Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Spring Branch Elementary Gains Local Literacy Donation

A first-time phone call from the head of an executive business women’s group to Spring Branch ISD’s main offices has led to a recent $10,000 gift of student books and reading and writing kits at Spring Branch Elementary School.

The magic doesn’t stop there. Donna Gurney, the 2016-2017 president of Executive Women International ewi), believes that something special happened when she phoned SBISD out of the blue and asked for a Title 1 school that could use outside support from an organization like EWI of Houston. Spring Branch Elementary was the top response.

That elementary school was the campus where her own mom, Dorothy Greer, was a principal. Mrs. Greer, who retired 28 years ago, served as a principal at Bendwood, Spring Branch and Edgewood elementaries, and was also a district primary coordinator for elementary level schools.

The road to this first-time SBISD donation began with a car raffle, oddly enough.

The nonprofit organization EWI had held a fundraising raffle in partnership with one of its member firms, the local Sewell Automotive Group. A real success, the Car for Every Season raffle raised $10,000. The lucky winner won the chance to drive four luxury cars – a Cadillac, Audi, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz.

Everything came full circle on Oct. 11 during a Spring Branch Elementary meeting when school Principal Lynn Austin, Gurney and Sewell Cadillac’s General Manager Dennis Nobles talked about the first-time donation to the historic elementary campus.

EWI’s literacy donation will pay for new library books, classroom libraries and Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Project texts for grades 3-5, and book carts and bins to aid with storage and use across the campus.

“It’s a wonderful day at Spring Branch Elementary!” exclaimed Principal Austin at a special campus program to announce the gift. “We’re so thrilled that Executive Women International and Sewell are able to touch the lives of so many students by providing a gift that will continue to benefit students for years to come.”

Houston’s EWI chapter is the largest and one of the strongest fundraising groups in the nation. It raises and donates tens of thousands of dollars annually, and has ties across the region to school districts and with similar philanthropies, including once with the well-known Barbara Bush Foundation.

An invitation-only based group, EWI focuses on literacy initiatives as well as group interests around careers and networking for women executives and professionals. Gurney works at JLT Specialty USA, an insurance brokerage company.     

When Spring Branch Elementary was chosen for the literacy donation, Gurney and other members from Sewell met with Principal Lynn Austin, interventionists Allison Burt and Chaquitha Cherry, and librarian Dika Sanders to match the gift with needs.

It was important to EWI to find a local school due to Sewell Cadillac’s Spring Branch business location near Dairy Ashford and I-10 freeway.

“At Executive Women International of Houston, we do take great pride in the fact that literacy initiatives are a very important part of our organization,” Gurney told the school faculty. “We feel blessed and honored to be able to give this gift to you and we hope you all are as excited as we are to assist your school in advancing the literacy level of your students. This would never have been possible if not for the generosity of Sewell Automotive Group, a member firm in our EWI organization.”

Sewell General Manager Nobles said that the dealership focuses on its customer service and employee training, concepts that aren’t too far off from educational goals.

“You are training students for academic success,” he said at the gift’s announcing. “You want to give them all the things they need, the tools for success. We wanted to reach out and give you the resources you need to do that. We want this to help your students become our (Sewell) future leaders.” 

EWI is glad to see that their donation will help students through direct book buys, but also support teachers with purchases like the popular and much desired Lucy Calkins reading and writing series for the elementary upper grades.

“We wanted to have books go to students, but we also realize what a huge impact teachers have on literacy and learning. We believe the donation will help teachers be better teachers, and we believe that the impact of great teachers are certainly tremendous,” Gurney also said.

To learn more about Executive Women International of Houston:

To learn more about Sewell Cadillac of Houston:

Important Safety Message from Dr. Scott R. Muri

Dear SBISD Parents and Community Members,

I write to you today with a plea - a plea to keep our children's safety in mind as you drive in our school zones or travel the routes our walkers and bike riders take as they travel to and from our schools each day. 

Since returning back to school on September 11, three SBISD students have been hit by a car either on the way to or from school, and one of our crossing guards was hit by a car this week. While thankfully none sustained life-threatening injuries, this is an unprecedented number of incidents.

