Intro: In this episode of The Uninformed Parent, I visited Stockard Middle School and spoke with principal Heather Holland, who had just wrapped up her first year as the campus leader. Prior to being principal, Holland was both a teacher, then an assistant principal at the school, and she lives in the neighborhood, so coming back was coming home. Her goal upon returning was to reestablish a positive and uplifting culture at Stockard. The year before she returned, the middle school had 2,000 disciplinary referrals, and under her leadership, that number dropped to 200. Holland strives to “flip the switch” on what Stockard used to be, and her efforts seem to be working.

Heather Holland: So I actually went to school here. I went to Greiner. I’m from Dallas. I went to Greiner then I went to Bryan Adams. I grew up in East Dallas. Yeah, I went to college at UT, didn’t know what I wanted to do, thought I was going to do advertising. That’s my major. And then I was recruited by Teach for America early on my senior year. So I decided, you know, this would be really cool to come back in Dallas ISD. 

Keri Mitchell: And so here you are, so where did you start in Dallas ISD? 

Heather Holland: I spent three years at my placement in school, so I stayed an additional year. I started at Cochran Elementary in Oak Cliff. So actually the interesting thing about that is that’s our feeder school. So it’s one of the elementaries that feeds into Stockard. 

Keri Mitchell: Wow. 

Heather Holland: Yeah, so I taught first grade. Then I taught third grade for two years, and then I actually came here to Stockard to be a teacher. 

Keri Mitchell: Wow. 

Heather Holland: Yeah. 

Keri Mitchell: Okay. So what did you teach? 

Heather Holland: I taught seventh grade reading and language arts.

Keri Mitchell: What did you learn from teaching here? 

Heather Holland: I learned the potential of our kids. I feel like this generation of kids is so much more prepared than I ever was and regardless of where they come from, I don’t think I could ever tell my teachers that I was going to be an engineer or what that even meant. But I think just speaking with our kids and seeing the dreams that they have, they ask about scholarships and things that you wouldn’t necessarily think that they would know about. So that’s just always been impressive to me about our kids. Sometimes, just because they’re from Oak Cliff, there’s this perception that “Oh, well, they don’t maybe know as much about college and what the future holds,” but they know more than I ever did as a kid.

Keri Mitchell: So you then taught here for two years? Where did you go after that?

Heather Holland: I was an assistant principal here.

Keri Mitchell: You were an assistant principal here? That makes sense.

Heather Holland: Yeah. So the opportunity came up. I was finishing my masters, and I couldn’t imagine a better place. Actually when I was interviewing to be an assistant principal, I was looking for schools just like Stockard, and then the opportunity came up at the end of May. And I was like, “Yeah, I gotta be here.” And so I was able to be an assistant principal here for two years, and I worked with sixth graders and the seventh graders. And it was wonderful, because actually the sixth graders that came in that year were the students that I taught at Cochran.

Keri Mitchell: How crazy. So what was that like? I mean, could you see how they had grown? I mean, what did you see when they came in? 

Heather Holland: I really saw the impact of what great teaching can have on kids because I felt like I saw this baby really grew. I saw how those gaps had been closed from when they were maybe in first grade, all the way up until sixth grade. Also the connections of the families, I think, is probably the biggest advantage that I had with that. They knew me. They felt comfortable in speaking with me if there was any concerns. We were able to really work together to build the whole child and be a team. I always tell my parents ‘we’re a team.’ You know, you can’t do this alone. I can’t do this alone. We got to do it together.

Keri Mitchell: Makes sense? So then you were here for how many years as assistant principal?

Heather Holland: Two years.

Keri Mitchell: And then where did you go after that? 

Heather Holland: Then I became the principal at Anne Frank Elementary. 

Keri Mitchell: And that’s in Far North Dallas. 

Heather Holland: Far North Dallas. Yes. 

Keri Mitchell: And you live where? 

Heather Holland: I live about two minutes away, a mile away from Stockard, so right here in the heart of Oak Cliff.

Keri Mitchell: So that was a haul I bet. 

