Category Archives: education news

Here’s to you, the best of our public educators

School has begun in many districts around Texas. The brand new elementary school just down the street from my wife and me in Princeton opens its doors tomorrow morning.

They’re still gussying up the grounds, getting ready to lay down the last of the sod. But … this blog post is aimed at saluting the teachers who will stand in classrooms at Dorothy Lowe Elementary School here in Princeton and in classrooms everywhere.

They are special in every meaningful definition of the word.

I want to salute them. I want to tell them out loud and in public through this forum how much I appreciate the work they do to care for our children, to teach them the lessons they must learn and to be there for them when they need emotional support.

My sons are middle-aged men now. But I do have a granddaughter attending elementary school in a nearby district. She loves school, and for that I am so grateful.

I have experienced just a bit of what these teachers have to do. You see, not long after my journalism career ended in 2012, I decided to become a substitute teacher. I applied for a position with the Amarillo Independent School District. I got accepted, passed the background check, attended an orientation session … and then went to work.

I learned something important about myself. It was that I am not wired for this line of work. Thus, my admiration for good teachers grew mightily as I dealt with the challenges the students threw at me on a daily basis.

I was told during the orientation that if students gave me too much grief, I could call the office and the staff would scurry to the classroom and remove the troublesome student or students. I was highly reluctant to make that call.

So, I suffered some of the indignities the students would throw at me. This occurred mostly at the high school level. The students seemed to know intuitively that the “sub” was in over his head.

Thus, my “career” as a substitute teacher didn’t last a school year. I couldn’t cope.

This is my way of saluting those teachers who do far more than “cope” with the kids. They teach them. They counsel them. They guide them on their path to productive adulthood.

They are the often-unsung heroes of contemporary society.

Therefore, I want to wish them all the very best as they meet the challenges that the students will present to them.

Godspeed to you all.

AISD board is now full … time to get to work

Kayla Mendez and David Nance now are members of the Amarillo Independent School District board of trustees.

Good for them. I wish them well from afar.

I will stipulate that I don’t know either of them. I am left to presume the school board that chose them did so after doing its due diligence. I actually spoke in this blog in favor of former Amarillo Mayor Debra McCartt. So, she didn’t get the nod. Time to move on, Mme. Mayor.

The board also wisely avoided selecting an applicant who got defeated in the AISD election in May, but who wanted to return to the fray.

So, what’s the challenge awaiting the board? Transparency seems to stand out.

AISD is still trying to slog its way out of the mess created by the removal of an Amarillo High School volleyball coach and the mess that swirled around a former trustee who hassled, harassed and harangued the coach over playing time delivered to the trustee’s daughters.

Here’s a thought: How about revealing to the community the circumstance that led to the departure of the coach, who left a post she held for a single season?

The trustee implicated in the coach’s departure, Renee McCown, has quit; so did former trustee John Ben Blanchard.

Mendez and Nance now get to step into what all observers should hope is a public school system that is prepared to fix what went wrong and then explain fully how it repaired it.

A&M chancellor says Aggies are generous, too

Blogger’s Note: This post appeared originally on KETR-FM’s website. I am reposting on High Plains Blogger because I want readers of this blog to see it, too. 

The media and the University of Texas-Austin might have gotten a bit ahead of themselves in praising the flagship UT System campus officials’ decision to waive college tuition for students who come from families that fall under a certain income level.

That’s the word, at least from Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

Hmm. Is he right?

Sharp has penned a letter to the editor that I presume ran in several newspapers around the state to declare that the A&M System has been offering free college tuition for years. So, the UT-Austin initiative isn’t new, says Sharp.

Sharp noted in his letter that “Several of you have asked if Texas A&M University has plans for a tuition-free program for students from low-income families similar to what the University of Texas recently announced. In fact, Texas A&M University implemented virtually the … same program 10 years ago. The Texas A&M program is called Aggie Assurance. And since 2008, the program has allowed 33,447 undergraduate students from families earning less than $60,000 a year to attend college tuition free.”

The UT System recently announced plans to waive tuition for students whose families earn less than $65,000 annually. It drew high praise around the state. I used my own blog, High Plains Blogger, to speak well of the UT System’s efforts to make college more affordable. To be honest, I was unaware of the Aggie Assurance program to which Sharp has alluded in his letter.

