Let’s Stay Engaged

Last week, I wrote about the importance of staying engaged with our schools.  It’s critical that we continue to engage with the district and advocate for the outcomes we want if things are truly going to improve.

A great opportunity to engage is coming up this Monday, November 6th.  At 7 PM, Educate Seguin and Seguin ISD are presenting “The State of the District-A Conversation with Dr. Matthew Gutierrez”.  Dr. Gutierrez, our new superintendent, will deliver remarks on his vision for our schools and our community.  There will also be time for questions and informal conversation.  The event will take place at the Performing Arts Center at Seguin High School, making this an opportunity to view this fantastic new space.

So please come out, show your interest, listen, ask.  Participate in the process we all want:  improvement in our schools.  I look forward to seeing you there.

Together we can do better.

Bob Stephens


And So We Begin. Again.

This week, I was invited to a meeting at Seguin ISD for “Key Communicators”. It was an introductory meeting in which we met with a facilitator and discussed our perceptions of the district, the perception of the district outside the community, and how to improve the education we delivery to our young people. The goal is to take this input, together with other input being gathered through meetings of teachers, staff, and members of the public, and develop a strategic plan for Seguin ISD.

In some ways, this was refreshing. It was nice to be invited. It was nice to be in a room of others with an interest in public education. It was nice to think that our input is valued. The district has a long history of holding the public at arm’s length. Hopefully, this meeting signaled a much-needed change in that pattern.

In other ways, though, it felt like deja vu. Those invited were largely those involved in similar initiatives over the last decade. While our district is 2/3 Hispanic, the group was mostly Anglo and there were few parents of our Hispanic students present. The issues discussed were largely those that we have struggled with for decades: improving the district’s image, improving the quality of instruction, increasing parental involvement, and dealing with attendance and discipline issues.

As someone who has been advocating for improvements in Seguin ISD for over half a decade now, this can feel discouraging. Why have we not made more progress? I think there are a lot of reasons. First, the challenges of educating children of poverty are enormous and not easily overcome. Second, it must be said that our district’s governance, the Board of Trustees and Central Administration, has not been equal to the task. Third, for a long time our community was content with a low-quality educational product. In fact, our complacency in regard to the latter enabled the former to persist and fester.

However, I remain optimistic. With the new trustees elected last November and a new superintendent and administrative structure, it appears that the pieces are finally in place to begin building a foundation upon which improvements can be realized. Notice these words: “begin” and “foundation”. It is going to take time and patience. And most importantly, it is going to take engagement on the part of the community. The question is, do we have it in us to remain engaged over the next few years? With luck, there will be no more Jumbotrons, no more $500 hotel rooms, no more attempted radio station takeovers. With luck there will be quiet competence and true transformation.  But we must make our own luck.  We will need to stay engaged even though it won’t be as “exciting”. Change is difficult and the change-makers are going to need us behind them, both supporting and nudging them, until Seguin ISD is considered a district to come to rather than one to get away from. The road will be long but it is one we must travel together.

Together we can do better.

Bob Stephens

Pray It Forward

The Seguin ISD Board of Trustees is currently engaged in a search for a new superintendent for our district.  This is a critically important position in our community and it comes at an important time.  Seguin ISD has long struggled to educate our young people.  We have a very challenging demographic, both culturally and socio-economically.  To succeed in transforming our schools into centers of success will require a very special leader.

I believe that we all must participate in bringing to our community that person who can transform our schools.  And we all can.  The Board of Trustees cannot accomplish this task alone.  They need help-not just our help, but God’s help.  I believe that God will help us if we but ask.  I believe that the power of prayer is the power that can help us turn the corner on the education of our children if we but focus our prayer efforts on our schools.

I ask you to focus your prayers on our district’s search for a new leader.  Ask that God grant our Board of Trustees wisdom and discernment in choosing a new leader for our schools.  Ask also that He call to our community a leader with the skills, knowledge, and heart to help us successfully educate our children.  Please incorporate these prayers into your prayer routine over the coming weeks.  Applicants are now being sought and are, indeed, now applying.  In June, the Board will begin the interview process with the aim of hiring someone in July.

It is often asked, ” where is God in our schools?”  He is here.  Now.  Let us ask Him for what our children and our community very much need and, in the process, demonstrate the power of prayer.

With God, all things are possible.

Robert P. Stephens, MD

Make Your Voice Heard

Hopefully you are aware that the Seguin ISD Board of Trustees is engaged in a search for a new superintendent for our district.

