The primary function of a CEO is to create a vision of the future, set strategy, develop a culture, team build and determine the allocation of capital. When done correctly, that also describes the work of a school superintendent – a public CEO.
Dr. Linda Henrie is the Superintendent of the Mesquite Independent School District. Mesquite reflects today’s Texas urban school district and what the composition of most Texas school districts will be in the next 10 to 20 years. Mesquite is east of Dallas with nearly 38,000 students in 46 elementary, middle and high school campuses. Currently, 67 percent of the students live in low socioeconomic circumstances. While school districts around Mesquite are given a target revenue number of $6,000 per child, Mesquite is operating with $4,922 per student, which is below the state average. On the Mesquite campuses, 45 percent of the students are Hispanic and more than 25 percent are African American.
There is one significant difference between Mesquite and most of the other districts across the state — Mesquite has achieved where other districts have struggled. In the last five years, Mesquite ISD has been recognized by the Broad Foundation for excellence in urban schools. (Eli and Edyth Broad made their fortunes in housing and banking, and have given back nearly $400 million dollars to urban schools across the U.S. by recognizing districts doing more with less.) To be recognized for the Broad Prize places a district in elite company across the U.S. The basic tenet of the Broad Prize is: Every person and every dollar in the school district central offices and schools must be focused — efficiently and effectively — on students, not adults, and must be held accountable for results. The district doesn’t apply to win the Broad Prize, but rather the Broad Foundation chooses the districts for competition. Mesquite ISD qualified in 2008 and 2009. In December 2010, Mesquite ISD was spotlighted by the Broad Foundation as one of 16 school districts in the U.S. whose Hispanic students outperformed their peers across Texas on state assessments and one of 17 school districts across the nation whose low-income students outperformed their peers on state assessments. In addition, the district has consistently narrowed gaps in student performance among its student groups. All employees are held accountable for their part in supporting success for all students.
Closer to home, the FAST (Financial Allocation Study for Texas) program named Mesquite a five-star district – one of only 32 out of more than 1,000 public school districts in Texas. FAST is run by the Texas Comptroller’s office, and ranks schools according to a formula that combines achievement using the TAKS test scores, along with graduation rates, then factors in the amount of money spent on each student. For the schools or districts with strong math and reading scores, and a low amount spent per child, they are given up to five stars on the rating system. Schools with high spending per child and low achievement will have a one-star rating.
The most recent award came in April, 2011, from the Quality Texas Foundation, a non-profit organization which administers the annual performance excellence awards based on the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award Criteria. In simplest terms, Baldrige is about the process of continuous improvement. Mesquite ISD is the 2011 winner of the Texas Award for Performance Excellence. The process of continuous improvement, with an outcome of educating children — and doing it well — is no small task.
Setting the Strategy
Dr. Henrie has spent her entire career in Mesquite. Following graduation from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, she began teaching at Mesquite High School and stayed there for 17 years before moving into administration. Like most CEOs, Dr. Henrie wants to give credit for success to everyone around her. And while it is likely deserved, anyone who has run a company knows success begins at the top with a clear vision and clearer expectations. “As recently as six years ago, I don’t think I would have said we are a data-driven district, but we are now,” stated Henrie. “Some of it is necessity because of the accountability system, and some of it is the huge financial investment by our community in education. Our philosophy was: If we’re going to ask our voters to support us, we have to prove it and show we’re doing better.”
The annual planning process at Mesquite ISD begins early in the year. “As part of our yearly planning process we now begin meeting with our central staff in January and look at where we are and where we need to go. We then disaggregate our data. In the summer when we get back our data from the state, the principals and I meet, along with some of the instructional staff, and we have a data day. We talk. The day is not meant to put anybody on the defensive, but rather to look and say, ‘Here’s where we are.’”
At Mesquite ISD, the staff compares themselves to neighbors; they benchmark, discuss goals and determine what contributions will be made by each school to get to their goals. After planning at the district level is finished, principals take the goals back to their campuses and discuss with their staffs a campus improvement plan. Dr. Henrie and the Associate Superintendent split the campuses so each meets with 23 principals, one at a time. “We meet to go over their plan, what they’ve accomplished, what their goals are, and what we can do to support their ability to achieve,” said Henrie. Sound familiar? This is the same process any good business goes through with the key management team in annual planning – just substitute principal for a c-suite title.
Dr. Henrie sets the bar high. “We said years ago we cannot focus on minimum expectations, but rather on that higher standard to get to ‘commended.’ That has paid benefits. Most of all, it has made us pay attention to core learning in the classroom,” Henrie observed. “We can’t ever be satisfied. I adhere firmly to the philosophy in “Good to Great.” When things are going well you look out the window; when they are not going well you look in the mirror. I believe that,” Dr. Henrie observed.
Developing the Culture
If core learning in the classroom is the path to success, then good teaching opens the door. When asked about the attributes of a good teacher, Dr. Henrie did not even pause a moment to answer. “They are very knowledgeable about what they are teaching,” she said. “They are compassionate, model their expectations for the students, are trusting, ethical, and show a passion for what they are doing.” Dr. Henrie also knows good teachers go beyond what’s expected and form strong relationships with students by supporting them outside the classroom. That can mean attending ball games, or simply listening or sharing a pat on the back. Good teachers also model the importance of continuous learning. The list reads like the characteristics of an ideal boss.
