Eight months after Judson Independent School District administrators submitted a lengthy application to join a leadership development program called the Holdsworth Center, Superintendent Jeannette Ball and Assistant Superintendent for College and Career Readiness Nereida Cantu logged onto what they thought would be their last video interview.

Instead, they learned that Judson ISD would be one of six school districts to go through the intensive five-year program focused on strengthening school leadership.

From the way Ball and Cantu shrieked and embraced one another after hearing the surprise announcement, those in nearby offices might have thought the two had won the lottery. But to them, admission to the Holdsworth Center represented the chance to learn from experienced educators and academics about how to improve their schools.

The program is part of a grander plan by philanthropist Charles Butt to strengthen Texas public schools by showing leaders how to have a greater impact on Texas’ 5 million-plus public school students.

By nationwide standards, Texas’ education system has room to improve. This year, Education Week ranked Texas’ education system 41st in the nation, based on a number of factors including proficiency in reading and math, high school graduation rates, and employment later on in life.  In 2017, only 54 percent of Texas students were deemed qualified as ready to enter college, career, or the military.

Butt, who donated $100 million to create the center, is investing in the idea that strong leaders will guide public schools toward a more successful future. School leaders tend to agree.

The Academic Village at the Holdsworth Center.
A rendering of the Academic Village at the Holdsworth Center. Credit: Courtesy / The Holdsworth Center

“For our district to get better, it really requires us to get better, and that’s what [the program] allows us to do,” Ball told the Rivard Report. “We have to grow ourselves.”

For students and their families, the payoff of five years of training and professional development for a handful of district staff can be less clear.

During the course of the program, superintendents, department heads, curriculum specialists, principals, and teachers attend weeklong sessions held at different locations around the state. The workshops focus on developing personal leadership, growing leadership skills in others, and encouraging change in individual students. District personnel have the opportunity to network with one another and trade ideas.

Change likely won’t be immediate or clearly identifiable, several participants said. But it’s a long-term investment strategy, said Holdsworth President Lindsay Whorton.

“There’s a lot of things you could do in the short term to try to get quick results, but the reason you invest in people is because they are going to continue to make a difference long after you continue working with them,” Whorton said.

A Mother’s Legacy 

Butt, the chairman and CEO of H-E-B, began planning the Holdsworth Center years before its official launch. He committed $100 million and named the center after his mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth, an educator who taught students near Kerrville in the 1920s.

“The Holdsworth Center is about helping people be extraordinary in the job they are in today,” Butt said at the time. “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 superstar.”

Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of H-E-B, applauds as kindergarten teacher Ricky Davis recalls the story of meeting his wife while he was employed as a bagger at H-E-B.
Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of H-E-B Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Construction is underway on the Holdsworth Center’s $150 million campus on the shores of Lake Austin. When the new facility is completed in 2020, training will be held there.

Before the center officially launched in January 2017, its organizing board spent two years studying models of leadership around the world, taking trips abroad to Singapore and England and learning from such entities as the U.S. Army and H-E-B.

Holdsworth officials invited a small group of school districts to apply for admission to the first class of program participants, and San Antonio’s Southwest ISD became part of the inaugural cohort along with six other school districts.

The center looks for districts that are “ready, willing, and able” and exhibit a stable leadership team, Whorton said. Holdsworth’s leaders also want to create a class of districts that reflects Texas’ demographics.

“We want to have a cohort that represents the diversity of the state of Texas as much as possible in terms of size of districts, students they serve, in terms of income, language, race and ethnicity, and geography,” Whorton said.

Serving just under 14,000 students, Southwest ISD is the smallest district in the first group.

In the first class, central office administrators, including the districts’ superintendents and leadership positions that answer directly to them, attended the center’s training in 2017-2019.

The district’s central office staff then selects other personnel to attend. Southwest ISD officials said they looked for people from different campuses – principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and teachers – who would get the most out of the training and be best able to effect change on their campuses.