Hopefully, you are also aware that YOU can have a say.  In case you are not, let me encourage you to participate.

The trustees would like your opinion.  There is a confidential, 4-question survey that you can take.  This information will be shared with the trustees as they develop a “profile” of our future leader.  That profile will be used to define the qualifications needed in any applicants and also interview questions to be used with candidates.

Please, please take a few minutes and share your opinions.  This is a critical time and a critical process for our district and our community.  Make your voice heard.

The survey can be taken until midnight, Sunday, May 7th.

The survey can be found at http://www.seguin.k12.tx.us/page/article/304

Bob Stephens

It’s Time To A.S.K.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:7

For Christians, this week is Holy Week. That got me to thinking. And praying.

Seguin ISD is in transition. The search has begun for a new superintendent to lead our district. For years, we have struggled to educate our young people effectively. And “struggle” is the operative word. By almost all measures of academic achievement, we have not succeeded. Too many students are not reaching their potential. We have struggled and we continue to struggle. That is why I view this transition and this search for new leadership as critical. Over the last 2 decades, successive leaders of Seguin ISD have been unable to transform our district into one with high academic performance. The reasons for this are many and have been discussed in previous posts. That is the past. We face a new, uncertain future. But with that uncertainty comes hope. There is hope because what we want can be achieved. There are school districts, right here in Texas, that succeed. They succeed with a population similar to ours. Sharyland ISD. Joshua ISD. Medina Valley ISD. All are helping their largely poor, majority-minority students succeed in school. And that is why there is hope-because if it can be done there, it can be done here.

However, in order for us to succeed, we need a special kind of leader-one with the vision, courage, and tenacity to bring about the transformation in our schools that is needed. School administrators are, frankly, common. Finding a superintendent for Seguin ISD is easy. Finding a superintendent with basic management skills is easy. Unfortunately, neither of those are sufficient. We need THAT person-THAT very special woman or man who can think outside the box, building relationships with students, teachers, parents, business leaders, and civic leaders. One who can relate in a positive way to others while also confronting hard truths about why we struggle in an open, honest fashion. One who can then turn those truths into motivation for positive change. These are rare qualities, and difficult to measure via a resume or in an interview. Our trustees have a difficult challenge in front of them-finding THE next leader of our schools. Frankly, they need help. We all do.

I ask you to include each of our SISD trustees in your prayers. Not just this week. Every week. Every day, in fact, until we have a new superintendent.

Ask God to grant our trustees the gifts of discernment and wisdom, both of which they will need if they are to identify and call that very gifted person we need.

I also ask you to pray for God to reach out to our next superintendent. Pray the He places in that person’s heart the desire to come here and lead our community in transforming our schools and brightening the future of our young people by helping fulfill the potential He has given them.

I believe God responds to the faithful. He responds even more to the persistent. Let us be persistent in prayer. Ask Him for what we need. Seek Him in the process. Knock on His door. Until He answers.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

It’s Time To Do What It Takes

Let me tell you a story.

I have a patient.  Let’s call her Alex.  Alex is 7 years old and she’s in Kindergarten at an SISD elementary school.  She has attention deficit disorder and anxiety.  This has led to a lot of behavior problems at school.  Her home situation is chaotic to say the least.  Alex’s dad is not consistently “in the picture”.  Her mom is busy with her job at a local healthcare facility and also with raising Alex’s siblings.  As a result, she is not home as much as she would like, leaving Alex in the care of her grandmother and various other relatives.

Prior to when she began coming to see me, Alex had a violent outburst that resulted in a psychiatric hospital stay.  At that time, she was placed on an anti-psychotic medication.  As a result, on many days, she falls asleep at her desk.  On days when she is awake, she acts out in class, hitting other students and verbally abusing the teacher.  A few months ago, Alex’s behavior at school began to significantly worsen.  Because of the family’s low income, her insurance is through the Texas Medicaid Program.  This means doctors are hard to find, especially psychiatric doctors.  My attempts to adjust her medications did not help her behavior-instead she continued to worsen.

As an attempt to try and come up with some novel solutions, I made a housecall and met with the family and had them take me through a typical day for Alex.  It turns out that after school, both Alex’s mom and grandmother are working.  So instead of going home, she goes to the home of her grandfather, who lives with another male relative.  Unfortunately, that male relative had sexually abused Alex a couple of years earlier.

So Alex has to spend some time each day in the home where she was abused in the past and in the presence of the abuser.  Suddenly the spiraling anxiety and out-of-control behavior start to make a lot more sense.

