People or Process?

Here’s a question:  You have a project to complete.  Given a choice, which would you prefer:  would you rather have good people and poor process or the reverse?

Obviously, in a perfect world, we would like to have both.  I, at least, do not seem to live in that world.  There are always compromises to be made.  But I think we should still strive for the very best.

Good people are important, of course.  With good people, poor processes can be overcome.  Good people are creative, able to adapt, and can make the best out of poor situations.  On the other hand, these good people can often be frustrated by working within a poor process, leaving them looking for the door and wanting to move on to situations where they can fully utilize their talents.

Good processes, on the other hand, aren’t sexy.  They don’t grab headlines.  Few people come home at night and say “That was just the best-run meeting I’ve ever been to!”  But process IS important.  With a process in place, people who lack experience can fit into an organization and contribute right away.  People who produce good work but may not be particularly creative can feel at home.  Good processes lift people up.

What do we have in Seguin ISD?  That depends very much on whom one asks.  My impression is that on our campuses, we have good people:  teachers.  Our teachers care about our kids and work hard, under sometimes difficult conditions, to provide great education.  And they can.  Last year, McQueeney Elementary struggled and failed to meet the state standard.  This year, there has been significant improvement so far.  Same teachers, same students.  Different results.  Why?  Well, there is a new principal.  And with the new principal are new processes that support teachers and hold them accountable.  Good process is enabling good people to succeed.

At the level of Central Administration and the Board of Trustees, things get more difficult.  The Board, as has been well-documented elsewhere, has made a series of decisions that provoke head-scratching, to say the least.  Our new superintendent, lacking experience managing a district of this size and complexity, has been unable to achieve the stable footing needed to make the transformative changes our students need.  There appear to be no processes in place to promote good decision-making.  As a result, the district is foundering.  Despite claims to the contrary, test scores are not improving (with a few exceptions).  Teachers and administrators are departing or polishing their resumes.  They are looking, I would guess, for a place where good processes are in place that will allow them to flourish.  The result, our lack of good process is going to leave us without many good people.

Good people or good process?  Which would you like?

Together we can do better.

Bob Stephens

What’s The Plan?

In November of 2013, voters in Seguin ISD approved a $5 million bond to enhance the district’s investment in technology.  The goal was to allow our students access to the tools needed to learn in the 21st century.  This type of project can be complicated.  Unlike capital projects that produce new buildings or sports facilities, there is a lot of debate in education circles around what sort of technology expenditures truly benefit students.  Much of the technology is so new and changing so quickly that there is little time to collect the data needed to demonstrate an impact on student performance.  What, then does SISD do with $5 million in technology funds?  Two years have now passed since the bond was passed, time enough, one thinks to develop a comprehensive plan for technology enhancements and perhaps enough to either have made necessary purchases or have developed the road map for doing so.

Where do we stand then with the investment we made in our children?

I asked the district, via a Public Information Request, for records of all of the technology bond expenditures to date as well as the district’s plan for these expenditures.  To date, approximately $2.3 million has been spent of the $5 million.  In addition, the Board of Trustees recently approved spending $490,000 on a new data center for the district.  That brings our total to about $2.8 million.  Expenditures so far include new laptop computers for our schools along with mobile carts allowing the computers to be used by multiple classrooms.  New desktop computers have also been purchased.  The public address systems at some of our schools have been replaced.  The campuses also now have document cameras and projectors.  Portable cabling has been added at Seguin High School and Goldie Harris Gym.  Our students have access to new tablet computers at each campus and new printers have been purchased and installed.  Those of you wishing to see the details on what equipment has been purchased and for which campuses can see that information here.

The implementation of a new datacenter also seems a wise investment.  It will allow for the replacement of aging network infrastructure at each campus with a centralized network center which is easier and cheaper to maintain.  It will also allow for more robust backup and disaster recovery plans.

To date, then, it appears that the district has gone a long way toward providing our students with the technology resources they need.  Two questions, though, remain unanswered.