Sharp added, “In addition, Texas A&M University System regents set aside $30 million additional dollars in 2018 to provide help for students of families who earn $100,000 or less or who are stricken with financial hardships such as losses during natural disasters, death of a breadwinner or some other calamity.

“This program, dubbed Regents’ Grants, was created after Hurricane Harvey and has helped hundreds of students who lost books, clothes and transportation, among other things.”

The program is available not just to Texas A&M flagship-campus students, but to all students within the A&M System, according to Sharp.

Are you paying attention, Texas A&M-Commerce students?

These programs are worth mentioning in the context of the 2020 presidential campaign that is becoming to obtain momentum. Several of the horde of Democrats running for their party’s presidential nomination have talked openly about offering free college tuition for all public university students. The UT System as well as the A&M System are dipping into their substantial endowments to fund the assistance programs they are offering their students.

So, I suppose you could suggest that two of Texas’s major public university systems are ahead of the proverbial curve on that one.

I know what many critics have said about Texas’s commitment to public education, that it isn’t nearly as robust, progressive and proactive as it should be. I won’t debate all of that here.

However, I do want to commend the Texas A&M and the University of Texas systems for their efforts to provide quality public university education opportunities for students and their families who otherwise might be unable to shoulder the financial burden that such an education often brings with it.

Amarillo ISD finds a bit of wisdom with name change

I have been beating up on the Amarillo Independent School District in recent months, but today I want to offer a good word or maybe three to the AISD Board of Trustees.

Trustees have voted unanimously to change the name of a school that carried the name of a Confederate general while serving a community comprising a significant population of African-American students.

Robert E. Lee Elementary School had been changed to Lee Elementary School. However, today the school’s name was changed to Park Hills Elementary School.

The irony of African-American students attending school carrying the name of a soldier who fought for the right of states to legalize slavery became too much, even for normally staid and reticent Amarillo, Texas. Lee led the Confederate forces against the Union during the Civil War.

So the board decided to change the name.

To which I want to offer a rhetorical high-five, a bouquet, a word of recognition for making the right decision, given the contentiousness that the issue of racial sensitivity — and a particularly grim chapter of our nation’s history — continues to engender.

Well done, Amarillo ISD trustees.

Transparency is MIA at Amarillo ISD

I believe I can state with confidence that a coalition of parents demanding transparency at the Amarillo Independent School District has identified a seriously legitimate area of concern.

It involves the “resignation” of a high school girls volleyball coach and the circumstances that led to her departure after a single season at the helm of a vaunted athletic program.

You know the story: Kori Clements left her post as Amarillo High School’s volleyball coach at the beginning of this year. It was called a resignation. She submitted a letter stating her desire to resign, citing harassment from a parent and a lack of support from the school board and the senior administration at AISD.

I have learned there is a whole lot more to the story than was declared publicly.

Clements’s contract was not renewed. She was, in effect, terminated by the school system. Why? Well, it gets sticky. AISD administrators told Clements she wasn’t “communicating” effectively with parents who said they were concerned about the coach’s parceling out of playing time to some of the girls on her team.

Clements asked her bosses at AISD to cite specifics. She asked them to give her an avenue to correct what they said was wrong with her communication skills. Clements said administrators refused to give her the chance to fix the problem.

She had a series of meetings with administrators, including Amarillo High principal David Vincent, AISD athletic director Brad Thiessen and others. Ultimately, she was told her contract would not be renewed. Clements was a first-year teacher and, thus, was a “probationary” faculty member, meaning the district could choose to not renew her contract if that was the decision.

One of they key principals in this “playing time” matter happened to be a school board trustee, Renee McCown, who had two daughters playing for the Sandies volleyball team. McCown has since resigned from the board, which currently is looking to fill her vacant seat along with a seat vacated by the resignation of  trustee John Ben Blanchard.

The Parents for Transparency Coalition is demanding a more thorough accounting of AISD policies, actions and decisions. I believe, based on what I have learned, that the coalition has a legitimate concern.

Clements’ departure from AHS was not as it was portrayed publicly when she made her announcement. She was forced to quit by administrators and, by association, by the board of trustees that chose to keep its hands off this discussion. The irony is that one of the trustees was implicated in the mess that that has smeared the school system.

Did the Sandies volleyball team underperform during Clements’ single year at the helm? No. Their record was nearly identical to what it was the previous year, the final season that Jan Barker coached before retiring.

So, what do we have here? We have a situation that needs to be aired out. Clements’ departure from the Amarillo HS job, to my understanding of it, bears virtually no resemblance to what has been portrayed by the school system.

