LA MARQUE — La Marque Independent School District is struggling to keep students and to meet state academic and financial standards. It is asking the state for more time to fix its problems.
Superintendent Terri Watkins said the district just needs time to turn things around. Critics claim only the state education agency can fix the broken district.
Parents and their children are left to wonder: Should they stay or should they go elsewhere for an education?
The Texas Education Agency warned the district to fix things quickly or the state would take over.
How did LMISD get here?
The woes facing the La Marque school district are well documented with three straight years of poor financial performance and a failure to meet state academic standards.
Enrollment has continued to drop at a dramatic rate. The former superintendent was forced out. A new superintendent started last fall. A state-ordered financial solvency plan was twice rejected before getting approval.
The state put the district’s accreditation status on probation and ordered a conservator to oversee the district’s operations.
Along the way, a school trustee was charged with felony theft and has taken leave from the school board.
The district was warned time and time again by the state that things needed to change. But discord between former Superintendent Ecomet Burley and the majority on the school board, as well as infighting among board members, hindered progress.
It wasn’t until the state insisted the district implement a financial solvency plan and Burley left that the board took steps to address the district’s dire situation.
Watkins may want time to turn things around, but many parents of students have already made up their minds. Enrollment is still falling.
In the 2008-09 school year, the district had 3,704 students. As of Friday, enrollment was 2,482. That’s a decrease of 1,222 students, a loss of more than 200 students per year.
At the current rate of 166 students lost a year since 2011-12, La Marque could have fewer than 2,000 students within three years and fewer than 1,700 students within five years — a period Watkins has said might be needed to turn things around.
Many of those students are attending classes in other Galveston County school districts. The most recent figures from Texas City, Dickinson, Hitchcock and Galveston school districts — the county’s only open-enrollment districts — show that 680 La Marque students attend classes in those districts.
That’s an increase of 117 students who fled the La Marque school district since The Daily News first reported on transfers last summer.
La Marque’s own figures show 135 students transferred this school year to other school districts, which results in millions of dollars in lost state revenue.
Creating a ‘winning’ culture
“You have to change culture first,” Watkins said. “It you don’t get that done, anything else you do is just a Band-Aid.”
A winning culture at La Marque is nothing new. It’s been a part of the football program for decades.
“It is a mindset every year that you expect La Marque football to win,” Watkins said. “That is a mindset and that is a culture. That is where we are trying to get within every aspect of the district.
“We have to move forward in our thinking. If I continue to talk about the past, we won’t get to move forward. It is time for us to move forward.”
Watkins said there are so many issues to address that any effective change will take some time. She asked the state to let her have three to five years to turn things around.
One of the glaring issues — after years of layoffs and an exodus of seasoned teachers — is a dearth of experience within the teaching staff.
Of the district’s 148 teachers, 40 percent have less than five years experience. Twenty-seven percent have two years or less teaching experience; 27 of those (18 percent of the teaching staff) are in their first year of teaching.
“We have teachers with the knowledge but not the day-to-day teaching experience,” Watkins said.
In December, the district launched its monthly Master Teachers workshops. Each is 11⁄2 hours of “intense classroom management” where inexperienced teachers are matched with those with experience as well as outside help and administrators.
Those sessions also are used to introduce new technology and methods for those experienced teachers.
Watkins said many veteran instructors were intimidated by classroom technology. The Master Teacher workshops aim to ease the fear of technology and to offer training.
Cheryl Banks-Jones, an intermediate schoolteacher, is among those taking advantage of the workshops. She has six years classroom experience but has been working in the administration the last several years.
“When I saw what was going on in our district, I said I need to get back into the trenches,” she said. “I have seen a huge change in the district (since Watkins’ arrival) and for once I see more hope than ever.”
The Master Teacher workshops showed Banks-Jones ways to use technology to engage students.
On the day The Daily News visited her classroom, she was using a Smart Board and laptop as students competed in a science quiz.
But the training isn’t just in the workshops, Watkins said.
Each school principal had to come up with a remedial plan and is responsible for monitoring it in practice.
Erin Cole, principal at La Marque Intermediate, spends more time in the classroom monitoring and assisting teachers and less time in her office, Watkins said.
Learning continues after class
Another part of the new culture at La Marque is the of the 21st Century after-school program.
Students spend time on their academic studies to reinforce what teachers taught during the day. They also participate in enrichment programs, including STEM-based hands-on projects and career and college readiness instruction.
There’s also some fun thrown in, including some recreation activities, during the daily three-hour program at four campuses.
The program, which started in February, already has more than 1,000 students who participate daily, the program’s director, Kelley Romar, said.
It’s too early to know whether the program will have tangible academic results. Results from mandatory state exams taken in April won’t be made public until May 15, and the latest round of test results from a couple of weeks ago won’t be known until the summer.
But having so many students taking part is encouraging.
“We are very proud of the direction we are headed,” Romar said. “We hope to continue over the summer so there isn’t a slack.”
Maintaining a summer education program also is key, Watkins said.
“We are finding that so many of our students fall behind over the summer and when they return to class, they are behind some of the other students,” she said.
Making the case
Watkins insists that if given time, she can turn things around. Already, just seven months on the job, she said progress has been made.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Watkins said. “La Marque didn’t get in this position overnight, and we can’t fix everything overnight either. But we are headed in the right direction.”
Watkins and the district’s attorney, finance director Dianne Duron, school board President Nakisha Paul and board member David Hooker met face-to-face with TEA officials in March.
“We got a chance to get all (of the TEA’s) questions answered,” Watkins said. “They presented the information of why we were where we were, and we got to present our side about what we are doing to resolve the question. Nothing was left unanswered.”
The state appears to be willing to give La Marque the benefit of the doubt.
On Thursday, the district got a reprieve when the Texas Education Agency announced it would not assign a conservator to the La Marque district.
Still, the district’s accreditation status remains on probation, and La Marque has to meet a long list of stipulations.
That came a week after the TEA finally approved the district’s financial solvency plan.
Both decisions provided Watkins and her staff with a sense of relief but also a whole new set of challenges.
New game plan, same players
Walter Manuel, a frequent critic of the La Marque school district’s management, agrees a new culture is needed. He’s been calling for change for about two years and has dozens of complaints filed with the Texas Education Agency.
While he supports Watkins’ desire for change, he isn’t confident she will be able to implement it.
“That’s because aside from (Watkins), it is all the same players that got the school district in the mess in the first place,” Manuel said. “The school board (members) knew of these problems long before the state came in and forced them to make changes. They did nothing.
“Now, the district wants more time, but what does that do for the kids that are there now?”
Manuel and others lobbied the TEA to not back down on its accreditation rating.
“The district needs someone to guide and tell them what to do,” Manuel said. “If not, it will be business as usual and we will have lost a whole new generation of kids.”
School year — number of students
2008-09 — 3,704
2009-10 — 3,396
2010-11 — 2,971
2011-12 — 2,980
2012-13 — 2,862
2013-14 — 2,482*
* As of May 2
LMISD teacher experience
Total number of teachers: 148
Less than 1 year experience (first year teachers): 27
1-2 years experience: 13
2-5 years experience: 20
5-8 years experience: 16
8-10 years experience: 11
10-plus years experience: 61