Jan. 8, 2013
This article was published in the Jan. 4 issue of The Dallas Morning News' NeighborsGo section. It was part of a series of columns by community leaders.

Dr. Dawson Orr

Dear HPISD Community Members,
As we mark the beginning of the second semester for this school year, we are already looking ahead at how it will connect to next year's work. Certainly, the development of the Learner for the Future profile has been a milestone for the district. That profile acts as a road map going forward, while it honors the history of both academic excellence and educational innovation that defines HPISD. In developing the road map, district leaders began with the most important person in mind: the student.  


In 2012, the district assembled a study team made up of parents, students, teachers, administrators and university professors to identify the knowledge, skills, attributes and dispositions the HPISD student would need to become an accomplished person and lifelong learner. After months of study, discussion and collaboration, the team produced a profile of what the Highland Park ISD learner strives to be: 

  • Academically prepared for college and career
  • A critical and innovative thinker
  • An effective communicator and collaborator
  • Motivated, confident and resilient
  • A responsible person and engaged citizen
  • A globally competent person

The team gave a great deal of thought to these goals and the specific supporting qualities that would make the profile possible. There are too many supporting qualities to list here, but just a few include academic mastery, intellectual curiosity, empathy and technological proficiency. To learn more about the profile, please visit www.hpisd.org's "About HPISD" page.

The Learner for the Future directly ties to one of our main goals for 2013-14, which is designing a road map for the Educator for the Future. Now that we have specific, forward-thinking goals for our students, our teachers' work must follow. And we must give our teachers the resources, training and support they need to become the educators whose classroom work correlates with the student goals.

What were some of the biggest changes and challenges the district faced in 2012? What is the biggest challenge facing Highland Park ISD in the coming year?

Certainly, school safety continues to weigh heavily on all of our minds. Student safety is absolutely a top priority in HPISD, and the district and each of its campuses have well-established emergency plans in place. Throughout the school year, we conduct drills for situations we might face, including weather emergencies, intruders and other scenarios that necessitate lockdowns, evacuations and sheltering in place. In addition, over the holidays, local law enforcement officials walked each of our campuses to closely examine the security measures we have in place and to provide recommendations for enhancements. In HPISD, we are blessed to work with responsive emergency personnel who are committed to protecting our children and partnering with the district to put strategic preventative measures in place.

Student enrollment continues to steadily grow, which presents both a great opportunity to educate children and a challenge to find a place for all of them in our buildings. Each new year continues to set a new record high, with current enrollment at 6,850. That compares to 6,325 five years ago and 6,005 10 years ago. As a result, the district is developing a long-range facilities plan that will allow us to examine all our options going forward so that we can accommodate continued growth.
We are all aware of the ongoing challenge that HPISD and other districts face regarding the state's ineffective testing and accountability system. As the state burdens our students and our school system with yet more standardized testing mandates and an arbitrarily designed accountability system, we feel we cannot be silent. In a recent meeting with PTA leaders, they urged us to hold a public forum to address these issues. We have scheduled the forum for 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10 in the Highland Park High School cafeteria, and I sincerely hope you will be able to join me and other HPISD leaders there. We will share the district's goal of a community-based assessment and accountability system that goes beyond the state's standardized testing approach. We are facing a time of real change in our public schools, and we want you to be a part of the conversation. We will tape the public forum and will post it on HPISD's web site.
In the meantime, the state is seeking feedback regarding its new testing and accountability mandates. Please make your voice heard by providing feedback directly to the Texas Education Agency on its web site. You'll find the feedback form under the testing/accountability section. Comments are being accepted through Jan. 18.
In addition to dealing with the testing and accountability system, the state's school finance system continues to be a challenge. The district is part of a lawsuit addressing the lack of funding for education. During the last session, lawmakers cut funding by $5.4 billion, resulting in teacher layoffs and programmatic cuts across the state. Due to prudent planning on behalf of the school board, HPISD did not have to cut teaching positions, but we did have to dip into our reserve funds. The fact remains that education is not adequately funded, and the lawsuit makes that claim. It also challenges the constitutionality of the Texas school finance system, claiming that the system has become a statewide property tax. The lawsuit is ongoing, and we are hoping for a decision this spring.
We expect that these current and future challenges will continue to demand our attention, and rightly so. These are important issues that cannot be ignored. But we are always mindful of the reason we are here: to provide the children of this fine community with the excellent education they deserve.

With technology becoming more prevalent in classrooms, how has Highland Park ISD helped implement new devices and methods?

When you visit our classrooms, you are likely to see less paper and more digitally supported learning. Whether it's a smart board, a laptop or a cell phone that's being used, our students and teachers are using devices to learn in new ways. Students are using digital technology to create their own projects and products. Students and teachers are also using online message boards to post new discoveries, resources and discussions. All of this extends learning beyond the classroom period and four walls. In addition, our Global Connections program is allowing our students to learn with other young people from countries around the world.
There is no doubt that devices come and go, but interactive learning complemented by online resources is here to stay.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
One wonderful quality that always stands out about Highland Park ISD is the partnership we enjoy with our parents and community members. This community has a long tradition of valuing education, and we cherish the support and wisdom that we receive as a result. I have worked as a superintendent for 25 years, and nowhere else have I seen the level of commitment that we see here. Everywhere you look, our parents are there for their children and their schools: running the cafeterias and supply rooms, organizing auctions, carnivals, golf tournaments and other fund-raisers. From the beginning of the day when you'll find dads opening the doors for students to the end of the day when you'll find room moms helping teachers wrap up their day-to-day tasks, there is no measure for the difference this makes. Just attend any extracurricular event and visit with our proud parents packing the seats, and you'll discover the secret of success in HPISD: a focus on children. And that's where our focus will stay, both in this school year and in the years to come.
I am truly privileged and grateful to serve as your superintendent. 

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