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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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.

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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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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Unleash the Technology

During my time in high school…more than a few years ago…we thought we were technologically literate when we learned to use the slide rule and the electric typewriter. Those technologies have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Everything evolves.  Experts now tell us we can expect new technology to last five years. That’s the time it takes for an emerging technology to pass through maturity and finally into obsolescence. The speed of change creates a challenge for teachers. We know, however that student success depends on getting our teachers to use technology as a natural part of daily instruction and to release that technology to our students as tools that prepare them for the work force and for college.

This week, members of the Pasadena ISD Board of Trustees toured several campuses to see how new technologies were being used as instructional tools in the hands of our teachers and learning tools in the hands of our students. Teachers and students from elementary through high school used iPads, Kindle Readers, Netbooks, digital document cameras and projectors, Promethean Boards and complicated software in innovative ways to teach, research, assess, explore and create. I wish everyone in our community could see the high level of teaching and extraordinary level of active student engagement taking place in our classrooms every day.

We certainly aren’t perfect yet in the use of these new technologies, but we know that technology in the hands of an amazing teacher can bring ordinary curriculum to life. We know technology placed in the hands of our students can free their creative energy to find a deeper level of academic understanding. It is all about engagement.

We’ve come a long way from slide rules and electric typewriters and our students are blazing a trail to success as a result.


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Amazing Students

We have some amazing students in Pasadena ISD! Last year our students at every level achieved success in academics, art, athletics and music. A growing number of our high school students took dual credit and advanced placement courses, earning college credit along the way. More than 83 percent of our seniors graduated in four years, a significantly higher percentage than the state standard. It was a good year.

Our students’ success depends largely on our people. We encouraged our principals and teachers this year to make an unmistakable impact on every student in every classroom every day. It is a challenge we embrace with joy.  When I hear the passion in the voices of our principals and see the concern in the eyes of our teachers, I know our students are in good hands. I’m convinced. We have some amazing students in Pasadena ISD. It’s going to be great year!