What’s the point of this story?  The point is that this is not an isolated incident.  As a pediatrician, I see kids like Alex every day.  Perhaps a parent is in jail, or just absent.  Perhaps a parent has a mental health or substance abuse problem.  Or both.  Perhaps the parent is working two or three jobs to provide a meal and housing.  Perhaps they are homeless.  In Seguin ISD, about two-thirds of the students are poor.  And this population has much higher rates of housing instability, food insecurity, mental health problems, substance abuse problems, single parent households, incarceration, truancy, you name it.  And we are not, as a district nor as a community, dealing with this reality.  As I said, I see kids like Alex every day.  That’s my job.  But Alex’s teachers see kids like her every day too.   And they feel helpless because they feel they have no tools to help.

THAT is why our schools continue to struggle.  We have no universal preschool.  No free before-school or after-school programs for kids whose parents work.  We provide no consistent social work services on our campuses.  There are no mental health services.  We don’t provide any extra transportation services for kids who live within 2 miles of their school.  There is no partnership between SISD and employers to allow parents to interact with school personnel while at work.

This has been the case for decades and this, at bottom, is why we continue to be low-performing, failing to educate large numbers of our children.  Historically, the answer has been “that’s not our job.”  And perhaps that’s right.  But unless we MAKE it our job, we are never going to be successful.  We have a long history of blaming the parents.  In some cases, perhaps they deserve blame.  In other cases, they most certainly do not.  But regardless, blaming them isn’t going to fix our problems.

It is time for us to adopt a far more expansive definition of what it means to educate our children.  We need, certainly, to teach them to read, and write, and do math, and all those other things that are the schools’ “job”.  But most importantly, we also need to teach them that we care.  That means we need to go above and beyond.  That’s what districts that are successful with populations like ours do.  That’s what communities, civic leaders, faith leaders, and employers that really care about their kids do.  It’s time for us to get with that program.  Until then, we are going to continue to fail kids like Alex.  And that’s not right.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

SISD Leadership-The Way Forward

The Seguin ISD faces significant challenges as it strives to improve educational quality and student achievement in our community. Student test scores are well below state averages and our young people continue to move on to post-secondary education in numbers well below those of the state as a whole. There are significant headwinds as we try to improve our outcomes. State funding remains below what is necessary, we have difficulty recruiting teachers to our rural location, and the high poverty rate in our community negatively impacts the education of our children. Overcoming these challenges will require innovative, inspired leadership and we call on the Board of Trustees to find such a leader.

In 2015, the Board of Trustees chose a superintendent after a very brief seach process almost entirely devoid of input from the many stakeholders in our community. The result was troubling, as we have all witnessed. We therefore call upon the board to avoid the mistakes of the past and engage our community in a collaborative process to choose the next leader for our schools.

Specifically, we call upon the Board to begin a comprehensive search for our next superintendent. The future of our community is dependent upon the quality of our schools. Finding the right candidate is absolutely critical. The search should be conducted by a professional recruiting firm with experience in the hiring of public school executives. We believe the Board of Trustees should choose a search consultant only after a thorough process of vetting multiple recruiting firms and interviewing multiple candidates. After a search consultant is retained, we call upon the Board to form a search committee composed of a cross section of our community: educators, parents, teachers, students, and community members.

We realize that a search process as described above may be lengthy. Fortunately, we know that there remains at Seguin ISD a core of dedicated, competent, caring administrators who are willing and able to manage the district’s affairs in the interim period, however long that may be. While we hope for a brief transition, we feel that the hiring of a superintendent who can bring about the transformative change needed is the most important consideration, regardless of the duration of the search.

This community stands at a crossroads. Surrounding school districts are seeing swelling enrollment and are struggling to build new schools to accommodate the influx of students. Cities around us are experiencing booms in housing and retail development. Seguin meanwhile has experienced a decade of flat school enrollment. If we wish to truly share in the “Texas Miracle” we must have an excellent school system. The hiring of a new superintendent with the skills to bring that about is the first step. We therefore call on the Seguin ISD Board of Trustees to begin a process that will bring such a person to Seguin. Educate Seguin is fully committed to assisting the Board of Trustees in whatever ways are necessary to ensure the success of our schools, our young people, and our community.

The Board of Directors

Educate Seguin

Citizens Dedicated to Outstanding Public Schools for Seguin

Practice, Man, Practice

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  You practice.  And the Seguin High School Matador Band has been practicing.  For months.  Over Christmas Break.  In the mornings.  In the evenings.  On weekends.  Lots and lots of practice.  And in about a month, our very own Seguin musicians will travel to New York City for a fantastic opportunity.  They will get to not only see the sites in one of the greatest cities in the world, but they will get an opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall, arguably one of the most prestigious concert halls on the planet.  It is a truly awesome opportunity for any musical group.  But can you believe it’s happening to OUR musical group?  To our very own neighbors?  That’s cool!!

