Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mission Accomplished: Former soldier accepts task of teaching, making a difference with students

MARSHALL – Mr. Dallas Stone carries a commanding presence in his sixth-grade Social Studies classroom at Price T. Young Middle School. His voice is powerfully soft, with clear pronunciation and a forcefulness that demands attention without necessarily demanding it.

His students respectfully listen to the day’s instruction, which is a lesson on symbols and developing a class “coat of arms.” The assignment is to create a design specifically for the class, and Mr. Stone graciously and patiently answers each question and urges his students to think, to determine, to explore.

The bell rings and Mr. Stone assumes another position in the doorway, as his students gather their supplies and line up for their next class. Once everyone is in their proper place, Stone escorts the entire classroom down the hallway, to ensure that everyone is in the place they should be, heading in the right direction, at the right time, with no exceptions.

It is then, and only then, that Mr. Stone can sit down and relax at his desk. At this point of the day, it is mission accomplished.

DALLAS STONE NEVER thought of ever being anything other than a military man. Born just outside Washington D.C. and growing up on naval bases all over the United States, it was just a given that he would take up the mantle established in his family of serving his country. His father was his idol, a Navy officer who decided upon retirement to plant his family in Houston, Texas.

That’s where young Dallas -- yes, in Houston – finally achieved his dream of joining the ranks. However, he did break rank a little bit, deciding to forgo the Navy and join the United States Army with a friend. The determining factor in the decision?

“I’m afraid of swimming,” Stone said. “The Army sounded really good to me.”

He was not afraid of the service, however. He was so ready to join up he signed up for the delayed entry program during the summer between his junior and senior year. The day after he graduated high school, on May 29, 1985, he got picked up to go to basic training.

His graduation day turned out to be the last day of his life as a civilian until he retired from military service in 2008, 22 years later. During that time, he criss-crossed the globe from places like Germany, to South Korea, to Iraq. During that time, he met his wife, Sharon, also a teacher, and they had two children. During that time, Stone kept going to military training schools, achieving rank and looking for his next assignment, his next command. And during that time, he was developing a love for something that while not so obvious in the beginning, would become much clearer as his days as a soldier were drawing to a close.

“My wife started asking me what I wanted to do when I get out (of the military),” Stone remembers. “I said, well, I’d like to teach. I didn’t want to carry a gun anymore. But the one thing I enjoyed was teaching, because I’d gotten into a habit of knowing that wherever I went in the Army, the people I left behind were going to have to carry on. I taught soldiers in the military and I started getting pretty good at it, so I just said that fits. It’s something I’d like to look into.”

His journey to that decision was a long one, however. Dallas Stone was a military man. He couldn’t imagine himself doing anything that didn’t involve serving his country. He was literally born to be a soldier, which is what he knew going into basic training in Missouri and his first duty station at Fort Knox in Kentucky. Stone was trained as a combat engineer, which “basically means you build stuff and then get to blow stuff up.”

His first assignment as a soldier was simple enough: guarding the gold vault at Fort Knox. But the urge to do what soldiers do, to be on the battlefield, was very strong. The gold vault could feel like a cage, a sideline, and Stone wanted to be out on the field.

“I wanted to be where the real Army was, so I kept volunteering to go other places and get more training, trying to make the best of me or the best of a situation I was in,” he said. “I started to really get into my job, really getting to know what I was doing and I just kind of bounced around from place to place and volunteering for all the jobs and duties I could get, and it served me well as far as my career progression.”

His desire to move up the ranks was solely because of his will to fight. But as fate would have it, Stone was never in the right place at the right time in his mind, and it became a frustrating aspect of Army life.

“Every war that came up, I was someplace else,” he remembers. “I was always in a different place. I was in Germany during the invasion of Panama, and a lot of my friends back here in the States were going and I wanted to go but couldn’t. Shortly after (the Berlin Wall) fell, the whole reason for me being in Germany was pointless, so I volunteered to go to Korea because there’s still some conflict over there. So when I got to Korea I got locked in there and then everybody else went to (Operation) Desert Storm. One thing after another…Iraq (in the 1990s), Somalia, all these different places and hot spots were popping up and I wasn’t getting picked up. So I decided and began thinking then, what I’m going to end up doing is teaching others. Whenever I would leave a unit and go someplace else, they would end up going to war. So how can I leave that unit in a better position than when I got there? That became my motive to be a leader.”

