Nola Wellman, Trailblazer Extraordinaire
Ask anyone about Eanes Independent School District and you will most likely hear a laundry list of sports achievements, such as their notable 26 state championships in nine different sports. But that is not entirely the whole story. All nine schools in EISD are rated Exemplary—the highest designation possible—in the Texas Education Agency’s 2009 accountability ratings, marking the second consecutive year for that accomplishment. The district’s overall state is Exemplary, making Eanes ISD one of just two 5A districts in the state to receive that designation in 2009. Only 9.5 percent of districts statewide were rated Exemplary.
Yes, the district is noted for its achievement in many forms. However this month’s community spotlight shines the light on the extraordinary leader who maintains the reins and has helped to rocket this district to the academic excellence it is widely known for.
We had an opportunity to sit down with Nola Wellman, PhD, to find out how the district is faring in light of the ongoing state budget crisis.
Westlake Living Magazine: So tell me what it is you do for the Eanes Independent School District?
Nola Wellman, PhD: I’m superintendent of Eanes ISD in the West Lake Hills area, Rollingwood; also city of Austin unincorporated Travis County. Boy, what I do is a question. I’m basically in charge of, or the main head of, the district. There are nine schools here: one high school, two middle schools, six elementary schools. Student population: 7,700 students. It’s a high achieving district and we’re very proud of the accomplishments of the students and the staff.
WL: What do you think is the state of education for Eanes ISD at this current time?
NW: We have fabulous achievement right now and have continually had a ratcheting up of the successes of our students, each year hitting a high in different areas: ACT, SAT, National Merit Scholars and our TAKS testing—all of our indicators. We think that we’re at a peak but the following year, for about the last four years, we’re at an uptick. Those years’ students accessing colleges, and the caliber of colleges, universities, have been higher. So we’ve been very pleased with the ongoing, incremental, continuous improvements that we’ve seen in the alignment of our curriculum and the indicators that students are showing in understanding that curriculum. Right now, academically, students are very, very strong.
WL: What problems are you facing in the district presently?
NW: We, of course, can’t live in the nation or state without wondering about finances. And being a strongly people-oriented business, not being able to pay salaries or the number of employees, will impact the service that we provide. If we’ve had the ability to have 20 teachers in the English department and we can no longer staff that many and are forced to go down by 10 percent to 18 positions, that impacts that ability to have the smaller class sizes that we have come to appreciate and know that it makes a difference. So our challenge right now is going to be our legislative and state funding for public education.
WL: I read a bit in a news article that you were quoted saying there would be 48 teacher job cuts in Eanes ISD, tell me a little more about this.
NW: Well, we looked at our allocation, our anticipated revenues, both state and local, for next year and looked at our short fall and how we can deliver our program within the means of revenues that we think we will have. Ultimately we have looked at reducing our teachers and instructional positions by 48 for next year. Although it’s really for 2013, that allows us to use some fund balance and allow attrition to meet our goal. For example, we already have 37 people who have resigned for next year. We’re 37 positions towards the 48 that would accomplish our staffing ratio change. We believe by July we’ll be a handful away from those teachers. That gives us the ability to avoid a reduction in force or terminate contracts.
WL: Are those positions that would have, regardless of what was happening in the legislature, been cut in the school term or are they directly related to the legislature and budget?
NW: Directly related. If we were having a normal year and were going to receive the same revenue that we have received in the past, we would have kept our staffing ratio the same and those 48 positions would be across our 9 schools, appropriately allocated. But the fact that we don’t have that revenue caused us to shrink our work force to meet our revenue. And that revenue target now is such that we have to shrink our work force and the only way to do that is to give them all pink slips or, as we chose, to allow attrition, which basically just extends the time. If we need everybody to leave by next fall, you really have to do the reduction of force or the termination of contracts. If you have a little bit more time, then you can let people leave as they would, which we have, and reassign personnel to the spots where we have openings. And that’s what we’ll do.
WL: Eanes ISD is obviously well-known for being a district that is funded by the affluent neighborhoods that surround the district.
NW: We don’t receive any more funds into our school than other schools do because of the Robin Hood [plan]. Our taxes come in and we have more, but the state says, “You can’t keep all that. You have too much money in your property wealth that it’s not equal to other school districts that don’t have property wealth. So you can only keep a [set] amount.” They set that limit and the rest has to be sent back to the state for redistribution to other school districts that don’t have that property wealth. The state sets an amount of money that it takes to educate a kid and if their property wealth doesn’t raise that money, they’ll receive it from the state to get to that level. Ours is in excess of that level and we only get to keep the tax revenue of that amount and the rest we send away. So our school district is not wealthier than other school districts, it’s that our property around our school is wealthy.
