage a personal budget, handle their own shopping needs, and seek appropriate help from outside agencies once they are no longer students in the district. For 19-year-old Adyson, working in the school store has been an enjoyable and beneficial experience. “It teaches me money skills,” she says. “My boss is really nice. I help people check out.” Owen cites one student who, eager to work in physical education, was assigned to work with an elementary PE teacher. Another student has already earned a level one welding certificate, preparing him for placement with a local welding company. What matters, Owen says, is that the district doesn’t ‘pinhole’ the students into only the “job sites we’ve established.”


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

As Lee Varelman, the Life Skills teacher says, “We let the student drive the show. It’s leading by their interests.” Some students want to work in supermarkets, or in floral shops, and the district is working to find placements. For example, 21-year-old Dora Nelson, initially expressed a desire to work in a restaurant. COVID-19 prevented that. That didn’t stop the district: When the school cafeteria “was shorthanded during COVID, we gave her skills to work in a kitchen,” Varelman says. “We want to give these kids a chance to show their stuff. Our job is to make it happen and to show they have value. It’s all about empowering them.” He adds, “We want to increase their marketable skills and give them a feeling of self-worth and confidence. Our kids want competitive jobs.” Clearly the district’s culture makes it conducive to this kind of initiative. The school community is 30% military, with a nearby base, so “there’s a culture of acceptance,” says Owen. “It’s nothing short of phenomenal. These students are welcomed with open arms. Our students and adults are extremely accepting. Our adults, our teachers, have that heart. It’s all about celebrating these students.”

That attitude is echoed by students in BISD, who he says “are engaging with them, and see it’s really cool for these [special needs] students. There’s a lot of respect. Our adults do a tremendous job at creating opportunities for inclusion all throughout the year. Our special ed students are partnered with peers in academics, athletics and a scavenger hunt. It’s truly remarkable to see the level of inclusion these students receive. Our special ed students are the only ones who get a standing ovation at graduation.” Nelson, who started in the high school cafeteria and recently moved to an elementary school cafeteria, says, “I wanted to help other people. I help get the fruits and veggies ready. I help clear the tables and clear the dishes. When there are apples, I dice fruits in little containers.” Nelson, who had to pass a test to obtain a food handler’s card to work in the cafeteria, is aware of the independence gained from having a paycheck, deposited directly into an account. “I’m really happy I’m helping my family.”

The families also appreciate the transition program and the district’s initiative in providing these opportunities. Cassandra Thompson, Nelson’s guardian, says, “She’s getting stronger and more confident. She tries really hard. I always believed people with special needs can aim high.” Thompson cited a recent trip she and her family took with Nelson, where Nelson “took some of her money for gas and paid for her and her ‘papa’ to go to the water park. I’m so proud of her.” “I’m not going to be around forever,” Thompson says. “This eases my mind.” MERRI ROSENBERG is a freelance writer specializing in educational issues, based in Westchester County, New York. Contact her at merri.rosenberg@ gmail.com.

The help extends in both directions. Program supervisors in the district value these students’ contributions. Deb Welch, director of child nutrition for BISD, has long had experience working with employees with special needs, she says, because of her prior work as a military contractor for the local base. Once she spoke with the special education teacher about ways the student could participate — mindful of reducing physical risk to the student and others — they developed a plan.

“We let the student drive the show. It’s leading by their interests.”

“In food service, they’re doing dishes, wiping tables, doing prep,” Welch says. “My first concern was how will employees take this. They’re very receptive. They’re good with this; at the high school, they all know Dora and she’s very conscientious. She’s learning to make corrections and adapt to change. It’s a good thing for her. It gives her a wider breadth of experience in the real world. I’m very glad they’re doing it.”

▲ Students in the 18+ Transition Program can choose the areas in which they’d like to work, such as assisting teachers in the district. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business



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BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ Students in Flour Bluff ISD’s Sports Information and Marketing Program serve as commentators at district sporting events.


Students take the lead roles in sports information and marketing

County: Nueces

by Bobby Hawthorne

2020 enrollment: 5,751


oby Barrera left the Flour Bluff High School football program after his sophomore year because he realized his chances of playing were next to nil, but he still loved the sport, and so, one day, sitting in his junior English class, he heard an announcement over the PA system. “Interested in being a commentator for the spring football game? If so, contact coach Bob Chapman.” He was more than interested. “I didn’t have any experience with commentating or doing any kind of broadcast,” Koby says. “But I’d just gotten out of football, and I was looking for something to do. I love football. I know football. I can talk about football.” So, he contacted Chapman and served as a color commentator for the spring game. Afterward,

ESC region: 2 Superintendent: Velma Soliz-Garcia Number of schools: 7

Chapman pulled him aside and said, “You did a great job. That was your first time? I can’t believe it.” It would not be his last. Now a senior, Koby’s developed a reporting style that’s as breezy and coherent as anything you’ll find anywhere, and that’s not just on Friday nights. It’s Saturday and Sunday afternoons, too. Like a growing number of Flour Bluff students, he said he’s found his calling via the district’s Sports Information and Marketing Program. Launched in 2018, the program has bulked up from a single class of a dozen or so to two classes that are “bursting at the seams,” according to athletic director and head football coach Chris Steinbruck. The idea grew from the confluence of several independent realities. First, the district public information officer needed help, especially

BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ The Sports Information and Marketing Program involves students in real-world sports marketing experiences.

with the district’s website and social media. Second, the district was paying a private company good money to broadcast athletic events. Third, students were almost desperate for the kinds of experiences a program like this might provide. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be to train the kids and let them handle all this?’” Steinbruck says. “They’re here at school. We could turn it into a class. So, that’s how the ball got rolling.” He recruited Chapman, who was teaching history and coaching soccer, and they enlisted the help of a couple of IT workers to build the district’s website and answer web-related questions. Another person was hired to work with the kids before and after school on everything from news content and live streaming to going to commercial break and back. “The kids took over,” Chapman says. “They were learning by doing and producing a real service. It created a lot of excitement — a lot of school spirit — within the student body, and everybody recognized it.” Senior Xavier Pon was one of the program’s first “celebrities.” He played football as a freshman but suffered a fairly serious injury, so he was searching for something to do. He dabbled in theatre, but, like Koby, his passion remained in sports — especially football — and he wanted to remain as close to the program as possible. “When I got into this about four years ago, I knew I wanted to do play-by-play,” Xavier says. “My mom would get mad at me because I’d constantly turn off the sound on the radio or TV and start commentating on games myself, so the timing was perfect.” Over the past four years, he has put together a repertoire and résumé that will open locker room and press box doors for him down the road. He’s already worked as a statistician in the Astros’ organization, as a live football commentator for a private internetstreaming company, and as a reporter covering girls’ soccer for a local sports radio show.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

Like many of his classmates, Xavier comes from a military family. The Naval Air Station Corpus Christi is 3 1/2 miles from the high school. “Today, we have a pretty good mix of students who are interested in the program even if they’re not particularly interested in sports,” Steinbruck says. “They may want to be in television news or learn technical skills. So, we have kids who come from all corners.” Two last year were foreign exchange students from France. Both were girls. “Being able to stand on the football sidelines during a game basically defined their high school experience,” Chapman says. The key to the program’s success, he adds, has been handing the keys to the kids and allowing them to drive. “We wanted them to take control of the website, social media, the radio broadcasts,” Chapman says. “Five or 10 years ago, adults really weren’t comfortable with having the kids in charge, especially of social media. We were afraid of what they might produce, but what we’ve found is that responsibility empowers them. I can’t stress it enough: Putting the kids in control is big. It takes a lot of faith to let these kids take the reins. I think they may have always been more responsible with social media than we’d given them credit for.” Now, more and more high school activities — and not just sports — are student-led, and that’s generated greater spirit and unity. “As an older teacher and coach, I think I was losing touch with what the kids were following,” Steinbruck says. “I wasn’t sure how to get them excited about things. Today, Instagram is their place. That’s where they go, so we had to go there, too. We had to find ways to connect with them outside of school, to get them excited, to build school spirit, and social media has been the best way we’ve found to get that done.”

