Back to school with one voice and one purpose

Disclaimer: This initiative initially was launched and coordinated by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which in 2022 merged with and became the Charles Butt Foundation.

Each year, a school district’s strategic plan is energized by a massive, dynamic demonstration of community collaboration

A father and son pause for a photo at Arlington ISD's back-to-school bash.

By Anne Bannister & Charlotte Moore

Education continues to be the great equalizer in our school system and in our nation. When you can get a community to focus on that with one voice, one purpose, for one day it really makes a big difference. And that permeates then throughout our entire school system.”

Dr. Marcelo cavazos

Arlington ISD Superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos practices what he preaches. The permeation he speaks of is evident in his district and driven by the district’s 2016 – 2021 strategic plan called Achieve Today. Excel Tomorrow. The five-year district strategy is rooted in the fusion of a trio of systems: schools, families, and communities. By year five of the plan, the district expects to have solidified the expansion of its community partnership program with faith-based, civic, business, nonprofit, government, and higher education groups, and to have developed strong partnerships with community organizations to expand parent learning. For the Arlington ISD, community participation and family engagement are integral to student success.

“When you can leverage a common, unified focus … it’s remarkable what can happen and what can really be an inspiration for our students.”

Arlington ISD brought together nearly 100 community organizations to serve 10,000+ students and families with one of the largest back-to-school events in Texas. “It’s all about doing it together. It’s not just the district, it’s not just the board, it’s not just the staff, it’s families getting involved, it’s every bit of nonprofit, faith-based, city leadership all chipping in and making great things happen for our kids,” says School Board President Dr. Aaron Reich.

A crowd gathers around a colorful booth at the back-to-school kickoff.
Produced by Charlotte Moore; edited by Anne Bannister

Arlington ISD school board is operating in lockstep with the overall district strategy. “We embarked on a strategic plan journey about seven years ago. And with that it was all about what can we do to maximize the opportunity and the access for our students to enhance their achievement,” said Dr. Aaron Reich, the Arlington ISD School Board President. “It’s really about connecting with the community because as elected officials we have the public’s trust to do what the public is expecting. It’s very important for us to interact with our community and hear the thoughts, ideas, positives, negatives — whatever that is so that we can make the best-informed decision possible.”

One result of the implementation of the district strategy is its annual back-to-school event. It’s a massive undertaking; nearly 100 community organizations come together to provide tens of thousands of families and students with backpacks and school supplies, dental and vision exams, haircuts, immunization registration, and a slew of other products and services students need before school starts.

And, it’s all free to the community.

“Last year, there was a little boy who came up to me and he tugged on my shirt and he said, ‘I am so excited to go to school.’” Reich said. “I said ‘That’s really cool! That’s great buddy.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, because I just got my hair cut. And I’m ready now.” It’s just amazing. Something that we take for granted is really impactful and life-changing, to set the course for them and their positive attitude starting school and that’s what we want.”

Back packs full of school supplies are passed out to families at the Arlington ISD back-to-school kickoff.
Nearly 100 community organizations came together for Arlington ISD's back-to-school kickoff.
Eye exams are one of the many services offered to families free of charge at the Arlington ISD back-to-school kickoff.
Arlington ISD Superintendent Dr. Marcelo Cavazos poses with a family at the annual back-to-school kickoff.

By 2021, the district goal is for 100% of students to graduate exceptionally prepared for college, career, and citizenship.

Arlington Independent School District:

  • Students: 61,000
  • At Risk: 67.7%
  • 11th-largest school district in Texas
  • AISD is the largest employer in Arlington
  • 75% of secondary students are enrolled in CTE
  • 46,000+ student are enrolled in fine arts classes
  • Award-winning special education program

A culture of leadership accelerates a community culture

Arlington ISD is bringing similar alignment and vision to leadership and talent development within the district. The AISD is part of the inaugural cohort of public school districts selected by The Holdsworth Center to participate in an intensive five-year program consisting of international travel, exposure to the nation’s top leadership experts, and ongoing classes and team projects. Cavazos believes the work with Holdsworth will serve as an accelerant to their strategic plan, and complement their community and family engagement efforts.

