Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The First Impression

Considering this was the first week of school, I planned on my visit this week being an all-day ordeal. I thought that, considering it was Friday, no one would have the time to sit down with me and discuss how the first week went. I was wrong.

I went to the front office to sign in and while they called a member of the administration staff to ensure that I was clear to roam the halls, I decided to speak to a couple of students that were office assistants. Both young ladies were Seniors. Savannah was attending Jefferson High for her first year after transferring from Austin while Clarisa was in her fourth year as a Mustang. My interest was peaked by both because I wanted to get the perspective on someone who was coming from a totally different school as well as the perspective of someone who could compare past years at Jefferson to the current one. Surprisingly, I didn’t have to ask many questions at all. Both young ladies were very candid and open about their experiences at Jefferson High so far.

I began by asking how their first week went. They exhibited an amount of excitement that I had not expected. I expected a sigh and complaints about teachers or schoolwork or other students. Instead I got smiles, bright eyes and what I can only describe as a ‘sense of relief’ as they spoke about how helpful their teachers, counselors and principals have been with helping them throughout the first days of their Senior year. They informed me that everything was very organized, which made their first week nearly completely absent of any of the typical stress.

I then inquired about their thoughts about Principal Cockrell. When a student begins a description of their principal with “she’s very strict and doesn’t play games”, it is usually followed with complaints about how no one likes the principal and the amount of disdain for them around the school. Instead, these young ladies told me how “approachable” and “encouraging” that Principal Cockrell is. I asked Clarisa how she would compare the years before Cockrell to her time since Cockrell has taken over. She automatically lit up even further about how much more discipline there was at the school and how much better she felt about coming to school. It wasn’t a fearful type of description coming from this young lady; it was instead, a sincerely respectful description. One that you have for a family member who keeps you in line, yet makes you feel like you can come to them for anything.

Another thing the young ladies caused me to realize was that they didn’t feel like prisoners in school. They held respect for the admin and staff, but at the same time they were treated like equals. They weren’t looked down upon in a condescending manner. It seemed that the Jefferson staff truly practiced the motto “if you act like an adult, we’ll treat you like an adult”. But they also went a step further and seemed to groom students, who weren’t already adults, into the adults they were sure to be before Senior year.

Now you have to remember that I randomly met these two young ladies. I was waiting for my visitor’s pass when I introduced myself to them. These were not some ‘model students’ placed in front of me by the administration. So I was very surprised when I found out that one of the young ladies was in the process of establishing a Young Women’s Advocacy Camp…singlehandedly! If that wasn’t impressive enough, she informed me that she has already met with the SAISD Superintendent Dr. Duron and made her proposal for funding. I asked her who led her to Dr. Duron and she let me know that she contacted him herself.

I’ll see throughout the rest of the year whether these two young ladies enthusiasm stays at such a high level. I’ll also determine whether or not this interaction with two stellar students was just a circumstantial run-in, or whether this actually is a representation of what Jefferson High is developing as a whole. I pray for the latter, but if the former turns out true, I’ll write about that as well.

I sat in the front office for nearly an hour talking with these two young ladies. Turned out I didn’t even need a visitors pass because I never left that office. It’s funny how a simple hello can turn into such an impressionable interaction.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Presentation

I was delighted to be able to attend the Jefferson High School Ice Cream Social last week. It was similar to an open house, but it was presented in a fashion that I had never seen before. It was held outside on the Jefferson High football field and was presented in a manner which I have seen only at military reviews. All the separate organizations from the football teams to the band to the JROTC to the Lariats and Lassos to Jefferson's Architecture & Environmental studies magnet group marched around the field in front of the crowd of more 300+ parents, students, teachers, admin and Jefferson community members. It was truly impressive seeing not only the organization of the event, but also the participation.

After marching around the track, the students then formed into separate groups across the football field. The presentation was hosted by Greg Simmons (KSAT sportscaster and Jefferson alumni) and Mr. Ed Garza (Former SA Mayor and current SAISD Board Trustee for the Jefferson High community). Also in attendance were State Rep Joaquin Castro, City Councilman Cris Medina, SAISD Board Trustees Carlos Villarreal and Ruben Cuero and many other notable individuals.

The presentation consisted of each organization being introduced and several of the organizations performing for the crowd. (i.e. JROTC, Cheerlearders, Band, etc.) Principal Cockrell and Mr. Garza both boasted about each of the organizations and how a few of them had already began winning awards throughout the summer. I didn't expect such a showcase of talent before school had even started, but I am beginning to realize that Jefferson High School is all about exceeding expectations this year.

This week was the first week of school. I planned on visiting on the first day, but decided not to on the account that I was more so be a pest and overall would be unable to get a good perspective of what this first week is all about. So, instead of jumping in on the first day, I will be visiting the school tomorrow (Friday) in an attempt to inquire about how the first week has gone for the students and staff alike. Hopefully I will have my blog posted within the next few days.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Contrast

Today was the last official day of registration for 2011-2012 Jefferson High students. Since today was designated for Seniors and Juniors I thought it would be a great time to come out and ask parents and students if they have seen a difference since the new administration has been established halfway through the previous school year.

I began by meeting Ms. Whited (Jefferson VP) at the front door as I walked in. She was greeting the parents, assisting with handing out forms and directing them through the process. I asked her how everything was going and she said that it is going much better than other years she has been involved in the process. “Last year there it wasn’t nearly as organized. Parents and students didn’t know where to go and we had a line going out the door into the heat.” She then handed me a simple but explanatory checklist that each student/parent was handed as they came in the door. They were then directed to follow the checkpoints (separate tables for each step on the checklist) going down the main hallway. The checkpoints covered everything from Immunizations to Schedules/Transfers to Lunch Applications to ID cards. There seemed to be no confused faces as I walked past each table. I witnessed no frustration on the faces of students or parents, and best of all, the staff were all smiles, as usual.