▲ Students involved in the Sports Information and Marketing Program are responsible for creating media to promote district athletics.

He said he suspects most schools are experiencing this, and his advice to them is simple: Start small. Have a plan. Identify goals. Accomplish them. Go from there. “Empowering the kids in the Sports Information program and challenging them every day truly fired them up,” he adds. “It was something they could put their own stamp on. Now, we’ve got such a good group, they take it upon themselves to make sure the program is better when they leave than it was when they entered it.”

“Before this, I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” he says. “My dad’s a lawyer, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I figured I’d just major in business. Then, I got into this. Since then, it seems like there’s been a hand on my shoulder, guiding me in this direction. I love it so much. This program has definitely changed the course of my life.” 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.

Of course, it’s hard work. There’s a ton of homework. Compiling stats, memorizing names and digging up records and scores takes time. Sometimes, things go haywire. Five minutes before broadcast, they can get kicked out of an opposing team’s press box and sent scurrying over to the other side of the stadium to set up. Sometimes, cameras don’t work. The internet fails. The audio is corrupted. But then, they’re standing in line at a grocery store or the Black Diamond Oyster Bar, and someone will stop one of them and say, “I saw you on TV. You kids did a great job.” So, what’s the bottom line? “For me, the number one thing is giving the kids the tools to work with, and then trusting them,” Chapman says. “Of course, we couldn’t have done it without the support of our athletic department, administration and IT department. We also partnered with a local radio sports show, but the kids are the key.” It’s also good to know that some of these students have never experienced this kind of success. “I’ll be honest, without this program in their lives, I might be very concerned about some of them,” Steinbruck says. “They’d struggled, but now, they’re in college and experiencing great success. This program has connected them to our school and provided them a path to a successful future. It’s made a huge difference in their lives.”

▲ Students pose while snapping photos at a Flour Bluff ISD athletic event.

Of course, Koby agrees. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ Humble ISD students build tiny homes for veterans through the Big Heroes, Tiny Homes program.


Big heroes, tiny homes by Bobby Hawthorne

County: Harris ESC region: 4 Superintendent: Dr. Elizabeth Fagen 2020 enrollment: 44,952 Number of schools: 46


avid Anderson sleeps safe and sound these days because Al Segura couldn’t sleep one night.

“I was having a restless night,” says Segura, then an assistant principal in Humble ISD. “So, I got up and started scanning through Facebook. I saw that veterans in St. Louis were building tiny homes for homeless veterans, and I thought, ‘Why can’t our students do that?’” The next morning, Segura ran the idea past a fellow administrator, then called a teacher he


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

thought might be interested. Four years later, Anderson — a U.S. Navy veteran who spent 25 months on a combat logistics ship in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm and returned home with PTSD — was handed the key to the front door of a 240-square-foot house he could call his own. Today, Segura leads “Students Helping Veterans: Big Heroes, Tiny Homes,” which has expanded to three of Humble ISD’s six high school campuses. With help from Operation Finally Home, which provides funds via the Lowe’s Foundation, HISD

students have finished five tiny houses for homeless vets and are on schedule to finish three more by the end of May. From the beginning, Segura said, the effort has been driven by two core values: (1) Students run the show. They raise money and solicit donations. They champion the cause, speaking to anyone who asks. They design the home, making decisions about colors and materials and other aesthetics. They build the home — every square inch of it. If there’s a hitch, they iron it out. (2) For homeless vets, it’s a hand up, not a handout. Missi Taylor never set out to teach construction management or architecture engineering, but she lost her part-time job as an architect when the Houston economy went south in 2008, so she took her mom’s advice and contacted Trey Kraemer, who was Humble ISD’s associate superintendent of high schools. As luck would have it, HISD was opening a new high school, Summer Creek, and the Texas Legislature had recently passed House Bill 5, which made it easier for college graduates to acquire alternative teaching certificates. Taylor filled out forms and answered questions and was hired to teach architecture at Summer Creek. She remained there for three years, then transferred to Kingwood Park, where she’s been for the past 10. She was the second person Segura called after his restless night without sleep. No one had to ask her twice, though she knew the job wouldn’t be easy. Money had to be raised and partnerships formed. A job site had to be established. Kids had to be trained. They also had to sell the program to school leaders and the community. Then, they went to work. Taylor said she remembers the terror of watching the first house loaded onto an 18-wheeler to be transported to the Langetree Retreat and Eco Center in Liberty, 56 miles due east. “We watched the forklift pick it up, and the house shook, and it looked like it was going to fall,” she says. “My heart was racing. All

▲ Missi Taylor is a teacher at Kingwood Park and the sponsor of the Big Heroes, Tiny Homes project.

of this money. All of this hard work, and it looked like it was about to crash into the ground. But it didn’t. So, we watched it leave on the 18-wheeler, and we just stood there and said to ourselves, ‘Oh my God, we did it!’” By “we,” she means “my students.” “These kids are passionate about learning and doing and giving,” she says. “Because I’ve taught them every year, I have a good idea of who’s going to be the project leader the next year. I always tell them, it’s like being in an office. You start in an office, and you’re usually the low man on the totem pole, and your work makes you get promoted every year, so by the time you’re a senior, you’re either a leader of the project or you’re a captain of one of the teams.” This year’s team leader is Clark Bennett. He took Taylor’s construction management course only because, “I couldn’t do another class I wanted to do, and this became the class I wanted to do.” So, what’s it like? “I come out here every day and build,” he says. “I’ve learned that I can think of Senior Clark Bennett something, draw it, build it and bring it to life. I’ve also learned I can work with all kinds of people. I can help them to be better at what they’re doing.” What’s it like meeting the recipients of the houses? “It’s interesting, to say the least,” he says. “They’ve gone through a traumatic situation, and they’re like, ‘This is so amazing that you’ve done this for me. Thank you, so much.’ We get a lot of thank-yous.” Putting students like Clark in charge and trusting them is essential, Segura says. “Probably the greatest thing is to put faith and confidence in students because when we first came up with this idea and approached some people about it, there was a lot of skepticism. It was, like, ‘Good idea, but good luck with that.’ But look what we have today.”

▲ HISD students install insulation in a tiny home built for a veteran.

Another of the program’s core goals is to see this effort replicated nationwide. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ Students in HISD have completed construction on five tiny homes for vets thus far, and expect to complete three more by May 2022.

