Marlin: Struggling school district tries to 'turn the page' with literacy event

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MARLIN, Texas (KWTX) A local school district on the verge of closure isn't giving up without a fight.

A volunteer helps check the reading level of a Marlin Elementary School student at the district's first Literacy Night. (Photo by Rissa Shaw)

For the first time, the Marlin Independent School District Tuesday night held a literacy event to promote reading and show parents where their child stands on the reading spectrum.

"It's just something to let the community know we are very serious about reading here, and we are very serious about turning Marlin around in a positive direction," said Demetrium Smith, K-4 Reading Specialist for MISD.

The district saw this year's book fair at Marlin Elementary school as an opportunity to host a literacy night, using incentive-based games for students and their families to cuddle up with a good book and celebrate reading.

"We're trying to make reading fun," said Smith.

If students don't become better readers and improve their STAAR test scores, the district could be shut down within a year.

In November, the MISD's state appointed board of managers approved a one-year abatement agreement with the Texas Education Agency, an agreement that keeps the district open for the time being.

Smith says events like Tuesday night show they're taking the situation to heart.

"I would honestly, in my heart, say this year is very special," said Smith.

Smith graduated from Marlin HS in '97, and after teaching in Houston ISD, Fort Bend ISD, and Alief ISD returned to teach in his hometown to try to help turn the district back around.

Now in his third year teaching for MISD, Smith believes it's going to take three years to see big changes, but hopes it happens sooner because time on the TEA's clock is running out.

"I feel in my heart they will see progress, but there's gaps, like big gaps, I mean like a year gap, two year gaps...that's hard to fix in one year, " said Smith. "But we've got to start somewhere."

In Texas school closures are rare, but it's a very real possibility for Marlin ISD which hasn't met state academic standards since 2010--that's longer than any other school district in Texas.

However, under new leadership, the district is trying to avoid the writing on the wall, shelving the idea of a shutdown by creating a new narrative for MISD.

"Teachers are now taking accountability for data that they didn't really in the past," said Smith. "We have to be responsible in seeing what the kids know and how to fix what they don't know."

To help fix what they don't know, MISD sent Smith to the Neuhaus Education Center in Bellaire for two-weeks of "intensive" training on dyslexia.

"They felt that having extra help on this campus would mean a lot because we have lots of gaps we need to fill," said Smith. "It was very, very well worth it."

MISD has steadily lost students since the state installed a board of managers to run the district in the 2016-2017 school year; that year there were 297 transfers when the year before, 2015-2016, there were only 53.

The 2017-2018 school year had 336 transfers, while last year, 2018-2019 there were 319, according to TEA data.

Meagean Hildreth, a MISD alum with three children currently in the district, said she considered enrolling her kids in another district but decided to stick it out because it's so tight-knit.

"I"m more afraid of trying to pull them into something bigger," said Hildreth. "I see that it's growing and it's changing, and all we have to do is just stay involved and make sure we utilize the tools that they have to help them succeed, they can't do it on their own."

The TEA is using a few 'tools' of it's own to try to get the job done.

Earlier this year, the agency appointed Interim Superintendent Jean Bahney to replace Michael Seabolt.

Seabolt, who had been running the district since 2005, resigned in August before he could be officially terminated after he was suspended in June during an investigation of his activities, and those of the district, by an outside firm hired by the board of managers.

Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath paid a visit to Marlin last week.

“The purpose of my visit to Marlin ISD was to see the impact of recent improvements in instructional support provided by the Interim Superintendent," Morath told KWTX in a statement. "During the visit, my team saw very large gaps in student knowledge for kids, regardless of age. However, my team also saw evidence of actions taken in the last few months by the Interim Superintendent to address these gaps."

"The end goal is to ensure that the students of Marlin have access to an education that pushes them to the highest levels of academic achievement and helps them become the best version of themselves," said Morath.

Smith wants the community to know they're doing all they can to get students, teachers, even parents, to get where they need to be to survive and thrive.

"We're doing everything in our power to make sure Marlin stays open and we compete with the rest of the school districts in the Central Texas area," said Smith.