If the Texas Education Agency hadn’t granted waivers to schools affected by Hurricane Harvey during the 2017-18 school year, Manuel Guajardo Jr. Elementary School would have earned an “A” rating on the state’s A-to-F scale.
The achievement was especially remarkable because of several challenges the campus had faced, district officials said.
The school’s performance on required accountability standards had been so bad the agency just about four years ago had required the campus to enter into a state-supervised improvement plan, for example.
Then Guajardo — formerly Northside Elementary — was stretched to its limits after taking on students from neighboring La Marque Elementary School, damaged beyond repair in Hurricane Harvey.
Despite those challenges, by the end of the 2017-18 school year Guajardo Elementary had exceeded state expectations, and those of the Texas City Independent School District and its own principal, when it was named among about 400 Texas schools that achieved distinction in all eligible areas, based on standardized test scores.
“The tale of Guajardo Elementary’s success is leadership,” Deputy Superintendent Susan Myers said.
Myers credited Director of Elementary Education Anne Anderson, who had been Northside’s principal, and Debbie Fuller, Guajardo’s principal since 2017, in particular for providing the leadership.
Anderson became principal in 2014 when the state put the school under the required improvement plan.
“We met the criteria for removing the school from the state’s improvement plan in one year,” Anderson said. Intense planning and curriculum meetings on how to teach at every grade level took place every day, and her faculty, most of them first-time teachers, rose to the challenge, she said.
“Both Debbie and Anne know that teachers are the warriors; they’re on the front lines,” Myers said.
Fuller, who taught for 13 years at Texas City’s Roosevelt Elementary School and served there as assistant principal, moved into Guajardo’s principal’s office in 2017 when Anderson moved into district administration.
Focused walk-throughs, with Fuller observing every classroom in action to see what was happening and to determine where teachers needed help, became standard practice, she said.
The campus had suffered from turnover at the top, she said.
“This school had seven principals in 13 years,” Fuller said.
Cultivating an environment that encourages teachers to ask for help was key, and that depended on first developing trust and respect, Fuller said.
“There was a time when, I think, teachers here felt they were not getting the support they needed,” Fuller said. “My job is to develop teachers who are receptive to constructive feedback. They have to be open to asking how to do something, to open up and say, ‘How can I improve this?’”
That environment of openness to learning translates to students as well, she said.
“When teachers set up an environment of academic safety, that’s when 100 percent of their kids demonstrate growth, when they are free to ask for help or to say they don’t understand something,” Fuller said.
In 2018, 100 percent of fourth graders at Guajardo demonstrated growth, improving their performance on the state test over the year before.
Other key practices also have paid off. The principal spends time in the classroom, she tries to use retired teachers as substitutes when regular teachers are out, and all staff members at the school participate one-on-one with students as tutors.
When Guajardo, which was designed for 700 students, was stretched beyond capacity after Harvey with 1,300 students, those practices were maintained despite the potential for chaos. Administrators shared offices, storage areas were cleared out to provide room for instruction, lunch was served in shifts and Fuller became a traffic director in the hallways.
“I started calling the third-grade hallway High way 3,” she said.
Overall, sharing the space with La Marque Elementary students and faculty was difficult, but it resulted in friendships, strong community bonds and plenty of learning, she said.
A hand-drawn letter from a student is pinned to the bulletin board in Fuller’s neat and spacious office. It’s from a La Marque student, thanking Guajardo for taking him in while wishing he could still be at home.
Fuller smiled and ran her finger across it.
“You have to remember, it’s children who accomplish all of this,” she said.