“What’s remarkable is that these kids are doing something for someone they don’t even know.” “It’s always been our vision that this would spread,” Segura says. “And we’re willing to help anyone with anything. We had a lot of unanswered questions when we started, but we didn’t wait for the answers. If you wait, you’ll never get started. We took a leap of faith, and it’s been a matter of everybody helping everybody.” Asked if he cried when he was handed the keys to his new house, Anderson replies, “I’m almost crying now. It’s hard when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or where you’re going to lay your head at night.” Now that he’s been given a hand up, he’s working to plug himself back into the system, connect with the Veterans Administration to deal with lingering PTSD issues, and get back on his feet.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

“What’s remarkable is that these kids are doing something for someone they don’t even know,” Anderson says. “They’re making a tremendous impact that otherwise probably would never be made.” Segura seconds that sentiment. “When the students give them the key to their new front door,” he says, “these veterans go from being homeless to once again having hope.” 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.

▲ Longview ISD partnered with a local Spanish radio station to create an informative program for Spanish-speaking families.


Lobo Live keeps Spanish-speaking families informed

County: Gregg

by James Golsan

2020 enrollment: 8,561


t’s a complicated, challenging time for public education in America. As schools, districts and education professionals are finding their feet after a global pandemic that forced a fundamental reimagining of how education is delivered, they now find themselves at the center of hot-button political controversies such as mask mandates and a debate over diversity, equity and inclusion programs. With so many districts impacted by the tension around these issues, clear communication between school officials and their community has never been more important. In Texas, no one’s doing that better than Longview ISD and their innovative Lobo Live radio program. Like many districts in Texas, Hispanic students comprise the largest share of Longview ISD’s

ESC region: 7 Superintendent: Dr. James Wilcox Number of schools: 14

student body. That means there’s a heavy concentration of Spanish-speaking parents, some of whom speak limited or almost no English. Reaching that population was the challenge Francisco Rojas, Longview ISD’s public information officer, and his community outreach team were tasked with solving. “Our Hispanic student population is nearly 45% [of the total student body]. That means that a majority of those parents are Spanish speakers, and we wanted to come up with a way to communicate with them, and we wanted to do it in a unique way, not just sending letters or emails.” The search for a creative approach to reaching parents led to the genesis of Lobo Live. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ The Lobo Live radio program is designed to keep Spanish-speaking parents informed of goings-on in Longview ISD.

“We thought that doing a radio show would be a great idea, so we started knocking on doors around town and eventually partnered with the local Spanish radio station [Radio Vida, 92.7 FM] here in Longview.”

“The purpose of the show is to keep our families informed on school board decisions. It’s very easy for English-speaking parents to keep up with what’s going on with our school board, but it can be much harder for Spanishspeaking parents.”

Rojas says the radio station was thrilled at the prospect of being able to help Longview ISD connect with their Hispanic constituents, and a partnership was formed. Longview ISD was given a noon time slot every Tuesday and Thursday for what would become Lobo Live, a timeslot that Rojas says is critical to reaching their audience. “Noon is lunch time, and there are a lot of Hispanic folks that listen to the radio during lunch, so it’s a great time to reach our audience.” Lobo Live is 45 minutes to an hour long, depending on how much content there is for a given episode, and is focused on keeping parents apprised of issues and current events in Longview ISD. “The purpose of the show is to keep our families informed on school board decisions. It’s very easy for English-speaking parents to keep up with what’s going on with our school board, but it can be much harder for Spanish-speaking parents. We use the radio show to communicate any decisions that the school board is making, any events or activities happening on campuses that they should be aware of, and any new community resources they should be aware of.” Rojas adds that the community resource piece has become a cornerstone of the show, with a dedicated segment every other Thursday reserved for local nonprofits to come on the air and


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

introduce themselves — along with the resources and services they offer — to Lobo Live listeners. Like any radio show or podcast, Lobo Live is always looking for ways to grow its audience. With the aim of reaching as high a percentage of Longview ISD’s Spanish-speaking parents as possible, Lobo Live has embraced a mixed media approach. “We go live on 92.7, but we also livestream on Longview ISD’s Facebook page. This gives us the opportunity to reach more people.” Rojas adds that one of the ways Lobo Live grows its audience in the livestream environment is by offering prize drawings for gifts donated by local businesses. “How we get more shares is that we tell parents that if they want to participate in the drawing, all they have to do is share the broadcast. That’s a big part of how we get more people listening to Lobo Live.” While the show is currently focused on keeping parents engaged with Longview ISD, Rojas says they might look into running some student-involved segments in the future. “It can be complicated to involve students because the radio show is at noon and they are in school. That said, we are exploring the possibility of bringing Hispanic students who have achieved a scholarship or some other recognition on air to share their successes, maybe within the next school year.”

No matter how they decide to do it, growth opportunities abound for Lobo Live. The show recently gained its first official sponsor in Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, a well-known poultry institution across East and Central Texas. Rojas says the money from the Raising Cane’s sponsorship will be used to create the Raising Cane’s Lobo Live Scholarship, which will support a Spanishspeaking student from Longview’s high school as they pursue their college education. And sponsorship is not the only mark of Lobo Live’s success, per Rojas. “We are very proud to say that the radio show has been recognized nationally. We received an award [from the National School Public Relations Association] in the audio podcast category that several districts around the country applied for. So now in just our first year, we’re able to help a student go to college through our sponsorship from Raising Cane’s, and we’ve received national recognition as well.” To call Lobo Live a success for Longview ISD would be an understatement. Hispanic parents in the community now have an easy-to-access information source on happenings around their district, and in a little over a year on the air, the show, through a sponsorship and accompanying scholarship, has positioned itself to change the life of its students. In the coming years, Lobo Live is sure to grow and change more lives for the better. Now that’s worth bragging about. JAMES GOLSAN is a writer and education professional based in Austin.

▲ Lobo Live is broadcast on FM 92.7 and posted on the district’s Facebook page.

BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ Students in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD migrant education program take an enrichment trip to Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen.


Migrant education program supports mobile students by Dacia Rivers


exas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley is home to a significant migrant population, as farm workers head south to harvest citrus and other crops along the border as the season allows, before moving on to the West Coast and Midwest to do similar work during their respective growing seasons. Many of these migrant workers are parents, meaning their children shuffle from one school district to another during the school year, unenrolling and reenrolling, forever being “the new kid,” unknown to teachers and administrators. In Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, the migrant education program has evolved to support these students, following them even as they leave the


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

Pharr-San JuanAlamo ISD County: Hidalgo ESC region: 1 Superintendent: Dr. Jorge Arredondo 2020 enrollment: 32,403 Number of schools: 43

district so that their educational progress can stay on track. The program, which is mostly federally funded, enrolls students in the program if they have parents who engage in agricultural work that involves traveling with their children, and also has an option for older students who themselves are migrant workers. Jorge Arredondo, superintendent in PSJA ISD, says that before the program existed, some of the most vulnerable students in the district were at an extreme disadvantage. “They were really devastated in terms of what they went through, and having to move,” he says. “They

had to reenroll in other schools that didn’t have their background information. Migrant workers and their kids really suffered because of that mobility.” Now, once those students are enrolled in PSJA ISD, the district serves as a home base for them. Teachers and administrators keep extensive records on migrant students’ academic progress and needs, communicating with any districts these students travel to so they can reengage in their new schools quickly and effectively. “We stay in contact, and we get text messages and calls from other states,” says Yolanda Gomez, migrant education program director in the district. “We collaborate with other districts to make sure the students continue and have that connectivity to instruction no matter where they’re at.” In the past, switching school districts during the school year often meant students would wind up in a new place only to wait for a few weeks while their new schools figured out which classes might best suit them. PSJA’s migrant education program aims to prevent that, in part by preparing withdrawal packets for students to take with them to their new schools. “We serve as a conduit, a liaison, to make sure we advocate for them,” Arredondo says. “And then we provide support during that time, because we know they will come back to us.” Currently, 639 students are enrolled in the district’s migrant education program. Arredondo says that COVID-19 and environmental challenges hit these students hard, with many

▲ Currently, 639 students are enrolled in PSJA ISD’s migrant education program.