As I walked into the cafeteria, which held various organizations tables (i.e. Yearbook committee, Textbook returns, school t-shirts) I saw the PTSA table. I decided to go over and ask them their opinion of the operations at Jefferson High School and how things have changed in the past year. I sat with Jefferson PTSA officers Jose and Sylvia Villanueva and began to ask them questions regarding membership numbers, participation, support from admin as well as their board trustee. They informed me that the previous year they had over 125 paying PTSA members at Jefferson High. I asked them what the key is to developing an active and effective PTSA and their response was something that I had known all along. The PTSA’s teacher’s participation lies with the school administration and the PTSA’s community participation lies with the board trustee. They then began to praise the efforts and support of Principal Cockrell as well as Board Trustee Ed Garza and informed me that without them, the PTSA wouldn’t be nearly as productive. The PTSA at Jefferson has been very active in the past few years due to the support of Ed Garza, but it has improved even more with the additional leadership and support of Ms. Cockrell. Mr. and Mrs. Villanueva also had many kind words for Dr. Duron, SAISD Superintendent. It is rare to hear kind words for Dr. Duron since he has been villainized by many in recent years for proposed school closures. Mr. and Mrs. Villanueva thoughts on the issue pretty much revolved around the fact that it was the Board Trustees' responsibility to oversee the Superintendent and make whatever changes were needed. Fortunately Jefferson High has a stellar Board Trustee that fights for the best in his schools and as a result, Dr. Duron is able to well execute his duties over the Jefferson area schools. But I digress; the effectiveness of the school according to Mr. and Mrs. Villanueva has plenty to do with the community and parental participation, both of which are largely affected by the effectiveness of the PTSA.

After signing up and becoming a paying member of the Jefferson PTSA I walked outside to finally speak to parents and students as they left the building. I stopped several individuals and asked them how the registration process went. Without hesitation they responded with comparisons to previous years and informed me that this year was a drastic improvement from the chaos of registration periods in the past. I also asked the students if they noticed any change within the past year and they all responded with positive feedback. Much of their feedback revolved around the increased behavior of the students at Jefferson. Less fights, less distractions and less stress.

I was at the school for nearly three hours and out of all the individuals I questioned, not once did I get a negative response. Toward the end of my visit I was walking with Ms. Cockrell and I asked her, “Why don’t more people hate you? With this kind of effective leadership, there’s an expectation that students, parents and staff must get chills when you come around.” She simply responded with a smile and a wink as she put her hand on the shoulder of a staff member and said, “How’s everything going honey?”

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Commission

General George C. Marshall was appointed as the Army Chief of Staff by President Franklin Roosevelt on September 1, 1939, the day before World War II began. Marshall held this position until the end of the war in 1945. As Chief of Staff, General Marshall was responsible for building the U.S. military force from its pre-WWII level of 190,000 troops to the peak level of 8.3 million troops in 1945 (yeah, and you thought YOUR job was tough).

Typically when a writer quotes someone like Marshall, you expect something eloquent, emotional and full of inspiration. But sometimes you just need something a bit more direct and to the point. “I don't want you fellows sitting around asking me what to do. I want you to tell me what to do.”

During my visit to Jefferson High this week I was able to sit in on a meeting among the school's counselors and CICs (Campus Instructional Coordinators). This seemed to be their first meeting of the year where they are presented the course offerings and the staff rosters for the year. As the paperwork was being distributed I expected to see a large amount of confusion and frustration among the personnel at the table. The director of the meeting informed the counselors that they would have the most strenuous schedule in the district this year consisting of a '5x5 block scheduling'. This meant that each student at Jefferson would complete a total of 20 classes for the entire year, while students at other schools remained at 16 - 18 classes per year. This is not only a vigorous schedule for the students to undertake, but a strenuous task for counselors to manage. On top of being handed all of this information in less than 30 minutes, the director of the meeting then informed everyone that all of the student's schedules were to be finalized by COB the next day.

Now, I've been in military meetings where commanders have set deadlines weeks ahead for taskings that required much less than what these counselors were expected to complete. Those meetings were usually left with an enormous amount of moaning, groaning and complaining from the folks tasked to complete the assignments. I expected to hear the same moaning and groaning from the meeting at Jefferson. Instead I was presented with a level of motivation and excitement that I would have doubted existed among school administration. Instead of the typical mentions of "this is bull..." and slumped shoulders, I heard "Let's get going!" with heads raised high and smiles that could have convinced me that they were all told that they were getting a well-deserved raise. It was as though these counselors actually enjoyed their jobs...yeah, crazy.

I walked out with one of the counselors who has worked in the school system for several years and asked her "Is this normal?" She replied by informing me that Principals and administration at other schools typically don't get this part of the planning process started until the school year actually begins. So for her it was a delight to experience such preparation ahead of time. She also mentioned that the organization of it all (scheduling, staff rosters, org layout, etc) was something she hadn't seen in other schools and something that she was very impressed/pleased with. She continued by breaking down to me the procedures that go into planning a school year and informed me that it wasn't a simple process.

I know it seems like I should have EXPECTED a high school counselor to know how to do their job, but what I was more impressed with is the fact that these counselors could not only do their own job, but also the job of the person above them. This is a concept that is encouraged in the military; to not only strive to master your job, but to also be able to take over your superior's job as well.

Did I mention that Principal Cockrell was not present during this meeting?

“I don't want you fellows sitting around asking me what to do. I want you to tell me what to do.”