Please be mindful of cell phone use and the posted 20 miles per hour speed limit in our school zones. Please also be alert while driving in our neighborhoods and on the lookout for children walking or biking to school.

Thank you for your vigilance in helping us keep our children and staff safe.

Scott R. Muri, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools

Endeavour and Atlantis Achieve Lift-Off at Spring Branch Middle School

On the first day of school at Spring Branch Middle School, approximately 100 sixth-graders began a year-long adventure in school redesign. They are part of the middle school’s Endeavour and Atlantis programs, a kind of school-within-a-school that focuses on personalized learning for all students.

The programs are the result of a full year of thoughtful work between the campus and community. Over time, effective elements of the redesign may be expanded throughout the Hedwig Village middle school. 

This is also a live-action example of The Learner’s Journey, the strategic plan that commits Spring Branch ISD to “designing learning environments and delivering learning experiences that value and build on the individual talents, needs, interests and aspirations of all learners."

Spring Branch Middle Principal Bryan Williams described the programs as “a process, a beginning, rather than a destination.” Planning for all learners, Williams also said, began with an innovative concept called Design Thinking, or human-centered problem solving that stresses empathy with stakeholders in finding solutions that meet their needs, goals and motivations.

“This work is intended to be community work – actively engaging our communities to create the best possible learning environments in our schools,” Elliott Witney, Associate Superintendent for Research and Design, explained. “Empathy work – actively listening to parents, students, teachers and other community members – helped the school’s core design team learn what was working and should be preserved, and what could improve to better meet the needs of children.”

“The experiences built by that team in the spring and summer and by a growing number of faculty members now are intended to more broadly address what they learned through empathy,” he also said.

Over the last year, Principal Williams said, a group of administrators, teachers and parents analyzed the feedback from community, educational and workforce trends, new research on learning and motivation, and then determined three goals for program learning: rigorous academic skills, habits of success and a connection to self and the world.

Endeavor and Atlantis programs embrace these goals.

Divided into two program cohorts each, Endeavor and Atlantis students are a good cross-section of the middle school’s population: on-level academics, pre-AP and Gifted/Talented. Students learn in a variety of instructional formats, including face-to-face instruction, small group learning, technology interfaces and interdisciplinary projects. 

All program students also have a district-issued laptop they are expected to bring to school each day, fully charged.

Endeavor students spend part of their day with Carla Pace, science, and Akeem Perkins, math. Another block of time is shared with Jeff Walsdorf, English and language arts, and John Eskew, social studies.

Atlantis students move as cohorts through their four core courses following a schedule that mirrors the rest of the middle school: English/language arts, teacher Sarah Bohlen; social studies, Jennifer Taylor; math, Tiffany Gless; and science, Shana Saucier. Bohlen said working as cohorts has fostered collaboration. “Students quickly learned teamwork and mutual respect.”

Students assume more control over their learning. A pre-test determines each student’s mastery of a specific unit, and also helps children understand their own mastery of specific objectives before the unit, or specific learning topic, begins. Bohlen said the pre-assessments work well. Students are “motivated to self-direct and improve before the pre-tests,” he said.

“That information helps [teachers] determine how to build on what students already know. How can we go beyond? We meet kids where they are and go deeper,” Pace said. “Our kids hear the term ‘dive deeper’ a lot. To meet the district’s T-2-4 goal, students must be prepared to think critically, solve problems and collaborate. Personalized learning does that.”

Endeavor class time includes blocks of humanities (language arts and social studies) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math). Students self-direct their learning in two ways. In addition to self-directed content, they determine subject matter topics they want to explore further and receive additional support or executive coaching.

For all students, much of the learning is student-centered and interactive as well as project-based. The more interactive, the more learning takes place, the teachers say. Projects allow students the freedom to ask for help as needed – and to have fun applying their new knowledge.

Bohlen and Taylor are enthusiastic about their first joint project for Atlantis students. As they read and discuss The Giver in language arts, they are planning and building a utopia in social studies. For an upcoming project, students will write a fractured fairy tale, changing the setting of Cinderella to another country.