Department of parent and community engagement

Four years ago, Arlington ISD created its Parent and Community Engagement Department to support the district’s Achieve Today. Excel Tomorrow. Strategic plan. “We offer workshops and trainings for our parents at the campus level and the district level,” said department director Aaron Perales. “We also serve as a liaison between the parents and the schools, and if there’s any kind of communication need, we’re able to support our parents in that way. On the community side, we look for direct opportunities for communities to get engaged.”

The AISD Parent and Community Engagement Department:

  • Created two committees of community members, staff, parents, and business leaders to evaluate the district’s family and community engagement
  • Initiated research for providing online parent training and strategies to increase parent and community engagement
  • Investigated systems for recruiting and tracking parent and volunteer participation

Jamie, mother to Hunter and Dallas, says the family is new to the area and appreciates the support they’ve been shown by the AISD.

A family poses for a photo at Arlington ISD's back-to-school kickoff event.
AT&T Stadium, Arlington ISD, Parent, back to school, event, families, family, family engagement

The counselor effect

Public school counselors are vital to the success of a campus. The jobs they do run the gamut from career counseling to crisis control. In the Arlington ISD, counselors are integral to the district’s strategic plan to not only involve parents, but to engage them and anticipate their needs.

René: My name is René Demaree. I’m a counselor at the pre-K center Kooken Education Center.

Nisha: My name is Nisha Price-Marshall and I’m a counselor at Williams Elementary School in the Arlington Independent School District.

Nisha: I’m a counselor for a pre-k through sixth-grade campus. I give comprehensive guidance lessons in each of my grade levels. I also offer crisis counseling, individual counseling, group counseling. I also work hand-in-hand with our family in transitions representative to assist families that are in need.

René: I do basically exactly the same thing. Another little aspect that I want to touch on is our family involvement representatives. We work hand in hand with them to do parent education training. And then for my level just being only pre-K we just really try to give tips on parenting and how to shape and mold children to be academically successful at school and at home. 

In Texas, and around the nation, public school counselors are increasingly taking on essential duties that extend far beyond what happens on campus.

René: When parents come in and they’re in crisis, they’ve had a house burn down or they don’t have money for Christmas items, things that they may need over the break, food. We just want to make sure that we get them in touch with the resources that they need to be able to be successful being parents, because that stress can lead to abuse and neglect.

Roshen is excited for his 5-year-old son Arno to start kindergarten with the AISD.

Home visits are an integral part of René and Nisha’s work.

Nisha: I do a lot of reach out prior to. I may send a postcard home. I may send the letter home. I may make a phone call, always start with something that’s positive, and I reiterate to my family’s, “I’m here to support you. I am here to ensure that it doesn’t get to a level of crisis where it’s totally out of your control. Let me help you to get some things and some building blocks in place. I’m just very proactive instead of being reactive.

Nisha: One particular family that I’ve worked with, it’s a very, very large family and so I let them know about resources, things that are going on. I have weekend food bags that I send home in a backpack. So it’s not like they’re actually walking out with you know [food], but they have a backpack, and they feel normal.

For René and Nisha, the Arlington ISD’s department of parent and community engagement is a lifeline.

Nisha: We have almost 61,000 kids in our district and at last check, we were the 11th largest district in the state of Texas.  If we didn’t have that we would completely fall apart.

René: It helps us do our jobs more effectively. Because we are pulled in so many different directions, but if you do have a Family Involvement Representative on your campus, you work hand-in-hand with them. They know what’s happening with our families. And we survey our families to find out what topics they want to have covered [at Parent Universities] and that’s important data for us to make sure that were pulsing to make sure that we’re getting their needs met.

René and Nisha say ultimately, everything they do with parents is about strengthening that bond and building relationships of trust with parents and students.

René: You have an opportunity to give every child that hope, give them that passion, give them the, “I love school, and I want to be here.” So you have a smile on every single day. You’ve learned their names. It is my goal every year, every single day when I see someone, I know them. It’s not honey. It’s not sweetie. It’s, “Hi Gavonte,” it’s, “Hi Darlene.” It’s personalization so that they feel like this is where I belong because school has to be a family and it’s just an extension of what they have at home.

Nisha: Yes, and to piggyback on what René said, just connectivity you know, personalizing each and every one of their experiences, letting them know that “You are someone that is very special. You have a lot of worth. And I’m so excited about the things that you’re going to do in the future.”