From the desk of Dr. Kirk Lewis

Updates from the Superintendent


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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.


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Creating Academic Choices

The student’s sense of frustration was evident in the letter he wrote to me asking for clarification on the state’s graduation requirements. The current system requires four years of math, science, English and social studies (4 years in 4 subjects…4 x 4) if a student in Texas wants to enter a four-year state university. The intent of the state’s 4 x 4 provision fell under a tag of “college readiness.” The law suggests that one cannot be “college ready” without successfully completing the 4 x 4 requirements and earning a Texas Recommended diploma. If a student does not complete the 4 x 4 requirement, the student falls to a Texas Minimum Diploma, with negative connotations attached to it that demean the student’s work while in high school.

Before I suggest that now is the time for change, let me first share that I believe in high expectations and academic rigor for every student. There was a time when far too few of our students were considering a college education. I believe we have changed that culture. Given the high level of poverty in our school community, far more of our students that one might expect now know they are capable of college work. I also want to ensure that every possible pathway to a four-year university education is available to all our students through expanded Advanced Placement and Dual Credit offerings. With more than 3,100 AP tests taken last year (up from just 400 only a few years ago) and new Dual Credit opportunities expanding at each high school, I believe we’ve started down a successful path.

However, not every high school graduate desires or needs a university degree. In addition, our local businesses and industries need a wide-ranging work force to fill employment needs including high school graduates, holders of job certificates and associate’s degrees, as well as those with university diplomas.

That’s why I believe the proposed legislative changes offered by Sen. Dan Patrick and Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock offer flexibility in graduation plans that address the varied needs of our students and our communities. Their proposals, though slightly different, call for four years of English, three years each of math and social studies and two years of science. Most of the remaining 26 credits are essentially elective courses that allow students to dig more deeply into their personal career interests to earn “endorsements” in business/industry, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), public services and arts/humanities.

There are those who will suggest that the change from the 4 x 4 requirement is a retreat in rigor. It’s hard to argue that point; however, when the number and type of proposed credits in Patrick’s and Aycock’s bills match what the University of Texas and other Texas state universities require of their out-of-state students.  In other words, we allow out-of-state students a more diverse path to university study than we do our own Texas children. Something about that feels wrong.

Students and parents are growing frustrated with the restrictive nature of the Recommended and Distinguished graduation plans. Whether or not you feel the course requirements need to change, now would be a good time to contact your legislators. The bills are being discussed now in Austin.

The young man who wrote me was going to have to sacrifice earning a Recommended Diploma because he wanted to substitute some rigorous high school courses for the fourth year of math and science he was being forced to take…courses that would mean little toward his chosen profession. It just seems to me that he ought to have that option without affecting his future.


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A Case for Flexibility

As we reflect upon our life achievements, it may be that graduating from high school would stand as our first significant accomplishment. The focus on what a high school diploma means has evolved over the years. When I graduated high school in 1972 B.C. (Before Computers), that little piece of paper meant only that I had met the requirements for graduation from high school. It did not reflect my readiness for college or career training. The assumption was that if I wished to attend college, I’d prove my readiness by scoring highly enough on the SAT/ACT and subsequently by passing the college curriculum. The proof was in the pudding, in my ability to make the grade. Today, a Recommended or Distinguished high school diploma is supposed to mean a graduate is college ready.

At the heart of a debate swirling through the legislative halls in Austin today is the idea that not every student desires to be prepped for a four-year college experience, nor does every community need that level of proficiency for the job market that sustains its local economic growth. As Shakespeare might say, “There’s the rub.” The conflict in philosophy depends on whether your company needs engineers or welders, whether your community is supported solely by high-tech industries or a mixed employment environment like Pasadena that requires four-year degrees and/or certifications and associates degrees.

There is absolutely no question that public education needs to push toward more rigor in preparing our students for the university experience. Too many of us in the past were unprepared for the challenges of college curriculum. It is a commitment Pasadena ISD made eight years ago with Expectation Graduation. However, there is no question that students need scheduling flexibility allowing allows them to gravitate toward career interests that match their dreams and ambitions.

New graduation plans are being discussed in Austin. These plans propose a Foundation high school diploma with multiple endorsements in a number of fields of study…in essence a high school major…rather than the Minimum, Recommended or Distinguish Diploma Plans currently in place. A Foundation diploma would indicate that students have demonstrated they are college or career ready. The Foundation diploma gives students more options for a satisfying life and career.  The proposals offered by Sen. Dan Patrick, Sen. Kel Seliger, Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, Rep. John Davis and others deserve serious consideration by the Texas Legislature. 

