Williams, who was scheduled to visit schools in Tyler and Bullard later that day, observed some teachers instructing students at Union Hill before speaking in the school library to a small audience which included State Rep. David Simpson (R-Longview). The commissioner noted that during a dinner for school superintendents, Union Hill ISD Supt. Sharon Richardson had invited him to visit her rural Upshur County campus, and “she didn’t think I’d take her up on it.”
In citing demographics, Williams was referring to what a dictionary defines as a population’s statistical data, such as those showing average age, income, and education.
The commissioner said the state’s high school graduation percentage is the highest it’s ever been, and “You see administrators and teachers hard at work, and students hard at work learning, and you see that all over the state.”
He also noted that 4th and 8th grade African-American and Hispanic students in Texas outperform such pupils in other states in math and reading, but “we’ve got to outperform students in Bangalore (India) and Beijing (China). That’s our challenge.”
Discussing Texas students’ performance overall, Williams said reading, math, and science scores are up, but “we can’t write worth anything.
“Our writing scores just are not strong. . .It seems to me the only time we are teaching writing is in writing class,” the commissioner said. He said writing must be taught “across all disciplines,” and asked those present what the state can do to help because “this is our biggest shortfall.”
Pittsburg ISD Supt. Mary Pollan replied that she was in her 50th year in education, and that different writing styles had been “in vogue” during that period. She told Williams, “Tell us exactly what you want, and I’ll do it.”
Earlier, the commissioner had discussed the effects of House Bill 5 on education in the state. He said the State Board of Education would meet in two weeks to try to “hammer out the course requirements for the five endorsements” (which are the five different high school graduation paths that students choose from, similar to choosing a college major. They are STEM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; Business and Industry; Humanities; Public Service; and Multi-Disciplinary.)
Williams said state board members will decide whether to require students in all five endorsements to take algebra II, and “they are hearing from a lot of people about that requirement. . .I can’t predict what they’re going to do.”
Ms. Pollan asked Williams if he foresaw a change in the state’s accountability system for school districts, to which he replied, “I do indeed” as House Bill 5 has some directives in it. He said the state tried to “design one (a system) that was more balanced.”
Later, the Pittsburg superintendent complained that her district fell into the “need improvement” category based on the performance of only two percent of its students, when districts with lower passing rates didn’t receive that designation. She asked for that part of the state’s assessment of school districts to be reconsidered.
On another issue, school finance, Williams said he believed the Texas Legislature would have a “greater appetite” for “conversation” on that issue in 2015 if a lawsuit filed by numerous school districts challenging the current finance plan is over. Williams said that he had to be “careful in commenting about the lawsuit since I am the defendant.”
Big Sandy ISD Supt. Scott Beene later told Williams schools need more favorable comments as “our teachers are beat up a lot of times, the way they feel.
“Our teachers are busting their rear ends,” as are students, and “I appreciate you standing up for us,” Beene told Williams.
Other school officials attending the gathering included Union Grove ISD Supt. Brian Gray and Union Grove School Board President Jody Day; New Diana ISD Supt. Carl Key; Ms. Richardson and Union Hill School Board Vice-President Mary Gipson. Also attending, among others, was Elizabeth Abernathy, Executive Director of the Region VII Education Service Center in Kilgore.
Earlier, Williams toured the elementary and high school campuses, observing classroom instruction and programs offered to students in pre-K through 12th grade. Student Council members conducted the guided tours.
Visiting a class taught by second and third grade math teacher Cindy Lewis, Williams heard her pose such questions to her pupils as “When I calculate perimeter, what do I do?” and “What do we know about a rectangle? What’s equal on it?”
Said Ms. Richardson after Williams addressed the school officials, “I think the visit went very well. It was an honor to have him here.”
In a written statement, she also commended him for visiting schools statewide.
Before he spoke, she said, he was briefed on the 180-student Union Hill ISD’s data. It showed, among other statistics, that 70 percent of students go on to college or a technical college; that 20 percent graduate high school on the Distinguished Plan, 65 percent do so on the Recommended Plan, and only 15 percent graduate on the Minimum Plan; that 95 percent of its students take algebra II; that average class size is 22 to 26 pupils; and that 80 percent of students qualify for financial aid.
In addition, the district has received the highest rating possible from the state--Superior Achivement--for its financial performance under the Financial Integry Rating System each year since that system’s inception in 2002.
The district also received the state’s highest rating of “Met Standard” in the state’s accountability rating system for the Sharon A. Richardson Elementary School, Union Hill High School, and the school district as a whole.
In a written statement, Ms. Richardson expressed pride in the students; commended the administation, faculty and staff; and thanked parents and community members for their support.