Pleasanton ISD Superintendent Dr. Matthew Mann shared his State of the District, goals and initiatives for the 2021-2022 school year. Joining in on the conversation were part of his team, PISD Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Venus Vela and PISD Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Donato.
The district was the earliest to start the school year in Atascosa County. In the fall of 2020, setting up COVID-19 protocols meant that the district had to push back the start of school until after Labor Day.
“We had worked with the calendar committee from last year and decided we wanted 180 instructional days,” said Dr. Mann. “We felt like we needed to have the maximum number of days that we could have with our students, not knowing how the year started. The more we are getting into this year, the more we’re thinking that was a good idea. So, that left for a short summer.”
Therefore, the last day of school will be May 25 and next summer will be a little longer.
In July, the district ended its successful summer learning programs, put together by Dr. Vela and her staff. Approximately 450 students in kindergarteneighth grades took part in the programs. It focused on two content areas, reading and math.
“So in each content area, we gave approximately two and a half hours, give or take. They had a 30-minute lunch. We incorporated two 15-minute breaks for them. And for the students, lunch was a hit because all year, they had been eating in their classroom and they just hadn’t had that opportunity to go through the cafeteria line and eat their lunch like they previously had prior to COVID,” said Dr. Vela.
Students enjoyed eating foods like breakfast tacos and fried chicken. There were also treats like brownies and chips.
“That was really awesome for our food services department to provide a hot breakfast and lunch for them. They attended Monday through Thursday, and it was almost a full day, from 8 to 2:30.”
Attendance incentives were incorporated for the students and teachers. Area businesses were asked to donate and served as sponsors.
“So it was a treat for them. It was just that sense of being able to come to school and have a little bit of the normal experience that they had prior to COVID. They really enjoyed that. So, it was a great opportunity to reinforce the content that we deliver during the school year,” said Dr. Vela.
The previous year, PISD also held a summer learning program, but it was all through distance learning due to COVID.
“We implemented a pre- and post-test tied to a teacher incentive for the progress that students made. We asked the teachers if they were interested in getting paid in that way, as well,” explained Dr. Vela. “They have a base pay, but this is an extra incentive for them. So they were very much interested in that.”
A pre-test for students was created. During summer learning this past June and July, students took an assessment followed by 12 days of instruction. On the last day, the students took the post-test.
“Obviously, that was a great benefit for the students, for them to show growth in their content, in math or reading or both. And for the teachers, it was an extra incentive. So for every student that made growth, it was a certain dollar amount on top of their regular base pay that they get for the summer learning, for teaching summer learning,” said Dr. Vela.
She added, “I know we were super proud as a district, hearing from other districts that it was so hard to just recruit teachers.
And that was really not an issue for us.”
During the summer, they resurfaced the floors at the gyms and deepcleaned. Over the past five years or so, they transitioned from waxed floors to no-wax floors and concrete floors, which saves some time in the summer.
Dr. Mann added they have an aggressive maintenance schedule, making sure they are sustaining buildings and replacing things like roofs, parking lots, etc. The maintenance team did a fantastic job, said Dr. Mann and pushed through with major projects over the summer. The largest one was the tennis courts.
“The tennis courts was a major tear out and replacement. So we went from four doubles and two singles to eight doubles with lights and fencing and a separate seating area,” said Dr. Mann. “It’s with canopies and the whole deal, so it’s something we’re really proud of.”
Other projects were the parking lot by the stadium and the lot in front of the junior high and in front of the new district training center. They also resurfaced the parking lot in front of the co-op building.
Capital improvement projects
“We have an ongoing capital improvement list that we meet on weekly and we meet with campuses and departments and with the maintenance department to see what’s next and what we need to focus on,” said Donato.
For the upcoming year, they have started to look at the JROTC obstacle course and the PAC and Sports Complex chillers. Those next two big projects are coming up and the school anticipates receiving bids on them soon. They are also looking for a small greenhouse for the junior high.
Other items on the list include roof replacements and redoing the primary entrance.