First, what is the plan for the remaining funds?  Over $2 million remains available.  If not spent at the two-year mark, I would at least expect a plan to be in place.  However, the information I received in response to my request for such a plan is limited.  It is, in fact, simply the one page slide that we developed at the time of the bond election describing the general purposes of the technology bond.  You can see that here.  I would have hoped for a more detailed plan at this point in the project.  One may reasonable ask whether those funds are being held for use in the new high school building.  However, that was not the intent of the bond.  When voters approved the high school bond, it was to include everything necessary to open the high school and have students in the classrooms learning on day 1.  The technology bond was in addition to that.  So I ask:  What is the plan for the remaining $2.2 million?  If there is one, I did not receive it response to my request.

My other question is more difficult to answer.  Computers have been purchased.  Tablets have found their way to our classrooms.  Projectors, printers, and infrastructure has been installed.  Now what?  How is this technology being used?  Teachers and students have access to the technology.  Do they know how to use it?  Have teachers been trained in helping students use the technology?  More importantly, have they mastered the educational techniques necessary to translate this technology into improved educational outcomes for our students.  It’s easy to throw equipment at a problem.  It is very difficult to figure out how to use that equipment to enhance education.

I, for one, would like to know:  what’s the plan?

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

Another Voice

Not surprisingly, there are a variety of opinions and viewpoints when it comes to causes and solutions to the difficulties our schools are facing.  Today, I would like to offer a different voice.

Mark Williams is a Board Member of Educate Seguin and has been active in our community for many years.  Today, he offers his perspective.

For some years now, I have volunteered at our church as a mentor to young male students. My first protégé was a high school freshman who lived alone with his mom; he had never met his father. For convenience, I will call him Thomas. His older brother had recently been killed in a gang dispute over a girl. Three other “family” members would soon enter the picture because the brother had left behind a girlfriend with his child and one of an unknown third party. Thomas’s mom was not at all a bad person, but she had her hands full and no earning capacity that I could detect. I believe Thomas’s mother wanted all the right things for Thomas, but her efforts were to little avail because peer pressures and financial difficulties were outweighing her influence.

Establishing any semblance of a trusting relationship with Thomas was a slow process, but we persevered and after about a year, I felt we had enough mutual trust for some meaningful communication. I never sermonized with Thomas and limited myself to listening, commiserating, and relating to him what life might be like with an education and the earning power that accompanies knowledge and skill. At one point, I tried to demonstrate this in a concrete way by showing him a substantial check I had received for some highly technical consulting on high volume manufacturing that I had done in Mexico—money earned purely from knowledge rather than labor.

On several occasions, I had told him that if he could tell me what he wanted for his life, I thought I could help him get there. He was never willing or perhaps unable, to put that vision into words. Neither of us will ever know how much we could have accomplished together. The closest he came to sharing was during a conversation we had where I had suggested that there were many well-paying jobs in the medical field for which education was absolutely necessary. [Thomas was bright—probably capable of college work.] His answer revealed more than I was likely able to grasp. He replied, “No, I just want to stay with my homies.”

Thomas never graduated from high school, dropping out about halfway into his junior year. Along the way, he was in and out of alternative school and missed a lot of class. I never detected any variety of “chips” that he might be carrying on his shoulders, and he never talked about revenge for his brother’s death. As far as I know, he was not active in gangs, although he certainly had it in him to be a leader there. I think he used minor amounts of marijuana, but never the hard stuff nor even alcohol. In short, this is a person fully capable of having graduated from high school—and going beyond that. I still bump into him around town and he seems very glad to see me. I feel like I failed as his mentor to help him reach his full potential, but he seems happy enough—married to a girl he got pregnant about the time he left school. He is likely making enough money now to live modestly, but not enough for the distant future when he can no longer do the physical work that now sustains him and his family.

I believe I learned more from Thomas than he ever learned from me. I learned that providing a quality and an affordable education opportunity is not enough to make a difference in every student’s life. I learned that peer pressures can often trump the familial ones.

How can a public school provide the things that Thomas lacked? I suppose, given enough time, a talented teacher or counselor could have provided sufficient motivation to retain Thomas in school, but what are the odds that every student in need will be lucky enough to find that support person.

Mark Williams graduated from Seguin High School in 1956 and earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas. His career was in manufacturing, from which he retired in 2005. He served on Seguin City Council for nine years in the 1970’s.

This essay, though not based on statistics, is an effort to examine one aspect of public education in Seguin.