The following article and Q&A are from the October 6, 2016, issue of Pioneering!, the magazine of Education Reimagined, a nationwide initiative of the Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. They feature Alamo Heights ISD, a Consortium Associate district.

Under a microscope, Alamo Heights, Texas, appears to represent small town America to the letter — a small, independent city stretching less than 10 square miles and home to less than 16,000 people. But, when you zoom out, you’ll find America’s seventh largest city, San Antonio, engulfing Alamo Heights from every direction — creating an unexpected mix of early 20th century farmville and 21st century cityscape.

At the center of this unique cultural landscape is Alamo Heights Independent School District (AHISD). With humble beginnings as a two-room schoolhouse, AHISD realized — in 2008 — after a century of traditional practices, it was time for a change. After gathering community input — including from learners themselves — a brand-new vision emerged that enlivened all involved. Now, learners at AHISD are delving into opportunities that were once unimaginable.

Take the story of 11-year-old AHISD learner, Paul Eguia. This determined young man set out on a journey to discover a way to get himself and his peers to make healthier food choices. His project, dubbed “The Green Lights Food Challenge,” brought the entire AHISD community together. With support all around, Paul invited his peers to try 37 different fruits and vegetables and commit to a physical fitness regimen to bring his health initiative full circle. Through his efforts, his community became conscious of their daily health habits.

Expanding beyond the work of a single learner, picture walking into a space where hyper-focused teens have lost all concept of time as they diligently design and build sophisticated rockets that travel three-times faster than the speed of sound. Or, perhaps you happen upon a group of young learners lighting up the stage through the socially embedded design of Destination Imagination’s Improv Program. Better still, you discover a group of learners organizing a community-wide project to “foster a school environment where all students feel welcome and safe to be themselves.”

Just as you think, “these are all nice side projects,” you realize this is the central learning philosophy — ensure all learners are developing a healthy sense of self, seeking knowledge and understanding in all things, thinking critically and creatively, engaging socially and globally through communication and collaboration, and empowered with life-skills that can be carried far into the future. This personalized, relevant, and contextualized theory of learning comes to life in pleasantly unexpected ways every day at AHISD.

This is just the beginning. The evolution of AHISD is far from over and the leaders and learners refuse to rest on the laurels of what AHISD has accomplished so far. Until every child is able to maximize their full potential and feels at home in their learning environment, boundaries will continue to be pushed and innovation will continue to be sought.

Alamo Heights ISD: A Conversation With Superintendent Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown Education Reimagined had the privilege to speak with Alamo Heights ISD Superintendent Kevin Brown. Listen in on the conversation and discover how an entire district decided to break free from their school-centric model.

Q: As you approach 10 years as superintendent at Alamo Heights, what have you seen along the way?

A: AHISD and Alamo Heights are great places to be. Back in 2008, when I became superintendent, there was great pride within the district. We were pretty traditional, touting the traditional markers of teaching to students and developing student passivity; focusing some on test scores and how many kids made it to Ivy League universities. We aren’t completely out of that mentality yet, but we’ve made substantial changes.

Before we invited the entire community to help us create our new strategic plan, there wasn’t any perception — internally — that there were problems out there. But, as we went through the process of community engagement and strategy development, we began to see more and more what needed to be addressed. We got a lot of investment and ownership from the staff and community. Because of this, we have made great strides toward transforming our environment, keeping the focus on student engagement and voice.

We’ve recently turned another leaf over and implemented a pilot program called Engaged Classrooms. There are 17 educators who applied to be part of a very intensive partnership with an instructional coach, and together they work to design engaging units for students. There is a lot of professional development relating to design and the use of technology. Additionally, we have completely redesigned their classrooms with new flexible furniture, new flooring and paint, and one-to-one technology. There is a lot of excitement in our district about these learning spaces, as well as the “responsible roll-out” of one-to-one technology in them. It is a complete redesign of the learning environment and the work we are doing in instructional design. We are hoping to be able to keep up this transformation of space throughout the coming months with the support of a bond referendum.

Q: What were the steps involved in getting the 2008 plan together? At what stage was the community brought into the conversation?

A: A few key things come to mind. First, the AHISD board had to be involved. As superintendent, my first meeting with the board was around the TASA visioning document. It had come out a few months before, and I thought it linked pretty closely with how my board was thinking. I spent a lot of time with them — studying the articles and having conversations. I felt they were on board and were anxious to move forward as a district.

We were in a good place. People were looking for innovation. In search of next steps, I spoke with other districts about what they had gone through. Additionally, we hired on a consultant from the Cambrian Group and worked with the Schlechty Center. Both parties really helped to engage our district in trying to think about what our kids need to be prepared for the 21st century and helping us to create a learning organization.