One project they completed this past summer was the junior high practice field. Previously it was full of stickers and a sand pit. They were able to run an irrigation from the well across the street underneath Bluebonnet Drive. This allowed for effective irrigation and putting in some new field, offering an expanded safe place to practice soccer, football, PE and athletics.
Dr. Mann is also proud of the marquis in front of the high school, which the PHS Class of 2019 helped support. He also thanked the City of Pleasanton for helping with the variance which allowed for the sign to be put up quickly.
“We’ve had lots of projects, so it’s been really great to have such great partners with the city. We have very tight timelines on so many things, and we try to get those finished,” said Dr. Mann.
The other big project for the next year will be another ag facility. It will be located by the existing ag facility and designed for additional species such as goats and possibly for rabbits, poultry and cattle.
“It’s growing. So we want to keep up with that growth and that enthusiasm for it,” said Dr. Mann.
HRS & HRT
He has challenged his leadership staff not to walk backwards from COVID.
“One of the goals from last year was to be Level 2 certified with our effective instruction in all classrooms, which we were proud to say we were the only district in Texas to receive that distinction this year, which was really pleasant to have. So, we’re very proud of that,” said Dr. Mann. “We hit the ground running again for Level 3, which is a guaranteed, viable curriculum.”
Dr. Vela is coordinating some of this and explained High Reliability Schools (HRS) and High Reliability Teachers (HRT).
“HRT is individualized to the teacher. HRS for the entire school says,” according to Marzano’s work, if you implement and have certain factors in your school building that are researchbased to be effective, you will see that impact in, obviously, student achievement. So they prescribe different areas in the levels,” said Dr. Vela.
“HRT is pretty much in the same sense that teachers are able to work at individual goals to improve their practice. We have currently about 50 teachers that are in some level, some course of High Reliability Teachers with the work of the Marzano Group,” she added.
As long as they are in the district, for every course they complete they will continue to receive that stipend. There are 12-15 teachers in course three currently.
“That means they’ve completed course one and course two. So that’s $1,000. So, every year, they will see that stipend attached to their salary. And the most important part is that they’re improving their practice as a teacher,” said Dr. Vela. “The good news for us is that we will see that in student achievement. So it’s a win-win situation for everyone, for all the stakeholders involved. Students, obviously gain so much more when their teachers are top notch at their work.”
She added it is great to see teachers eager to move through the course work. This involves a lot of self-reflection. Teachers have to record themselves teaching and send it to the Marzano Group for feedback. Teachers have to analyze data that they get from student surveys.
Dr. Mann shared one of the things the district has been asked to do this year, which gives testimony to their growth, is they have been asked by the Marzano Group to record some of their teachers giving lessons and make those as models or exemplars for the program.
The school is also working on its reading academies.
“The State of Texas basically told districts that teachers had to go through the Texas Reading Academies, which is again almost like another Master’s level course for teachers in kinder through third grade. They take it, the course, through a facilitator that facilitates the group from Region 20, our Education Service Center,” said Dr. Vela.
They have discussions about effective reading practices. They also have homework and tests and have to submit two projects.
“So, we may think of our teachers as doing what they do during the day, but I would say there is at least half of our teachers that are doing much more beyond that,” said Dr. Vela. “To grow themselves professionally through either the work of the Marzano Group or the Texas Reading Academies, because both of those are like if they were enrolled in a Master’s level course.”
Schedules for teachers
Something else the district has worked on that Dr. Mann shared is reworking all the master schedules so that the majority of teachers, especially the teachers in the core classrooms, get to have a planning period.
“They get a collaboration time every day. They get to visit with their team and have this planning time together to collaborate. It’s something that we feel that’s absolutely necessary for us to be aligned,” said Dr. Mann. “So the students are receiving an equitable learning experience in each one of the classrooms, that we’re on track.”
It all goes back to the idea that all students deserve a good teacher, Dr. Mann later said.
“It takes a little while to get those master schedules, but now from primary, elementary, junior high and high school, for the core content areas, we have now two different time periods in which they can come. So they have conference period and that planning period.”