His commanders kept asking him questions about promotion, and moving up the ranks, and Stone’s first reaction was “I don’t want to be in that silly club.” As an enlisted man, he saw the relationship between soldiers and officers as an “us vs. them mentality.”

“My NCO then asked me okay, so what are you going to do about that?” he said. “It was an interesting question. My response at first was ‘well, nothing,’ and he responded with ‘well then, you’re just going to be part of the problem then.’ He said if I was going to be part of the solution then I was going to need to join the club. So I went ahead and went to the schools and took the test and I got promoted and became a ‘them,’ but I decided I wasn’t going to be a normal ‘them.’ I was going to do it a little bit different. I made efforts throughout my training to not be like everybody else.”

But he was still looking to join the fight. He enjoyed the schools and the teaching and the preparation, but the soldier in him would never totally give in to simply training others. He was Dallas Stone, military man, and he was in the Army to battle.

It took nearly 20 years, but he finally got his chance.

“I PRAYED FOR combat. I envisioned my life ending in this big fireball of death,” Stone says. “I tried, I volunteered to go anywhere, to get as much combat training as I could to be the one picked to go and fight. Battle is the ultimate test. I find that is most soldiers’ wish, to be tested, to prove you can handle it, to find your mettle. Most people want that in some form or another, but if you join the military you really want to see it.”

In his earlier years it was an obsession, a literal prayer. But it wasn’t until he’d almost given up entering the fight, after he’d become a husband and father, that his call to duty came. And when it came…Stone was developing small, but definitely second, thoughts.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go now, but you know, the Lord had brought me to a place in my life to where I no longer wanted that fiery ball of death,” he said. “My prayer was answered by getting an assignment, but when it came I was a father and a husband and all I wanted then was just to go home.”

Stone was deployed to Iraq in the early 2000s, and was placed in charge of a headquarters company where he was the commanding officer of a group of mechanics, cooks and medics. His job was to set force protection, building walls to withstand mortar fire and to set up gate guards and configure base camp. Rarely did he find himself outside the walls, but a couple of times he did venture out into the war.

“This one time I did, we got hit with what they call IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) a couple of times,” he said. “I never got struck by it, but I got into a firefight while were were going to check on a small unit in an area that American troops hadn’t been in in a long time.”

Once the unit arrived at the location, Stone says they were engaged by “hostile elements.” He still remembers the moment vividly, but the memory isn’t of fear but simply more of a feeling of just doing his job.

“It just kind of went downhill pretty fast and we got into this firefight,” he said. “Nobody died or anything like that, but I did fire exactly 28 rounds from my rifle and I got two bursts off from a squad automatic weapon. The guy was a radio operator and he’d frozen when we started taking fire, and I had to kind of wake him up by pulling his trigger. It woke him up and he just kind of kept on going with it.”

The battle lasted long enough for Stone to “get a taste” of the battlefield he felt he’d been training for all his life.

“I remember the initial feeling of we were being shot at, and the feeling was that this isn’t really happening,” he said. “Once it started happening I was in charge of people who weren’t as combat-trained as others, and I had to move them forward to engage the hostile element that was there. So I got my taste of it then, and I got back home.”

Once back home Stone was selected enter the highest-level course work for enlisted men, the Sergeant Major Academy. He attended the academy and achieved the rank of First Seargeant, then spent the rest of his time teaching and preparing new soldiers for combat.

He reached 20 years, which is what he’d first told Sharon was his initial goal in the military. In his own mind, he was prepared to shoot right past that and make the Army his career. But Sharon had other ideas, and once she explained her thoughts to Dallas, he knew it was time. His days as a soldier were nearing an end, and it was time to really, really think about life after the military.

“If it wasn’t for my family, I would’ve stayed in,” Stone says. “I really enjoyed it and had a great time. But, it was hard on my family. After you miss so many birthdays, and so many Christmases, well, it’s time to get out. I got back home and my kids were happy to see me and have me around but there were these little inside jokes going on in the family that made me feel like a third wheel sometimes. I had missed out on a lot, and I didn’t like it. I told my wife that she had followed me around all these many years now, and that now it was my turn to follow her around.”

AFTER TWO DECADES of uniformity, of the strict discipline of military life, Dallas knew he needed an outlet. He would need to find a new place to fit in. He’d already decided that teaching was something he’d like to try out, so just as he’d done his entire military career, he decided to begin building something new.

