Innovative ideas and big dreams bring bigger results in Harlandale Independent School District

In the coming months we will be bringing you a firsthand look at work being done by changemakers, both locally and from across the country. For our first installment, Collin Lessing interviewed Robert Jaklich, Superintendent of the Harlandale School District in Texas—a district that faced a future full of daunting challenges. What this changemaker has been able to do in several short years is nothing short of incredible, and his story offers some innovative ideas that can be applied across sectors. Read on to find how he did it, and check back for more stories from changemakers in the coming weeks.

By Collin Lessing, JVA Consulting

From 2008 to 2009, I worked in the communications department at the Harlandale Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. At that time, school districts around the country were feeling the effects of the struggling economy, with stories of campus closures, shortened school weeks and cancelled bus programs becoming all too common. As the most property-poor school district in San Antonio and ranked 21st from the bottom out of 1,025 districts statewide, Harlandale had its own set of challenges heading into the recession.

It was around that same time that Robert Jaklich was appointed interim-superintendent. In the previous year, the district had seen a budget cut of $3.9 million, the closure of an elementary school and the elimination of 100 jobs. The challenge ahead of Mr. Jaklich was clear, but he was not content with the district simply weathering the economic storm. He reminded us nearly daily that the only acceptable course of action was for the district to be in the position where its students, parents, staff and community could dream—and dream big. If you think those were just words, think again because what Mr. Jaklich has been able to achieve has been nothing short of remarkable.

It started in 2008, when, under Mr. Jaklich’s leadership, voters in the community approved a 13-cent property tax increase that would go on to raise $1.3 million in local taxes and an additional $6.7 million in Tier 2 state funding—giving Harlandale more than $8 million annually in additional tax revenue at about a sixth of the cost. The following summer, voters approved refinancing of QZAB bonds that saved the district approximately $18 million while providing an additional $12 million, all at no additional cost to the taxpayers.

The success of these initiatives saved two more campuses from closing, kept 200 jobs in the community from being lost and stabilized the district’s economic health for years to come.

When these initiatives were proposed, some wondered how it would translate to the classroom. The results have been clear: Two years later, all but one of Harlandale schools are rated as recognized or exemplary—the two highest accountability ratings given by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The school that missed the mark did so by just one point in the science category.

The district itself is also a recognized school district—one of just four out of the 18 school districts in Bexar County, with the other three recognized located in much more affluent areas of San Antonio.

Harlandale’s student population is 98 percent Hispanic, 91 percent economically-disadvantaged and 100 percent of the students are on the free- and reduced-price lunch program. While some might be daunted by these statistics, Mr. Jaklich said, “You can’t let statistics tell you who you are. You determine who you want to be.”

So that students can dream big and determine who they want to be, Mr. Jaklich has started at the foundation, addressed challenges at the middle and high school levels, and engaged the community by:

Increasing the number of students in the full-day pre-K program from 700 to 1,200. Testing at Harlandale has shown that across the board, students who complete pre-K test higher than those who don’t.

Forming partnerships with San Antonio Literacy, San Antonio Reads and the San Antonio Rotary Clubs. Every second grader in the school district will receive tutoring thanks to partnerships with these local organizations.

Developing a hybrid-model for eighth graders who don’t pass the Texas Academic Skills Test (TASP) test. Students who don’t pass the eighth-grade TASP test have the option to take high school electives during the summer. In the fall, they spend half of their day at the middle school taking eighth-grade reading, writing and science, and the other half the day at the high school taking elective courses. More summer school follows with the student earning more elective credits. When the next school year begins, the student is a sophomore and still on schedule to graduate on time. Since instituting this model, Harlandale has seen its dropout pool in the ninth grade drop from 200 to 38.

Building Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) among teachers. Every teacher gets an additional planning period for a formative assessment on what happened that day in the classroom. Together, teachers share what worked and what didn’t, and how they can improve tomorrow.

Allowing high school teachers to pull “switch-er-oos.” If one teacher has a passion for teaching about the Periodic Table and another has an exciting way to teach about the Scientific Method, they are allowed to swap lesson duties—giving them a chance to teach what they love and building relationships with students that promote tutoring.

Participation in Bexar County’s P16 Council. Committed leaders of prominent businesses in San Antonio like Frost Bank, H.E.B. and Zachary come together with school districts to create a system of best practice sharing between districts while involving business leaders in creating a better, productive city-wide workforce.

The P16 Council hired a third party that compares school districts across the nation. When comparing financial resources and how much is spent per student to academic achievement, Harlandale was the highest rated school district in San Antonio and fourth in the state.

Opening up schools to students in the summertime for breakfast and lunch. As mentioned, all of Harlandale students are on free- and reduced-price lunch, and many come from single parent homes where the parent works two jobs.

“That’s thinking outside the box,” said Mr. Jaklich of the summer meal program. “Treating each person as a valued resource and having people committed to say ‘let’s do what’s good for kids.’ You have to have a culture, philosophy, value system and structure, and they all have to fit—from kinder to elementary.”

Mr. Jaklich also believes in the power of coaching, and schedules time for administrators to coach teachers, and for him to coach administrators.

“It’s non-threatening, and about helping them make decisions and seeing how you can lead by assigning more responsibilities to others, and when we do that, we create a bigger social capacity,” explained Mr. Jaklich. The coaching model ties into the district’s motto: The power of Harlandale is the power of our people.

“If you’re going to be a creator of change, it can’t be just one person. You have to have a culture, system, value and a belief that permeates throughout.”

I wrapped up our conversation by asking Mr. Jaklich what his favorite quote was.

“Strive not to be a person of success, but a person of value,” he told me—an Albert Einstein quote.

“That’s what we try to do everyday in the Harlandale ISD,” he added. “Bring value to the lives of our students, our parents, our staff and our community.”

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