Heather Holland: It definitely was, but I was very, very lucky to be there. It was really a privilege to serve that community. It was totally different from what we have over here, just the community is even more diverse. And it was a school that it had the same principal for almost 20 years, a very veteran staff, just a great community. So I was privileged to be a part of it, and it was hard to say goodbye. 

Keri Mitchell: But you left because this position came up?

Heather Holland: Absolutely. Yeah, and I was like, “You know what? I can’t say no to Stockard. That’s home.” 

Keri Mitchell: That’s fair, so this is your first year on the job here as principal. 

Heather Holland: First year on the job, yes. Yes.

Keri Mitchell: How is it different than being a teacher or assistant principal?

Heather Holland: I would say that this role. You know, the buck stops with you, right when you’re the principal. It is different in the fact that when you’re an assistant principal, you follow the lead of your leader. My role now is to be that leader, be the change maker, be the person who sets the tone for the building, which is a huge responsibility but also a huge privilege.

Keri Mitchell: Awesome. Why is it that so many people who live in Oak Cliff or I should say work at schools in Oak Cliff also live in Oak Cliff? 

Heather Holland: There’s something about Oak Cliff that it’s special. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t know if I could put words to it. Since I went to Greiner when I was a kid and had friends that lived in Oak Cliff, I always wanted to be in Oak Cliff. When I taught here, it’s like you can’t leave. You get pulled back. There’s something special about the community, the kids that we serve, the families that we serve. It just draws you back. It was funny when I told my staff at Anne Frank that I was moving, they were like, “Can’t be mad at you, because you’re going home.” It’s hard to put words to it. But it’s a calling.

Keri Mitchell: That’s interesting. These days, schools are different. When we went to school, you went to the school in your neighborhood or maybe there were a couple of other options.

Heather Holland: Right, right. 

Keri Mitchell: These days, there’s a lot of options. These days, you’ve got not only private schools, which have been around for, you know, awhile, few decades, and then you’ve got charter schools, which are newer, and that’s a big deal down in this neighborhood. And then you’ve also got now DISD rolling out more and more and more and more choices.

Heather Holland: Right.

Keri Mitchell: How does that impact neighborhood schools, pros and cons?

Heather Holland: I’ll start with the pros. So I think that competition is always good, because it makes you better. It allows me to think about well, “What are these schools offering that parents might want that we don’t have? And how can we improve upon what we provide for our students?” As a citizen, and as you know, someone who lives here in Oak Cliff, I think that the pros are that, you know, no one should be stuck going to a school that they don’t want to go to right? Absolutely. Now, the cons, I think, are that sometimes there isn’t a lot of information. I think we as public schools have never had to advertise what we have. We’ve never had to put ourselves out there to get our market share back. So we’re learning. That’s a learning curve, but I think a lot of parents don’t know, all of the great things that their kid could miss out on by not being part of Dallas ISD or not being part of their neighborhood, community school. Everyone is different. But I know I went to private school when I was in elementary school, and then when I got to middle and high school, I went to Dallas ISD. As a student, I just remember, this a while back, I remember that there was so much more to offer in Dallas ISD. So I took Latin. I was able to, you know, be part of cheerleading, all these things that in private school, I might have been able to do some of those things but not all of those things. There were more opportunities for me to take the SAT before I was a Junior. And those are things that we offer all of our kids. So those are things that we don’t necessarily talk about or advertise, but that we offer that other schools don’t. I think we need to learn how to advertise a little bit more, not saying that you need to come here but look at what we have. So that you you can make the most informed decision for your kid.

Keri Mitchell: I think that’s been a huge question for me as I’ve done this podcast. I think it’s pretty clear the hardest thing for parents is we just don’t know what we don’t know. 

Heather Holland: Right.

Keri Mitchell: That’s part of it. The thing that I guess as a parent probably concerns me about school choice is that I am not at all convinced that parents know enough to make a decision, and that’s a tough thing. That’s really what we’re trying to get to with this podcast is what do we not know? And how can we make better choices? If we know better, do better kind of thing.