In addition to practicing, Seguin High School’s student musicians have also been fundraising.  Each student is working hard to raise the $1,750 he or she needs to go on this trip.  Beyond that, the Seguin High School Band Boosters is working to raise additional funds to cover equipment transportation, food, and other costs.  It’s a massive undertaking, especially since the band did not find out about this trip until October.

Our kids are working really hard to make this trip a reality.  And they are practicing really hard to get to Carnegie Hall.  And we can go right along with them.  We don’t have to spend hours practicing.  We don’t have to spend hours fundraising.  All we have to do is support them.  Yesterday, I made a donation to the Band Boosters in support of this opportunity.  I was in band through high school and college.  My wife, Kim was in band.  Our children, Nick and Katharine, are Mighty Matador Band alumni.  We know first-hand two things.  First, band is a LOT of work.  Second, it is unbelievably rewarding.  Let’s support these students’ hard work and enthusiasm.  Let’s help them get to Carnegie Hall.  You can make a donation today.  Donation locations locally can be found at KWED, Gift & Gourmet, First Commercial Bank, First National Bank of Beeville, and First United Bank.  Not in town, you can still help out.  There is an online funding site for the band.  Just check out http://www.crowdrise.com/transportation-for-carnegie-hall.   Be a part of this.  It’s a great honor for our students, our band, and our community.

Bob Stephens

We Get What We Deserve

Happy New Year! I hope 2017 finds everyone looking forward with optimism and excitement to what a new year may bring.

One thing that 2017 will bring is a new rating system for Texas public schools. As I have written before, the old rating system had two levels: “Met Standard” and “Improvement Required”. The problem with this system is that what the State of Texas means by “Met Standard” was never very clear. When we look at the ratings, we consistently find that about 95% of districts meet the standard, leaving about 5% to be rated as “Improvement Required”. Depending on your point of view, that could mean 95% of schools are doing great or the standard is set too low. My concern has been that the old system bred a sense of complacency. Districts could tout their “Met Standard” rating and the public would think everything is fine but not have the information to really determine when students were meeting their potential.

The new rating system attempts to remedy that. Under the new system, school districts and individual campuses are assigned a letter grade, A-F, just like students do. It has the benefit of being easy for the public to understand. The rating system takes several aspects of school performance into account.

  • Three STAAR-based categories: These are: standardized test results (how many students passed), year-to-year or student growth, and the closing of performance gaps. This makes up 55 percent of the overall grade.
  • Post-secondary readiness: This category includes graduation, dropout rates, and attendance. This makes up 35 percent of the overall grade.
  • Local districts’ self-grading: Indicators, such as survey results, chosen by each individual district make up 10 percent of the overall grade.

The new rating system takes effect in 2018, but the Texas Education Agency is releasing a preview this month. There is a lot of concern on the part of district administrators about this new rating system. That’s understandable. No longer will a district that is just clearing the “Met Standard” bar be lumped into the same category as those districts that are the state’s top performers. (The description of the basis for the rating system comes from an article in the Dallas Morning News.)

With that said, what can we expect from Seguin ISD? Unfortunately, not much in the way of good news.  Based upon our SISD STAAR performance and post-secondary readiness reporting, I expect the district to receive an overall grade of “D”.  It is unlikely that any of our campuses will achieve a grade higher than a “C”.

I anticipate a lot of “spin” from SISD administration when this information is released. In fact, it’s already starting. Just before Christmas, the district sent out a letter to all teachers, suggesting that they contact their state legislators and ask them to ditch the new rating system. Why? You can see one version of the complete letter here, but I will focus on two sentences:

Impoverished neighborhoods will likely be shamed for being poor.”

It is embarrassing that the State of Texas intends to label its children and those who have dedicated their careers to educating these children as failures.”

Here we see the narrative that the district is creating: the fault lies not with the district but with the children. The children are too poor to learn and are being labeled as failures. And that, right there, is why we are where we are.

Seguin ISD is failing to educate large numbers of our young people. For those who read this blog, that is no secret. The data are clear. Do we do some things well? Yes. But for many of our children, the district fails them. This is true because we allow it. And we allow it because we buy into the narrative that poor children can’t be successful in school. We, as a community, have long tacitly accepted this as truth. And because we accept it, we created a Board of Trustees that accepted it and a district administration that accepted it. From there, the mindset crept into our classrooms, so that now even teachers and, I fear, our students believe it.

