James Hopper | Superintendent, Venus ISD
I grew up in Maud, Oklahoma. The fifth of eight kids, my dad was a pipeliner who dropped out of high school in 10th grade to go to work. My mom finished high school, but then getting married and starting her family at age 18, never attended college. She insisted however, that each of us speak correctly and provided a good spiritual underpinning by making us attend church.
Dad took each of us to work with him while still in our teens and taught us to “make a hand.” I learned how to operate a side-boom, dozer, backhoe and a track hoe, was exposed to welding of all sorts, as well as the hard and semi-nomadic life of pipelining in the heat and cold, and low-rent motels. With the work habits he instilled, I was able to eventually land jobs wrenching rods on well-service rigs and work as a roughneck on drilling rigs. I have used these work skills all my life.
As a child at home, I lacked hand-eye coordination, particularly in backyard baseball games. A common family joke is how I would use a bushel-basket for a glove when playing “hind-catcher.” At the time, it was all attributed to me just being squeamish.
In school, I began to fall behind as well. It wasn’t until a 7th grade screening at school that a serious eyesight deficiency was detected, and I soon got my first pair of glasses. I walked out of the optometrist office and looked at the large red rectangle on the side of the building, and for the first time read the words Coca-Cola. Afterwards, with my new glasses, I tried out for Little League Baseball and was actually drafted onto a team!
But school work was another matter. By this time, I felt hopelessly behind, especially in math. Up to that point, I didn’t understand how the other kids seemed to “get it” and I didn’t. To further aggravate the problem, I was profoundly introverted and wasn’t about to ask questions that would draw attention to myself. I could read well enough, but now in 7th Grade I had not learned my multiplication tables, didn’t know how to divide and was just a few years from high school. But the worst of all was that because of my struggles, I was convinced that I was just not as smart as everyone else. My self-imposed system of roadblocks to success and sense of inferiority were already well established.
Without direction or confidence to ever achieve it if I had it, the positive affirmation I desperately needed came in my freshman year at Maud High School. I had just made a tackle on a varsity football player, when my (now Hall of Fame) high school football coach Derrel Pearcy, picked me up from the ground by my facemask, batted my head from side to side and said, “Hop, you’re gonna be a Helluva Football Player!”
From that day forward, I would do whatever it took to bring that affirmation to reality. Coach Pearcy taught us how to reach down inside ourselves and persevere well beyond our own expectations of ourselves. He never looked sloppy and carried himself with a confidence that few others had.
I never worked harder at anything in my life, and at the same time never had more fun doing it. He had given me vision and hope, and I wanted to be just like him. So, my plan was to go to college and play football as long as I could, and then coach football. Then I could die happy.
But my academic background up to this point was far from stellar, and I had successfully avoided every academically rigorous class that I could. One teacher told me that there was no way I could get into college (with my transcript). My small school had no guidance counselor, and as a first-generation college student my family really couldn’t offer much advice.
Regardless, I managed to get into college on a small football scholarship. But it wasn’t enough to cover many expenses, so my oilfield experience paid off, as I could also work and attend school. But I had not acquired study skills and had to learn along the way. At one point, I needed an “A” on a test to pass an invertebrate zoology class. For the first time in my life, I crammed all night. I got the grade and realized I might actually have some academic potential.
Having become a coach and teacher of Biology and Anatomy & Physiology, I fell in love with learning and with teaching. I saw the power of the molding of minds and did not take this lightly. Educators are involved in a process far bigger than themselves.
Deciding later to attend graduate school, I had to pass the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). My avoidance of academic challenges had finally caught up to me. Perhaps this was my plateau. Once again, too embarrassed to admit that I had never had an algebra class, I checked out an algebra book from the teacher down the hall. I took it home and made up for lost time by teaching myself algebra well enough that I passed the GRE on the first try.
I passed my principal certification exam on the first try, and when I finally became convinced to pursue the superintendent certification, passed that exam on the first try as well. With a well-established vision and sense of hope, I am now a PhD candidate — a feat that early on I never dreamed possible.
Throughout this time, I also had to deal with the propensity to experience debilitating anxiety attacks with speaking in public, or sometimes even in an interview — anytime I felt I was being scrutinized for my intellect. This was due to an acute and sometimes overwhelming sense of inadequacy. I had to overcome this malady if I would ever reach my goals. I had no choice. It had to be conquered.
In spite of the setbacks that occurred earlier in my life (and perhaps because of them), I am absolutely driven to ensure the success of any of my students in circumstances that make success difficult. We will do so by removing self-imposed roadblocks of life.
I became superintendent at Venus ISD in January 2018. The district had much growth to do, and if we were going to ask our team to aspire to a higher standard, that same reach needed to happen at the Board level. From the beginning, the Board made the commitment to engage Lone Star Governance, the highest level of training currently available for Texas school boards. It is the model governance platform from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) which has, as its fundamental belief, that “Student Outcomes Don’t Change Until Adult Behaviors Change.” Our Board has been recognized as leaders among other Boards in the state by meeting LSG standards, and they have now reached a point total that yield Masters-level of proficiency in Lone Star Governance.
We are flipping the script that was previously written for the school district. We changed our pre-K program to full day before the TEA required that move.
Through community meetings, we established a foundation for success by adopting values, vision and mission statements. These constantly guide our decision-making all throughout the year.
Since many of our community are reluctant to come to the school for meetings, we bring the schoolhouse to the community. Our Team of 8 began to conduct face-to-face community meetings each semester, in different venues throughout the community. Most recently, the meetings are also carried live on social media.
The Board has adopted a Theory of Action: Continuous Improvement. This means that regardless of where we are today, we will be better tomorrow. Annual program goals and strategies are structured to have all programs on a constantly upward trajectory.
We reinstated the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. AVID is widely recognized as one of the best college preparation programs in the world. It is on our secondary campuses and will soon reach all the way down to pre-K.
Another guiding principle is our vision statement: “Excellence Grows Here, in Each One, Each Day.” When speaking with parents, they rarely if ever mention the state’s accountability system or what score a particular school received from the TEA. They want to know one thing: “Is my child growing in your school district?” That is a very fair question, and we must be able to prove our students are growing.
No matter where our students are — on grade level, above grade level or even behind grade level — each one of them must grow in our system. There’s no wiggle room, and no excuses — each student must show growth. It’s non-negotiable. It’s what drives us. We are committed to providing our teachers with the time, tools, training and teamwork to get the job done.
In the Fall of 2023, Venus High School will become an early college high school. This will ensure that each one of our students has the opportunity to attain an associate degree at the same time as their high school diploma. We are also in the planning year to become a P-20 in 2023 as well, providing structures of support for students to attain their bachelor’s degree and beyond, with tuition and fees paid. Upon adoption by our Board, we will become Venus Collegiate ISD.
This is significant, because Venus ISD has the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the county. But poverty isn’t the absence of money. Poverty is the absence of hope. Therefore, our job is to provide this tangible hope.
I am driven by my passion to ensure that not a single one of our students goes through our learning organization feeling as if they cannot compete for employment or scholarship, as I once felt.
I am absolutely stoked to see what tomorrow holds for the students in this school district. It is exhausting work, but it is highly rewarding work. I suppose this all goes back to my experience on a hot high school football field in Maud, Oklahoma . . . when I felt like I was working harder than I ever had and having more fun than ever before!
Perseverance and Creating Hope . . . It’s Our Superpower
James Hopper serves Venus ISD as its superintendent of schools. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Angelo State University and his master’s degree from the University of North Texas. He may be reached at James.Hopper@venusisd.net.