The Holdsworth Center’s goal is to cycle different groups of district personnel through the programming so that as much as half a district’s campuses will have someone who attended the program.

A Problem of Practice

On a Tuesday in July, more than 100 campus leaders buried their noses in instructional packets filled with charts and jargony terms like constructivism and developmentalism. Stacks of books, plastic folders, and packets of papers were piled high in front of each educator.

Those normally in charge of leading students played the role of scholar, soaking up the day’s lesson: It focused on feedback and how different personality types absorb feedback and learn from it.

Brian Pennartz, principal of Southwest ISD’s Bob Hope Elementary, took notes and conferred with colleagues as he listened to Columbia University education professor Ellie Drago-Severson talk.

The individual lessons help campus leadership teams tackle one central issue at their school – what Holdsworth leaders call the problem of practice. The program participants use the problem as the organizing theme of their training.

Pennartz and three others from Bob Hope – a classroom teacher, an instructional coach, and an assistant principal – zeroed in on a need to boost reading skills.

During their first year in the program, Bob Hope leaders learned strategies to assess problems and develop solutions to the challenges they faced in teaching reading skills.

In 2017-18, the year before the group from Bob Hope began the Holdsworth training, almost 30 percent of the school’s students in third, fourth, and fifth grades did not meet State standards on the STAAR reading exam the first time they took the test. The state averages a slightly lower percentage of failures.

Bob Hope Elementary School Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“In my 15 years of public education, I learned that you see a problem, you go out and buy a program, try the program, and it doesn’t work so you ditch the program and then buy a new program,” said Amy Garza, former Bob Hope Elementary assistant principal. “Holdsworth forced us to sit back and wait a minute, then think on it, and then put forth some solution that addresses the root cause.”

Using the processes they followed at Holdsworth, Pennartz and Garza worked this past year to develop a broader, more thoughtful approach. They sought to educate the community on the value of reading, strategized with teachers to create stronger lesson plans, and identified issues with individual students. But that’s not all the training at Holdsworth changed at Bob Hope, the administrators said.

The educators also picked up ideas for smaller-scale changes designed to create a more positive campus environment and teach life skills. After learning that another school in his Holdsworth group was trying to help students connect better with people, Pennartz decided to teach his kids how to shake hands and properly greet adults each morning.

Garza realized the importance of setting clear expectations for campus staff. She and Pennartz began setting out the agendas for meetings in a different way and seeking feedback in a more intentional manner.

“There’s not a lot of pushback because we encourage everyone to have a voice in making the plans,” Garza said. “We do it all as a collective team.”

Creating a Leadership Network

In Holdsworth’s short time as a Texas leadership development program, it has experienced its fair share of change. Former Holdsworth President Kate Rogers took on the job leading the center and then stepped down, leaving space for Whorton to assume the head leadership role. Pauline Dow, currently San Antonio ISD’s deputy superintendent for academics and school leadership, will become the center’s new vice president this fall.

Just as the Holdsworth Center has evolved over its two years of existence, so have some of its participants.

In the 2019-20 school year, Garza will leave Bob Hope to become the principal of Medio Creek Elementary, also in Southwest ISD. She is no longer eligible to be part of Bob Hope’s Holdsworth team but is already angling to get her new campus involved in the future.

Garza’s career move points out a tricky part of leadership development programs: If a staff member changes districts, roles, or campuses, they take with them the lessons learned.

But job moves might actually help extend Holdsworth’s reach, Whorton said. As leaders move among districts and campuses, the Holdsworth Center can start to establish a network of public education officials all on the same page about best practices.

Pennartz thinks this master strategy will be seen in San Antonio’s school districts in the next decade. By then, Judson and Southwest officials may be joined by several other local districts, all with the same background and training.

“In 10 years, honestly, at the rate that we are growing, we are going to have thousands of leaders who have been through this experience, and that creates a really exciting opportunity,” Whorton said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.