Heather Holland: Yeah, absolutely. I think I encourage my parents to come to our coffee with the principal, because I think like you said, you don’t know what you don’t know. So come tour the school. Come find out what’s possible for your child. We have so many advanced courses. They can take algebra. We have 82 students in eighth grade enrolled in algebra. Algebra is a high school course. We have astronomy, which is a high school course. We have Spanish. They can leave here with almost all their credits in Spanish. So those are things that you know, I put in a brochure, of course, right. But like you said, I think sometimes parents see a lot of the exterior, what does the exterior of the school look like? What are the uniforms look like?

We have so many after school activities. We have Mariachi Club. We have our band. We have two dance groups actually. We have a dance company, and then we have our Dazzling Jewels, which is more like a drill team. We have cheerleading. We have chess club. We have so many things. I can’t keep naming.

Keri Mitchell: You can’t. There’s way too many.

Heather Holland: Yeah, exactly. I always tell my teachers, so our mission at Stockard is to raise the opportunity gap. And so I tell teachers, “You know, of course, we want our students to pass their tests. That’s not it, right?” Because kids don’t come to school for reading and math. That’s not what kids want to come to school for right? When we all think back to our school experience, that’s not what we I remember the most. We remember those opportunities that we had to be part of a team or to represent our school at a track meet, whatever it may be. So we really want more students to be involved in those things, because every kid is different. And they’re finding themselves in middle school. And so they need to have those opportunities, because really middle school is where kids decide whether school is for them or not. So we want all kids to see that school is for them and they are included here at Stockard. 

Keri Mitchell: You talk about opportunity gap. 

Heather Holland: Yep, if you ask a lot of educators, you’ll hear growth mindset, having a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset about what’s possible for you. We like to talk to our kids about mistakes are part of life, and you need to learn how to make mistakes and learn from them. So I think that that’s really what pushes our kids to be successful and is the differentiating factor. So I was a dancer all my life. With dance comes discipline, comes knowing that you have to try a million times before you get it right. And so I think the more involved that they are, the more successful they’re going to be. I noticed that with my students, the softball team, all the girls on our softball team that are in eighth grade got 80% or above on their STAAR test. Why is that? Well, that’s because they’re working as a team, they’re really supporting each other, they’re going to tutoring, they have that group of kids that they work with that really help each other. If you have a student who’s never passed an exam, and they’re in eighth grade, why are they going to want to stay after school for tutoring? They don’t feel successful. But if they’re in baseball, and you know they have to keep their grades above a 70, and they have to go to tutoring. They have their coaches asking them how they’re doing. That’s going to motivate them.

Keri Mitchell: I was gonna ask about growth mindset. 

Heather Holland: Yeah. 

Keri Mitchell: Sometimes I think we think that is innate. Certain kids are born motivated, independent. What do you think about that? Is it innate? What do you see that kind of flips that switch for kids?

Heather Holland: I think it’s their environment. You know, obviously, it starts at home and family. But I always tell my teachers, “You know, we are a public school. We open our arms to every student that comes through our doors, and if they have a mindset about their achievement or themselves, it is our work to do whatever is in our locus of control to help them see what they can become.”

Keri Mitchell: Awesome. What are your biggest challenges do you feel? About a year into it the job, what are you thinking?

Heather Holland: I think one of the challenges that we have at Stockard and that we’re looking to turn around was this I guess I will say mindset about what our school is like. We had some challenges with regards to student culture and staff culture. And so of course, that leads to parents wondering, “Is this the right school for my child? You know, is this a safe environment for my student?” We really needed to overcome this idea of Stockard isn’t a great school, right? Because we are and we have great kids. And I think that sometimes that gets lost. Last year, on our parents survey, we had some areas that were low, the areas where we really wanted to grow. So actually, if any parents are listening or reading, I actually had my staff volunteer and do a phone-a-thon last week, and call a random assortment of parents and ask them the lowest questions from our parents’ survey from last year. Questions like, does my student go to a school where he feels safe? You know, is this an environment of respect? Do I feel comfortable interacting with staff? I’m happy to say that one of them was at about 57% positive responses last year, the safety question, and now we are at above 80%. So we really worked to not only hold our students accountable, and you know, change that mindset with our students but really want to show our parents and our community what it is that we’re doing. So anytime we do coffee with the principal, we actually walk the student or the parents through the building, visit classrooms. We don’t just walk through, we actually go into classrooms so they can see what’s going on. Because another thing I did was I came in at the beginning of the school year and did a focus group with a group of parents and one of the things that stands out to me the most is I asked them, “Do you know what your child does while they’re here at school?” And it was an in unison,  “No.”