His first job in education, as a para-professional, was not good, he admits. Seeing his military background, a school hired him as an ISS (In-School Suspension) teacher. While he was able to get the system working during the year, which basically means he got ISS into a place where students didn’t want to be, he calls that experience “the worst mistake of my career.”

After that first year, he found a job “delivering nuts and bolts” while he finished college. When he was close to finishing, he heard of a tragic school shooting where some teachers had died protecting their students. It was a heart-breaking moment, even for someone who’d been hardened by over 20 years in the military. That solidified his desire once again to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

“In regards to the teachers, the first thing I thought of is that teachers aren’t paid enough to put up that deep of a sacrifice, but these folks literally gave up their lives to protect their students,” he said. “As underappreciated as teachers are, I felt a calling to want to be there and want to do it.”

He had a job offer in Murchison, a tiny community in East Texas between Tyler and Athens. But he got a call from Price T. Young in Marshall ISD, and after coming for an interview and meeting some of the people he’d be working with, Stone felt like the door he’d been looking for had opened up.

“Within a year, I found out something more about this job. I needed to be here,” he said. “This is something for me. I’d love to be able to pass something on to the kids, but I’m getting more out of this. I’m learning more about myself, about my family.”

Stone constantly critiques himself, which is a habit cultivated by the many requirements of being a soldier. That first year of full-time teaching at PTY was a tremendous learning experience, but he found himself believing he could have done better, that he almost felt like he’d cheated the students.

“It’s just as it was in the military; I found myself asking could I have done more? Watching a class graduate and move on, how could I have taught them better?” he said. “It is a compromise between the ‘a-ha’ moment, that you see a child go ‘Oh, I get it,” and the challenge of there’s something else on my mind. A lot of these kids, especially in this district, they’ve got so much going on in their world that they just need a break from their normal stress and challenges. What can I do about that? What can I add? In my opinion, I’m in the perfect arena for that.”

Stone says his career in the military and the skills he learned in the Army provide him with a blueprint for what is needed in his classes today. So while he was building a career as a soldier, he was actually preparing himself for his career after all the fighting days were over.

“Tasks. Conditions. Standards. That was drilled into us,” he said. “The task is, what is it that you want to accomplish? The conditions are, what are the things you have to make this happen? And the standards are, what will you be graded on? That helped me to a point where I had to apply this to everything I did. That really sets the stage. As a teacher, we have all these TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) that we have to teach, tons of them, but which ones are the most important? In the Army we call those ‘battle tasks.’ You have all you need to know to make this unit successful, and these are first. Your mission is to do this, or do that. Here in the educational setting, you sit down with your administrators and instructional aides and say what comes first? What is our mission? What do I need to focus on first? My training in tasks, conditions and standards certainly helps.”

Success as a teacher in his classroom and as a faculty team member at PTY is also measured by the theory of “interlocking fire,” also from his days as an Army man.

“The Army is very big on keep your eye on your own lane,” Stone said. “But when you’re not firing straight ahead at a target, you have to interlock your fire. When soldiers shoot forward, you watch your lane. When you team up with somebody, you actually aim in front of the other person so your fires interlock, creating a wall of lead. Understanding the importance of interlocking fire, and lanes, it becomes much easier to watch my classroom. It’s my classroom, but I’ve also got to look at my teaching family and know that what I do in this classroom will also affect everyone else on the team. If I have a troubled student, I will let my team know. It’s one of the reasons I love this school district. It’s very team-oriented.”

Managing stress – another key skill that must be mastered in military service – is another part of what Stone tries to instill in his students.

“I learned in the military is, what comes first, what should I watch for, when it comes to interacting with people?” he said. “How do they operate under pressure and what their instincts under pressure?

“I’ve learned that people don’t wear out…but, they can rust. I’ve seen this in students. Students don’t wear out, so you can keep working them and working them and teaching them and pushing them. But if you let them set, they’ll rust. Then you have a problem. That is when I learned, that people under stress, what do they revert to? I’ve seen an adult man cry because he had spaghetti for dinner the third time in a row. People will get to where stressers take over, and then my job is to relieve the stressers.”

So with that in mind, Stone makes it a point to try to keep the mood as light as possible in his class, because “learning is a stressful situation if you’re truly learning,” he said.