▲ The Alamo Library welcomes PSJA migrant education students for enrichment activities. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


families losing access to their regular employment opportunities. PSJA stepped up to offer assistance to these students. When classes went remote, the district was able to give each student a laptop to use for continuing their education. PSJA ISD has also been able to provide students with devices and hotspots that they can use even when traveling to and enrolling in other school districts. “Some of our most vulnerable students were devastated by what they went through and having to move,” Arredondo says. “We have wraparound services that the department looked at in terms of seeing if they had issues with electricity and water bills. We were able to do that because we know students cannot focus on education when they’re worried about where food is going to come from or having shelter.” Gomez says that assessing traveling students has been challenging in the past, but in her time in the district she has watched these students’ performance-based assessments and test results improve, with some outperforming their non-migrant peers. “Our schools are doing a great job, our principals are doing a great job, and our teachers are constantly in communication,” she says. “I believe it’s all of those collaborative efforts that have helped our students make progress and close achievement gaps.” Arredondo agrees, and credits leadership at the school board and campus levels as well for supporting the initiative, stating that the district has both trustees and principals who themselves came from migrant-working families. “At the same time, we know for that cycle to end, we have to give everything we can to their children, so they can receive that quality education,” he says. To this end, the district provides dual-credit and dual-language classes, to best prepare PSJA ISD students for the future. The migrant education program is not new to the district, but it’s always expanding and evolving, changing to meet students’ unique needs. Recently, the program added a social and emotional learning piece to the program, so that a traveling student’s new school not only receives information on that student’s performance, but on any attendance, intervention or discipline needs.

“These are hard-working families. They’re doing everything they can. They came here for a better future for their children.”

Teachers will include notes about classroom methods they’ve found that best reach a student. With these detailed notes, a student’s new teachers and principal are prepared before the student even sets foot on their campus. It’s a collaborative, comprehensive program that provides next-level support to students who were often overlooked in the past. “Everything can happen if we do it together,” Gomez says. “It really takes a village.” For Arredondo, the program is an investment in the community — a move to aid in the pursuit of happiness, for everyone. “We’ve heard the adage about how a student’s zip code should not dictate what quality of services they should get,” he says. “I would go even further to say that neither should their family circumstances. These are hard-working families. They’re doing everything they can. They came here for a better future for their children. We want to bring that multi-generation prosperity to these children and their parents.” DACIA RIVERS is editorial director of Texas School Business.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

▲ High school students in Port Neches-Groves ISD can return to elementary classrooms to serve in the district’s Practicum in Education and Training program.


Training the next generation of teachers

County: : Jefferson ESC region: 5 Superintendent: Dr. Mike Gonzales

By Leila Kalmbach


f you’re a student at Port Neches-Groves High School, there’s one honor that stands out among all the others: getting sent back to elementary school. It’s all part of the district’s Practicum in Education and Training, a teaching and training program in which high school seniors are chosen to act as peer tutors in pre-K to fifth grade classrooms — usually at the very same school they attended. “These high school students come in and model for [the younger students] how they’re supposed to act, how they’re supposed to talk,” says Superintendent Mike Gonzales. “The kids just soak it up.” The program, which is a two-credit course that lasts the full school year, starts with three weeks of classroom instruction. There, students learn about

2020 enrollment: 5,179 Number of schools: 11 the teaching profession and get a crash course in everything from theories of development and school policy and laws, to classroom management, curriculum and lesson planning, and teaching diverse learners. For the rest of the year, with the exception of a few additional instructional days when they’d normally be off school, students spend five days a week, 90 minutes a day helping their assigned classroom teacher. They create bulletin boards, read books to the class, give spelling tests, set up centers, teach lessons, facilitate learning games and more. “They’re given the flexibility and the freedom to leave school every day, and yet they show up where they’re supposed to go and do what they’re supposed to be doing,” says peer tutor teacher BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ High school students can get a firsthand look at what a teaching career might look like in PNGISD.

Cortnie Schexnaider, who has been with the program for 10 years. “They really take it very seriously.”

“I have learned that every one of those kids that I’m with has something else going on in their lives. Knowing that, it helps me to properly understand and help each of them.”

Each year, between 80 and 120 students apply for the program — the district has fewer than 5,300 students — and only 45-60 get accepted. The ones who do are carefully vetted to ensure they have excellent attendance and conduct, and can serve as role models to younger students. They’re required to sign a contract related to expectations of behavior. They’re also required to have a driver’s license and their own car so that they can drive to and from the elementary schools. The program is a way for students to test teaching as a career path. Some sign up for fun and end up becoming teachers; others discover teaching is not the right fit for them. Peer tutors who successfully complete the program and one additional credit hour of an education training course have the option of earning an Educational Aide I certification at the end. Then, if they attend one of three local colleges, they can be hired as a substitute teacher in PNGISD while earning their degree. “Not all of them decide to be teachers, but they may be parents one day,” says Schexnaider. “So getting to see child development and growth, I think it helps them from a future parent’s perspective.” There are other benefits as well. Students learn job skills such as time management, responsibility, commitment and problemsolving. The program also gives students a greater appreciation for their own teachers at the high school, and all that goes into their lesson planning.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

For peer tutor Lorey Guidry, who has wanted to be a teacher for the past five years, being in the program helped her decide which grade she wanted to teach. It also helped her learn to relate to kids in a way that sitting in a classroom never could. “I have learned that every one of those kids that I’m with has something else going on in their lives,” she says. “Knowing that, it helps me to properly understand and help each of them.” At first, Lorey says, the kids didn’t pay much attention to her when she walked into their classroom. Now, every time she walks in, the kids wave and get huge smiles on their faces. When she leaves, they give her hugs. “It’s just such a good feeling to know that when I’m there I make their day better,” she says. The elementary students get attached to their peer tutors. Many peer tutors receive invites to children’s birthday parties, T-ball games and more — and they show up. At a recent rivalry football game, one child painted “I love my peer tutor” on her legs. “They really look up to them,” Gonzales says. “And our peer tutors see this. It makes them feel more valuable.” The peer tutors get attached to their students as well, and often go out of their way to help them. Some have brought class sets of Valentine’s cards for students who couldn’t afford to give out cards to their classmates, for example. The effects of the peer tutoring program last well beyond the tutors’ one year in the classroom, says peer tutor teacher Schexnaider. The program has been in the district for more than two decades, and many of today’s peer tutors were inspired to apply for the program after their own experiences with peer tutoring in elementary school.

▲ High school students work in pre-K to fifth grade classrooms through the teacher-training program.

