Personal stories exemplify how HISD is rebuilding, reimagining education

‘We could be anywhere, and we would still be Robinson’

If anyone could find a silver lining amid the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, it’s Robinson Elementary School Principal Paige Fernandez-Hohos. After being flooded with more than a foot of water, Robinson was relocated and students split between two adjacent campuses. Though not ideal, the situation made Fernandez-Hohos determined to give students a sense of normalcy. Vacant rooms and hallways sprung to life with decorations. Auditorium and gym spaces were transformed into cozy classrooms to accommodate more students. Fernandez-Hohos trekked back and forth between the two campuses. If she started the day welcoming students at one school, she ended it saying goodbye to students at the other. It was important, she said, that every class see her every day. Robinson students returned to their home campus in January, but Fernandez-Hohos said the storm taught her a valuable lesson about the spirit of her school: “When everything else is stripped away, all you’re left with is the bond between teachers and students. We could be anywhere, and we would still be Robinson.”

Feeding families in the wake of a devastating hurricane

Betti Wiggins — everyone calls her Ms. Betti — exudes the familiar warmth of a beloved friend or favorite aunt. Behind that gentle demeanor, however, is a force of nature — the kind that fights a catastrophe like Hurricane Harvey by doing what she knows best: feeding families. Wiggins, HISD’s officer of Nutrition Services, led a charge to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner to Houstonians at nine sites across the city after the storm. When schools reopened, she made sure every student could eat for free all year long, easing the burden on families rebuilding their lives. Schools in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods added a dinner program so students could eat three hot meals every day. Wiggins’ work is far from done. She and her team are building relationships with local farms, chefs, and community organizations, extending their mission beyond the lunch tray. Wiggins has been celebrated as a “rebel lunch lady,” James Beard award-winner, and pioneer of healthy school meals. Now she can add Harvey Hero to the list.

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A resource for healing after trauma of Harvey

When the bell rings at Welch Middle School, nurse Stephanie Carter walks the halls to check on students as they shuffle between classes. “How are you doing? How is your day going?” Sometimes a distressed face stands out in the crowd. Other times Carter seeks out those she knows need extra attention, such as two siblings from west Houston who were displaced after Hurricane Harvey. “Children experience trauma in a different way than adults do,” says Carter. “You may not see signs of distress for weeks or even months later.” After Harvey, HISD staff received extensive training on how to spot signs of trauma and be a resource for families recovering from the storm. With help from HISD’s Health and Medical Services, Carter procured medical equipment for a student whose home flooded, advised parents on immunizations for exposure to tainted water, and connected families with community partners to help rebuild what Harvey destroyed. Today, when Carter sees the siblings affected by Harvey’s floodwaters, they greet her with a hug. It’s a small but fulfilling reward for a job well done.

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Rebuilding with the help of community

It’s a teacher’s worst nightmare to greet students with bare walls and minimal supplies on the first day of school. But that was first-year teacher Shameka Provost’s reality after Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters ravaged her home and ruined the classroom materials she had neatly packed and stored there. While Provost is still putting the pieces of her life back together, her classroom is whole again thanks to the HISD Foundation. Provost is among more than 140 teachers awarded nearly $180,000 in grants of up to $1,500 to help them rebuild their classrooms and replace what was lost in the storm. Now, almost six months after Harvey, it’s captivating to watch her coach fourth-graders on the importance of community as they pass around manila paper, glue, and markers to create thinking maps for reading. The experience has not only taught Provost resilience but given her students a lesson on the importance of coming together during the toughest of times to help those in need.

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Artwork project results in message of hope

“Your dreams are not ruined, they just need time to dry,” says Pin Oak Middle School eighth-grader Olivia Scott. Her home escaped damage from Hurricane Harvey, but her art teacher, Cindy Sather, was not so lucky. Sather’s Meyerland home flooded, so when she heard about Project aDOORe, she knew it was the therapy she — and her students — needed. Project aDOORe paired school communities impacted by Harvey with storm-damaged doors, and more than 8,500 students visually documented how the storm affected them. Scott’s “Drying Dreams” depicts a spacesuit, Astros jersey, chef’s apron, wedding dress, graduation cap, ballet slippers, and stethoscope hanging from a clothesline. Scott helped a family save photographs and other items by laying them out to dry. “Even though the water ruins things, it doesn’t mean the end of your dreams,” Scott says. “I thought the idea of hanging your dreams out to dry was a good metaphor for keeping things in perspective.”