Endeavour students engage in daily community time that focuses on behaviors of academic success: habits (organization, study skills), perseverance (grit, self-control), mindsets (“I can do this”) and social skills (cooperation, responsibility). These topics are built into class time for Atlantis students.

All sixth-graders share lunch periods, electives and service-oriented experiences. This was an important design component since it provides time for program students to interact with peers who are not in the same cohort. It also builds school-wide spirit and community.

Perkins is confident personalized learning will better prepare students. “Though we have leeway in teaching the TEKS standards, every standard is addressed. The difference is that students process the information in a different way. They begin to make connections and gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.”

The teachers expect many “light bulb moments.”

Parents are eager to watch the school year unfold. Kate Pernoud is excited her son, Jonathan, is part of the program. As a former teacher, she likes the idea of personalized learning. “The biggest thing is preparing for the rigor of high school. I think this will fill the gap.”

Spring Branch Middle teachers are up for the challenge. As a matter of fact, they love challenges. This year, Walsdorf began his 28th year of teaching and his 18th year at Spring Branch Middle. “I never teach the same thing two years in a row,” he said. “I’m always looking for something new.”

Perkins introduced the Flipped Learning concept in his math classroom last year. He videoed his lessons, which students viewed on YouTube, allowing him more one-on-one classroom time.“I saw improvement in scores and concentration,” he said. “It was good preparation for this project.”

Pace said Endeavour and Atlantis take “the lessons learned in piloting a project ten steps further. That’s the reason we became educators – to change the world and empower students to become amazing adults.”

Oct. 21 Declared as Spring Branch Education Center Day

The city of Houston has declared Saturday, Oct. 21, as Spring Branch Education Center Day in Houston. District leaders were in City Council chambers on Tuesday, Oct. 17, to receive a proclamation from Mayor Sylvester Turner and District A Councilmember Brenda Stardig, a graduate of Spring Branch Senior High School. The rebuilding of SBEC – the former Spring Branch Senior High School – was the final major project from the 2007 bond program. The SBSHS Alumni Foundation will hold a ribbon-cutting on Oct. 21 during it biannual all-class reunion.

Spring Branch ISD Wins Large Grant for its School Redesign Work

Back to school in Spring Branch ISD also signals the beginning of a new, exciting learning and sharing opportunity for many campuses. They will join this year in a common journey to rethink and retool their current school designs.

This type of innovative redesign work is made possible through a new, $250,000 grant received by SBISD from the NewSchools Venture Fund, a national nonprofit that supports educators across the nation as they “reimagine” learning to achieve improved results for schools, students and educators.

The NewSchools Fund supported district level and school redesign work last year, too, which led to the August opening of the Atlantis and Endeavour programs for about 100 students at Spring Branch Middle School. That grant totaled $75,000.

Read about the Atlantis/Endeavour program here >>

“We are committed to helping students graduate high school both prepared and inspired to achieve their most ambitious dreams and plans. Through investments, management assistance, network building and thought leadership, NewSchools helps to reimagine PreK-12 education,” the fund’s leadership reports.   

The first-year programs at Spring Branch Middle School resemble “micro-school” or “reimagined” program-within-a-school models. They follow a year of planning and design with campus and community stakeholders and parents. Elements being piloted there this year include an expanded definition of student success, rigorous interdisciplinary learning and community time, among other program highlights.

SBISD was one of 10 education organizations chosen last year by NewSchools for school redesign support. Planning and design work was led by a NewSchools partner group called Transcend, which supported teams of Spring Branch Middle teachers, parents and others who put their heads together about the present, future and campus design needs.

A core belief of the NewSchools and Transcend teams is that for schools to serve student needs – today and in the future – schools will need to look different than they do now. 

This year’s NewSchools $250,000 grant supports school design, development and implementation study this year with 10 more SBISD campuses. Study, design and results are tailored to the individual needs of schools, not to a few models.

School Redesign Collaborative Schools this year include seven elementary schools – Buffalo Creek, Pine Shadows, Sherwood, Terrace, Hunters Creek, Nottingham, Wilchester and Ridgecrest – and two secondary schools – Northbrook Middle and Spring Woods High.