The Mesquite School Board just approved the work done by a committee of teachers, central office staff, and one student on the characteristics of a good teacher. “Every new teacher will sign a pledge when they come to work for us. It talks about the importance of good attendance, being prepared, being knowledgeable, valuing teaching and learning,” said Henrie.
To develop the educated workforce Texas’ businesses will need, Henrie knows children need to go to college – whether the definition of higher learning is vocational learning, a community college or a four-year university. Often when there are no dollars to solve the problem, creativity brings a better solution. “We have a locally developed program called ‘Future Quest,’” shared Henrie. “We wrote our own Dr. Seuss-style children’s book as part of the basics and to set expectations. It’s a rhyme book, and every kindergarten student gets one when he or she enters school.” The message to the child is fivefold: Make good choices, take challenging classes, study and work hard, get involved in extracurricular activities, and your future is all up to you. To reinforce the message, every six weeks there’s a different classroom ‘Future Quest’ lesson from kindergarten through grade six. From there, it spirals up by grade with the students developing goals, talking about college, and even watching videos of Mesquite graduates on college campuses so they know what SMU or Texas Tech looks like. The annual graduation ceremony is also videotaped so students can see how exciting it is to be a part of the celebration. Henrie noted, “We plant that mindset early in elementary school.”
The middle school and high school students are part of ‘My Future,’ with each school having a ‘My Future’ council. Children are taught the application process to enter college, including how to write letters, what types of universities are available, information on majors and what classes they need to take for college prep. College week is in the spring, and every campus is involved. Notes Henrie, “Even in the cafeteria we have Baylor Bear burgers, and A&M Aggie apple pie; the very last day of college week, every one of us throughout the district can wear a college shirt and everyone does.” Most years, there’s a sea of burnt orange moving through the hallways.
And what of the top ten percent achievers who will qualify to get into the University of Texas at Austin or A&M? “We also have a program called ‘Elite Scholars.’ This recognizes the students with the highest potential to achieve, although we have to keep this group small because of our limited resources,” commented Henrie. “This prep has paid huge dividends.”
The district had just gotten word of three grants – one from the University of Texas that will send an advisor from UT to North Mesquite High School to advise students on prep for admission to college; and two from the United Way for ‘Destination Graduation.’ “We’re excited about that because we can bring in programs that bring parents into the schools,” said Henrie.
Allocation of Capital
When asked about the looming budget cuts, Dr. Henrie’s mood visibly changes – she knows a less-educated workforce means losing the edge in attracting businesses to Texas, and even less money for education. “If we want a sound future for our state we are going to have to invest in education,” she stated. Henrie had recently been in Austin to speak with legislators, and one of them asked, “Do we want to build schools, or do we want to build prisons?” Henrie believes if you don’t do well on the front end, then the outcome is going to be negative on the back end. “We can educate children less expensively than we can run prisons,” Henrie observed. “It’s hard for me to understand some of the accusations we hear about frivolous spending or budgets that are extraordinarily out of sight. I don’t know any [districts] that aren’t using their money to serve their students. We have got to have an educated workforce,” asserted Henrie.
Keeping students in school continues to be a challenge. The statistics on the earning power of dropouts shows they will earn $250,000 less over their working lives than someone who completed high school. “The dropout rate starts in elementary school, not high school or middle school. Being accountable for every student in your class to be successful is absolutely vital in elementary school. If the student is successful they will enjoy school,” noted Henrie.
“Another push we have is to get every student connected to an organization. Our data shows we are predominately Hispanic. We have a salsa club, intramural soccer and other things that engage the population that’s here. Every bit of research says if a student is engaged in an extracurricular, they will typically be a better student,” noted Henrie. “We do really well with achievement with our Hispanic students, especially in elementary school. We are especially strong there.”
Dr. Henrie is deeply concerned about the children of Texas whom she passionately believes deserve a good education. Mesquite ISD is now facing the possibility of cutting another 50 teachers. “I want to share a story,” she said. “In our district, we have 66 to 67 percent low socioeconomic students. At one of our high schools with a particularly high percentage of low socioeconomic students, we recently had a graduate who grew up in bad family circumstances. His mom, who primarily raised him, developed a serious illness, and her son helped care for her. At some point, they didn’t have electricity, and they were running a lamp cord into another apartment for light. He had one pair of pants, and was a student really in need. He made up his mind that his circumstances would not be a detriment. He’s now on a full ride to Cornell (University in Ithaca, New York). He did not have the money to get up there, so Southwest Airlines and American Airlines donated tickets. People donated clothing because he didn’t have a coat. There was an outpouring from the businesses around Dallas to help. He’s doing well, although it’s been a culture shock,” Henrie said with a smile. “I’m so proud of him. He’s a great example of what can be done when we have the tools. Those teachers and counselors that shepherded him along the way – what if that one teacher had not been there?”
As demographics continue to change, one of the wishes Henrie has is to start children in school earlier. “Let us have them at age three for a half-day, and at four for a full day pre-K program, then into a full day kindergarten program. By the time our kindergartners leave, 99 percent of them are reading, and I attribute that to our teachers. When some children come to school, some have never even held a book. If we want to put our money where our mouth is, invest in education,” Henrie noted.
When asked if someone handed her a check, what she’d spend the new found dollars on, the list came quickly – instructional specialists in reading, math and science; continuous learning for teachers, the integration of more technology into the classrooms and more on college prep programs. Henrie lamented, “I used to think $1 million was a lot of money, but it’s not.”
May 16, 2015 Comments Off on The Texas Migration Miracle
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