Keri Mitchell: That’s a genius question. To be perfectly honest, because I think in my experience with parents is that they have no idea.

Heather Holland: No idea, right? No idea. I’ve had such positive responses from the parents, because I think that, you know, especially in middle school, they think, “Oh, gosh, kids are fighting. Things are happening in this building.” And actually, no, you know. Not saying that it’s always perfect. It’s not ever going to be always perfect, but they’re always in classrooms, always learning. And, you know, our teachers are here 100% for our kids. And so that’s been a big challenge that we’ve tried to overcome this year, and will continue to try and overcome in the years to come.

Keri Mitchell: Interesting. How many kids do you have on campus here?

Heather Holland: 1160.

Keri Mitchell: Do you know if you have a lot of kids opting out and going elsewhere?

Heather Holland: I do. I do.

Keri Mitchell: Is that in like the hundreds or lower than that?

Heather Holland: Probably about 150 to 200, so we want those kids back.

Keri Mitchell: Is there any way to find out why they’re opting out? I mean, do you have any means of doing that as a principal? 

Heather Holland: We do get information of students that are going to charter schools, so I’m able to call parents. I have no problem calling parents and asking. I want feedback. I want to know right? Honest feedback. Luckily, this year, we haven’t had a lot of parents that have had a student here during the year wanting to go somewhere else. It’s more fifth grade parents, maybe not as sure of their decision and where they want to take their child. So I have been able to make some phone calls there and have some parents come in. They have to be willing to come in though, right? So, show him what we have going on, and even if it’s one parent, I don’t mind. Come in and I’ll walk you around.

Keri Mitchell: Is that standard for principals? I mean, you seem obviously very interested in reaching out to not only your parents but beyond in the neighborhood. Is that just a personality thing, or is that part of the job description?

Heather Holland: Just in the direction that we’re heading in Dallas ISD, that’s our job description right? So, you know, I know, my colleagues are the same way. I mean, depending on what their moment is at school, right? If they’re full, they’re like, “Well, I’d love to have you but…” right?

Keri Mitchell: Awesome. I know I’ve talked a lot and asked you a lot of questions. Incredible. I’m sitting listening to you thinking, “I hope every principal in Dallas listens to this interview and learns from it.” 

Heather Holland: Oh, thank you. We had a lot of work to do, you know. So I got hired in July, and so that was fun. Because I wanted, I think that, you know, we can have all the data that we need, but there’s nothing like speaking to people. And so I actually spoke to about 40 staff members before the beginning of school, between middle of July and the beginning of August. I asked them all the same five questions. What do you love about Stockard? What about Stockard needs to change? What do you need from me as your principal coming in? You know, that kind of stuff. I wanted to know. And I felt like getting those voices allows you to see what it is that you need to work on, and I also knew the potential of the school. I’d seen us do great things with kids, because we have amazing kids. And when I saw where we were data-wise, you know two years ago we were improvement required school, and there’s no way we need to be even close to improvement required. Our elementary schools are fantastic. Kids are coming in super prepared. So there’s no reason. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be one of the best schools in Dallas ISD.

Transition: Heather Holland looped in Xochitl Saavedra, a Texas history teacher and softball coach, to add to the conversation. Saavedra has taught at Stockard for a few years and gives further insight on the campus culture.

Keri Mitchell: And you live here in a Oak Cliff?

Xochitl Saavedra: Yes, I grew up in Oak Cliff. Born here, raised here. And then when I got married, we decided to move to Grand Prairie. But we were dying to come back home. 

Keri Mitchell: Where did you go to school when you were growing up?

Xochitl Saavedra: I went to a couple different Catholic schools. I went to Prince of Peace Catholic School, which is now Mount St. Michael Catholic School. And then from there, I went to Bishop Dunn High School and then University of Texas at Arlington. 

