From the desk of Dr. Kirk Lewis

Updates from the Superintendent


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A Lesson Indelibly Learned

The two boys had a history of feuds, fusses and fights between them. In the calm of the moment before class started and while the teacher was in the hallway, an insult was hurled, followed a nanosecond later by one desk and then another. The two young men were at it again. Punches were being thrown as the rest of us scattered to get away from the flailing fists and flying books, pens and desks tossed aside in the heat of battle.  While startling in its intensity, it was no surprise that another fight had broken out between them. 

Before any of us could scramble through the mess to separate them, Doyle Watts, our U. S. Government teacher ran into the room, quickly assessed the situation and charged through the spectators and the mess to pull the two boys apart. Mr. Watts was an incredibly laid back teacher. In four years of high school, I had never seen him lose it. At that moment, his face flushed in anger. He pulled the boys out of the room and toward the office, a far more impressive display of outrage than the fight itself.

As he got to the door with each boy deflecting blame toward the other, Mr. Watts stopped and glared at them, pushing them rather roughly, I thought, into two nearby desks that somehow remained upright in the fight.

Suddenly, he began asking us the rest of us who had started the fight and why we had done nothing to stop it. He threatened the class to tell no one about the fight, especially not the principal. Mr. Watts confessed that he had been written up for his classroom management and would hold us responsible if he lost his job over this. Before the next 30 minutes were finished, he had us scared to death and in complete legal mode. Those who saw nothing were sent out of the classroom of potential jurors. Actual witnesses were sequestered. “Attorneys” were appointed to represent the students involved in the fight. For the next week, we engaged in a civics lesson to end all civics lessons.

At the end of the week, the jurors, some of them in tears, had determined guilt. They rendered a verdict and made a decision on who would be punished and how severely.

As you might guess, the fight was staged, the entire week an unforgettable lesson in government for a group of kids who had never seen the inside of a courtroom. The actors in his play, the two boys who were in the fight, deserved an Oscar for their performance and Mr. Watts deserved Teacher of the Year. I learned more about the legal process and trial by jury through this staged activity (approved by the principal) than I would have ever learned from reading the chapter and listening to a lecture.

I doubt that we could get away with such shenanigans today with cell phone cameras, texting, Facebook and media hype. While creativity like this might get some unwarranted attention these days, I know that our classrooms today are full of amazing teachers that find creative ways to teach and inspire our students, as did Mr. Watts.

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week. I wanted to take a quick moment to thank Mr. Watts, who taught me U.S. Government 41 years ago in that small Texas Panhandle community. A special thanks also to the 3,638 teachers who work their magic each day in Pasadena ISD on behalf of our students. You are simply the best at what you do.

(Just in case you’re interested. I served as an attorney four decades ago. My client lost. It was an inglorious and short-lived legal career.)


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Running the Reds

The flashing red lights of the bus had been blinking for 15 seconds. The side-arm stop sign had been deployed. Students exited the school bus excited about the beginning of the school day and eager to get to campus to see their friends. Not all of them were paying close attention. As the children were preparing to cross the street under the “safety” of the red lights of the bus, three cars whizzed around the stationary bus. Two seconds later and the students would have been walking in the path of danger.

Several weeks ago, the Pasadena ISD Transportation Department embarked on a three-day study to count the number of vehicles that “ran the reds” on the more than 250 buses crisscrossing the district on any given day. Approximately 150 buses filed a report each day of that three-day period.  An average of 641 vehicles failed to stop as required by law when the red lights were flashing.  The red lights flash when the bus is loading or unloading children at a bus stop. Think of the number of children and young people placed at risk when we disregard the reds.

We may be late for work or trying to make an urgent appointment, but please consider the risk to the lives of the children. Being somewhere a minute earlier will never be worth the death or injury of a child or the impact that accident might have on your own life.

