When public education leaders look for best practices nationally, Texas seldom figures into the conversation. That’s about to change.

The Holdsworth Center in Austin, a unique new learning center for public school leaders conceived and funded by Charles Butt, chairman of H-E-B, opens its campus doors in June to leaders for 19 public school districts selected to date for the ambitious, five-year program.

The new center should become recognized nationally as a first-of-its-kind advanced learning center dedicated to supporting and developing public school leaders. Planning for the center began in 2015, and the first school districts were selected for multiyear programming in 2017, with seminars staged at hotels and other venues. Meanwhile, work began designing and building the programming and permanent campus with an initial $100 million gift from Butt, who has since tripled his total investment and commitment to $300 million.

Even so, more funding will be needed to ensure the long-term sustainability of the center and its programming, so the nonprofit Holdsworth Center will include staff specializing in fundraising.

East Central Independent School District in Bexar County is one of the six districts in the Holdsworth Center’s inaugural on-campus class. Programming, on-campus housing, meals, and extracurricular activities for the principals and other school leaders, as well as work conducted at the district, represent a $6 million investment that East Central otherwise could not afford to make on its own.

East Central’s selection among the many area public school districts in the highly competitive process follows selection of Judson ISD in 2019 and inclusion of Southwest ISD in the first year selections.

I had the opportunity to tour the site in March as new plantings and other landscaping were underway after the harsh February freeze. The campus is located 8 miles from downtown Austin, hidden among the rolling hills and switchbacks visitors must first navigate along Texas 2222. A series of sharp, winding curves on the descent from the cliffside highway opens up to the campus located on the site of a historic family ranch.

For public school leaders accustomed to doubling up on budget hotel rooms for meetings and conventions held in offseason locales, a stay at the Holdsworth Center will represent a very different kind of continuing education experience.

The campus, designed by Lake Flato Architects and Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, is a collection of well-spaced and shaded structures constructed of limestone, wood, and glass and set on 44 acres on the banks of Lake Austin. All of the well-appointed rooms in the dormitories are individual occupancy and feature the same amenities found in a hotel. Original works by some of the state’s most respected artists adorn the walls and shelves in the center’s main public spaces and large rooms. Classrooms and dining rooms have the feel of a small private college, while the library and other gathering spaces, indoors and outdoors, create a retreat-like ambiance. Outdoor class venues feel like summer camp.

The Holdsworth Center overlooks the Colorado River in Austin, Texas. The new advanced learning center for Texas educators was conceived and funded by Charles Butt, chairman of H-E-B.
The Holdsworth Center overlooks the Colorado River in Austin. The new advanced learning center for Texas educators was conceived and funded by Charles Butt, chairman of H-E-B. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

“Holdsworth’s five-year partnership and one-of-a-kind campus is an extraordinary investment in educators, who are working their tails off for Texas’ 5.6 million students,” said Lindsay Whorton, the Holdsworth Center’s president.

Whorton, a former Fulbright Scholar, holds graduate and doctoral degrees from Oxford University and has been part of the Holdsworth Center since its inception.

“Educational leaders – teachers, principals, and central office staff – deserve not only our respect, but our support,” she said. “Investing in the skill and capacity of people is critical to recovering from the pandemic and to seizing opportunities for transformational change.”

The Holdsworth Center is not the first major investment by Butt in his quest for improved public education outcomes in the state. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of H-E-B’s Excellence in Education Awards, which annually award hundreds of thousands of dollars to public school teachers, leaders, and districts. Educators, unaccustomed to such recognition and generosity, have likened the annual events to the Oscars. The H-E-B Read 3 early literacy program provides young children with free books, and Raise Your Hand Texas advocates for public policies statewide that promote greater investment and innovation in public education and improved college and workforce readiness.

The Holdsworth Center, named for Butt’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt, a former school teacher and lifelong advocate for social justice, is Butt’s most ambitious investment in public education to date.

“There is no shortcut and no silver bullet,” Butt stated in a founder’s letter posted on the Holdsworth website. “If we want to get to the root of making long-term, sustainable improvements to public education, we’ve got to invest the time to go deep within our districts.”

The Holdsworth Center currently serves 19 school districts in Texas. By 2028, the partnership is expected to reach more than 4,500 educators, including teacher leaders, assistant principals, principals, and central office administrators.

Texas public schools routinely finish low in national rankings. Changing that will require greater investment and innovation on the part of state leaders. Private philanthropy alone will not be enough.

The Charles Butt Foundation is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of nonprofit members, click here.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.