Turning around the trend: New plan aims to help struggling HCISD campus meet standard

The unanimous approval of a Turnaround Plan for Hemphill Elementary, a school designated as “Improvement Required” (IR) by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), marks the second year of the designation for the campus.

Cynthia Vasquez, principal of Hemphill Elementary, began at the school at the beginning of the 2017 school year with a challenge to turn the school around. Vasquez didn’t see it as a challenge; she saw it as an opportunity to help enhance the school.

Hemphill Elementary Principal Cynthia Vasquez stands in front of charts within the campus’ Professional Learning Community (PLC). (Photo by Tim Savoy)

“We’ve built a community where our children come first,” Vasquez said. “You can call them challenges, I call them opportunities. And we have support from everyone in this district. Maybe that’s why I feel like we don’t have challenges, because we have so much support.”

State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) scores for Hemphill showed only 48 percent of students passed the standardized test in 2016 and 44 percent passed in 2017. The scores fell well below the district average of 70 percent during each year.

Although not required, a turnaround plan was submitted to the board after Hemphill’s first year of being designated as IR. Therefore, the school had a jumpstart at applying new systems to help student progress.

The turnaround plan is meant to be a broad outline of a campus’ goals and approach to turning the school’s scores around to gain a “met standard” rating within two years. If that is not met, the TEA may place further sanctions on the school.

As part of the turnaround plan, the school hired a new principal, a second assistant principal, an additional instructional coach and an intervention teacher. Also, all staff members had to reapply at the beginning of the school year. An additional stipend of $1,500 for professional staff and $500 for paraprofessional staff was made available for additional time and efforts to help students become successful.

“I had to really hone in and think about the most important factors to bring to Hemphill this year, because we could work on so many moving pieces,” Vasquez said. “We just needed to tighten up some systems in place and have some goal setting.”

Vasquez has implemented a data-driven system for monitoring individual student progress and gains.

Hemphill’s professional learning community (PLC) classroom, a place where teachers meet to discuss and analyze student progress, is full of goals, data and colorful charts. Students’ names and pictures hang off of charts lining the classroom walls marking progress in reading, math, writing and science, holding both students and teachers accountable.

One main glaring issue for the campus is turnover and accountability. Six principals have led Hemphill Elementary since the campus opened in 2000. In just the last five years, three principals have been hired to lead the campus.

The revolving door will continue to turn as Monica Salas, an administrator in Pflugerville ISD, was recently hired to become the new Hemphill principal for the 2018-2019 school year. Vasquez will move over to the new Uhland Elementary campus, which will house nearly half of Hemphill’s current student population.

Of the 827 current students at Hemphill, 417 will transfer to Uhland Elementary.

“We have the challenge of [Vasquez] coming in this year and establishing the systems and continuity and, lo and behold, we have the new campus opening that necessitates that a large group of students have to go through a change,” said Tim Savoy, Hays CISD Public Information Officer.

“But I think the difference is that this change is going to be fine because we have it in mind and the two principals are going to be partners going forward,” Savoy said.

When Vasquez was first asked to be principal of Hemphill because it was an IR campus, she thought of the school’s vision to create relentless leaders.

“We wanted to rebrand IR, not as being negative, but as being incredibly relentless,” Vasquez said.

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