But at the regular meeting of the BISD board — the first opportunity for Thomas to discuss the latest STAAR scores — she took off the gloves.
Choosing to stand up to deliver her report, she told the trustees, “No one in the district is happy with the scores” and then outlined her plans to address the issue.
Part of her proposal is Thomas’ sending freedom-of-information requests to districts in Skidmore-Tynan, Pawnee, Pettus and the local charter school requesting a list of students in BISD who are attending.
As of this writing, neither Skidmore-Tynan nor Pettus has responded.
“I’ve never done something like this before, but folks, we lose 500 to 600 students who pass the tests to those districts,” she said.
She then charged that “Pawnee, Pettus and Skidmore-Tynan will not take students from BISD who do not pass the TAKS test or the STAAR test.
“In fact,” she said, “they have asked our principals to write a letter to them if they know a potential (high achieving) student. And, if they don’t like what they see, they don’t take them.
“Furthermore,” she said, “if outlying districts accept students and it looks like they might not pass, they send them back to Beeville.
“I’ve been real reluctant to say this in public, but that’s what it is.”
That the outlying districts only accept superior students goes a long way to explain the state of BISD, she said.
“We have excellent students, we have excellent teachers. Our academic decathlon won. We have students who regularly are admitted into the military academies. We give $2.5 to $3 million in scholarships every year. If we did not have a good school system,” she said, “that would not happen.”
She asked, then, why are the STAAR scores so low? “After all, our students who pass the tests don’t just pass, their scores are way up there.”
Part of the reason, she said, is the 500 to 600 students who, if they were attending BISD schools instead of going to outlying districts would make a substantial, positive difference in the STAAR scores.
In the unlikely chance those students simultaneously should opt to return to BISD, the district would be required to build another campus, she says. “I would love to have that problem.”
In the audience was Gracie Garcia, who told the board she had planned to transfer her 10-year-old daughter to Skidmore-Tynan but now had changed her mind.
“I’m truly saddened that there are not more parents here,” she said.
If board members expected that was the end of her report, they were in for a surprise.
Thomas then proposed restructuring the district to such a degree that some would call it little short of a revolution.
Holding the board members’ rapt attention — as well as the audience’s — she said she wants to convert the district’s elementary schools to what she calls a grade-center operation.
Under her plan, one elementary school would teach first- and second-graders, another would teach third- and fourth-graders and a third school would teach fifth- and sixth-graders.
“How much more impact would we have with two grades per school instead of five?” she asked.
The proposal also would shift the sixth grade back to elementary school, thus relieving Moreno Middle School, which is operating close to capacity.
Thomas also said the shift would mean fewer discipline problems because seventh-grade students are more mature than sixth-graders.
In such a configuration, elementary principals would be required to supervise and direct the curriculum for two grades instead of five — a 60 percent reduction.
When Thomas pitched the suggestion to teachers earlier this month, her idea was met with applause.
“It’s not worth doing if people hate the idea,” she said.
Such grade-center systems are common in smaller communities. “In Beeville, you can drive from one school to another in five to 10 minutes.”
Norma Martinez, who teaches fifth-grade reading at FMC, told board members she approved of the idea, but cited logistic considerations during the restructuring.
Debra Hanus, a gifted-and-talented teacher at Moreno, remembered a previous instance when teachers and students were forced to move to different school buildings when the district closed a campus. “But that was reactive,” she said. “This is pro-active.”
Concurrent with her restructuring proposal, Thomas also told the board that after perusing more than 86 pages of comments from a curriculum survey distributed to teachers, she is allowing teachers more flexibility to utilize their creativity to fine-tune their curriculum to better instruct their students, rather than adhering to a canned script.
“Just to have the freedom to be able to say, ‘I know what my kids need,’” Martinez told the board. “We’re going in the right direction,” she told the board.
After almost an hour on her feet, Thomas asked the board if there were any questions.
“Not a question, but a comment,” Trustee Matt Huie said.
“I’ve waited four years to hear the last five minutes. Thank you.”
With the plan in mind, the district’s transportation department has hired a company to study how the restructuring would affect the school bus fleet.
“We probably would institute staggered hours of operation,” Thomas said in her office a couple of days later, “so that a parent with second-, third- and fifth-grade children would be able to get them to the school on time. It also would allow buses to run double routes.”
She plans officially to present her realignment concept to the board at its next meeting, March 19. If approved, the restructuring would be in place this fall.
Before then, she plans to send a survey to parents about the planned change. “Everybody is not going to be for it, but I’m hoping for a consensus.”
Thomas says some of the elementary principals already have contacted her with their preference on which schools they would like to lead.
She said it is too early to decide which grades will be housed at which school.
“This idea is to better serve the students,” she says. “And if the teachers are able to devote more time and attention to each student, then their STAAR scores have to get better.”
Beside her on the desk, a bookmarked paperback by David Brandt entitled “Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.