PVAMU Professor helping change Hearne ISD educational culture and student performance
PVAMU College of Education professor is part of a dream team helping Hearne ISD improve academic performance
By: Michael Douglas
Prairie View, TX – A chance meeting several years ago between Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) College of Education Professor Tyrone Tanner and Adrian Johnson, has become a pivotal connection in the radical transformation of the learning experience underway in Hearne, Texas. This small community, just 25 miles north of Bryan/College Station in Robertson County, is home to Hearne Independent School District (HISD). The district has over 900 students enrolled in a 95% economically disadvantaged locale.
When Johnson joined Hearne ISD in 2017 as superintendent, he accepted the challenge of leading a district whose middle school and elementary school had received an “F” rating for three consecutive years from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). But he knew he had a powerful resource at PVAMU in Dr. Tanner.
“When I met him at the TABSE (Texas Alliance of Black School Education) conference” and started talking to him about [achievement gaps for minority students],” Johnson explained, “He was the first one to say ‘I would like to help with this!’”
To avoid a takeover by TEA, Hearne ISD leadership had four options – partner with a Charter School, a University Charter, creating a governmental entity or a non-profit. HISD chose the non-profit route. In July 2018, TEA approved Hearne’s application to create the Hearne Education Foundation (HEF) to oversee the curriculum at the lower campuses as part of an in-district charter partnership.
Superintendent Johnson knew he had to build a stellar team to join the HEF Board.
“Tanner was one of the founding members,” Johnson explained, “We wanted education experts with experience in research, teaching, training and developing teachers and principals. And we wanted them from non-competing districts.”
With Tanner on board, Johnson secured James Wilcox, Superintendent of Longview ISD as the chair, Linda Macias, Chief Academic Officer/Associate Superintendent with Cy-Fair ISD, and professors from Texas A&M University’s College of Education and Human Development.
“We would work with the [HEF] on recommendations,” Johnson stated. “One principal called the board meetings top tier professional development.”
Instead of standard school boards made up of community members, Hearne decided to use academic researchers and school district practitioners to take the oversight and training to another level. This unique model would help ensure teachers understood the culture and the economically challenged background of their students. Most importantly, the HEF held individuals accountable for not allowing these conditions to lower expectations for children who are more than capable of rising to the challenge.
In less than a year, the district is seeing positive results from the HEF guidance. This summer TEA released its 2018 Accountability Ratings, Hearne ISD earned a “B” grade.“Together, we moved the district from a rating of F to B in one year,” Tanner stated. “This is a district that is more than 95% Black and Brown and 97% low SES (Social Economic Status). The superintendent added, “We made difficult decisions to impact the quality of education our children received. It speaks to the fact that when you have dedicated teachers and principals trained on best practices, they transfer their skills into the commitment to the students.”
But there is still work to be done. The high school moved up to a “B”, the junior high improved from an “F” to a “C”, and the elementary school is still failing with an “F”. Johnson says, “The elementary school has a plan to bring that rating up by having dedicated teachers working with multiple grade levels.”
Dr. Tanner and the HEF focused on submitting a plan of action that addressed increasing teacher stability, recruiting qualified teachers, providing competitive pay, and assuring teachers are accountable for their students’ success. Superintendent Johnson says with data and the HEF’s expertise and training, they began making the changes quickly, and the data shows it is working.
With Dr. Tanner and the other educational experts in an oversight role, Johnson said the district began “modifying things to get better, faster.” The HEF now monitored the principals and teachers’ accountability” to the students and themselves. As a result, Johnson recalls, the junior high school met the state standards, “[Our] elementary schools made more progress, but the data at the end of the year revealed an important factor: where we had consistent teachers, [the students’] scores were consistently higher,” he said.
Johnson credits his Hearne educators for rising to the challenge. “Those teachers who have weathered the storm (the threat of closing down, the loss of accreditation scare)— really helped the district meet the challenge,” he shared proudly. “But when you break down the categories, you can see significant gains, but those gains must be made across the board,” Tanner explained. As a result, students will now have a familiar face in their elementary education experience through modified teaching assignments.
Part of the HEF’s recommendation includes helping parents understand their child’s educational path. Before the fall 2019 school year got underway, The PVAMU Northwest Houston Center (NWHC) held a Back to School Family & Community Summit: “Focused on Rectifying Opportunity Gaps Impacting African-American and Latino Adolescent Males” addressing this challenge. Tanner, who is also Executive Director for NWHC, said this session served as an opportunity to reach both students and their parents.
Tanner invited a group of families from Hearne ISD to experience the event and engage in the interactive workshops.
“We trained parents and taught parents how to share their history [as a culture and minority] so their child can develop a better sense of self,” Tanner said. “The event included workshops for students on robotics, rules of police interaction, and advocating for the educational success of Black & Brown boys.”
Superintendent Johnson said this extra involvement with PVAMU is just one of many assets of the Hearne ISD turnaround plan.”The bonus is his connection to PVAMU. We get a chance to get our students out of the city,” he said excitedly. “We’re looking forward to having interns and student teachers in the HISD system from PVAMU so [our students] can see folks like Dr. Tanner and say that ‘Hearne is OK.’”
With the involvement of Tanner and the Hearne Education Foundation, the district has hit a new stride and is confident an increase in the testing scores at the elementary school will happen.