H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt address the audience at the 2013 Excellence in Education Awards in Austin, May 3. Photo courtesy of H-E-B.
H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt addresses the audience at the 2013 Excellence in Education Awards in Austin. Credit: Photo courtesy of H-E-B

A group of education leaders that includes Ruth Simmons, the first African-
American president of an Ivy League university, gathered in Austin Tuesday morning to announce the establishment of the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership. The
 public education leadership institute was founded by Charles Butt, the chairman and CEO of H-E-B, who has pledged $100 million of his personal wealth to support the endeavor.

Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt
Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt Credit: Photo courtesy of H-E-B

The center is named after his mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt (1903-93), a prominent Texas philanthropist and wife of H-E-B Grocery Company founder Howard Edward Butt Sr. 

Butt is actively considering options for the center’s permanent home, including a property along Lake Austin that would be designed by Lake|Flato Architects. It represents the biggest private investment ever made in public education in the state. The institute will offer continuing leadership training to public school educators in Texas.

An initial 16 independent school districts are being invited to apply for one of six initial places in the program. San Antonio Independent School District along with the Austin and Round Rock ISDs are among the 16 invited districts. 

“Mr. Butt’s generous gift to the children of Texas demonstrates the level of commitment necessary to ensure a more hopeful future for our schools. I am grateful to work with him in developing and supporting leaders for our public schools,” said Simmons, the former president of Brown University (2001-11) and Smith College (1995-2001) who will serve as chairwoman of the board of directors. 

Kate Rogers, former vice president with H-E-B, will serve as acting executive vice president of the center until a permanent director is hired.

“The mission of the Holdsworth Center is to provide the necessary tools and resources so the very talented individuals working in our schools can reach their fullest potential and, in turn, serve our children even more powerfully in the future,” Rogers said at a Tuesday morning press conference at Austin Independent School District’s Gonzalo Garza Independence High School.

Research shows that leadership is second only to teacher quality in improving student outcomes. A study by the Rainwater Leadership Alliance reported that principals account for 25% of a school’s total impact on student achievement. In a 2010 study, The Wallace Foundation reported that “to date, we have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”

In addition to improving school culture and encouraging teacher, parent, and community cooperation, principals and other administrative leaders make daily decisions that influence the resources available in classrooms.

“[The students] are what this project is all about,” Simmons said. “So often today we get interested in policies and curricula and buzzwords and ideas” that can sometimes take away from the students in schools, but “we need to come back to square one.”

The Holdsworth Center will work with districts over a five-year period. Participants will travel nationally and internationally to observe best practices and learn from some of the most innovative and successful educators in the world. Superintendents and their cabinet members will be the first to experience the training and travel opportunities afforded by the Holdsworth Center, which eventually will incorporate individual principals into the program.

The new public education institute is modeled after similar training institutes that operate in some of the highest performing public school systems in Asia and Europe.

“Ultimately this center represents a tremendous personal investment from Charles Butt,” Rogers said, “and a huge vote of confidence in our public schools from him and from the members of our esteemed board of governors.”

Acting Executive Vice President of the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Kate Rogers announces the establishment of the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership.
Acting Executive Vice President of the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Kate Rogers announces the establishment of the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Butt, considered the biggest single donor to public education in Texas even before Tuesday’s announcement, last year underwrote the costs for Educate Texas, an Austin-based private-public partnership that took 37 educators and community leaders to Singapore for a week-long look at that country’s high-performing public and higher education schools.

Rogers organized and helped lead the Texas delegation on the week-long visit to Singapore.

“The Holdsworth Center is about helping people be extraordinary in the job they are in today,” Butt said. “In addition, we want them to re-invent the way future leaders are selected, developed, and supported within their districts so that when a position opens up, they have a tremendous bench from which to select the next super star.”

On Feb. 1, invitations to apply will go out to the 16 districts selected to be included in the first cohort of superintendents, principals, and other administrators. The program begins in June. Subsequent applications will be open to all districts in Texas. Until The Holdsworth Center establishes its permanent location, it will travel between the participating districts.

Simmons will lead a high-profile board of education leaders from across the country, including Robert Gates, chancellor of the College of William & Mary and former U.S. Secretary of Defense, CIA director, and Texas A&M University president, and Shari Albright, Norine R. Murchison Distinguished Professor of Practice and Chair of Education at Trinity University. For a full list of the 17-member board of directors, click here.

Albright called the Holdsworth Center endeavor groundbreaking Tuesday, as it aims to take a different approach to providing a variety of resources to educators.

“What we haven’t seen,” she said, “is a comprehensive approach over time to build the capacity for our school districts to attract and retain and support and absolutely become magnets for the very best and brightest we can bring in to educate.”

Two years ago, Butt brought together a group of experts to investigate innovative approaches and best practices in education leadership. The group traveled the globe to collect examples that would inform and guide The Holdsworth Center.

“It became increasingly evident during our time together and our travels that what is needed is a deep, systemic approach to be implemented over a number of years in order to create lasting change in culture and strategic talent planning in our school systems,” Organizing Board Chair and Colorado State Sen. Mike Johnston said. “We must be more intentional about how leaders are identified, trained and supported if we want the best and brightest at the helm in every classroom and on every school campus.”

The Holdsworth Center is named for Butt’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, who began her career as a teacher in Kerrville, Texas. She married Howard Edward Butt in 1924, and wherever the growing grocery business took the couple, Mary pursued public health and educational justice. In their early days in the Rio Grande Valley, the State Crippled Children’s Program had its office in her dining room.

As their business grew, so did her activism. Later she would be the only woman named to the board of Texas State Hospitals and Special Schools. In 1993, just months before her death, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ Awards Committee selected her to receive its highest award for “Meritorious Service to the Children of America.”

“Charles Butt’s impact on Texas – as a businessman, a philanthropist, and an advocate for public education – is truly historic,” State Sen. Kirk Watson said. “The Holdsworth Center, which promises to be a national model, is an enormous investment and vote of confidence in our schools, our students, and the educators who lead and inspire them.”

Chair of the Holdsworth Center Board Dr. Ruth Simmons claps as the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership is announced.
Chair of the Holdsworth Center Board Dr. Ruth Simmons claps as the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership is announced. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

The investment comes at a critical time, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2000, the U.S. ranked 15th in reading, 19th in math and 14th in science. In 2015, those rankings had fallen to 24th in reading, 40th in math, and 25th in science.

Within the U.S., Texas is continually ranked among the bottom 20% of states for educational investment and outcomes, leading to poor performance on child well-being indices as well.

“Texas’ 1,204 independent school districts serve approximately 5.3 million students, 10% of children in the entire nation. With our size comes a tremendous responsibility to provide the highest quality education to all students,” Butt said.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com