“Since I’ve been here, I have learned from some of the most professional teachers I know, there is a difference between schoolwork, and teaching,” he added. “There’s this administrative paperwork we have to do because it’s professional, it’s a job. But that doesn’t always translate into what’s going on in the classroom. So, which one comes first? Some of the best teachers I’ve come across at this campus, in this district, all say this: the kids come first. Do not let these kids, these students, suffer. When I have that in mind, and I know my tasks, conditions and standards, and I know my lane and that my team has my back, this is the number one thing. I hear that all the way up from my fellow teachers to the superintendent.”

The challenge of teaching today is a great one, even for a man who has traveled the world and seen true battle conditions up close. Just as he was trained to fight, trained to carry out a mission, and trained to succeed in the United States Army, Stone feels that his days as a soldier have trained him to be a teacher of young people.

Not that schools are a battlefield, but because the future is at stake with young people. As a teacher, Dallas Stone personalizes his calling and breaks his task down into something really, really simple.

“What I leave, I’ve got to live with. These kids are going to run the country one day. I tell them this: don’t give up. You can make it, don’t give up.”

If that happens, First Sergeant Dallas Stone knows the mission can be accomplished.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Former Mav Terrance Shaw Still Going Strong

Terrance Shaw, with Mavs coach Clint Harper, last Friday night.
MARSHALL, Texas – A simple Internet search of “Terrance Shaw” turns up what most folks know about the 1991 graduate of Marshall High School.
Football standout at Stephen F. Austin State University. First-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers. Member of five different NFL teams, including the Chargers, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, and Oakland Raiders. You can even find out that yes, Terrance Shaw won a Super Bowl ring as a member of the New England Patriots in 2001, the first Super Bowl win in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady-led Patriots dynasty.
But what very few know about Terrance Shaw is the road it took to get to that Super Bowl in New Orleans. Or to the NFL draft. Or to SFA, for that matter. Most sports junkies can tell you the story of how Michael Jordan got cut from his junior high team, but those same sports junkies can’t tell you that Terrance Shaw, Super Bowl champion, had decided to quit football as a sophomore at Marshall High School in 1988.
If it weren’t for a couple of assistant coaches who cared deeply both for the Mavericks overall and for Terrance himself, Shaw will readily admit that he wouldn’t be where he is today. For a kid who left high school weighing just 158 pounds following a state championship season in 1990 with the Mavs, Terrance can trace it all back to that day on the practice field when he reached a true crossroads in his life.
Seeing Something Special
Shaw returned to his hometown this past Friday night as the Mavs unveiled a commemorative sign outside Maverick Stadium, marking its identity as the home of a Super Bowl champion. On the opposite end of the wall on the east end of the stadium, a similar sign honors NFL Hall of Famer and Marshall native Y.A. Tittle.
Out of all the great players who have worn the red and white over the years, only a relative handful have ever gone on to play professionally. Only one – still known around Marshall as “T-Shaw” – reached the pinnacle of football.
“My advice to young players is to just keep your head down and keep grinding,” says Shaw, who makes his home in DeSoto, Texas now with his wife and seven children. “I always look back and remind everybody that I was a ‘B’ team player in the seventh and eighth grade. We had a great running back ahead of me in D.D. Turner and I was way down on the depth chart. I was always quick and fast, but I was small. I just kept working on my game, and working some more to elevate my game. It’s a constant grind but now of course it was all worth it.”
The huge, shiny Super Bowl ring he owns now is a constant reminder for Shaw of the benefits of the grind. He knows all too well the meaning of “so hard to be a Maverick,” from his days as a young man growing up in Marshall.
Terrance was raised in Marshall by his grandmother, Margaret Shaw. His grandfather had died when Terrance was in elementary school, so it was just him and his grandma.
In junior high, Shaw was a running back buried deep on the depth chart. He spent his two seasons as a MJHS Dogie playing on the “B” team. As a sophomore at Marshall High School in 1988, Shaw was still just a face in the crowd, a scout-team type player destined to spend the season on the junior varsity while the Mavs were on their way to the first of three straight district championships and deep playoff runs. That 1988 team was led by Odell Beckham and Shaw’s own classmate, D.D. Turner. Only the most rabid of Maverick fans even knew Terrance Shaw existed on the roster.
Shaw believed in his own ability, but the numbers game wasn’t in his favor. After years of fighting the battle to get out of a position pit with no progress, Terrance had reached what he thought was the end for him before he even got started.
“I remember one day I’d had enough of it all, and I said that’s it, man, I quit,” he said. “Two coaches on the staff – Coach Sid (Harper) and Coach Bill (Harper) – came up to me and put their arms around me and said they believed in me. They would take me on defense, just don’t quit. As it turned out, that made all the difference in the world for me.”
Those two coaches – Bill Harper, who was then the Mavs’ defensive coordinator and who would go on to become the winningest head coach in Marshall football history following the 1990 season; and Sid Harper, a position coach and special teams coordinator who spent several years with the Mavs and is the father of current Marshall head coach, Clint Harper – are still referred to as “my two dads” by Terrance Shaw.
“I credit them with everything,” he said. “Without them, there wouldn’t have been me where I am today because I would’ve been just another kid. I still want to model myself after Coach Sid and Coach Bill…those guys loved us. That night coming home (in 1990, after the state championship game in Houston), on that icy road, everybody was scared but Coach Sid and Coach Bill had rode back with us and they were like a blanket, man.”
Terrance can still get emotional talking about Margaret, who passed away in 2001, but he admits it was going to be difficult for a 58-year-old grandmother to handle a 16-year-old teenage boy – which is why he is so appreciative of the guidance provided by his coaches.
“To be successful you have to be willing to do the things that aren’t easy,” he said. “You have to want to have a better situation. First of all, I never played for myself. When I went to college, I was planning to go to school and put my grandmother in a better situation. We were on government assistance until I was a senior. Every game I was going to play for her, that was my motivation.”
Sid Harper and Bill Harper had a hand in keeping Terrance in the program as a sophomore, but he never played a down of varsity football until the third week of the season in 1989, his junior year. Refreshed at his new position of cornerback, Shaw paid his dues as a member of the Mavs’ junior varsity up until that third week of the season.
When the call finally came to help the varsity, Shaw didn’t waste any time. His first game, against Kilgore, he got his first career interception. That led to a quick rise to prominence on a Maverick team that reached the mountaintop in 1990, as Marshall defeated Converse Judson 21-19 in the Astrodome to bring home the 1990 Big 5A state title.
In that game, Shaw made a game-turning interception in the end zone that helped save the Mavs’ eventual two-point win. So the former depth-chart casualty at running back who almost quit as a sophomore book-ended his high school career with an interception in his first varsity game, and the biggest one of his life to that point in his final game as a Mav.
And again, something most folks don’t realize who were part of the thousands of Marshall and East Texas fans to attend that historic game in December 1990 is that Shaw basically played that day on one leg.
“I had gotten hurt a couple days before the game, banging knees with somebody,” he recalls. “I probably had a partial tear of my knee then, but man I was not going to miss that game. It was a rough game, (Converse Judson) played us hard all the way to the end. I made that pick and probably should have scored, but I was hurting and got about as far as I could on that leg.”