“They tell you [their former peer tutors’] names, they know what activities they were involved in,” Schexnaider says. “So they look up to them for a very long time.” This year, 63 teachers in the district requested to be a part of the program, and only 50 students were accepted. To accommodate them all, Schexnaider flips students’ assignments to cover all the bases. It’s a big compliment to the kids, she says. If the students were irresponsible, disruptive or weren’t showing up, it would be impossible to find teachers willing to host them. “Instead,” she says, “they’re fighting over them.” Schexnaider’s favorite part of the program is seeing her former students return as colleagues. This year alone, she had seven former peer tutors go into education and get hired back within the district.

▲ Through the program, high schoolers can explore the possibility of a future career in education.

“That’s the most rewarding,” she says, “to show up to a new teacher in-service at the beginning of the year and see some familiar faces, and to know that because of this program they’ve made a decision to teach.” LEILA KALMBACH is a freelance writer and habits coach for solopreneurs.

BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business



I AM CÉSAR. I AM ADVANCED ACADEMICS. I PERSISTED. Hispanic | First Generation Immigrant | Native Spanish Speaker

I AM KLER. I AM ADVANCED ACADEMICS. JOIN ME. Hispanic | First Generation Immigrant | Native Spanish Speaker

Vietnamese | Public Servant | Leader | Artist

See your school counselor to find the advanced academic plan for you. Meet Aihan

See your school counselor to find the advanced academic plan for you. Meet César

See your school counselor to find the advanced academic plan for you. Meet Kler

▲ In Round Rock ISD, the district invited underrepresented students to serve as academic ambassadors, encouraging more of their peers to join them in advanced-level classes.


Equal access to advanced courses helps all students succeed by Dacia Rivers

Round Rock ISD County: Williamson ESC region: 13 Superintendent: Dr. Hafedh Azaiez 2020 enrollment: 50,748 Number of schools: 56


ccording to The Education Trust, across the country, Black students make up 15% of eighth graders, but only 10% of the eighth graders enrolled in algebra. Latino students make up 28% of eighth graders but they are just 18% of the students in the advanced math course. At the high school level, 15% of students are Black, but just 9% of Black students are enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement course. Latino students make up nearly 25% of high schoolers, but only 21% of them are enrolled in AP courses. In Round Rock ISD, north of Austin, the district saw these discrepancies among its own students, and administrators decided that something needed to change. Since math skills tend to have the biggest impact on student success in college


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

and beyond, that’s where they started, about three years ago. Through work with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity, administrators at the middle school level learned that their messaging and the way students enrolled in advanced math courses were causing inadvertent road blocks, especially for students of color. Lynda Garringer, principal of Hopewell Middle School, said the biggest obstruction for these students had to do with a lack of parent education. Parents in the district were trusting the process and going with the flow, and schools had stringent requirements in place for getting into advanced math courses. Garringer decided to get rid of these gatekeepers and go in a whole new direction.

“We had processes that were excluding students,” Garringer says. “Once we realized that, we wanted to do away with it.” Everyone working at the Hopewell campus went through training for implicit bias and equity coaching. The area superintendent and curriculum director worked with teachers, coaching them on how to ensure they were using equitable practices in their classrooms. Teachers were trained on data-driven instruction, learning how to look at where students are struggling and then working with that data to make sure all students are successful. With staff trained and on-board, Garringer moved on to address the parent education component. RRISD middle schools held multiple parent information meetings at all of the elementary schools that feed into their campuses, so parents could meet with middle school principals. At these meetings, staff started the conversation about the effects that accelerated math courses can have on students’ college successes. To ensure that every family could attend, staff held meetings at different times during the day, to provide availability to families with different work schedules. They held meetings in Spanish. At these meetings, they invited parents to sign up their students for advanced math, with no testing requirements, no hurdles to jump. “They basically said, ‘You tell us yes, they’re in,’” says Lora Darden, executive director of future readiness in the district. “Then they did a really intentional job of making sure the teachers and instructional coaches had the strategies to back it up. They’ve taken care of everybody.”


Garringer says that the schools examined the past assessment data for students who opted in. If they needed a little extra help, they were invited to attend a summer math camp to help get them up to speed before classes began. Within three years, most of which have occurred during the disruption of a global pandemic, RRISD has seen the benefits. Garringer says that Hopewell has doubled the number of underrepresented students taking advanced math at the school. She believes that at the end of the school year, the school’s STAAR results will reflect the improvement. She has good reason to be hopeful — thus far on common assessments, underrepresented students in advanced classes are performing just as well as their counterparts. Due to the success at the middle school level, high schools in RRISD jumped on board about a year ago, changing the way students sign up for advanced classes. Through a partnership with Harvard University, doctoral student Danielle Duarte, now a doctor, came to the district to spend a year studying, learning and working with administrators to help increase access to advanced academics. Rather than deciding the adults in the room knew what was best, administrators started interviewing students, asking them why they took a particular class, or why they didn’t. They invited underrepresented students who were already enrolled in advanced classes to serve as academic ambassadors, helping to encourage their peers to take advantage of the advanced courses as well.

I AM JEFFREY. I AM ADVANCED ACADEMICS. BE READY. Black | Gamer | Programmer | Volunteer

See your school counselor to find the advanced academic plan for you. Meet Brielle

See your school counselor to find the advanced academic plan for you. Meet Jeffrey

BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


“We learned that kids would really appreciate it if they could be placed in a classroom where there are other students who look like they do,” Darden says. “It’s not easy to be the only kid who looks like you, to have teachers who look nothing like you and don’t have that same lived and shared experience. We need diversity.” At one RRISD high school, administrators pulled the academic records for any student who had an 80 or higher for several years in a row in a certain content area, and invited that student to enroll in a class that would earn them college credit. Teachers, counselors and administrators called these families at home, offering the advanced coursework option. Darden says more than half of those students said “yes” to the change. Out of that group, only two students have since decided to drop the advanced class.

I AM KENNEDY. I AM ADVANCED ACADEMICS. I BELONG. African American| Academic Scholar | Creative Writer

See your school counselor to find the advanced academic plan for you. Meet Kennedy

“It’s not easy to be the only kid who looks like you, to have teachers who look nothing like you and don’t have that same lived and shared experience.”

The movement is expanding to other schools in the district. One school is planning to hold student breakfast meetings, inviting underrepresented students who show academic strengths to learn more about the benefits of taking advanced classes and earning dual credit. RRISD’s student ambassadors serve as mentors to these students, helping them navigate the advanced courses. “The teachers work with small groups, but the peers work together to help each other so they can all be successful,” Garringer says. “Kids are going to need more support in these classes, and with the right support, they can have the same access to opportunities as their peers. What we are passionate about is that students from any background should have the same opportunities when it comes to education. We’re a public education institution, and that’s our job.” For other school districts that are trying to increase underrepresented students’ access to advanced courses, Durden and Garringer both suggest starting with the teachers and parents. “You can’t just throw teachers into it,” Garringer says. “There has to be some work done on growing the mindset of the teachers. We’ve seen a fabulous turnaround in a lot of our staff members, not only from the training and the research that we shared with them, but through the student growth they’ve seen in their classrooms.” Garringer believes that RRISD’s parent information nights were crucial to the success seen in the district. By making personal connections, she has also been able to provide follow-through and support to students as they adjust to advanced courses. “When students would come into my office and say, ‘It’s too hard, just put me in on-level,’ I’d give them the ‘why’ behind it,” she says. “Usually they leave my office saying, ‘OK, I can do this.’ That’s when the growth happens.” Darden notes that advanced classrooms have instructional coaches in addition to teachers for added support, something she feels makes a huge difference. “Being able to have that second set of eyes, teachers feel really supported,” she says. “The projects that we’ve worked on, and this is Dr. Duarte’s term, but they were coined ‘safe to fail,’ because no matter what we learned, even if the project doesn’t go the way you think it’s going to go, you will learn important things. You will be better off than where you were when you started.” DACIA RIVERS is editorial director of Texas School Business.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

▲ A counseling room awaits students at South San Antonio ISD’s CARE Zone.


