We Are What We Eat

As a pediatrician, I spend a lot of time talking about nutrition with families.  There are two truths I try to impart to families when I am helping them to raise healthy children.  First, foods that are presented early and often in a child’s life will tend to be incorporated into that child’s diet.  Second, peer pressure works and is a good thing when it comes to eating.  A child who is exposed to other children eating healthy food will internalize those eating habits and eat healthier.

That’s why I am so happy to see Seguin ISD incorporate salad bars into its elementary cafeterias.  In case you missed the story in the local media, you can take a look here.  Obesity is, of course, a problem across our nation.  It’s an especially serious problem in Texas, which ranks 11th among the states in it’s obesity rate.  Frighteningly, a shocking 36.6% of Texas children are overweight or obese.  There are a lot of factors that contribute to this.  Kids are less active than they used to be, often spending hours in front of a screen watching television, playing video games, or surfing on a smartphone.  They are also bombarded by marketing messages that promote unhealthy eating by marketing fast food, prepackaged food, and “junk” food.  Finally, especially in our community, high poverty rates contribute to the problem.  It is a sad fact that calorie-dense, prepared foods are cheaper that fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats.  For a family struggling to make ends meet, the affordable, healthy options at the grocery store are limited.  The next time you’re at HEB, pay attention to the carts of the families.  You will see them stocked with high-calorie, high-sodium foods.  Why?  Because they are cheaper.

Seguin ISD has taken the initiative over the last few years to try and combat the problem of childhood obesity.  Pete Silvius, the Seguin ISD Coordinator of Physical and Outdoor Education has started a number of health and wellness programs in the district over the last two years.  His most recent effort, the salad bars in our elementary schools, truly has the potential to change lives.  Our young people are now going to see fresh fruits and vegetables every single day.  Even better, they are going to have friends and classmates eating those fresh, healthy foods.  That is going to impact the choices they make.

Mr. Silvius and the Seguin ISD deserve congratulations from all of us for bringing this important program to our schools.  It goes far beyond just providing healthy foods for our kids.  These salad bars are an educational tool that we are now using to teach kids how to eat healthy nutritious foods that will allow them to lead long and healthy lives.  Good job!

Together we can do better.

Bob Stephens

What Are the District’s Hiring Priorities?

Scan educational journals, state education reports, and even popular media and you will find plenty of discussion about the keys to a successful public school.  There are endless discussions of appropriate spending levels, physical facilities, classroom design, technology implementation in the classroom-the list is endless.  But one building block seems never to be the subject of controversy:  class size.  There may be discussion of what an optimal class size is, but no one disputes that smaller class sizes result in better student achievement, other things being equal. (1)

That being said, let’s take a look at the staffing levels at Seguin ISD.  What can we learn from the district’s staffing trends over the last few years?  The table below shows the total number of teachers, administrators, and students in the district for the last 5 years.  A few things to note:  “Teaching Staff FTE” means how many “full-time equivalent” classroom teachers are on the payroll.  It does not include instructional coaches, teacher aides, or other para-professionals.  “Administrative Staff FTE” means how many “full-time equivalent” administrators are on the the payroll.  This does include instructional coaches as well as all campus and central office professional administrators.  It does not include secretaries, attendance clerks, etc.

Here are the data:

Source

What can we learn?  Obviously, we are employing fewer teachers now than 5 years ago.  Keep in mind that the drop in teacher staff from 2011-2013 was largely due to the education funding cuts that were passed by the Texas Legislature during the 2011 legislative session.  That money has still not been completely replaced.  Teacher numbers have been creeping up since, but remain below 2010-2011 levels to the tune of 6.7%.  As a result, since student enrollment has been static, our average class size is larger now that it was 5 years ago.  This is evidenced by the fact that the number of class size waivers the district has been requesting from the state has been steadily increasing even though state funding has been gradually creeping up.

On the other hand, there has been a significant increase in administrative staff-63%.  There are several reasons for this.  Each elementary campus now has an assistant principal.  In addition, instructional coaches have been added at all campuses.  These coaches help teachers improve the quality of their teaching.  In the last two years, we have also added an Athletic Director, a Director of Fine Arts, a Coordinator of Physical and Outdoor Education, and a Deputy Superintendent, as well as other administrative positions.  These numbers do not reflect the two additional administrative positions created by Superintendent Roane over the last two months, one in the transportation department after the former Athletic Director’s reassignment and one in Curriculum and Instruction with the hiring of Mr. Roane’s wife.