Please watch for the flashing red lights of your neighborhood school bus. We will monitor the violations again in a few weeks. It’s my hope that this awareness and a reminder will convince all of us to think twice before passing a school bus under protection of the reds. Approximately 17,000 students ride Pasadena ISD buses every day. I’m asking for your help in keeping our children safe.


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Lessons Learned

For many adults, our fondest memories of high school tend to revolve around the activities in which we were involved and the scores of relationships developed with friends and teachers along the way.  I know students today feel the same way. Students who choose to disconnect miss out on so much, not only while in school, but afterwards when the truths we learned through those activities and relationships became life lessons.

That is one reason why I enjoy attending events like the Pasadena ISD Athletic Hall of Fame Banquet or the various high school Hall of Honor receptions. When I get a chance to visit with alumni of any of our schools, I usually hear stories about how a coach, teacher or custodian said and did things that taught them how to live.

At the recent Athletic Hall of Fame Banquet we heard Gawain Guy, one of Dobie’s track stars in the 1980s, talk about the life lessons learned from his coach and fellow Hall of Fame inductee, John Blake, lessons that still influence him today.  As important as it is to teach the academics, we know we also teach by example…in the way we live and act. It is a glorious and grave responsibility.

                                                                                                                                                 

Special thanks to the community for supporting the Pasadena ISD Athletic Hall of Fame and attending this special event. Thanks to the inductees who stand as examples of success, commitment and dedication and who share such profound words of wisdom with the students who attend the ceremony.

When our students connect with their schools through their participation in school activities, they learn lessons that last a lifetime. How grateful we are when these same individuals take the time to share those positive messages with today’s students! Thanks also to all the great teachers and staff in Pasadena ISD who are teaching the same life lessons to today’s students.


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Exiting the Ivory Tower

When you spend most of your career in school administration as I have, there is an ever-present danger of settling into an ivory tower existence. If you’re not careful, you look out your window and tend to see the world with a skewed perspective. Though I make an effort to avoid this trap, I’m sure there are times I fail.

It seems to me that the best way to keep from losing perspective is to listen. I enjoy my conversations with community members, parents and staff. The conversations are not always easy, but most are relevant, thought-provoking and instructive.

I also take great joy in visiting with our students. The Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council (SSAC), meets three times a year and is composed of eight students from each of the district’s five high schools. That organization has operated for more than 25 years. I’ve attended almost every meeting for the past quarter century. The format is a simple one: We engage in conversation.

The students are polite, respectful, engaged, funny and brutally honest. Some topics never change with the passage of time. We always talk about dress codes, school start times and cafeteria food.

Sometimes, we ask for their input on ideas we have for new programs or policies. They have a way of cutting through the rhetoric and seeing the flaws in what we thought was a perfect plan. Their suggestions typically improve the educational experience in our district. They push us. Some of our most recent strategic initiatives in technology, counseling and college readiness evolved as a result of this group of young people.

These students make a difference in our district as representatives of the entire student population. I have grown to value their input and deeply enjoy the relationships we build. They represent all that is good about our young people.

I’m grateful that the conversations I share with these students draw me out of the ivory tower and into their world.


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Just the Facts

Those of you who are near my age will remember the television show Dragnet. Sgt. Joe Friday, in a clipped, monotone voice would try to cut through the fog of information by saying, “Just the facts, sir.”

I feel much the same way each legislative session when I hear politicians speak about removing the cap on charter schools to allow unlimited expansion. The refrain has always been that charter school competition will make public schools better. Without a doubt, there are some very good charter schools. They are meeting a need for some students that have fallen through the system in public schools. Traditional schools have had to step up our game to serve all students better than we did in the past. I believe most districts have done that.

Let’s look at few facts as provided by the Texas Sunset Advisory Board:

  • The percentage of charter schools rated Academically Unacceptable is almost double the percentage found in traditional public schools (11.2 percent for charters and 5.9 percent for public schools).
  • The percentage of charter school operators who fail the state’s financial accountability standards in 2012 was six times more than public school districts (13.1 percent to 2 percent)
  • Charter schools represent 71 percent of the campuses facing state sanctions, yet their numbers comprise only 17 percent of the total public school campuses in Texas.
  • More than 50 charter schools have been rated academically unacceptable for 3 plus years and one campus has been academically unacceptable for 7 years, percentages far higher than those seen in traditional public schools.