Any plan that offers increased flexibility is a positive move for our students, for the Pasadena community and for the State of Texas.


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A Question of School Safety

School safety rose to the top of the Texas legislative agenda in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Connecticut. That tragedy represents any community’s worst nightmare. Several bills have been filed in Austin to address additional safety and security measures. Pasadena ISD has voluntarily implemented many safety measures over the years. Most everyone knows we have a 32-member certified police force with officers stationed at every high school every day. Other members of the team patrol our elementary, middle and intermediate campuses regularly. These officers are highly trained, well-equipped and coordinate their emergency plans very well with the outstanding local law enforcement agencies in Pasadena, South Houston, Houston and Harris County.

To keep our kids and staff safe, the District has policies in place for hosting visitors on campus. The district has been creating security vestibules on our campuses; these require visitors to first enter the office. Our campuses use a visitor check-in system, security cameras, and metal detectors when necessary to monitor access to the school. Schools also conduct regular emergency drills, including lock-down drills.

There are bills pending that would allow districts to arm teachers either on a voluntary basis or by assigning specific individuals on campus to carry a weapon. In all honesty, I struggle with that idea and don’t believe it is the best solution for added security. I believe I would rather have additional trained officers to provide a more rapid response to any emergency. That being said, I’d love to hear from parents and community members. Please feel free to share your opinions on the subject.

While the solutions to this very serious issue may vary, the concern for student safety is one we all share. Let me hear from you.


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Thanking Our Board of Trustees

January is National School Board Recognition Month and it would be insensitive to let the month pass without extending a word of appreciation to the seven-member Board of Trustees for Pasadena ISD. Though diverse in their backgrounds and their opinions, they never fail to put the children first in every decision they make. Their knowledge, insight, wisdom and common sense contribute to every success we have as a school district.

Serving on a school board is often a thankless task. The multitude of meetings, the critical conversations and difficult decisions make the work taxing in the best of times. However, those who serve as school trustees across our state, those who serve with no other agenda than making the best decisions on behalf of the students and staff they serve, find intense joy in the work.

On behalf of the Pasadena ISD staff and students, I want to encourage you to express your appreciation to the volunteer work of our Board of Trustees. Next time you see  Marshall Kendrick, Jack Bailey, Fred Roberts, Mariselle Quijano-Lerma, Vickie Morgan, Jerry Speer or Nelda Sullivan, please let them know you appreciate their devotion to our children. Pasadena ISD is blessed to have them as leaders in our community and our district. I truly believe there is no better board in Texas or in any district in the United States.


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Bring Reason to State Testing

The pressure of high stakes testing on students, parents, teachers and principals hit its boiling point over the past year.  Once the legislators heard from enough parents, many representatives and senators began proposing changes to the accountability system that would reduce the number of tests a student must take and change how those tests will count toward graduation.  Any change would be welcomed relief.

Currently, students are tested every year from third grade to eighth grade. The students take end-of-course exams while in high school in all of the core academic subjects. Success on these exams is required for graduation. It is a cumbersome and complicated system that few understand.

Most of the proposals out of Austin reduce testing to grades 3, 5 and 8, in reading and math. Writing, science and social studies would be offered possible in 4th and 7th grades only. There has been some discussion of reducing the required number of end-of-course exams and simplifying how those tests will impact graduation.

Schools should be accountable to the community for the success of every student we serve. However, standardized tests should not be the only measure of student success. Eliminating the emphasis on a single test will certainly take some of the pressure off our students and our teachers.

We will keep you posted as the proposals develop. Let us know if you have specific concerns or questions about the plans for testing.


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The State Has Needs

The Texas Legislature has its work cut out for itself in the legislative session that just convened. The optimists among us grin because the Comptroller says the state has $8.8 billion in unanticipated revenue available to the legislature and a very healthy “rainy day” fund in excess of $11.8 billion. The pessimists among us sigh when we know the state faces serious and costly issues in social services, transportation, water, and public and higher education as it moves deeper into the 21st century.

In public education, the conversation will focus on funding, reduced state testing, career and technical education, school choice and school safety…not necessarily in that order of importance.

Let me encourage you to pay attention to the work of the legislature this session. It is a critical time for our state. They will make better decisions for Texas when all Texans are informed and engaged in the process. Over the next few weeks, I’ll address some of the public education issues and the impact proposed legislation in these areas may have on Pasadena ISD and our students.

I’m certain there will be many groups clamoring for attention over the next five months…including worried superintendents like me. While I don’t envy the work our legislators must do, it is the work they signed up to do. Let’s hope they do it well.