PISD has also implemented a comprehensive counseling program.
“We know now all districts across the State of Texas are mandated to have their counselors fill their day with 80% of meeting the needs of students through guidance and counseling services and 20% of their time with other administrative duties that need to happen in a school, as well,” said Dr. Vela.
The school has contracted with Dr. Zambrano, who wrote the comprehensive model for Texas school guidance and counseling and with Marilyn Grubbs, a consultant that has done this work in other districts.
“So, we are spending much more time with our counselors to figure out how we can best serve our students’ social-emotional needs that we know now more than ever is critical to their academic work. It really does, it impacts their academic work. If they are having emotional issues, social issues, they are not ready to walk into a classroom and learn about algebra 1 when they are having those issues,” said Dr. Vela.
“That’s why during this past legislative session, they told school districts, we know that this is an issue amongst our kids. And so, you have people that are trained, that work in the district to do this. But over the years, because being on a campus is a very busy life and other things pop up that are equally as important,” added Dr. Vela. “But now we are pretty much forced as school districts to say, no, this is important.”
There are people qualified in the district to work with students in this way, Dr. Vela shared.
“We had our first meeting with our consultants and our counselors, and so we’re excited to develop a comprehensive plan to make sure we meet the needs of our students. That’s obviously … it’s time well spent,” said Dr. Vela.
She said it is easy for staff and especially assistant principals to get caught up with behaviors that need to be addressed.
“And so, you’re almost being reactive with that. There was a bus issue, there was someone throwing food in the cafeteria, there were all kinds of things that happened,” said Dr. Vela. “But if we spend time being proactive about it and really having our counselors work in small groups or have guidance lessons with our students and teach them kindness, what does respect look like, then we can be proactive. And then that will alleviate some of the things that we’ve been doing over the years as school districts and being reactive. And now the Assistant Principal has to address that issue. But this will definitely put us on the right track to be proactive.”
This is one of the uses that the district’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) grant programs funding will go towards. This will not be a one and done situation, but rather a program that will be implemented over several years.
“This is something that we’ve been very excited about. We’re very blessed to have such reputable and astute consultants to work with us,” said Dr. Mann.
The funding will be used for tutoring, interventions and any other instructional needs that the district has to help meet the social-emotional needs of the students. This includes technology as well.
“One of the big things we wanted to do was, that our Assistant Superintendent has been working on, was adjusting our salary scale for teachers,” said Donato.
“We have all worked to increase the starting teacher salary to now being $52,000. We all worked together to adjust the salary scale to make sure that we met House Bill 3 requirements with the last legislative session that was passed, to make sure that any teacher with more than five year’s experience did have a higher salary, because that was part of it,” said Donato. “We were able to give our non-salary employees a 4% increase this fiscal year. With the adjustment made to the salary scale, on average it was about a 4% increase. It could be higher or lower depending on where you were on the scale.”
Prior to the adjustments, the district insurance contribution was also increased to match what the base level insurance price was. At the beginning of the year, funds were available to give a retention stipend to the employees.
“We had a short summer and an early start and our teachers have been working hard, our staff have been working hard. So, we want to make sure that our budget reflected that. And we made sure that we were able to compensate for that,” said Donato.
One of the things they have been looking at over the last four to five years is replacement schedules.
“We are just making sure that we have these built into the budget, so we don’t have these large expenditures at certain times, that we’ve just got to keep pace with that,” Dr. Mann said. “One of the things is technology so this year we’re going to be purchasing an additional 500 Chromebooks, because they become outdated and they become where they don’t run as fast.
Currently, all students have access to Chromebooks during the day. All learning spaces and classrooms have either Chromebooks or Smart Boards, explained Dr. Mann.
“The other thing we have done, too, from leadership from the board is really dedicate more money to campus budgets,” said Dr. Mann. “We’ve increased the campus budgets considerably and so they’re able to get the things that they need to and the resources that they have and really be able to leverage that quickly.”
In the last three or four years, a substantial additional amount of $10,000 has been given to each campus library. The Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) receives $5,000.
