I am concerned about how we label public schools.

It is common to tag schools as “good” or “bad,” “successful” or “failing,” “homeowner families” or “apartment kids.” I have even heard people judge the relative merit of Lake Highlands schools based upon whether the school is east or west of Skillman!
Let’s pause and reevaluate how we describe our schools, staffs and students.

Our community is rightly celebrating that most Lake Highlands schools are rated as “exemplary” or “recognized” under the Texas Education Agency accountability system. However, we each have different measures of evaluating our neighborhood schools. Some people are most interested in objective data, such as standardized test scores, class sizes and course offerings. Others focus on success within competitive fields, such as athletics, fine arts and academic decathlon. For many, it is the subjective “feel” of a school as safe, nurturing and friendly.

I suggest that there is no single criterion that measures the effectiveness of a school. Nor is there any labeling system that accurately describes the performance of each facet of a school’s mission. Rather, we must evaluate schools based upon multiple criteria and benchmarks, both objective and subjective.

Beware of schools’ labels, opinions, and characterizations. Just as people have reputations, so do schools. A school’s “good” reputation may be outdated, or the school may have rested on laurels and not continued to strive toward even higher goals. Schools with a “lesser” reputation may have improved and deserve credit for their efforts and their students’ achievements. Trust me, each RISD campus has a road map for achievement and continuous improvement.

Two Lake Highlands schools, Stults Road Elementary and Wallace Elementary, demonstrate that schools are often misperceived and improperly “slotted.” These two schools are the first RISD schools in Lake Highlands to ever qualify as “exemplary” under the Texas accountability system (by the way, several other Lake Highlands schools barely missed exemplary status). However, the demographics of Stults Road and Wallace do not fit the “mold” of high-achieving schools (i.e., they have high numbers of minority children and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, a Texas indicator of low socioeconomic status). The staff and students at these schools ignored supposed “barriers” to student achievement and followed their roadmap, worked hard, and stayed focused. At the same time, those students behaved well and had fun.  Stults Road and Wallace are prime examples that all students can achieve and meet high expectations.

There are myriad factors and variables that impact a school’s effectiveness. Are there sufficient physical and financial resources to meet needs? Are quality teachers in each classroom? Are parents and community volunteers involved to enrich the school environment and provide extra opportunities? I am convinced, however, that the single most determinative factor in whether a school is successful using any measure is the effectiveness of the building leader — the principal.

The real leaders in the Lake Highlands area are not those who have been elected to public office or serve on boards and committees. Rather, Lake Highlands is led by a group of dedicated, selfless and caring principals at our 16 area public schools. These principals have principles — they are role models for all of us. No longer is the school principal just an administrator; in today’s world, the principal must also be the instructional leader of the campus, developing programs, setting goals, and allocating resources so that each student has the opportunity to succeed.

I was reminded of principals’ overarching leadership when I recently attended the memorial service for Bill Passmore, who many of us consider “Principal Emeritus.” Mr. Passmore was the first principal at Lake Highlands Elementary and Merriman Park Elementary, and also led other RISD campuses to success. Following in Mr. Passmore’s footsteps, the current principals in our neighborhood schools are true leaders establishing legacies of excellence, whether measured by academic achievement, well-behaved and respectful students, or community trust and support.

Be proud of our neighborhood schools. Support their efforts and celebrate their achievements. Rest assured, thanks to our principals, Lake Highlands schools are in good hands.

See you at school.