Making It

Shaw went on to receive a football scholarship to SFA, where he suffered a torn ACL as a sophomore. He entered college weighing less than 160 pounds, but by the time he reached his senior year, he had bulked up to about 205 and was clocked at a 4.2 40-yard dash. That kind of physical, athletic, fast cornerback is an NFL prospect, and Shaw found himself on many NFL draft boards in the spring of 1995.
“I just kept two ladies on my mind – my grandmother, and my ‘Mav mom,’ Pat Berry,” he recalls of his days at SFA. “They missed one game of my college career, and that was because Grandma was sick. I promised them I was always going to play for them. I worked hard and I didn’t want to let them down. I wasn’t worried about anybody else, just those two wonderful ladies.”
He also spoke of the ’95 Draft Night when he was sitting at home and the only representative from an NFL team that was with him was a member of the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys had indicated they were interested in Shaw, but the Chargers – who had made their first Super Bowl appearance the prior season -- made a trade to move up at the start of the second round and grabbed Shaw 34th overall, making him their top draft pick that season. At that point, Shaw says the Cowboys representative left.
“I really think all he was there for was to keep them (Cowboys) informed about who was calling me,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t know how serious they were about actually drafting me, especially anywhere high in the draft, but they were the only team that sent a rep to my house that night.”
Shaw played five seasons with San Diego before signing a free agent contract with the Dolphins. He then spent the 2001 season with the Patriots – earning his Super Bowl ring – before signing with the Raiders and going to his second straight Super Bowl in 2002. After two seasons in Oakland, Shaw finished his 10-year NFL career with a final season as a member of the Vikings, in 2004.
One of his biggest regrets is the fact that two of his biggest fans – his grandmother and his mother – never got to see him play and win a Super Bowl. His mother, who had undergone a heart transplant in 1985, passed away in July of 2001. His grandmother, Margaret, passed away about a month later.
“That…was a tough year,” Shaw admits. “A rough season.”
Following his retirement, Shaw satisfied his love for football by coaching Little League football. He developed a passion for teaching the game and working with youth, traits that have led to him now being in charge of his own youth football organization in DeSoto, “The Soaring Eagles.”
“I want kids to be taught fundamentals,” he said. “We teach fundamentals. You can do that without much contact at a young age and get kids ready to play when it is time. This is our first year and we had over 200 kids come out, so football is big in DeSoto. I’m expecting that number to double next year.”
So continues the story of that little kid from Marshall, Texas – the one who was fast but too small, the one who had some talent but not enough, the one who was going to watch along with everyone else as others went on to the big time. That little kid was Terrance Shaw, who now stands as one of the most recognizable Marshall Mavericks in history.