Transparency? It is missing in action.

They call it ‘cursive writing’; I’ll call it ‘penmanship’ … it’s back!

They’re bringing penmanship back to public school curricula, to which I say: woo hoo!

The Texas State Board of Education voted in 2017 to bring back what they call “cursive writing.” Beginning with the new school year that begins on Aug. 15, all schools will be teaching it to students.

While working on a story for KETR-FM radio, I was touring a brand new school in Princeton with the principal, Jeff Coburn, who confirmed what I knew already, that cursive writing was staging a comeback in Texas public school classrooms.

I am delighted to see this trend. A Houston Chronicle story referred to cursive writing as a “lost art” that is being rediscovered. The advent of computers, tablets, I-pads, smart phones, gadgets, gizmos and various electronic doo-hickeys have helped bury the lost art. Many of us thought it would be lost forever.

It’s not.

I used to get good elementary grade marks for my penmanship. My parents both wrote with exquisite precision. My two sisters have managed to maintain their handwriting skills. Me? I lost ’em long ago when I took up the craft of journalism, a vocation that required me to take copious notes at a furious pace. These days I can barely sign my name without stopping and thinking — if only for an instant — about the next letter I need to form.

But … I digress.

Youngsters have been educated without learning that particular skill.

Fox News reported: Diane Schallert, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, compared learning cursive to learning a new language. Schallert, who studies how language and learning coincide, told WCNC that requiring students to learn cursive can help children grow their comprehension skills.

“With language comprehension, there’s this reciprocity between producing and comprehending,” Schallert said. “By seeing the letter being formed slowly at your control, you’re considering its sound-symbol correspondence.”

That’s a pretty clinical explanation. I am just thrilled that we are about to resurrect one of the “3 Rs” that had been all but abandoned in our public school classrooms.

I wonder if they’ll let this old man sit in so I can re-learn the lost skill for myself.

UT takes huge step toward granting free tuition

I am quite surprised this bit of news hasn’t gained much traction in national media outlets, but get a load of this flash.

The University of Texas has just announced that any student who enrolls at the system’s flagship campus in Austin gets his or her tuition paid in full if the student comes from a family earning $65,000 or less annually.

This a huge! The UT System Board of Regents voted to spring $160 million from the system’s endowment to help cover the cost of tuition for about 8,600 undergraduate students at UT-Austin.

While many Democratic primary presidential candidates have talked about making public college education free for all students, the University of Texas System is moving ahead with a bold initiative of its own toward that end.

The Texas Tribune reports: “Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in the business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board chair Kevin Eltife said … after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting  their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families of Texas.”

This is huge news coming from one of the country’s most well-known, highly regarded and wealthiest public universities.

I am quite certain a lot of families throughout the state are full of smiling faces as their young people prepare for the upcoming academic year.

The endowment funds won’t pay for all students, to be sure. It merely helps those students whose parents need a hand.

Well done, UT regents.

A defeated AISD trustee wants back on?

Another applicant has jumped into the soup.

It’s official! I just submitted my application to be considered for one of the two vacant seats of the Amarillo ISD Board of Trustees! If you would like to support me in this process please contact the Board via the Contact Board Form link. Voice your support and ask that I get appointed to the board. Thank you everyone who has supported me along this process!

Well, I will offer a brief rejoinder to this applicant’s request for an appointment to a governing board … from which he was just ousted in a districtwide election in early May.

John Betancourt, a former Amarillo Independent School District trustee, wants the current board to select him to fill one of two vacancies on the seven-member board. He announced his application on his Facebook page today.

I normally would endorse such an appointment, given that Betancourt would represent an underserved constituency on the board: the AISD’s growing Hispanic population.

Except that he stood for re-election in May and was defeated in that effort. AISD voters — those who bothered to cast their ballots — decided he wasn’t worthy of being re-elected.

I shall stipulate that I don’t have a tangible role to play here. I don’t even live within the AISD boundaries. I am just a former Amarillo resident who retains an interest in the community where I lived for 23 years.

Betancourt well might deserve to return to the AISD board — one day. Were he to run for a spot on the board in the next election, that would be OK. However, for the board to appoint Betancourt so soon after the voters spoke against him would in my view be the epitome of insult to the constituents whose voice will have been ignored.