Keri Mitchell: Okay. How did you know you wanted to teach? 

Xochitl Saavedra: My mother was a teacher, actually. She was a kindergarten teacher for almost 30 years. So whenever I had off school, I was always at her school. I always kind of knew that’s where I wanted to be. And it was so funny Ms. Holland actually gave me my first job. 

Keri Mitchell: And you were AP?

Heather Holland: Yeah. 

Xochitl Saavedra: And my husband actually came here and so did all of his siblings. And I remember it just being like this feeling when I walked in the door like, “This is it like this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Keri Mitchell: Good. Okay, so what I asked her because I’m fascinated by this. Every school I go in know Oak Cliff. “Oh, yeah, I live down the street. Oh, yeah. I lived here for…” What is it about Oak Cliff that I can’t go anywhere else in Dallas, to other schools and a lot of people live in the neighborhood.

Xochitl Saavedra: I think Oak Cliff is different than any other place in the fact that it’s a little bit of a mixture of cultures, as well as people from varying backgrounds. And we all just kind of bring something to the table. If you want Mexican food, there’s Mexican food down the street. If you will get American food, there’s Norma’s right there. It’s like an all encompassing thing. Open the window to your classroom, and you’ll just hear the neighborhood just coming into the classroom. And it’s just something that I guess if you’re not used to it, when you come to Oak Cliff, you’re just in awe of it. And if you’re from Oak Cliff, it’s home. It’s always going to be home. I live in Grand Prairie now. I’ve lived there for the past two years. And ever since we’ve been there, we always come back home. When we went to tacos, we don’t go to the taco place down the street. We come back home to Paisanita, or we go to El Si Hay.

Heather Holland: I agree. She said it much better.

Keri Mitchell: That was like poetry. Amazing.  

Heather Holland: Yeah. Yeah.

Keri Mitchell: And so you’ve taught here for four years?

Xochitl Saavedra: Yes. 

Keri Mitchell: You coach the softball team? 

Xochitl Saavedra: Yes, ma’am. 

Keri Mitchell: There you go. How are they doing this year?

Xochitl Saavedra: They’re doing pretty good, actually. I had a whole brand new team this year, girls who have never played the sport before. They’re doing an amazing job just like catching on to everything. And they just have like a really good sense of camaraderie about them that I wasn’t expecting at all like. It’s become like a sisterhood for them. Yesterday, we had professional development, and I went to the meeting. I told my captains ‘You guys are in charge. Make sure no phones and just no shenanigans whatsoever.’ My captain’s actually took their phones and made them watch a softball game on YouTube. So when I got back, everybody was watching that softball game on YouTube, and they had to like, bring it back 30 seconds because they want to show me a double play that was just like amazing to them. And I was just like, “Wow, okay. That’s awesome. Good job, guys.” I couldn’t say anything else.

Heather Holland: I didn’t know they up took their phones. That is hilarious

Xochitl Saavedra: Yes. They took their phones like they took all of their phones. 

Heather Holland: You should do that more often. They probably listen more to the other kids about the phone?

Keri Mitchell: How many, have you coached softball the entire time you’ve been here? 

Xochitl Saavedra: No. This is my third year. 

Keri Mitchell: What do you teach? 

Xochitl Saavedra: I teach social studies. I’m a seventh grade Texas history teacher. 

Keri Mitchell: Wow, Texas history. Yeah, I did not take that. I grew up in Oklahoma. 

Xochitl Saavedra: Okay. 

Keri Mitchell: We don’t have an Oklahoma history course just for funzies. So what are kids most interested in like what are middle schoolers most interested in about Texas history?

Xochitl Saavedra: Definitely the Alamo. Their biggest thing is they’re all about the Alamo. We actually had them do Alamo projects this year. And just seeing them walk in with their project, seeing them walk in with any project at all is a big deal. But we had just almost all of our students turned in these like replicas of the Alamo or the Battle of Gonzalez. These big ole things. And some of them use Lincoln Logs. Some of them use Play-Doh. Some of them use Legos. They came out amazing.

Keri Mitchell: Did they see themselves at all in the story? Like I always wonder with stories like that, like where do you fall into that? Does everybody want to be Davy Crockett, or like what?

Xochitl Saavedra: A lot of the time, I have to remind them that we were on the Mexican side of things. And then when we do that they’re like, “Wait, what?” And they’re like, so disappointed.

Keri Mitchell: It’s not as great of a story. Yeah, that’s awesome. Did you know that you wanted to teach history? 

Xochitl Saavedra: Yeah, actually, I did. I had an actual great seventh grade, I don’t know if I told you the story, I had a great seventh grade history teacher. Her name was Mrs. Johnston. She wound taking us to the Alamo, which is why I want to take our kids to the Alamo. She’s a Facebook friend now, and, you know, she was the best teacher that I probably ever had. And she really inspired me and I was like, “I want to be like her.” 

Keri Mitchell: So that’s why you’re teaching seventh grade history. Tell me about Stockard. What do you love about it? 

Xochitl Saavedra: Honestly, it’s the kids. It’s my kids. When you walk into the school, and you’ve never been here before, you’re always going to find that one kid that you stay for and then it becomes more than just that one kid. It becomes the 30 kids, and it becomes more than just the 30 kids. It becomes your kids. And then it becomes more than just your kids, because more than just your kids know your name. It’s just something about this Stockard community. It becomes like your second family. We have something on our staff where it’s like, if one of us needs something, we make it happen. If we see a gap in morning duty, our administrators don’t even need to ask us. We just go and fill that gap. If there’s somebody that if they need extra help in the lunchroom, we’d volunteer to do that. We’d give up the 30 minutes we have just to go be with the kids. And I don’t necessarily think it’s like, you know, a big deal for any of us or we even second think it. It’s just like, “Oh, there’s a gap. Let me fill it really quickly.”

Keri Mitchell: That’s interesting. I mean, I’ve experienced a lot of places where, you know, it’s like, “You need me to stay after? You need to do that? Well, that’ll cost you,” kind of thing like it’s an extra… And obviously, I mean, when you’re working overtime and whatnot, that would come into it. But what you’re describing is a culture where everybody’s like, all hands on deck.

Xochitl Saavedra: Yeah. 

Keri Mitchell: Whatever it means.

Xochitl Saavedra: Yeah, because I think we just want to do the best for our kids. We want to model that for them, and I feel like they’re catching on to that really good this year. They want to be there for each other. They want the best for each other. 

Keri Mitchell: Very cool. Do you have kids yet? 

Xochitl Saavedra: No, ma’am. I don’t.

Keri Mitchell: I forgot to ask you too. Just making sure.  

Xochitl Saavedra: I have 135.

Heather Holland: I have 1150.

Keri Mitchell: That’s enough! What didn’t I ask about? Anything you guys want to talk about?

Xochitl Saavedra: Just the kids are great they really are, especially this year. There’s something about this year. They’re just doing a great job. And I don’t think that they, they get enough credit. I think a lot of the time, they’re mislabeled when they shouldn’t be, because they’re great little people. 

Keri Mitchell: Middle school is kind of seen as I mean, sorry, but it kind of seems like the armpit of education. You know I talk to parents sometimes about middle school and the K-8 thing is catching on quite a bit.

Heather Holland: Yep, 4-8.

Keri Mitchell: Yep, I mean, people are terrified of middle school. They’re terrified of middle school. You hear, “That’s a great elementary school. That’s a great high school.” You don’t hear not even about the supposedly best schools do you hear, “That’s such a great middle school.” It’s like the thing that everybody just kind of wants to like, close their eyes and clinch their fists and get through. What you’re describing is completely different than that. Why?

Xochitl Saavedra: I think you just have to get it, and that’s what’s different about it. I feel like, you have to understand that at this age, the kids are just figuring out who they want to be and you have to be okay with that. And we have to do the best we can to be good role models for them and show them this is the path you want to take.

Heather Holland: One of the things that I think we changed when I was an AP here…when the kids were come in the morning, there was a lot of like, “Lineup. Put your bag on the table,” because they have to go through metal detectors, you know. And so I felt like it was this negative vibe when they came into the school. So one of the things that we did the beginning of the school year was we actually had all the teachers leave the building. Remember that?

Xochitl Saavedra: Yeah, I do. 

Heather Holland: And it was like our introduction to like, student culture not student discipline. We wanted to talk about student culture, right? Because like, culture is discipline, right? So, we had them all come in two different lines, half of the staff went through one line, the other half went through another.

Xochitl Saavedra: Right, and we had to act like the kids.

Heather Holland: Yeah. And the administrators acted like the teachers, greeting the kids. Half of them went through a line where we were like, “Get in line. Put your bag on the table. Get your ID on.” And then the other half was like “Good morning. How are you? Make sure you open your bag. Tuck in your shirt,” you know, that kind of stuff. Then we talked about how it felt, and so I don’t know. 

Xochitl Saavedra: I feel like that was great, though, because it made me feel some type of way also. I went through the, “Tuck in your shirt” line, and I was like, “Wow, this really is like a mood changer.” If somebody is harping on you like first thing in the morning as soon as you walk in, that’ll kill your vibe real quick. And then I think you had a switch lines too right?

Heather Holland: Yeah. 

Xochitl Saavedra: And so when I went through the other line, I was like, “Oh, this is nice.”

Heather Holland: We do that with our kids every morning. We’re outside or like on duty. Ms.Saavedra will play music or DVD.

Keri Mitchell: What do you play?

Xochitl Saavedra: A mix of everything, everything, because it helps our teachers and it helps our kids too. When they walk in, the first thing that they have like is their headphones. And so when we switch it to the music, then they’re like, “Okay, let me take my headphones out. Let me hear what Ms. Saavedra is playing.” But yeah.

Keri Mitchell: So then they’re present? 

Xochitl Saavedra: Yeah.

Heather Holland: Probably the first month of school, I would say “good morning” to all the kids and half of them wouldn’t look at me, you know. But now, I would say probably 75% of them make eye contact with me and say “good morning,” and maybe 30% of them initiate it. They ask me before I even speak to them. Sometimes I’ll be speaking to somebody else, like a teacher comes up or something, and then they’ll stop me and say “good morning Ms. Holland.” Yes.

Keri Mitchell: How does that change…how does that translate to everything else that’s happening? 

Heather Holland: It changes everything. I mean it changes everything, because the kids are excited to be here. And they at least feel welcome in the building. It changes everything. 

Keri Mitchell: You know, that makes me think about social-emotional learning, obviously, is something that is taking hold not a lot of places, but DISD. How does that work in middle school?

Xochitl Saavedra: So what we do is, it’s restorative practices, basically, like circle time. And what we do is we have a couple of guiding questions that we ask the students. They can be fun questions or academic questions, but it’s like, a moment to check in with your students outside of academic learning that is really good for culture-building and relationship-building between student and teacher. And we need that. I need to know how you are, because if I don’t know how you are, how am I going to be able to teach you. I need to know when you’re having a bad day. You need to know when I’m having a bad day. We have to be able to form some sort of connection in order for us to function together on a daily basis. It allows you more teaching time, because if I know when you’re having a bad day, I’m not going to harp on you. I’m just going to let you have your bad day, put your head down. I’ll get you the notes tomorrow, as opposed to “Hey, get your head up. Hey, you need to start doing this. Hey, come on, let’s go.” If I know that, then I’m not going to get on you. I’m not going to create a secondary problem. We might lose one day of instruction, but we’re gaining like 30.

Heather Holland: We have less than half of the disciplinary referrals we had last year this year. To give you a number, two years ago, we were at 2000 referrals, student disciplinary referrals. This year, we’re at about 200. So what we did at the beginning of the year, I had the APs spend three days in social studies classrooms, talking to every student. We did circles about what makes a great school, is Stockard a great school, and how can we make Stockard a great school? And then we talked about what our expectations are through that through the lens of that. You can’t go up to middle schooler and tell ’em these are the things you’re going to do. Done. 

Xochitl Saavedra: Right. 

Heather Holland: They need to see why. They need to see that it’s fair.

Keri Mitchell: And feel empowered by it rather than told, as just like your morning exercise.