It is difficult to know what to make of this.  It is entirely possible that Seguin ISD was short of needed administrative staff in 2010, making the increases justified. There is certainly a consensus that the addition of Assistant Principals in particular seems to have been badly needed.  And clearly, all things being equal, more administrative staffing results in decreased workloads and, presumably, more attention able to be paid to improving instructional quality through new initiatives  Nevertheless, the administrative staff has seen a steady rise despite the state funding cuts that resulted in so many teacher reductions.  It even increased as teacher numbers were reduced after the state budget cuts.  Given limited funding, decisions must be made.  Will scarce dollars be directed to hiring more teachers or to hiring more administrators?  Clearly, in Seguin ISD, the decision has been made in recent years to hire more administrators.  So far, this staffing model has not resulted in improved district-wide student achievement, at least as measured by state testing.  Perhaps it is time to revisit the district’s staffing priorities and refocus those priorities on a staffing model that works for our students.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

Why Do We Care About Nepotism?

People have been talking about nepotism a lot over the last week, specifically as it relates to the appointment by Seguin ISD of Superintendent Roane’s wife to a position in the district’s administration.  Is this hire actually nepotism?  Should we care?  Let’s take a look.

First, what is nepotism?  According to the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary:

Nepotism     noun     the unfair practice by a powerful person of giving jobs and other favors to relatives

According to the dictionary, then, Ms. Graves-Roane’s hiring is consistent with nepotism.  Whether it was legal or not is a separate question.  There is state law governing such practices and I am not qualified to address the legal issues involved.  Clearly, however, from a dictionary standpoint, the hiring of Ms. Graves-Roane is nepotism.

The second question is “should we care?”  Is it a problem?  Social media comments seem to divide into two groups.  One group feels the hire is wrong and sends a bad message to district employees and the public.  The other argues that “the ends justify the means” and if Ms. Graves-Roane can bring about needed improvements, then more power to her.

For me, the question of “right or wrong” needs to be viewed in a larger context and that context is the district as a whole.  Let’s assume for a moment that Ms. Graves-Roane is every bit the successful, dedicated educational professional that she is purported to be.  No matter how brilliant she is, she cannot, alone, transform Seguin ISD into one that successfully educates its students.  She will need help.  Lots of help.  That help has to come from other successful, dedicated professionals within Seguin ISD.  This district, with 7,000 students and over 1,000 employees, is 3 times the size of Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD, from whence the Roanes came.  It doesn’t turn on a dime and its educational outcomes are significantly worse than those faced by the Roanes in Pecos.  Finding success here is going to require the creation of a team where everyone is working, teaching, and innovating together.  Does the hiring of Ms. Graves-Roane help create this team?  I don’t think so.  Why?  Because of its chilling effect on the other members of the team.

Think about this decision from the perspective of the current administrators.  It says “I don’t trust you to do your jobs and tell me what I need to know.  For that, I need my wife.”  That is the message that is going out to experienced, dedicated people, many with masters degrees and Ph.D.s.  I would argue that this does not create an environment in which success is likely.  Rather, it fosters an environment marked by fear, mistrust, and anxiety.  It may be that, as some have argued, we need a general “housecleaning”, but the reality is that that won’t happen.  Seguin ISD cannot successfully recruit a new group of experienced, successful leaders in the space of a few months.  Instead, we need to do more with the team we have.

I have a definition of leadership.  A leader inspires others to do what he or she wants done because THEY want to.  That requires building a culture of mutual trust and respect.  The hiring of Ms. Graves-Roane required the board and administration to “adjust” standard hiring practice and, as such, detracts from that effort.  It also requires an ongoing exercise in personnel gymnastics to maintain the illusion of separation between Mr. Roane and his wife.  Finally, there will be the natural anxiety on the part of SISD staff regarding fairness, chain of command, and the open exchange of ideas.  Frankly, it’s hard for me to see how this is a good decision.  In a small district, perhaps it is a viable model, but given the size and complexity of Seguin ISD, I just don’t think it works.  I hope I am wrong.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

Why The AD Decision Matters Off The Field

There has been quite an uproar in town over the removal of Dan Hernandez from his position as Seguin ISD Athletic Director and the subsequent hiring of Hector Salinas as Mr. Hernandez’ replacement.  There is a strong feeling among many that Mr. Hernandez was treated unfairly and much has been made of the relationship between Mr. Salinas and Board of Trustees member Louis Reyes.  It’s unfortunate that this messy affair is the “inaugural event” for new superintendent Stetson Roane.  But what are the repercussions of this decision?  Beyond general notions of fairness and political connectedness, does this decision impact Seguin ISD beyond the AD office?  I would argue that it does, and for reasons that go beyond athletics.

First, it sets a bad precedent.  No clear reason was given for Mr. Hernandez’ removal.  Were it “for cause”, he should have been terminated.  Absent that, some specific goals should have been set and a statement made that meeting those goals requires new leadership.  Since neither of these things were done, the public is left with perceptions of cronyism.  Unfortunately, that perception has now become reality because of the absence of a clear narrative from Mr. Roane justifying his decision.  I am concerned that this perception will have a negative impact on district employees.  Specifically, if there is a perception that personnel changes can and will be made based on political considerations rather than job performance, it will have a chilling, demoralizing effect upon the entire workforce.  People will be afraid to speak up, to innovate, and to advocate.  Those are things we desperately need if our schools are to improve academically.