CARE Zone brings wraparound support to San Antonio’s south side by Dacia Rivers

South San Antonio ISD County: Bexar ESC region: 20 Superintendent: Dr. Marc Puig 2020 enrollment: 8,527


school district is often the backbone of its community, not only providing a basic education to students, but supporting families whenever possible. In South San Antonio ISD, they’ve taken that role to new heights. In 2019, a group of high school students in the district addressed the school board, voicing their concerns about mental wellness not just in their neighborhood, but across the city and beyond. The district jumped to action, and two years later, the CARE Zone is up and running, providing mental health and wellness services to students, families and faculty in the district. Housed in a building on the Athens Elementary School campus, the CARE Zone is home to numerous mini programs — a one-stop shop for

Number of schools: 16 support. Full-time counselors have offices in the building — cozy rooms with comfortable seating, calming lighting and various age-appropriate toys and comfort items. Through a partnership with the San Antonio Mobile Wellness Collaborative, these counselors are available free of charge to families and staff in the district. On-campus counselors can refer students to CARE Zone counselors. SSAISD staff can refer themselves to the counselors through a confidential system that ensures their doing so is private. Mobile support is also available, and counselors will travel to meet students and their families at individual campuses when necessary. For many folks living in South San Antonio, this is BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ The CARE Zone is home to a satellite location of local thrift shop San Antonio Threads.

the first time mental health support has been available in their neighborhood. “You’re not going to see many LPCs or psychiatrists on the south side of San Antonio,” says Charlie Gallardo, director of guidance and counseling in the district. “We’re a lot closer to our families.”

“The CARE Zone is the first of its kind in the nation. And they’ve brought a collection of counselors here who love kids, understand our population and are making a dramatic difference.”

Well-appointed meeting rooms at the CARE Zone function as spaces for bereavement groups, substance abuse and intervention meetings and evening GED and ESL programs. Also housed in the building are a food pantry and a satellite location of the San Antonio Threads thrift store. Families in need can visit the food pantry by appointment to pick up groceries. The thrift store provides brand-new clothing to students in need. Before COVID-19, and hopefully again soon, students could come in to try on new clothes, many for the first time in their lives, and take home name-brand pants, shirts, shoes, backpacks and more. “It’s good for the kids to come, it’s enjoyable,” Gallardo says. “Some of our students only go to thrift stores or get hand-me-downs from their older brothers or sisters, so it’s a great sight to see.” During COVID-19 restrictions, the CARE Zone didn’t stop providing services. Counseling sessions went virtual, and San Antonio Threads loaded up backpacks with clothing and delivered them to students’ campuses. Another program housed at the CARE Zone is called Baby Paws. Through a collaboration with Texas A&M UniversitySan Antonio, the district hosts events where education students meet with parents of early education students who might have unique needs. The program serves to help these new parents and


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

▲ The CARE Zone welcomes students, staff and families in South San Antonio ISD.

▲ Through the Baby Paws program, SSAISD connects education students with the district’s newest families.

the district understand what services might benefit these students as they enter the classroom.

doctor’s visit is, what, 50, 60, 80 bucks, if you have insurance? We’re saving our families not just in the travel, but with the payment as well.”

Whatever the community might need, the CARE Zone is ready to make it happen. The building holds monthly vaccine clinics, and recently provided 98 COVID-19 and 28 flu shots to community members. “The CARE Zone is the first of its kind in the nation,” says Marc Puig, superintendent in SSAISD. “And they’ve brought a collection of counselors here who love kids, understand our population and are making a dramatic difference.” Ron Flores is the lead licensed social worker at the CARE Zone, and says that feedback from the South San Antonio community has been great. “Our families have been in the community for several generations,” he says. “We’re part of those families now. And it’s easier for them, distance wise, but also culturally, it’s easier for our families to engage us in the process.”

While the CARE Zone might be the first of its kind in the country, Flores, Gallardo and Puig all agree that any district could implement a similar program and benefit. At just two years old, the effort is already being recognized in the community and beyond. “I would give this advice to any school district that’s considering this sort of endeavor: You can’t think small. Think big, think positive, and think forward,” Puig says. “This really is filling a need for this community, and it’s a wonderful, hardworking, familyoriented, blue-collar community. And they deserve this so much.” DACIA RIVERS is editorial director of Texas School Business.

It’s clear the CARE Zone is a true community-supporting installation. The idea came from the minds of SSAISD students. The hallways are lined with murals painted on-site by middle school art students. In the thrift store, shop class students from SSAISD high schools built dressing rooms that rival any you’d find in a mall department store. “This was a student-led innovation in mental health services,” says Puig. “It goes beyond awareness. It goes beyond erasing the stigma of mental illness. This speaks to doing, to taking action, igniting action in our students and in our community to make a difference in the kids who are the most fragile.” Staff at the CARE Zone are right to be proud of the gem they’ve created for their community. But for them, the recognition isn’t about patting themselves on the backs. It’s about getting the word out, so they can continue to meet the needs of students and their families. “We want to always do better, do more,” Flores says. “It’s all based on student needs. The well-being of our students is what’s important to us at every level.” While there have been costs associated with creating and running the CARE Zone, Gallardo says they’re negligible considering the support the district is able to provide. “The cost of the program is not anywhere near the services we’re providing our students, families and teachers,” he says. “Just a

▲ The CARE Zone is home to a food pantry, where SSAISD families can pick up donated staple goods. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ Students in Sunray Collegiate ISD participate in a culinary arts CTE program.


Preparing rural students for the jobs of the future by James Golsan


lections and voting rights are at the center of the American political discourse in 2021. There is more controversy around the subject than at any other time in our lives, and while those engaged in the debate have adopted a wide range of opinions on the subject, something all sides agree on is that voting is hugely important. If you ever doubt that, look no further than Sunray Collegiate ISD, where a single vote on a local bond changed the course of education in the district, and perhaps the course of the entire community as well. “Sunray ISD is a small, rural school district up here in the Panhandle,” says Superintendent Marshall Harrison. “When I got here, enrollment was declining, and the town itself was declining too.” The decline was not something the SCISD school board was willing to take lightly. Harrison, who


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

Sunray Collegiate ISD County: Moore ESC region: 16 Superintendent: Marshall Harrison 2020 enrollment: 559

had experience working in larger districts prior to his time at Sunray, says the board’s willingness to look at innovative ways to improve the educational offerings in their district “blew him away.” “In the summer of 2017, there was a workshop conducted, and the board asked, ‘Why can’t we be a premier district in all areas?’ As an experienced superintendent, I saw an opportunity to make hay,” Harrison says with a laugh. He credits that workshop with the start of a major culture shift in SCISD. Following the 86th Texas Legislature’s passing of HB 3, a major education overhaul with an emphasis on (among other things) improving Career and Technical Education (CTE) access in the state, Harrison and the board decided it was time for SCISD to become a leading district in the CTE space.

