By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

EAST TEXAS – As 2017 begins, it’s time to take a look back at the highlights of 2016 in the world of education. The first change began at the very top of the Texas education food chain. In late December 2015, Governor Gregg Abbott appointed Mike Morath as the Commissioner of Education and in January of 2016, Morath succeeded Michael Williams who had served as the commissioner since 2012.

Closer to home, two school districts saw changes at the top. Latexo’s Don Elsom resigned his position as superintendent with Latexo ISD to take the superintendent’s spot with Chico ISD. Long-time Latexo Principal Dr. Stacy Easterly was selected to fill the position.

In Kennard, Superintendent Richard Cooper resigned his position with the district in early 2016 and was replaced with Malinda Lindsey in the district’s top spot.

Both new and old superintendents had a bombshell dropped on them in early June when it was announced there were several issues with the results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test. In a letter to all school districts and superintendents, Commissioner Morath announced the state would not be using the results from the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test for fifth and eighth-grade students during the 2015-2016 school year. The Commissioner also cancelled the June 21-22 fifth and eighth-grade retest administration.

The identified areas of concern with the STAAR test included:

  • Questions with no correct answer.
  • Incorrect scoring of test results.
  • The physical delivery of the tests to a wrong location.
  • The inclusion of test result data in a separate school district.
  • A lack of confidence in the entire testing system.

Aside from the STAAR test results, one of the biggest issues in Grapeland ISD concerned the passage of a bond issue to finance a new elementary school.

GISD Superintendent Gregg Spivey explained the GISD Board of Trustees had approved a bond initiative of $9.6 million. Approximately $7.7 million would be used for the new elementary which would include a cafeteria, PE gym, playgrounds a

nd parking. The remaining $1.9 million would be used for renovation of the Lorena Shoultz Auditorium, relocation of the baseball field and demolition of some buildings at the current elementary site as well as the old junior high school location.

The district proposed going with a modular style construction which led to several heated debates about what the term “modular” actually meant. Many area voters felt it implied using portable buildings but in actuality it simply meant to build parts of the structure elsewhere, transporting them to Grapeland and constructing the facility on site.

The May election saw the bond initiative narrowly defeated by less than 30 votes. As a result, the GISD Board re-visited their initial $9.6 million proposal and revamped it to bring the cost down by eliminating some of the improvements to the district.

Before 2016 came to a close, the GISD board voted to move forward on the revamped bond initiative. The board hired the architectural firm of Goodwin-Lasiter-Strong (GSL) and the construction company of Berry and Clay.

The board chose to go with a plan calling for new construction as opposed to a renovation of the existing facility and a final dollar amount has not yet been determined.

A bond initiative which came to fruition can be seen in southeast Anderson County. Sitting like a sapphire against a backdrop of emerald forest, the newly constructed Slocum High School opened its doors for the first time ever at the start of the 2016-2017 school year.

Designed by GSL and built by Berry and Clay Construction, the facility was financed by a $3.3 million bond. The district had previously developed a long-range savings plan and had acquired $2.7 million to use as a “down payment” of sorts

The new facility was initially tabbed to cost $6 million but when $2.7 million was applied, the bond’s price tag was lowered to the $3.3 million mark. As students, faculty, staff and residents of the Slocum community will tell you, the new high school appears to be worth every penny.

In December of 2016, Slocum High School Principal Errin Deer extended an offer to The Messenger to tour the ultra-modern educational facility.

The first thing a visitor to the new SHS campus notices is the security measures put in place by the district. The one entrance to the school is controlled electronically in the school offices. Because of the building design, visitors are routed through the office where their identification is checked electronically and a visitor’s badge is issued.

The first area Deer went through was the gymnasium. She toured the locker rooms and coaches’ offices which were designed for comfort and functionality. The gym area itself is on par with many 4A or 5A schools and is equipped with stadium seating in a horseshoe arrangement.

The cafeteria, kitchen area and concession stands are located behind the “u” of the horseshoe which allowed for more seating while the open end led to the locker room and offices.

Walking through the hallways, Deer pointed out several pieces of what looked like artwork but were in actuality sound boards which helped to muffle noise in the hallways.

Discipline also has improved at the high school level, Deer indicated. She said it was due in part to a sense of pride and ownership in the school displayed by the students.

“I don’t know if it’s because these kids have something of their own and being out away from the little ones, but they are really stepping up. We have had a great year so far, discipline wise.”

 Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at