Friday, August 19, 2016

Think Different: Learner’s Journey Launches at Convocation

If you’ve never seen palpable, tangible excitement and energy, then you probably weren’t at Don Coleman Coliseum the morning of Friday, Aug. 12.

After the short trip from their campus or facility, school bus after school bus deposited Spring Branch ISD teachers and staff to a dizzying phalanx of high school cheerleaders, Houston Texan cheerleaders, mascots, music, a DJ from 96.5 – all designed to pump up the jam.

The district’s 4,700 employees gathered to kick off the new school year, which begins in earnest on Aug. 22 with the return of students.

Convocation served as a launch pad for the “Learner’s Journey,” the district’s five-year strategic plan with its four fundamental components: Learning Ecosystem, Extraordinary People and Customized Supports, all undergirded by a Resilient Foundation and with an overarching commitment to personalized learning.

Once the drumline entered the arena and the program began, employees were told through different mediums and formats that the destination matters less than the journey. That as individuals we see the world differently, and that those differences are valid and worth celebrating. That it’s okay to think different and even to fail, because district leaders “have their back.”

The Learner’s Journey supports the district’s T-2-4 goal – doubling the number of Spring Branch students who successfully complete military training, technical certification or a two- or four-year degree.

But convocation was much more than a simple delivery of a message – it was a celebration of Spring Branch ISD.

It was twin sisters Lelia Madanizadeh and Nilou Madanizadeh, Cornerstone Academy students who will attend Westchester Academy for International Studies this year, entertaining and inspiring the audience with their slam poetry and their message of the journey being more important than the destination. “You won’t remember the checkered flag,” they said, but you will remember the experience.

It was Ivan Alvarado, a Buffalo Creek fifth-grader whose rendition of “La de la Mochila Azul” (The Blue Backpack) brought the crowd alive. Dressed in the tradition of Mexican charros, Ivan’s proud performance in Spanish put a powerful spotlight on the district’s diversity. Ivan explained that his song is a song about love but more importantly, “a symbol of one boy’s inspiration to go to school.” He said that he loves Buffalo Creek and asked the audience to think about what they love. “What will inspire you and your students this year?” he asked.

It was teacher Patricia Kassir, who nearly 30 years ago took her oath of citizenship in Coleman Coliseum, recounting her path to adulthood and the adults – her parents, her teachers – who propelled her along the way. She recalled the pleasure of watching each of her four children walk across the stage during graduation ceremonies at Coleman, their studies at Westchester Academy for International Studies complete.

It was Alicein Killingsworth, a senior at Northbrook High School, whose unadorned version of The Star-Spangled Banner was simple, moving, powerful and traditional, all at the same time.

View more photos - Convocation 2016 >>

It was Trustee Pam Goodson, a former teacher who read a letter from a student during her time in the classroom. The student (now a graduate of Spring Branch schools) told Goodson how much he loved her and how he hoped they could spend some time together, because she was the greatest teacher ever. The writer wasn’t afraid (he was a fourth-grader at the time), Goodson said, and she urged Spring Branch staff to “dare to be different,” to not be afraid to fail, because she, her fellow Trustees, and Superintendent Dr. Scott Muri are ready to support them. “Think different,” she said.

It was Decory Brown, whose practiced yet spirited version of “Man in the Mirror” was something of an encore from last year’s convocation. The Spring Branch Middle School eighth-grader again brought employees to their feet with his passionate performance, punctuated by dance moves and ending with arms outstretched, his head reared backwards, closed eyes towards the Coliseum ceiling.

It was Imani Davenport, a graduate of KIPP Courage and a rising ninth-grader at Spring Woods High School, whose uplifting voice urged the crowd to “Rise Up” to the challenge of being bold, of thinking differently. An injured foot confined Imani to a stool in the center of the stage, but the power, the emotion of her singing was free, inspiring and uplifting.

It was the Fly Dance Company, whose second performance of the day was an example of thinking differently as they danced to music more akin to classical than the hip-hop or rap associated with break dancing.

And it was Superintendent Dr. Scott Muri bringing it all together, weaving the performances and speakers into his message of being brave, of being proud, of being a learner.

“We’re all learners,” Muri said, “and we’re all different.”

He said Spring Branch should celebrate its diversity, noting differences in race, in religion, in orientation, in ethnicity. He said that along with looking or thinking differently, people learn in different ways. Saying that Fly Dance Company might think differently by performing to classical music, he left the stage as Fly took it, performing to modern classical composition.

He said that as a system, Spring Branch was brave in examining itself and acknowledging that while many are served well, others aren’t served so well and that leaves plenty of room for improvement. He said that Trustees decision in April to become a District of Innovation was a brave move on their part.

The District of Innovation designation gives Spring Branch ISD the flexibility to remove itself from certain state requirements, or as Pam Goodson put it in her talk, it “unties your hands.” The designation also coincided with the approval of a new five-year strategic plan, developed by a 90-member committee of community members and staff.

Delineating the four main “buckets” of work in the strategic plan – The Learner’s Journey – Muri first mentioned Resilient Foundation, the strong organization that undergirds everything the district does.

He talked about Learning Ecosystem, about how the current model of education was created in the late 1800s for an industrial society and about how that model is no longer valid for the learners of today.

He talked about Customized Supports and how the “phenomenal” Spring Branch community can be marshalled more efficiently by aligning resources.

And he talked about Extraordinary People and the development of great teachers and staff.

“The silver bullet of public education is sitting in this room today,” said Muri, “and it’s people,” adding later that “if change is going to happen for children, it’s going to start with us.”

Through the whole strategic planning process, he said, the bravest thing the Spring Branch school system did was look in the mirror and decide it was time for change, segueing into Decory Brown’s performance of “Man in the Mirror.”

Muri talked about pride in Spring Branch ISD and the Spring Branch Education Foundation, whose sole purpose is to “support SBISD” and encouraged giving to the Foundation’s employee campaign, which provides scholarships for children of district employees.

He illustrated pride another way, recognizing, along with Teach for America representatives, the district’s secondary teacher of the year Amanda Tysor of Northbrook High School. Tysor, a Memorial High School graduate and a Teach for America alumna, received a $20,000 Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award from the Rich and Nancy Kinder Foundation.

Kinder Excellence in Teaching award winner Amanda Tysor -

He said he recently read an article that said that learning gaps between different populations, especially Hispanic, were closing and the gaps would be filled – in 137 years.

“That’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “I promise you that in Spring Branch ISD it won’t be 137 years,” assisting Imani Davenport on stage for her performance of “Rise Up.” (Imani’s performance was followed by a surprise video message from Andra Day, the Grammy-nominated song’s artist.)

“When we have high expectations for children, they rise up,” said Muri. “When we celebrate diversity, we rise up,” before declaring Spring Branch “the greatest district in all the land” and calling on the drumline to lead the district’s exit into the new school year.


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