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Innovative spaces for 21st-century cooking lessons

Milby High School culinary arts teacher Carlos Ramos isn’t just teaching students how to cook. He’s teaching them how to earn a living in the restaurant industry. Ramos is reimagining the way culinary arts should be taught thanks to an innovative kitchen and restaurant space in the new Milby High School, which was rebuilt under the 2012 Bond Program. Rather than simply preparing and serving food, Milby culinary students are running a restaurant — the only one in HISD — and getting real-world experience in the process. Tasks are assigned as they would be in a for-profit restaurant. Students cook the main entrée, greet and serve guests, and inventory food in the walk-in coolers. The spaces provide dual functions. Preparation tables become a place for small-group instruction, while the ’50s-style dining room — complete with projectors and smart boards — transforms into a lecture hall. Ramos will tell you there is more to running a restaurant than just cooking. He’s serving up life lessons for the generations to come.

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Cultivating creativity, expression through fine arts

“I love to dance because it makes me feel powerful,” says Northside High School junior Jesus Juarez. He is studying all types of dance, but it’s through jazz that his personality shines, says instructor Sandra Reyna-Urbina: “Jesus dances with such passion that you can’t keep your eyes off him.” Juarez has always been strong in the arts, studying choir in elementary school and theater in middle school. But after watching the Northside Pantherettes drill team perform, he knew dance was next. HISD wants to nurture that passion for the arts in all students under the guidance of its new K-12 Fine Arts Department. Exposure to fine arts not only improves academics and promotes better attendance, but it helps students develop a nonverbal language that makes them more effective communicators. Last summer, after Reyna-Urbina took him and 11 other students to New York City to take dance classes and see a Broadway show, Juarez could see the possibilities of a career: “Eventually, I want to move to New York to dance professionally.”

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Innovation, project-based learning drive a passion for robotics

Sixteen-year-old Michael Sanchez thrives on intensity and pressure. Get him talking about his role on the robotics team at Energy Institute High School, and one might think he’s a driver on the NASCAR circuit. Sanchez “drives” a robot designed by him and 30 classmates, and last year they took home second place in a national competition featuring nearly 7,000 teams from over 30 countries. This year, they have spent hours working collaboratively to find sponsors, raise funds, and build their newest creation with the help of two former NASA engineers. One might compare the experience to working on a project in the corporate world. In fact, that’s what all students in HISD’s innovative, project-based classrooms experience. They learn by doing, investigating, and problem-solving. Sanchez says the projects have challenged and pushed him but also drove him to discover a passion for robotics that he never knew existed. At this year’s competition, he’s eyeing the top prize.

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Wraparound services coordinator tends to needs outside of classroom

No two days are alike for Wagma Isaqzoy. One day she might be distributing warm clothes to families during a cold snap, while another will find her partnering with a nonprofit to host a healing arts workshop for students. As a wraparound services coordinator at Wisdom High School, she helps students who speak over 40 different languages and hail from all over the world navigate life in a new country. But don’t let her calming voice fool you. The self-proclaimed “newcomer” advocate, who moved to the U.S. only three years ago, is passionate about her work. Isaqzoy says most of Wisdom’s students struggle not with schoolwork but with needs outside the classroom: housing, food, and healthcare, as well as self-esteem and trust issues. Isaqzoy is part of HISD’s Every Community Every School initiative, which has taken root at more than 40 schools to address the non-academic challenges that hinder a student’s ability to learn. No matter what her days look like, Isaqzoy knows her mission: ensure that students can leave their worries outside of the classroom.

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Discovering a path to college through an important mentor

Westside High School senior Carlos Soriano could never have dreamed of a future that included college. As a child in El Salvador, he struggled to learn in an overcrowded school, where he was shuffled in and out of classrooms not large enough for all students. Learning would last half a day, and he would ride a makeshift bus home. Today, the soft-spoken senior has a deep appreciation for the opportunity he has in HISD. He boasts a 4.56 GPA, ranks 29 out of 621 students, and is in the top 5% of his class. It’s a remarkable accomplishment when you discover he’s juggling the additional responsibility of caring for his 3-year-old brother after school so his mother can work. Soriano credits his college success adviser, Joy Maguire, for pushing him even further. She mentored him through essay and application deadlines for engineering programs at UT, A&M, UH, University of Colorado, and Virginia Tech. Now, in his final year of school after coming to the U.S. at 9, Soriano can imagine the possibilities of a college education.

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