Oh yes, the district talks about helping every student succeed, but when challenged, we see the position to which they retreat: “shamed for being poor” and “label its children…as failures”. Why? Because, at bottom, that’s what we have allowed.

Readers, we can argue back and forth forever about the new school rating system. Is it perfect? I am sure it’s not. Could it be better? I am sure it could. Is it accurately portraying how SISD is performing? I believe it does. The critical question is this: when will we stop accepting the status quo and demand better? I have written before about districts with populations similar to ours that excel. It can be done. It is being done. But not here. Not until we demand it. Let’s make 2017 the year that Seguin demands better.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens

Of Doughnuts and Slushies

It was just a year ago that Seguin ISD was being hailed as a leader in providing nutritious food options for our students. In September of 2015, to great fanfare, SISD partnered with HEB and Dole to install and stock salad bars at every elementary campus in the district. Our kids were to have access to fresh fruits and vegetable each and every day, improving their health and teaching healthy nutrition habits for a lifetime. In my own blog post at the time, I lauded the district for making a substantial commitment to the nutrition of students. When the salad bars were introduced, a news article quoted

Seguin ISD and its food service vendor, Chartwells, have pledged to continually stock the salad bars with fresh produce options, ensuring that children get exposure to fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.”

Well, here we are a year later. How are things going?

After the initial launch, the salad bars were mothballed. Why? “Not enough staff”, “not enough money”, “unsanitary”. You get the picture. Like so many initiatives, there was much effort put into securing the salad bars, rolling them out, and publicizing their launch but very little time was spent planning and budgeting for keeping the initiative going over time.

Fast forward to this school year. SISD ended their relationship with Chartwells, which provided the student breakfast and lunches. The district is now providing foodservice themselves. The stated goal was to provide higher-quality food at a lower price. They have, however, hired a consultant, Walker Quality Services, to coordinate the program and make certain that the food meets federal and state nutritional standards.

What is the district providing? No salad bars. Those sit empty. The good news is that each student orders a lunch each morning from a menu. That’s good, because kids are more likely to eat when they have been a part of the decision-making process. And salad is an option-it comes prepackaged. That’s good too. Salads are a healthy option. The lunch meals themselves are generally well-reviewed. The food seems to be pretty good and there are a variety of choices. So far, so good.

It’s the food provided outside of the lunch-line where things become concerning. Several years ago, the district began offering free breakfast every day. That’s great, because a good breakfast helps kids do better in school and many students were arriving at school without having eaten. On the other hand, doughnuts have been appearing on the menu-not so good.

At lunch, extra items are being offered for sale that have questionable nutritional value. Let’s start with the slushies. There is a slushie machine on every elementary campus and at the early childhood center (preschool). Slushies. They come in green, red and blue. They are “juice-based”. What does that mean? Let’s look at the label. The first ingredients are fruit juice concentrate and water. Fruit juice concentrate sounds great, but it’s mostly sugar. An 8 oz. serving of slushie has 120 calories-all from sugar. A 12 oz. can of Coke? 140 calories. So this slushie, being served in schools, has more calories per ounce than Coke. And all of those calories are from sugar. And then there are the dyes. Some elementary campuses have limited the sale of the slushies because they are staining the tables and the food-service staff can’t get it off.

An alternative? Fruit smoothies are also offered. The first three ingredients here are water, fruit juice concentrate, and maltodextrin. What is maltodextrin? It’s sugar. Again, all the calories come from sugar. A 4-ounce serving? 100 calories, so almost twice as many calories per ounce as the slushie.

Chips are also for sale, such as Doritos and potato chips. What’s next? Hot Cheetos will be arriving at the middle and high schools soon, I am told. The items sold are the “reduced fat” variety but still contain the sugar, sodium, artificial colors, and artificial flavors of the regular products. Certainly these cannot be considered healthy food choices. So why are they being offered to our children?

Well, these are extra items, by and large, not available through the student lunch program. The exception is the smoothies which do appear on lunch trays in place of real fruit juice. Students have to pay for extra items out of pocket. And they are. One of our elementary campuses sold $400 worth of slushies (at $1 apiece) in just the FIRST WEEK of school. Clearly, someone is profiting from the sale of these items. Who? That’s not clear, but it’s hard to see how our students are benefiting.

Together, we can do better.

Bob Stephens