“So we’ve been giving $5,000 to our DAEP to build their library. I don’t know very many school districts that have a library in their discipline setting,” said Dr. Mann. “But it has absolutely been a phenomenal addition to that. Kids love it. And they get new books. These are new stacks that we bring in, titles that are very popular with the students.”
Dr. Vela told Dr. Mann about a student who was worried.
“She had started a series at the campus and was afraid that she was not going to be able to finish it and wanted to know if she could borrow that book. So Dr. Vela and I had purchased the book for her, for her own personal copy and were able to deliver it to her so she could finish that,” said Dr. Mann.
Professional development opportunities
This year, they are concentrating on professional development opportunities for the teachers and counselors. They have set up Assistant Principals meeting together and they have their own professional learning communities.
“The other place that we felt like we really needed to bring some more specialized training is to our Special Ed Department,” said Dr. Mann.
They have looked at making sure they have the tools that they need, bringing in experts that come in and give additional training.
“That’s not just with teachers. That’s with our peer professionals, also. Then we’re paying them overtime to go and have this training that we bring into the district. That’s going to be scheduled throughout the year and for next year so we’re real proud of that work. And that’s for students that might have emotional needs, but also students that have specific medical needs,” said Dr. Mann.
“It’s another comprehensive plan for professional develop in the area of special education. And just as we’re investing time and resources with our counselors, as well,” followed Dr. Vela.
“Those are our most fragile students and they really, just like all of our students, having the COVID and then being in a pandemic, it’s difficult on all those people,” said Dr. Mann.
PISD is expanding its bilingual program.
“We have a dual language one way program and we started at our Primary campus. So we have one pre-K classroom, one kinder and one first,” said Dr. Vela. “So this is our first year that that cohort of students is now at our elementary campus.”
Currently, they do not have a bilingual classroom in third, fourth and fifth grade. However, by next year, they will.
“We’re excited to serve the needs of our emergent bilingual students, as well. and really investing in their resources,” said Dr. Vela.
“Any person that is a bilingual teacher knows that that’s an investment, because you need to have the same resources that you do for your students that speak English. This was our first year that we had to buy, for example, all our reading material for second grade in Spanish,” said Dr. Vela. “And math and science. So, we’ve really been making sure that they have the same amount of resources.”
“It’s really all about student achievement and focusing in on specifically getting the professional development,” said Dr. Mann.
While they cannot control the students they get and where the come from, they can make sure that their adults are trained, ready to go and have the resources needed.
“We’ll meet the students wherever they come to us. And that’s what this is really about. It’s about what we can control,” said Dr. Mann. “We control how prepared we are to receive our students. And that’s our facilities, that’s the programs that we offer, the trainings that we do, the classrooms that we have and the technology, that we have all of these things ready to go to hit the ground as these students come to us.”
“We are seeing student growth,” said Dr. Vela. “We had to take the STAAR assessment and we did show growth or even just maintaining the state level. That was great, knowing that we started in September and we had distance learners at the beginning. It was students getting instruction in different ways, not just the traditional, come to school everyday and see your teacher face to face. We talk about STAAR because that’s usually what people tend to hear, but we have other types of assessment that we use in the district to monitor student progress and we’ve seen growth in that as well. That just affirms that what we’re doing is working. We’re seeing the impact on student achievement.”
This is in part due to much of the expertise that has been brought into the district, with Donato and Dr. Vela and people focusing on doing whatever it takes to make sure students get what they need, said Dr. Mann.
“I’m very proud of their work and Cheryl Barron’s work, too. She can’t join us today, but the work that she’s done, it really is about making sure that we can do everything that we can for our students and really having a focus in on that,” said Dr. Mann. “Changing adult behaviors, it’s where we meet the students where they’re at. And also having the support of the Board. The Board’s been fantastic with all of that. Whatever we’ve asked, they’ve been really supportive of and wanted to make sure that we have the resources and their support behind that. So that’s very exciting, to work with a really cohesive and great team.”