The second impact of this decision is upon the community and parents.  The district has long lamented the lack of community and parental involvement in the schools and has made a number of efforts to try and improve in this area.  The hiring of Mr. Hernandez represented one such effort.  His hiring came about as the result of a formal search process in which input from parents, sports boosters, district staff, and the community was sought.  A search committee formed from these stakeholders made its recommendation to the district and, as a result, Mr. Hernandez was hired.  His summary removal and the hiring of Mr. Salinas without any such formal process sends a message.  The message is that while the district says it wants outside involvement, it does not actually value it.  The district’s words do not match its actions.  The takeaway for parents and other community groups is “they don’t really care what we think”.  This is not a foundation upon which one can build better community and parent involvement.

Finally, the decision will cast a shadow over future decisions made by Mr. Roane.  A new superintendent comes into his or her position with a certain amount of goodwill and political capital.  This is essentially a “currency” which can be “spent” to support difficult change.  In the case of the athletic director, Mr. Roane has spent a good deal of his goodwill and political capital on something that does nothing to address the very serious academic deficiencies of the district.  He has been damaged by this and is now less free to make other, needed changes.  The question “With all of the problems and challenges facing Seguin ISD, why start with athletics?” lingers in the air like a cloud.  It unfortunately makes the vision for transforming our schools more difficult to see.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

P.S.  The Board of Trustees’ decision last night (9/8/15) to hire Mr. Roane’s wife casts the AD issue in a somewhat more troubling light.  More to come.

What Success Looks Like

Last week, I introduced you to Weinert Elementary School and outlined the incredible success it has had improving student performance, especially for at-risk students.  Today, I want to dive deeper into the transformation at Weinert and take a look at what made the difference.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with the principal of Weinert Elementary, Brandi Bell-Wiatrek.  Brandi is a product of Seguin.  She was born here, went to school here for grades Kindergarten through 8th grade, and has spent her entire professional career teaching the children of Seguin.  She has taught at Koennecke and Jefferson Elementary Schools.  She served as an Instructional Coach for other teachers for four years, as an Assistant Principal for a year and finally, last year, began her first year as principal at Weinert.

She is a pleasure to speak to and clearly has a incredible passion for both education and for the children of this community.  I asked this brand new, first-year principal what accounts for the incredible improvement in student performance over the last year and she described a number of initiatives.

First, Brandi insists on bell-to-bell instruction.  Every minute of time the children spend at Weinert is spent learning.  The days are extremely full, but the upside is that there is no graded homework.  Homework is presented as practice for the student. Each student is asked to spend 20 minutes reading and do one ungraded math problem.  That’s it. This approach encourages the students to try and not worry about getting it wrong, thus putting the emphasis on practicing the skill.

Second, she, implemented at Weinert the district-wide initiative introducingself-contained teaching for Kindergarten through 2nd grades.  In this model, a single teacher is responsible for all the teaching of a single class-no class changes.  Brandi is expanding that at Weinert this year to the 3rd and 4th grades because she believes that building the relationship between teacher and student is critical for success.

Third, she focuses on helping teachers teach.  Both she and her Assistant Principal focus on instruction.   They model successful instruction techniques for their teachers and insist on using differentiated instruction in each classroom to challenge every student.

Finally, Brandi built “Professional Learning Communities” within her school.  Teachers join groups led by a Master Teacher and conduct book studies to learn and implement proven instructional strategies in every classroom.  These communities are peer-driven.  No administrators are present, allowing for the free exchange of ideas and for teachers to learn from each other.

Though there were many initiatives, there is one common theme:  quality instruction.  As Brandi told me, “We know what instructional techniques work.  The research and proven strategies are available to everyone.  It’s a matter of learning the ‘Best Practices’, implementing them, and following through on them all year long.”

What is my impression?  Brandi is an impressive person.  She is caring.  She is driven.  And most of all she is passionate about teaching every single student she touches.  She also went out of her way to tell me that what she is doing is being done by every principal on every campus in the district-that Weinert isn’t really the exception.  And she says it with the deep conviction of someone who cares about ALL the children in our community.  I also think she doesn’t take enough credit for the transformation she has overseen.  It is her relentless focus on utilizing best practices to raise the quality of instruction that has produced these great results.  But it’s not just WHAT she has done.  It’s HOW she has done it.  Great leaders inspire others to greatness.  THAT is what Brandi has done at Weinert.  She leads not by dictate but by first demanding excellence and then helping to lift up everyone on the campus in order to achieve it.  This was evident from her constant praise of her teachers.  As she said repeatedly, “I am not the one doing the work.  It’s my teachers.  They are an incredible group of dedicated professionals.  I just want to help them succeed.”

I would say she has.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens