Dr. Eric Wright | Superintendent, Hays CISD
Growing up in Lufkin, my life revolved around education. My dad served public education at different levels for 46 years and retired as a superintendent. My mom retired after a career in school nursing, and my grandmother was on the State Board of Nursing Examiners at what used to be Texas Eastern School of Nursing, now the University of Texas at Tyler.
I had a book in my hand at a very early age and knew how to read when I entered first grade, and my teacher sparked a love of education in me. When she realized I could read, she assigned me to be a peer tutor and gave me my own reading group.
I was able to help teach some of the other students how to read, and that was the best feeling in the world. I loved helping other people and the other students in my classroom. From that moment, I knew education was the career for me.
I became a teacher and coach and never once felt like it was a job. I had fun teaching and coaching. Once I became a head basketball coach, the notion of combining leadership and education appealed to me. When the opportunity to move into administration presented itself, I went to the best administrator I knew for advice, my dad.
He advised me to start at the elementary school and learn all I could about early literacy. His experience was at the secondary level, and he felt early literacy was one area he wished he knew more about. His wisdom to guide me down the path of being an elementary assistant principal was the best learning opportunity imaginable.
Later, I became an elementary principal, a high school principal, and eventually a superintendent, a role in which I have served for 18 years. I am especially honored to serve the Hays Consolidated Independent School District (Hays CISD) community as its superintendent.
Hays CISD currently serves approximately 21,700 students and is growing rapidly — more than 1,100 students just this past year. We have more than 60,000 future home lots and added more than 1,200 new students this year. Managing the growth while ensuring every student is cared for according to her or his individual needs will always be our priority.
Why are so many people drawn here? It could be because of our can-do spirit. If someone has an idea that is good for kids, we find innovative ways to get it done. Or, it could be that our people are invested here and care deeply about others in the community.
I wholeheartedly agree with those ideas, yet I want to take a deeper dive into three reasons why Hays CISD is so special.
Listening is a Priority.
I have been fortunate to have great mentors, and they all emphasized the importance of listening, to seek advice from others. Listening is the best and most productive form of communication.
Think for a moment about the average day of an educator (if there is such a thing). Each day there are going to be people who want time to speak with us — to be heard. We must understand how important it is to them. Even though we may be in the middle of a whirlwind, investing the time to focus our attention on the person we are listening to is significant. Everything else needs to take a backseat. There is an old saying, “You can pay me now or you can pay me later.” I’ve found that there is nothing that gets us in trouble more than improper communication, especially when it makes people feel not valued. If we listen up front, then we’ll find out what is important to people and can work to find common ground.
We work very hard to be good listeners. We have multiple committees, focus groups and advisory groups that provide opportunities to hear from our community. However, one of my favorites is Taxpayer Tuesdays, where we try to connect with our taxpayers who no longer have kids in school and who may no longer receive our communications.
We provide lunch and often take them on tours of our district. We provide question and answer sessions. We want to hear their concerns and want them to see firsthand what is going on in our schools. Taxpayer Tuesday is a great opportunity to dispel rumors, answer questions and show our taxpayers our amazing students. Having that first-hand knowledge is huge and allows us to partner with them to benefit our community.
One example resonates with me. After walking in our schools, many people have told me that the things they learned in high school are now being taught in middle school. Things they learned in middle school are now taught in elementary school. Our curriculum and rigor have changed. Having that in-person opportunity to see what we are doing allows our taxpayers to connect the school district efforts to tangible things. They have a great appreciation for programs such as blended learning and dual credit. They recognize why technology and an infrastructure to support it are so important.
When we have issues that we’re dealing with in our district, our Taxpayer Tuesday participants provide advice, perspective and the historical balance we need to make decisions in line with our community’s expectations. We are fortunate to learn from them.
Our employees recognize our customers are our parents and students. Meeting the needs of students and parents is why we are in business. During the pandemic, our teachers and staff have been focused on taking care of our students, our families and each other. I consider them to be heroes.
Our teachers had to instantaneously go from never having provided remote online instruction to learning a new way to teach and reach their students through an online format. Our support staff also had to immediately pivot to providing meals for homebound students and support our teachers in this new way of learning.
Our employees trust our processes. They trust their teaching partners. They trust their next-door neighbors. And they are here for the right reasons. They have handled the pandemic like champs and have done their jobs with great compassion and patience.
The last two years have been like a rollercoaster. Somebody would be either quarantined because they were in close proximity or because they tested positive. Their teammate next door would step in to pick up the slack.
Then when the roles were reversed, the favor would be returned. We had tremendous leadership in our faculty and staff. They did what was necessary to keep our doors open to serve our students and parents.
We had students who might be in school one day and out of school quarantined the next day. Regardless of the situation, our teachers and staff took care of the whole child and their needs. Our student nutrition staff provided meals to go; and even though there were times we could not see our students in person, our people made home visits. They just wanted to see their students’ faces to let them know they were there.
They’ve been heroes throughout the entire pandemic.
I am a big believer in the notion of social contracts espoused by Capturing Kids Hearts. We have social contracts at every level in our organization. It’s important to invest the time to build those norms; otherwise, a golden rule for you and a golden rule for me may be different. The foundation of working with people is relationships and creating social contracts creates expectations for how we treat each other. We are all on the same page.
As a team of eight (the superintendent and seven Board members), we have a social contract that is based on the four key questions from Capturing Kids Hearts: How do you want to be treated by the leader? How do you want to be treated by each other? How do other Board members want to be treated by you? How do we want to treat each other when there is conflict?
Working systematically through each of those questions is a brainstorming session. Each of us gets to speak, and each of us listens to the other team members when he or she speaks. At the end of the day, we come up with norms (our social contract) for how we want to be treated in all instances. We all sign it and then hold each other accountable for abiding by that document.
The past few years have been challenging for school Boards across our nation. I’ve heard and seen reports in other parts of our country where Boards are disagreeing in combative ways, attacking each other to the point where some members are walking out of meetings. Social contracts create an environment where, even though people might disagree, they can be civil and respect each other’s opinions and positions.
We are fortunate to have an amazing school Board that has agreed to continually focus on what is best for our students — our mission, vision and goals. They focus their time and energy on what’s necessary to create an environment conducive to accomplish those goals.
Listening, appreciating our heroes and building relationships based on shared respect and common purpose is all about people. That’s the magic — people. We are in the people business. We are here to help our students reach their dreams and inspire them to strive for the best in whatever ignites their passion.
I’ll leave you with a call to action, based on my experience and world view — help me eliminate bureaucracy. It’s the enemy of the magic we create in public schools. I’m committed to growing and exploring new ideas, and my requirement is that nothing new can create an additional layer of bureaucracy. By reducing bureaucracy, we respect our people and value exemplary customer service. It allows us to genuinely continue to know the people who make up our school district. And it allows them to know us as people too.
Eliminating Bureaucracy . . . It’s Our Superpower
Dr. Eric Wright serves the Hays Consolidated School District as its superintendent of schools. He earned his Bachelor of Education degree, his Master of Educational Leadership and his Doctorate from Stephen F. Austin State University. He may be reached at HaysCISD.firstname.lastname@example.org.