Superintendent Scott Muri, Ed.D., praised NewSchools for its second-year grant, a sign that our 35,000-student district deserves increasing national attention as one public school district leader on education innovation and redesign.

“We’re enthusiastic that NewSchools has continued its support for campus-based teams as they examine, design and create the incredibly powerful and productive changes for kids that we expect. This outside financial commitment indicates and signals that SBISD is improving the learning experience for every child,” Dr. Muri said. “This type of investment will allow us to accelerate opportunities for more of our students.”

Created in 1998, the NewSchools Venture Fund has supported a variety of charter public schools and education reform initiatives. The charitable fund’s co-founders are Kim Smith, John Doerr and Brook Byers. Doerr and Byers are active Silicon Valley venture capitalists; Smith is known best as a social entrepreneur.

For more information about the NewSchools Venture Fund, please visit

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

SBISD Graduates Outpace State and National Averages on 2017 ACT

Spring Branch ISD’s graduating Class of 2017 posted scores higher than both the state and national averages on the ACT, a curriculum-based measure for college readiness. In addition, every SBISD student racial/ethnic group scored higher on average than the same groups did at the state and national level.

“These improving scores indicate that our district students continue to be better prepared for the rigors of post-secondary experience than comparable students and student subgroups, both across Texas and the nation,” SBISD Superintendent Scott Muri, Ed.D., said.

“We believe that improved student outcomes like these also show that our educators are doing an incredible job preparing our students for the future, and in meeting our T-2-4 goal for graduates,” Dr. Muri also said.

This year’s average composite score of 23.9 represents the highest average ACT district score during the last five years. SBISD students have outperformed state and national average ACT scores during the past five years, while they also have made gains over the last two years. SBISD has increased by 0.2 points and 0.7 points, respectively, over the past two years.

Report highlights include:
  • Each of SBISD’s race/ethnicity groups (African-American, White, Hispanic, Asian) had higher average ACT average scores compared to the state and national student average
  • Four of five district high schools made gains or remained stable in average ACT composite scores from 2016 to 2017
Under the ACT, students are tested in English, mathematics, reading and science, and earn individual scores in each area as well as an overall composite score. The composite represents an average of the four individual scores.

In SBISD, 948 district graduates took the ACT and were included in the report.

This year’s SBISD composite score of 23.9 was far above the Texas average of 20.7 and the ACT reported national average composite score of 21. Possible scoring on the ACT ranges from 1 up to 36, which is often called a “perfect” score.

“Once again, this year’s student gains are worth celebrating as we work together to prepare all of our students for T-2-4 success in whatever they elect to do after high school – military training, technical certifications, two- and four-year college or university degrees,” Superintendent Muri also said.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wilchester Elementary Earns Active Schools Award

As Wilchester students and parents walked and rolled to school, students and staff dressed up displayed handmade posters for an impromptu pep rally.

Wilchester Elementary School has recently received the Let’s Move Active Schools National Award for increasing physical education and activity in a K-12 school.

Only 12 Houston-area schools won the national recognition from Active Schools, a collaborative of 42 separate health, education and private sector groups. Nationwide, about 450 schools won the award.

To earn its award, Wilchester had to meet significant benchmarks in five areas: physical education; physical activity before and after school; physical activity during school; staff involvement; and family and community engagement. Award recipients receive a large display banner, a certificate and a congratulatory letter.

“The administrators, teachers, staff and parents in these schools understand that physical education and physical activity are a must-have for students to reach their full potential in school and life,” Active Schools Executive Director Charlene Burgeson said in a press release. “They use creativity and determination to overcome challenges and provide students with the movement opportunities they need and deserve.”

Research studies show that youth who are active do better, she also said. Physical activity not only helps kids stay healthy and strong, but it can also contribute to higher academic test scores, improved attendance, better class behavior, greater leadership skills and a lifetime of other healthy habits.

“Wilchester Elementary is honored to be recognized with this award,” said Principal Rian Evans. “I am so proud of the work of our staff and students in creating and active and healthy learning environment inside and outside of school.”