Number of schools: 3

▲ SCISD staff, students and families attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new childcare facility.

“So, in 2019, we called a bond to build a 9.5 million career and technical education facility,” Harrison says. The cutting edge facility would include two 7,000 square-foot workshops, an embryo lab, a drone facility, facilities for training certified nurses assistants, a daycare center, and a cosmetology lab, among other CTE training facilities. It was an ambitious undertaking, and something Harrison calls “totally out of the norm” in rural Texas education. He knew getting the bond passed would be challenging, and it was. Ultimately, it came down to the vote of a single citizen. ▲ SCISD’s new CTE facility will host numerous programs including workshops, an embryo lab, a drone facility and more.

“Our district covers two counties; Moore County [where the bulk of SCISD is physically located] and Sherman County. The bond failed in Moore County, but when the 17 votes we got in Sherman County came in, that pushed us over the line.” The bond remained controversial among local citizens even after passage, but Harrison says he sees people warming to the project even as the primary CTE facility is still under construction (it stands to be completed during the summer of 2022). A big part of that can likely be credited to the early success of SCISD’s conversion to a “1 to 1” education model, which has allowed the district to offer multiple CTE curriculums prior to completion of the facility. “We have four associate degree pathways now in association with Amarillo College and Frank Phillips College; we have a vet on staff; we have two corporate embryo partners, and we just signed an agronomy partnership with a subsidiary of Arthur DanielsMidland for the next 10 years.” The dividends this 1:1 model will pay for SCISD are nothing short of staggering. According to Harrison, within three years, 100% of graduating seniors will leave high school with an industryrecognized credential, and between 30 and 40% will have completed an associate degree by the time they graduate, all at no cost to the students. As good as those projections sound, the changes SCISD has already made are making an impression in the region and beyond. District enrollment is no longer on the decline, and has in fact grown substantially in the last few years.

▲ SCISD students work with veterinarian Scott Snyder as part of the district’s CTE program.

“What’s happened since 2017 is that our enrollment has climbed BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ CTE offerings in SCISD include cosmetology courses.

▲ SCISD students display student-led research projects at a district-wide showcase.

almost 140 students, and there’s not a house available for sale here. There’s even a guy talking about building 15 new homes in the area right now. We’re at the point now that we’re adding a bus route in town,” Harrison says, and adds that the district is on the verge of calling another bond in May 2022 because the enrollment growth has been so substantial that Sunray’s elementary campus has run out of classroom space. SCISD’s commitment to a 1:1, CTE-centric model has proven to be of huge benefit to the district and community alike, but according to Harrison, the real winners of this approach to elementary and secondary education are the students. “Seventy percent of students in every high school in Texas have no idea what they want to do when they graduate. In rural Texas, that’s killing our communities, and our economy too. If we don’t start training our kids for a life outside of school in rural Texas, we’re going to end up with a very small number of kids who make it to the upper class, and a much bigger group of kids who will be in the lower class with no skills when they graduate. There will be no middle class.”

▲ SCISD’s middle school robotics team poses with some of their equipment.

With the gains SCISD has seen as a district, and as a community, since Harrison was able to implement this 1:1 approach, it’s easy to see that the district is doing right by their students, and that parents are noticing. The school district has become an education leader in Texas’ Panhandle, and the state writ large. With one fewer vote in a local bond election, none of it would have been possible. JAMES GOLSAN is a writer and education professional based in Austin.

▲ Brad Lindsey of Ovitra Biotechnology poses with CTE Director Cody McDowell and veterinatian Scott Snyder.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

▲ Members of the Sunray Teacher Academy, along with Harrison and board president Scott Peeples, hold a meeting with Reps. Dan Huberty and Four Price.

▲ Weatherford ISD’s BESST program serves to identify and respond to students in need of emotional and social support.


Mental health Is the BESST place to start

County: Parker

by Leila Kalmbach

2020 enrollment: 8,074


our years ago, if a student missed a week of school in Weatherford ISD, it’s possible no one in the district would’ve known why. After all, students miss school all the time: they get sick, they have family emergencies, they go on vacation. But there was another reason that students were sometimes missing several days of class in a row,

ESC region: 11 Superintendent: Dr. Beau Rees Number of schools: 10 says Racheal Rife, coordinator of social-emotional supports and former executive director of instructional support for the district — days spent at an inpatient mental health facility following a suicidal outcry or other mental health crisis. “There’s still quite a stigma around mental health issues, and so sometimes nobody knew,” Rife says. After returning to school, those students would BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ The BESST team is made up of trained professionals on each of the district’s 11 campuses.

The team is composed of professionals throughout the district’s 11 campuses who are specially trained to respond to students in need of tier two and three emotional and social supports. The team includes Rife; the executive director of college, career and counseling; four secondary crisis intervention counselors; an elementary and a secondary behavior and social emotional (BASE) classroom teacher; an elementary crisis intervention counselor; a behavior analyst; and a paraprofessional. In the 2020-21 school year alone, the team made more than 7,000 student contacts and more than 2,300 parent contacts. They also conducted and managed 45 threat assessments and 183 suicide assessments.

▲ Counselors work one on one with students in WISD’s BESST program.

continue to struggle. Their grades would drop. They would have extreme anxiety. And because the school had no idea, they couldn’t help. The school also couldn’t educate kids whose mental health needs weren’t being met. “If I can’t self-regulate, if I’m not okay emotionally and mentally, I can’t learn anything,” Rife says. “I’m not going to learn to read, I’m not going to learn any academics.” That’s what prompted the district to start their Behavior, Emotional, Social Support Team, or BESST, now in its fourth year.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

Exactly what support BESST offers varies by student. Some need just a few minutes with a crisis counselor, while others need high-touch, ongoing support. The team creates transition plans for students in crisis and trains staff and passes along the plan so that when the students reenter the classroom, they’re more likely to be successful. They do frequent reentry circles with kids. The team has also established Hope Squads on their secondary campuses, or students who are trained in suicide prevention strategies. “It’s layered, wraparound supports that we can provide at different levels of need for our students,” says Kady Donaghey, executive director of college, career and counseling for the district. These days, Donaghey spends about 40% of her work hours on counseling and other BESST duties. “Students just face so many different challenges now than they used to,” she says. “And especially, living through a pandemic has definitely impacted some of the students, so we’re seeing some of those fears, some of those challenges they see on a regular basis.”

For sixth to 12th graders, any student who leaves school to go to a mental health facility or who does a long stint in an alternative placement for behavior concerns will transition back to school through a BASE classroom. There, students receive half-day counseling and half-day academics to catch them back up to their peers. Around 175 to 200 of Weatherford’s 8,000 students received this level of support last school year. For pre-K to fifth grade students, the team focuses on trauma counseling and helping students develop the skills they need to succeed in school. “We were seeing lots of young kids, 4- and 5-year-olds, coming into school not having school-ready skills,” says Rife. “So these were kids who had really experienced trauma in their life for whatever reason. And what we know from research is that trauma for young kids really impacts brain development.” The students were in constant fight-or-flight mode, which meant they were unable to learn. One of the first steps the team took was to take all administrative duties away from elementary school counselors — these counselors no longer do any 504 meetings or testing, just counseling. “You have to have all hands on deck,” Rife says. “You have to have people whose sole responsibility is to go in, stabilize the kid, figure out what’s going on with this kid, what does this kid need to be successful in school.” The district funds the BESST program locally, and also uses some of their federal dollars to support it. It’s clear that the investment has paid huge dividends. Today, the district’s data has shown that students who otherwise would not have been able to graduate have been put back on a path of success in school. But statistics are one thing; the real-life impact of the program plays out one student at a time. District Superintendent Beau Rees describes a situation last spring where BESST was working with a student, and through that work discovered that his younger brother was having some unrelated issues that needed to be addressed as well.