WL: So there’s no way to retrieve any of those funds?
NW: No, and the curious part about that is it’s not one figure, it’s not $5,000, $54,000 is the average. There’s a range around that and some get a few hundred dollars more and some get a few hundred dollars less than the average for the state and that’s based on a very complicated, and some would say irrational, formula. But the formula is the rule we all live by. We actually receive $6,300 per pupil, in some districts it’s as low as $4,500, but the state average is about $5,400. So yes, we receive a little more but we send away about 55 percent of the tax revenues that our property owners and the Eanes school district pays.
WL: That brings up a very intriguing question, if Eanes ISD is allotted only slightly more money per student than other schools, how would you explain how well the district does academically as opposed to some of the other districts, both in Austin and the state?
NW: Well obviously, the (EISD) community supports public education in an extraordinary way from parent involvement to student’s studies. Their [student] involvement is just at a very high level and they come to school ready, knowing that they’re supposed to learn. There’s a mystique, not a mystery, but a reality, about coming to school fed and clothed, there’s all of those things as well. Our students, from home, learn that they’re going to college and that studying and learning are not optional. And they come to school with very skilled high curriculum and skilled teachers and they do learn. All the components are there. The students are more alike in their focus on education so it makes it a system that really works well. It’s a college preparatory kind of system and there’s not much variance from that in terms of K-12.
WL: This leads me to conclude that you utilize the money you receive in a more efficient way than maybe some other districts.
NW: Yes, I would agree with that. Our efficiency is related too, for example, our community doesn’t expect us to have an agriculture program. There are some programs that our community has decided are important, for example our physics program, engineering, writing, even our performance arts programs are
the ones the community values. So we don’t have to have some programs that are high-cost that other school districts have.
WL: Well you already answered the parent-teacher relationship question that I was going to ask.
NW: It’s amazing. It really is amazing. We have just tremendous support, our Eanes Education Foundation and tremendous support both tangible and intangible with our students. Our students, they know, “Mom and Dad expects me to learn and school expects me to learn.”
WL: How would you describe your teachers throughout the schools?
Forty-seven National Merit semi-finalists
NW: Our teachers are very skilled at developing relationships and being able to have multiple opportunities for the students to demonstrate the learning that they need to demonstrate. Our teachers are excited about the variety of ways to do lessons. It’s not a sit-in-the-classroom the way you would anticipate. [There are] lots of activities and they set out learning new skills for themselves so they can teach students at high-level. The curriculum at our schools is high-level. I would challenge a lot of the parents to sit in on the classes. It’s the type of learning that many of us received in college and even grad school. That our students are having the opportunity to experience that caliber of lesson in the high school and the middle school and the elementary school level, it’s pretty amazing.
WL: If you could improve anything in the district, what would it be and why?
NW: We’re always striving for continuous improvement for our students as well as for our teachers. We’re struggling with the infusion and the appropriate use of technology in the classroom. You see, there are so many things students can learn using technological solutions, and yet that isn’t always the answer but certainly it’s one our students are most comfortable with. Some of our resources go to training of teachers and bringing in online curriculum and training in the use of that. We also struggle with the assessment practices in the state because we believe it’s so focused on the test, the TAKS test, rather than an ongoing classroom to inform the teacher and the student of their progress. A more balanced assessment and allowance from the state would be, I think, very much to the credit of our students. We struggle with those things; we’re set up with these mandates yet we know a better solution for an assessment of progress is out, but we’re in a mandated system for something different. You know, we struggle, we definitely do.
WL: If you had a magic wand that could make everything perfect. What would you do?
NW: Continued use of technology is the wave of the future. You know, we do so many other things online like banking, communicating, etc. Education is always the next generation behind that, but technology and the use of technology is different. We are trapped with time and place. Students have a certain time of day when they come in and do math and we have to take some of those barriers down. Students need to realize they can learn math 24 hours a day if they have the ability to access the curriculum and the ongoing assessment practices.
And that’s what’s challenging; the kids see it in other phases of their lives, but when they get to school, it’s different. You know it’s the rules as they have always been. We’re getting there but it’s different.
WL: Thank you again for the opportunity to visit with you. Is there anything you would like to share about your experiences in Eanes ISD?
NW: I appreciate the opportunity to work in such a fabulous place. The students and the community are such great supporters. I am anxious about funding and where it will lead us. But what you’d like to do is different from what you can do.
Nola Wellman has been with Eanes for seven and-a-half years. Before that, she was in Colorado as a teacher, administrator, principal, and finally a central office administrator before coming here to Austin.
Photos courtesy of Eanes ISD