A proposed site plan shows an illustration of the Holdsworth Center in Austin. Credit: Courtesy / Lake|Flato

The Holdsworth Center, a new Austin-based educational leadership institution, announced its first cohort of seven school districts selected to receive intensive leadership training. One district from the San Antonio area was chosen: Southwest ISD.

“We basically see this as representing the San Antonio area as part of the inaugural group, and we don’t take that lightly,” Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said. “If going through this long-term process provides us with the ability to give back to San Antonio, we’re definitely on board with that.”

With 13,566 students, Southwest ISD is the sixth-largest school district in Bexar County. Similar to its surrounding districts, its enrollment is 97.4% minorities, 92% economically disadvantaged, and 77% of the students are considered “at-risk.”

Even with all of that, all 18 Southwest ISD campuses met state accountability standards. The district’s consistent outcomes have earned other awards, including a 2013 H-E-B Excellence in Education regional finalist recognition. In 2011, 2012, and 2013 the San Antonio Express-News identified the district as one of the “Top Work Places” in the city.

This stability and performance is what caught the eye of Holdsworth Center executives, Verstuyft said. Moreover, the district is committed to growth. “We’re nowhere near being ‘there,’ wherever ‘there’ is,” he added.

The ability to learn about sustaining great leadership is exciting for Verstuyft and JoAnn Fey, Southwest ISD’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. She will be leading the Southwest ISD cohort along with Verstuyft as the “District Champion,” a term Holdsworth uses to designate another key leader in participating school boards.

Southwest ISD’s Holdsworth cohort includes Arlington ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Klein ISDRound Rock ISD, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, and Lamar CISD located in Rosenberg, Tex. Southwest ISD will be the smallest district of the cohort – it is less than half the size of the next smallest district, Lamar CISD – but Verstuyft said district officials feel like they have much to offer and much to learn.

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 school principals into the program.

The districts were selected from a total of 19 finalists from around the state.  The other 12 districts named as finalists include Alief ISD, Austin ISD, Brownsville ISD, Cedar Hill ISD, El Paso ISD, Frenship ISD, Harlingen Consolidated ISD, Killeen ISD, Lubbock ISD, San Antonio ISD, Spring Branch ISD, and Victoria ISD. 

Through an application and visitation process, evaluators looked for demonstrated commitment to human capital and talent development. They also wanted to see that district leadership, including the board and the administration, were aligned in their vision.

“We are excited to begin our first program with a strong group of districts who have dynamic leaders at the helm,” said Kate Rogers, executive vice president of The Holdsworth Center. “Though all seven are doing great work, they demonstrated a strong desire to continue to improve and an openness to innovative solutions. Our staff is eager to help. In the end, the work we will do together will benefit students by ensuring that every school has a great leader.” 

As the program progresses, more and more district and campus leaders will be included in the instruction. This saturation is what sets the program apart, Verstuyft said. Having a deep pool of talent to draw from helps the district better serve students.

While Verstuyft believes that most school districts in the state are committed to what is “best for the kids,” the Holdsworth program wants to build the capacity to make good on that. Southwest ISD and its cohort of districts were selected for their alignment with that goal.

In Southwest, Verstuyft sees families, community, and the district as partners on an “authentic and purposeful” pathway. The board is committed to data-driven decision-making, and the administration works hard to implement that, he said.

The first classes will begin in June at the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort outside of Austin. The Center is in the process of selecting a permanent location, working with Lake|Flato Architects to design a retreat center-style campus. In the meantime, the Center will move between conference centers near its participating districts. The Holdsworth Center will work with each cohort over a five-year period to strengthen district leadership for the benefit of students.

H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt has pledged to contribute $100 million to the Center, which is named after his mother Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth, a longtime teacher and public education advocate.

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