The debate continues in Austin about expanding the charter options, despite no research that shows they are doing a better job, as a rule, than most traditional schools and despite a very uneven playing field of rules and regulations. I am not advocating an end to the experiment with charter schools. However, I encourage you to let your legislators know that continued operation of a poor performing charter schools is a drain on a financially strapped system.

I have to admit, I needed a break. After a few days of wrestling with the district budget and responding to a host of legislative issues, I carved out some time to spend with students and teachers at Genoa Elementary School and Rick Schneider Middle School. Getting a little face time in our schools is like that first taste of coconut pie after six months on a diet. Sweet!

Dr. Lewis and Schneider Intermediate Students

Dr. Lewis and Schneider Middle School Students

As parents and members of our community, I wish you could have witnessed what I saw. The teachers were delivering meaningful instruction and the vast majority of students were completely engaged in learning. One class that had been actively involved in an assignment groaned out loud when the bell rang. They didn’t want the class to end.

I visited one class in the hall as they returned from the library. We talked about the joy of reading. They shared the great books they had read and those they were about to read. They readily asked questions and listened with polite attentiveness and eager excitement.

Lately, we have heard some negative opinions about public education as people push hidden agendas. Certainly,  we have areas in need of improvement within the system. One can always find a few students lacking daily, necessary motivation. However, the majority of students we serve from pre-kindergarten through high school dream big dreams and desire to be successful. Our task is to clear the obstacles from their paths.

My encounters with the teachers and students were quick today, but the exposure put a long-lasting smile on my face and an extra zip in my step. Armed with that shot of educational adrenaline, bring on the budget.

 


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Lost in the Rhetoric

I realize that public school funding will always be political issue no matter how much I wish it were about Texas children.  Truth gets lost or, at a minimum, skewed in the political rhetoric. In the recent school finance lawsuit, the judge declared the system of funding public education as unconstitutional, inequitable, inadequate and unsuitable to meet the standards set by the state. In response, a statement from the Governor’s office cited statistics to propose that the state had done more than its share to support public education. The release from the Governor’s office this week suggested that public education funding had increased 70 percent since 2002 at a time when public school enrollment increased just 23 percent.

The Governor is accurate in broad terms, but stops short of sharing the entire picture. The Legislative Budget Board showed an expenditure of $10.9 billion in state spending for public education in 2002 and $18.9 billion spent in 2012, a 73 percent increase. Enrollment did increase a little over 20 percent or by approximately 900,000 students statewide. However, and this is a BIG however, the Governor’s numbers have several critical omissions.

First, when you adjust the budget numbers for inflation, the total state spending gets reduced to 20 percent. Using 2004 dollars, state spending increased from $11.8 to $14.2, far less than the 70 percent the Governor reported, but roughly equal to the increase in enrollment. Even this is only a part of the story.

Second, and this is a key point, in its big push to reduce local property taxes for public schools, the state cut $7 billion in local property taxes in favor of new state business taxes, thereby shifting local funds to state funds. The Governor counts this $7 billion per year as additional state funding infused into the system even though did not increase the amount of total funding to local school districts. The net impact was a simple transfer of equal funds from one source to another.

When inflation and the tax transfer are factored into the state spending claims for 2012, the numbers show an adjusted state expenditure of $8.2 billion, or 25 percent less than the $10.9 spent in 2002. That’s a significant difference at a time when the state’s academic standards for college and readiness have been significantly increased.

The state has needs and finite resources. However, finding the resources to provide equitable and adequate funding for the children ought to be its top priority.

I invite you to read an article by Scott Milder, Friends of Texas Public Schools. Other articles that may interest you on this topic: Legislation after the Ruling , School Finance Resources.