And work they did! Health Fitness Specialist Paula Baker said that the entire school community should be celebrated for their efforts to qualify for and then receive the Let’s Move national award. Special efforts included:
  • Creation of the first Kids School Health Advisory Committee (KSHAC) with about 20 Wilchester students who helped to promote an active, healthy lifestyle
  • KSHAC projects included WildCash Bucks to reward students who ate fruits and vegetables (GO Foods) at lunch, with Friday student drawing for prizes that reflect healthy lifestyles, as well as participation in the promotion of Walk and Roll  to School on the first Friday of each month
  • Kids Teaching Kids, a Healthy Snack initiative being initiated this school year
  • Participation in America Recycles Day, a plastic bag recycling project, where students teamed up with the Wilchester PTA Recycling Committee to find a creative recycling use for plastic bags, such as juggling
  • Advanced Movers field trips to Stratford High School
  • With PTA, students and staff participate in Walk and Roll on the first Friday of each month; healthy lifestyle prizes were also awarded to participants
  • Morning “dance parties” were held in the gym before school on some days
  • Brain Breaks using online tools were promoted and used by many teachers
  • The Wilchester PTA Garden Committee helped students learn about garden topics, including raising and eating healthy organic foods
“It took organization and the compiling of documentation to be recognized,” said Health Fitness Specialist Baker.  “The motivation to live healthy, increase physical movement throughout the school day, and honor a healthy lifestyle, stemmed from many sources and people. The whole Wilchester community is commended for coming together as a team to promote a positive lifestyle in their youth!”

To learn more about Active Schools and this award, please visit

Students See the Big Picture through Virtual Reality

Just how big is the sun?

Sixth-graders at Spring Oaks Middle School have an idea now, thanks to a popular and emerging technology and a couple of innovative teachers.

Science teachers Christine Jackson and Mandy Gajeski wanted to help their students understand space – in particular our solar system, with its eight orbiting planets (sorry, Pluto) including the one we call home.

Using Virtual Reality (VR) goggles and the Google Expeditions app, Gajeski and Jackson were able to lead students through a tour of the solar system, including the size and scale of the sun compared to the planets.

Students could look through the goggles at the sun, tilting their heads up and down to gauge its enormity while a peak to either side would show a lineup of the planets and their size relative to the sun.

“The kids’ reactions weren’t planned but they were so cool,” said Gajeski. “Some would spin in their chairs. They would try to reach out and grab things. We had to make (students standing) sit down after a while.”

The student goggles come equipped with a handheld device so students don’t have to use their own devices. And the devices all talk to a single tablet controlled by the teacher, allowing that teacher to guide the expedition.

“We can talk (students) through it,” said Jackson. “We can tell them which objects to look at.”

The googles and devices were obtained for Spring Oaks through a private gift.

The Expeditions kit includes VR goggles, handheld devices, a tablet, a router that allows Expeditions to run over its own WiFi network, chargers and a storage case.

The teachers look forward to using the goggles in other science units, including geology and biology – just about anywhere that can be explored. An eighth-grade class has used the goggles and app to explore Mount Everest.

“We can do a tour of the Great Wall of China,” said Gajeski. “We can visit cities, like Rome or Pompeii. We can study geology – we can study rocks, or plate tectonics.”

Or space.

“The (goggles) enrich the learning experience for students,” said Jackson. “Some of our students couldn’t really conceive the vastness of space. This made space real for them.”

Friday, October 13, 2017

Stronger Together After Harvey

In the weeks after Hurricane Harvey, the Spring Branch community has come together in so many ways to support students, families and staff who are hurting. One example is the strong partnership between the school district, Communities in Schools and Chapelwood United Methodist Church, one of so many faith partners.

Below is a special email message issued recently by SBISD Community Relations Officer Linda Buchman on the strength of this partnership:

“Many of us opened our hearts and our wallets in the immediate aftermath of Harvey to help family, friends and people we don’t even know. This outpouring has created a tremendous bank of support within the Spring Branch ISD community.

