COE Hall of Famer demonstrates leadership in Houston public schools
After graduating from Illinois State University, J.R. Webster ’91 began his teaching career as an educator at Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Houston’s North Forest Independent School District. Even during his first years in the profession, he recognized the need to “do more” to capture the learning potential of his students in this diverse and predominantly low-income community he served.
Webster demonstrated vision and leadership in the classroom, in several school committees, and through the advancement of his own education. Soon after earning his master’s degree from Prairie View A&M University, he was hired as an assistant principal at Thurgood.
Webster found that administration offered a completely new set of challenges. Suddenly, he was no longer just an advocate for children—he was now accountable for the public education system within the community, too.
The position put him in a delicate spot. As a new administrator, Webster said he was challenged to support his school in many ways outside the four walls. For example, he said public school administrators have to “sell” public education, in lieu of all the other options out there.
“There are private schools, there are charter schools, there are home-school co-ops, and I think we have to really talk with people,” Webster said.
In addition to enrollment issues, economic concerns plagued the schools Webster oversaw. He found it challenging to secure adequate funding from the state to ensure that the needs of his diverse student populations were met.
“The goal was and is equitability,” Webster said. “We want an exemplary education for every kid, but we want teachers to have adequate support in order to enable that to happen in the classroom.”
After serving as an assistant principal for Thurgood, Webster transferred to a new school and district—Cravens Early Childhood Academy in Sheldon Independent School District (SISD)—where he was hired as an assistant principal. Then in 2003, he was named principal at another SISD school, Royalwood Elementary. Webster said he set high standards for his staff, telling them that the state wouldn’t accept excuses for lack of student achievement, and their school shouldn’t either.
His leadership philosophy posits that teachers and administrators are simply the stewards of public schools—institutions not owned by them but rather the community.
“We really looked at how to change the culture of a school,” Webster said.
His plan focused on changing the school’s approaches to accountability. This resulted in the improvement of writing scores on standardized tests to 91 percent passing from 45 percent.
The methods utilized were goal-driven and he worked with the faculty to develop timetables for each goal.
Webster’s role with SISD has continued to evolve, and he now serves as the coordinator of student services for the district.
Well-versed in the needs of Houston’s growing Hispanic population, Webster worked to increase the number of bilingual and English as Second Language (ESL) programs in SISD. Nearly 70 percent of students in the state are Hispanic, and the new immigrant population continues to grow.
With greater emphasis on serving the English language acquisition needs of these students, bilingual and ESL programs are now in every school in the district, Webster said.
Webster believes that reaching this population is essential for a number of reasons, including the fact that all state tests are given in English starting in the sixth grade.
“We have to give them an academic language,” Webster said. “Many of our students, even if they speak English, they do not have the formal register of the English language. … We’ve had to go back and work on that, but we’ve seen good improvements so far.
“This year, we were the only school district in Harris County to meet AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress, a metric used in No Child Left Behind legislation).”