“Having mental health concerns or issues is no different than getting the flu or being diabetic. And we’re going to have supports in place for you no matter what.”

“He had not made an outcry and hadn’t really been seen as needing support,” Rees says. “They were able to intervene early, head off some issues, and help a sibling before their behaviors escalated.” To Rees, it’s moments like that that prove the program is helping — not just individuals, but families. For other districts interested in adopting a similar program, Rees recommends evaluating the district’s goals against how they’re currently reaching out to students in crisis. Districts must be willing to increase the number of counselors on staff, he says, and change the role they’re playing to help students and families. He invites districts to reach out to him for information and resources. Changing the response to mental health crises in Weatherford ISD didn’t happen overnight. The first two years of the program, much of the team’s work involved getting the message out to the community that the district cared about the mental health and social well-being of kids. They had to change school culture. These days, Weatherford students know: “Having mental health concerns or issues is no different than getting the flu or being diabetic,” said Rife. “And we’re going to have supports in place for you no matter what.” LEILA KALMBACH is a freelance writer and habits coach for solopreneurs.

BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ The Wildcat Resource Center in Willis ISD provides clothing and other helpful items to families in need.


Taking care of their own by Merri Rosenberg

County: Montgomery ESC region: 6 Superintendent: Dr. Tim Harkrider 2020 enrollment: 7,813 Number of schools: 11


ith its well organized displays of shoes, attractive circular carousels of jackets and carefully laid out tables of toiletries, the space could rival a Target or other department store. Bins hold school supplies and backpacks, shelves are lined with tempting toys, and an entire room is devoted to pristine jeweland pastel-tone prom dresses. Welcome to the Wildkat Resource Center (WRC), a program offered by Willis ISD to help families meet their needs for clothing, shoes and supplies when facing financial struggles or other challenges. School district employees and their families can also use the center’s resources. In Willis ISD, a community about 45 miles north of Houston with an enrollment of about 8,400


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

students, the poverty rate of 60.7% reflects a compelling need to offer families some additional assistance. “If families have fallen on hard times, it’s there to support you, to get you on your feet,” says Willis Superintendent Tim Harkrider. “It’s not a government handout.” Nor is it charity. Besides providing tangible items, such as clothing and toiletries, the WRC is about restoring dignity and respect. “Sometimes people are at the lowest of lows,” says Kindra Schiffner, the district outreach liaison who runs the WRC, which offers shopping by appointment. “The last thing I want is for them to feel like they’re getting trash. I want them to

have a feeling of acceptance and dignity. I decided I wanted a very clean, organized facility. It’s set up like a department store, where people will come in and see clean stuff and great stuff. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.”

year. Students can also select new undergarments every other month, and family members can receive two outfits per month. Participating families also receive hygiene kits each month.

Needing assistance, she adds, “can happen to anybody.”

One parent in the district who has four children currently attending schools, says the ability to supply her children with items from the WRC means “we can pay other bills. It helps me.” Though she and her husband are both working, the pandemic affected the family income negatively. This mother also likes that it’s “clean and nice, and like walking into a department store. Kindra greets you with a smile. She goes above and beyond. It’s amazing.”

“Kindra’s perspective is that when people come to ask for help, some have never asked before,” Harkrider adds. Kelly Locke, the director of guidance and counseling in Willis ISD, says there is a step-by-step process that covers numerous potential needs the WRC can address. Families can fill out an assistance request form; when there’s a request for clothing, it will be sent on to Schiffner. Teachers who are aware of a student’s family circumstance will also reach out directly to counseling staff. And if there’s a crisis for a local family — a lightning strike that burned down a home, a job loss because COVID-19 impacted a parent’s ability to work, or the death of a parent — chances are good that Schiffner has already received a text. “We keep each other in the loop,” says Locke. “Everyone is connected. There are referrals from all over.” She adds, “Kindra wants to uphold the dignity of the family. Some of the families come in when the kids are in school, and Kindra helps them select some things for the kids. She has such a service heart.” The system works on the honor code — no one checks for financial need. The staff keeps a record of when clients visit and what items they receive. Each child can choose two outfits a month, a pair of shoes and jacket each semester, and a backpack stuffed with needed school supplies at the start of the school

The benefits are undeniable.

While there are seasonal pushes to provide for holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, Harkrider adds, “People have needs throughout the year. Kids have needs for clothing throughout the year. Life can change — there was a family who lost their home to a fire, and the counselors got in touch with Kindra.” The school district supports the center with a budget line, although local businesses and churches as well as individual members also contribute funds and supplies, such as backpacks. It’s a community with a “giving heart,” says Harkrider. One donor, Audra W. Hoegemeyer, says one benefit of the center and how it works is that “the need is immediately addressed as best it can be. There’s not a lot of red tape or waiting time. The resource center, and Kindra help ease the burden on counselors and schools and help those families that need a little extra help.” Schiffner, who is herself a parent in the district, was originally hired in November 2019 to revamp the center. A previous incarnation of the center hadn’t been aligned with district needs,

▲ The WRC is maintained to provide a helpful, clean and supportive environment. BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business


▲ WISD families can visit the WRC to pick up clothing, shoes, backpacks and hygiene items.

“Sometimes people are at the lowest of lows. The last thing I want is for them to feel like they’re getting trash. I want them to have a feeling of acceptance and dignity.”

▲ The WRC includes a formal room, offering dressier clothing appropriate for prom or homecoming.

as it attracted many county residents who had no connection to the schools. The district leadership thought it was time for a reboot, to be sure the center was truly serving the school community. The center is housed in the district’s original high school building, which more recently was used as the district’s central administration building. Schiffner had experience running an online boutique. Plus, Schiffner says, she has “always loved shopping.” The WRC offers other benefits, Harkrider says. The center gives students a chance to help members of their community. “It’s the first time some of them have volunteered,” he says. “It’s a great lesson. It’s good for the students.” The WRC certainly made a difference to a former Willis ISD employee who has three grandchildren attending school in the district. She accompanied the children to the shopping appointment their mother had set up. When one of the girls realized that some of the students volunteering at the center were classmates, Schiffner immediately sent the students to a back room and provided a completely private shopping experience. “I had tears in my eyes,” the grandmother says. “It never occurred to me that they would be embarrassed.” She was grateful her grandchildren were able to select shoes, tops and bottoms without feeling judged. As Locke says, “Wildkats, we take care of ourselves.” MERRI ROSENBERG is a freelance writer specializing in educational issues, based in Westchester County, New York. Contact her at merri.rosenberg@ gmail.com.


BRAGGING RIGHTS 2021-2022 Texas School Business

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