As we developed our strategic plan with the consultant, we also brought in a team of 35 stakeholders to get things off the ground. With these 35 as a stronghold, we engaged with 250 members of the community — splitting them into six groups, we spent 40 hours with each developing a piece of the puzzle. After their hard work was completed, we unveiled our new plan and vision. Because they have been involved from the start, buy-in from the community has not waned. Through this collaborative effort, we now have a district team who receive assistance from The Schlechty Center to help us think in terms of being designers — designing experiences for our kids. All of our staff has gone through some level of professional development in the design process.

We’re thrilled with the strides we have made. It may have felt slow at times, but each step has been essential to get us where we are today.

Q: One of our favorite things to highlight is what makes each environment unique — something we may not find anywhere else. What would fit that description at AHISD?

A: We have six strategies that make up our mission. They truly capture who we are. My personal favorite took an entire day to develop: “Each student will cultivate an awe, wonder, and thirst for learning, discovery, and the beauty of the world.” This kind of commitment, although it might not be entirely unique, is something I treasure.

On a more somber note, the year we developed our six strategies, four learners in our community passed away — two from AHISD and two from private schools. All four deaths were drug or alcohol related. Upon hearing this news, we committed ourselves to funding a wellness program with the help of our AH School Foundation to assist our learners in addressing their health-related needs — we raised $1.4 million. We now have a program that is a national model for prevention, intervention, and most important, recovery. We have developed a strong community of sobriety and support for our students. It may sound odd, but when I hear one of our learners has made the decision to enroll in rehab, I make it a point to celebrate their decision — celebrate their courageous decision to better themselves. I believe that this commitment to ensuring that all kids get what they need to be healthy and happy — whatever that is — makes us unique as a district.

Q: That is an impressive commitment to learners as individuals. As superintendent, how do you remain engaged with your learners?

A: On the whole, our strategic plan has elevated student voice tremendously. I make it my personal mission to sit down with every senior throughout the year and listen to their insights over lunch. I bring what they’ve shared back to my board and staff to keep everyone in the loop and up to date on how our learners are feeling about their environment.

We’ve also hosted student panels in front of our whole district staff, led focus groups, and run anonymous surveys. Many campuses have replicated this as well. Our learners are really good at articulating how they learn and what they would like to learn. And, that has made a huge difference. For example, I had a teacher of 36 years come into my office and tell me she had never heard anyone tell her she was boring before. She said it was a huge wake-up call. She wasn’t angry at all; she saw it as an opportunity to do a better job attending to her kids.

Sometimes our engagement and elevation of learner voice has come as a shock for those involved. We recently developed a Learner Profile to capture who a successful AHISD learner would be. To create these, we launched a committee comprised of a whole range of stakeholders, including students and parents. During one of our meetings, a learner spoke up against the assertions of the adults in the room: “No, no, no — you’re wrong,” she said, politely. After that conversation, one of the parents approached me to express his surprise at this student’s “audacity.” All I could say in response, “That is exactly what we want to hear from our kids! We want them to put it all out on the table.” And, by the end of the day, that same parent was advocating for more learners to join the committee. It is remarkable what happens when we make room for the possibility that our learners have something incredibly valuable to contribute.

Q: The hard work that has gone into creating this environment of inclusivity and opportunity for all is inspiring. Can you share a story about what it has meant for your learners?

A: A few years ago, we had a learner named Eric. He hated school — particularly didn’t like science. He came from a low-income family where no one had ever gone to college. Later on, he enrolled in our rocketry program because he thought it would be a blow-off class. To provide some background, a group of learners in the program designs, builds, and launches a rocket each year at the US Army White Sands Missile Range, where their rocket travels three times the speed of sound — the program is certainly no “blow-off.” It inspired Eric to work hard in the program.

During Eric’s second year in the program as a senior, he was working on the rockets, and through our local congressman, his class had the opportunity to speak live to American astronauts on the International Space Station. To Eric’s surprise, the astronauts weren’t able to answer all of his complex questions. Afterward, this young man came up to me, “Dr. Brown, I’m going to be the first in my family to go to college, and I’m going to go to NASA and work on the mission to Mars.” Long story short, his family got him into The University of Texas San Antonio and, during his sophomore year, he got to work with NASA in a paid intern program that will cover his college tuition and guarantee him a job after graduation. And, guess what? He’ll be working on the Mars mission.

Dr. Kevin Brown came to Alamo Heights ISD in July 2000 and has served as Superintendent of Schools since July 2008. On the state and national level, Dr. Brown serves as president of TASA and the Texas School Coalition and as an advocate to transform public schools to better meet the needs of all 21st century learners. In 2004, he earned a Doctorate in Education Administration from Texas A&M University, which catalyzed his passion for public education and his belief that quality teachers and a supportive community are critical components to the success of children and to the continued success of our democratic way of life. He is particularly passionate about the Alamo Heights community, schools, staff and students.