If you have been affected in any way or you are continuing to help others affected by Harvey (financially, providing meals, etc.), please reach out to your campus’ Communities In Schools (CIS) project manager/wellness counselor. CIS has direct access to hundreds of resources, including mental health services, as well as the vast Harvey-relief resources of CIS community partner, Chapelwood United Methodist Church. Chapelwood can provide everything from grocery and clothing gift cards to rent assistance, meal delivery, laundry help, and more.

As our SBISD community continues to recover, needs will evolve. This is most certain as we enter into the holiday season.

We as a district have leaned on our long-time partner, Communities In Schools of Houston, to help us guide families and staff through this most extraordinary event. Crisis handling is what CIS does. So please reach out.

Lastly, if Harvey has proven one thing, it’s that we are stronger together.”

Linda Buchman

Communities In Schools (CIS) project manager/wellness counselor list >>

SBISD Educator Fills Learning Plate with #GotMilk Campaign and Student Smiles

Ask Amber Reynolds, Thornwood Elementary School’s K-5 physical education teacher, why she’s donning an apron and snapping milk-mustached selfies of her students and you’re bound to come away with a smile yourself. Her students do – every day.

Reynolds selected a dairy-specific challenge for her students, aiming to accomplish several very specific instructional goals. First, she delivers instruction on the importance of having a healthy diet as part of her “My Plate” curriculum. Milk and the #GotMilk campaign were a perfect fit when introducing the basics of a balanced diet that includes dairy, fruits, veggies, protein and grains.

View slideshow >>

The bonus of diving into dairy comes from her interest in entering and winning the Houston Texans VIP experience through Fuel Up to Play 60 Contest. The contest is part of a collaboration between the Houston Texans, the National Dairy Council and the National Football League’s Fuel Up to Play 60 Program, and offers students and educators a chance to win a first-hand tour of NRG Stadium.

 Competition participants who’ve completed all six steps of the Fuel Up to Play 60 Program by Nov. 17 are eligible for the winner’s drawing. Winners receive a private tour, lunch in the Texans team cafĂ©, an autographed certificate from Texans Coach Bill O’Brien and team swag for all attendees.

“The contest is about doing a healthy eating play,” said Reynolds. “Dairy is one of them. I thought the kids would like making milk mustaches during “Got Milk?” Week. Snapping and sharing photos in a specially created photo booth was a cute way to deliver an important message.”

So, every morning during breakfast at her campus, Reynolds puts on her apron and starts the day asking “got your milk mustache?” as students line up to take center stage in a Polaroid-inspired photo booth. Photos are posted on the campus Twitter account as part of the awareness activity.

Another critical part of awareness is the photo booth follow-up.

“After they have their photo taken, I give the students handouts on dairy facts to take home and share with their parents and siblings,” said Reynolds. “My goal is to raise awareness and start a conversation about healthy eating.

“Social media is another way to continue that conversation,” she said. “My parents see all the great things we are doing in Health Fitness. Other educators see what we’re doing. It’s a win for all learners.”

Reynolds also challenges her students to work at home on incorporating more dairy and healthy eating into their day.

“It’s amazing how after just one day of these activities almost every student reported having milk with their breakfast,” said Reynolds. “I love to make learning fun. The bonus is now the kids grab a milk with their breakfast!”

Reynolds hopes her out-of-the box thinking about something as familiar as a carton of milk will deliver the results she’s aiming for.

“If kids are eating better, and learning is fun, I’ve accomplished a lot,” she said. “My dream is to have another win from this work, and that’s to win the Fuel Up to Play 60 challenge. I would love for my students to have that experience.”

As Reynolds waits to see if her efforts will get her students to NRG’s game field, she’s not sitting around. In the works is a plan for what she’s calling Walking Week.

“Next on my list is a week where students can come into the gym or go to the playground and walk and talk before school with their peers,” she said. “I think the combination of physical activity and personal interaction will help students wake up their minds.

“When it’s time for class I want all our kids to have energy in their systems to learn.”

Be on the lookout for more milk mustaches between now and the competition deadline as Reynolds prepares for her next learning adventure. If her students’ smiles have anything to say, it’s that she’s already a winner.

If your campus is interested in learning more about the Fuel Up to Play 60 Contest, click here.