The AISD board, which comprises mostly new faces at the moment, is still trying to get its bearings in what I believe is an uncertain political climate. The district is still reeling a bit from the controversial resignation of a high school volleyball coach, the resignation of two trustees — including one trustee who was implicated in the coach’s resignation.

Betancourt was part of that dust-up, which well might have played a role in his being defeated for re-election. Return him now, so soon after he was kicked out of office?

Don’t do it.

No problem with appointing school trustees

I am hearing a bit of grumbling from up yonder in my former digs in the Texas Panhandle about whether the Amarillo Independent School District should appoint two school trustees.

The school board has two vacancies to fill. Trustees are likely to select two individuals to fill the seats formerly occupied by John Ben Blanchard and Renee McCown. The other option is to conduct a special election to fill those seats.

The AISD board comprises seven members. Right now it’s got just five. My feeling is that the school board is quite capable of interviewing/vetting applicants for the posts, then swear them in and allow them to serve until the next scheduled election.

It falls heavily on the board to find applicants who can serve the community well. So why not let the board of trustees — who’ve already been elected by their constituents — perform that responsibility?

They are aware of the complaints, I am sure. Some of the gripes concern the lack of Hispanic representation on the current board of trustees. That’s a critical element, given AISD’s heavy Hispanic student population among its 33,000 public school students.

I am absolutely convinced the school board can lobby throughout the community for qualified leaders from any of the district’s increasingly diverse ethnic population base.

Is it better to appoint or to elect board members? Well, elections are a more costly proposition than the appointive process. They also require some time for candidates to campaign for the office they are seeking, which would keep the seats vacant for what arguably is longer than is necessary.

So, study the applicants. Question them thoroughly.

Indeed, there’s no legal requirement that trustees these people privately. In the interest of full transparency, I think it’s absolutely reasonable to visit with them in public. Give constituents — the folks who pay the bills with their property taxes — the chance to hear these applicants’ answers to trustees’ questions.

The appointment process can be done with full public awareness and buy-in.

Have at it, Amarillo ISD trustees … and good luck.

AISD board ought to include this applicant

This just in: A former Amarillo mayor has tossed her name into the mix to be considered for appointment to the Amarillo Independent School District Board of Trustees.

Yep, that would be Debra McCartt.

This news excites me. I happen to know McCartt. I also happen to believe she would lend some needed gravitas to the board. She also would bring some important governing experience to a board that has gone through its share of turmoil in recent months.

Here is what McCartt said today on Facebook: I’m excited to announce that I have officially thrown my name into the hat to fill one of the two open spots on the Amarillo Independent School District’s Board of Trustees. As you know, I’ve always had a passion for serving my community and have a long history of working in education, including eight years as a teacher and most recently a substitute. Educating our children is one of the most critical investments that we can make! I would love to be able to work to make our already excellent school district even better for our students. Stay tuned! 

I’m going to “stay tuned,” all right.

Two board seats need filling, as McCartt points out. One of them once was occupied by John Ben Blanchard, the other by Renee McCown. They both resigned shortly after the May election that produced several newcomers to the seven-member board.

Why is McCartt a fascinating candidate for appointment? It’s because she brings an enormous level of energy to a governing body such as this.

She served three terms as mayor of Amarillo. Prior to that she served a couple of terms as city commissioner. She earned her spurs on that governing board. Indeed, I was fond of suggesting that McCartt defied “the laws of physics” by seeming to be everywhere in the city all at once. She was a tremendous advocate and spokeswoman for the city.

I believe her ability to speak passionately for the city transfers to the Amarillo Independent School District.

I mentioned the tumult that enveloped the school district. It involved the resignation of a high school volleyball coach the implication that a school trustee had interfered with the coach’s performance of her job. McCown was the trustee allegedly involved in that mess. A complaint filed with the Texas Education Agency said that McCown had interfered on behalf of her daughters, who played for the Amarillo High School Sandies volleyball team. The coach quit and said in her resignation letter that the board and administration had failed to give her the backing she believed she needed.

To the best of my knowledge, McCartt does not have any children currently enrolled in the Amarillo public school system. I do not know if she has any grandchildren in the system.

I do know, though, that her time as a city commissioner and mayor did not include any accusations of meddling. She knows her limits as a member of a governing board and follows the rules to the letter.

There will be other good candidates, to be sure. I just feel the need to weigh in on this application in the hope that the AISD board gives Debra McCartt full consideration for an appointment.

I believe she would be a great addition to the school board.