Heather Holland: Yeah. The first thing I always ask when a kid’s in trouble, “Is that what we do here at Stockard?” And they’re like, “No.”

Keri Mitchell: Awesome. 

Xochitl Saavedra: I’ve also heard you say like, “Was that the best decision?”

Heather Holland: Oh, yeah, because they need to know that the choices that they make, like if you made a bad choice, that doesn’t make you a bad person. I had a conversation with a kid this morning, he said, “Well, every year at the end of the year, I do bad things.” Okay, well, you know, I said, “The choice you made yesterday wasn’t a good choice. Tell me why you don’t think it was a good choice.” He told me. I said, “Okay, so today, you have an opportunity to change what you did yesterday and do something totally different.” And I said, “Because you haven’t had a good end of the year, the last two years doesn’t mean that this year, you’re not gonna have a good end of the year.” Who knows how much it will sink in? But we had a really great conversation that was about, you know, not just, “You’re gonna be suspended,” because what is he supposed to learn from that, right? We do have reverse suspension that we have parents come up and sit with their children. 

Keri Mitchell: What is that? What do you mean? 

Heather Holland: So, if a student has had some issues in class, after we’ve tried some meetings and things like that, if it’s still not working, we’ll have the parent come and sit within them in class.

Keri Mitchell: Interesting. Is that worse for them than being suspended? 

Heather Holland: Oh, absolutely. In middle school, imagine.

Keri Mitchell: How embarrassing.

Heather Holland: Yeah but it’s helpful, because number one, it allows the parent to see what their day looks like and meet their teachers. Then also, it just shows the child like, “You know, what? Instead of you getting a vacation from school, you’re going to be here at school. You’re going to be here with your parent. We’re going to make this work.”

Keri Mitchell: Interesting. There’s been a lot of talk about discipline and suspensions and whatnot in the district the past several years. I think there are people who are scared that if we’re not suspending, you know, if we’re not coming down hard on kids, then, you know, they’re going to get away with whatever. What I’m hearing you guys say is, “If if we’re working with them, we’re actually going to get better results.”

Xochitl Saavedra: Oh, yeah.

Heather Holland: Ms.Saavedra, two years ago, when you had 2000 referrals, was the discipline better or worse? 

Xochitl Saavedra: Oh, God. It was so bad. There were students just doing whatever they wanted without any kind of repercussions. And now, they have consequences. They see those repercussions, and it’s so much better.

Heather Holland: So coming down hard on them didn’t have an impact. Also, alternatives…so instead of having them suspended, I give them two weeks of community service. They help clean the school after school.

Keri Mitchell: So more…what do you call those: innovative, creative consequences than just you get a two day vacation?

Xochitl Saavedra: I think a lot of that is relationship building also. When we have the parents come up, we’re building relationships with the parents. When she explains the rules to the kids and explains like, “Hey, this is what’s going on. This is what you did. This is what’s going to happen,” it’s relationship building. And even though they feel like it’s stricter this year, they’re making the right choices, and they’re in class. That’s where we want them to be ultimately. Giving them a two day vacation isn’t going to help me teach them, but having them here, having them be present in class and know what’s going on, allows me to be able to do my job. They’re responding to it at a great rate like they want to be here every day. They’re saying, “good morning.” They’re changing. They’re flipping the switch. 

Heather Holland: That’s our theme. Yeah, flipping the switch. 

Keri Mitchell: That’s one of my favorite phrases.

Xochitl Saavedra: Yeah, and they’re doing that. I mean, it’s evident. It really is in everything.

Heather Holland: They’re awesome. 

Keri Mitchell: Awesome. This is incredible. Thank you.

Heather Holland: Thank you for taking time to come here and share our story. 

Xochitl Saavedra: I feel like because of the last couple of years, people are worried about maybe sending their kids to Stockard. But this year is so different. It’s like hitting the reset button, and I feel like we’re just going to keep moving up.

Closing: Thanks for listening to The Uninformed Parent. In the next episode, we’ll hear from students at Reagan Elementary who are tackling challenges in their community, including losing their classmates to gentrification.