“My motto to anyone is always to just keep grinding, no matter what,” he said. “I was a Mav here and we had some great times, but you got to keep going. Keep grinding, keep your head down and keep your nose clean, and you can make it. I believe it. I lived it.”

Story by David Weaver
MISD Director of Communications

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

True Grit: Finding Quality Educators Is Personal For MISD's Britni Searle

MARSHALL – The path that led Britni Searle to become Marshall ISD’s Executive Director of Human Resources didn’t begin during her childhood as a student growing up in either Chapel Hill ISD or Okinawa, Japan.

It didn’t begin at Baylor University, her dream school and the only one she ever applied to.

It also didn’t begin during the early years of her marriage to Ronan Searle, a native of Marshall, who she met as a senior at Baylor. It also didn’t begin with her career as a human resources recruiter with stops in Dallas, Florida and Longview.

No, Britni Searle’s career in Marshall ISD, for all intents and purposes, began during one of the darkest times in her life. It was a time when intense joy combined with pain and suffering and questions in the greatest of ironies.

It began at the bedside of her infant son, Matthew, as he fought for his life in Willis Knighton South’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Shreveport. During a two-month stay in which Britni and Ronan were only able to hold their premature newborn for short periods of time, with another 15-month old son waiting at home in Marshall, Britni had time to truly ponder the goals and aspirations she had for her children.

And just like it was for her in the early years, it all came back to education.

The Right Stuff

Britni Searle became the Executive Director of Human Resources in MISD in October of 2015. The new school year was a little over a month old and the annual hiring season was still months away, but the new personnel manager for the district already had a game plan.

After several meetings with district employees, including a focus group of teachers, Searle determined one overriding characteristic she was looking for in MISD employees, specifically teachers, in order to meet the needs of Marshall students.

“After I had met with and talked to several of our teachers and staff, the one thing that I found was that we were really looking for employees who had grit,” Searle says. “What is it that makes a person have that toughness, that ‘grit?’ As I internalized that with my own self, I had to ask well, what is ‘grit?’ What does that look like and how would we recognize it in a prospective teacher, or a teacher already in our district?”

MISD has already made huge strides in its recruiting and retention efforts in less than a year with Searle as its chief manager of personnel. She played a huge role in restructuring the teacher salary scale, which is now more competitive and assures that every teacher in the classroom will receive a pay raise in 2016-2017. This has been instrumental in retaining current teachers, and also making the district more attractive financially for new and former MISD teachers.

For all other employees in MISD, a three-percent, across-the-board raise has been approved as well. Searle has also worked tirelessly on processes and procedures, with clearly-defined job descriptions for all employees as well as beginning to plan ahead for staffing challenges when MISD makes the move into new buildings in the fall of 2017.

All of that has taken place under Searle’s watch the last 10 months, despite having to navigate the challenges of a change in leadership in midstream when Dr. Marc Smith, the superintendent who hired her, left the district to become superintendent in Duncanville ISD. Her new boss, Dr. Jerry Gibson, however, has already seen the results of Searle’s hard work in the district’s HR department and is very much appreciative of the strides already made.

“In her short time here she has found best practices for her department and MISD will run more effectively as we adapt to those systems,” said Dr. Gibson, who took over as MISD superintendent on July 1. “With people like her, we will get MISD to where it needs to be.”

None of the progress has been easy, but that’s okay for Searle, whose life experiences prior to coming to MISD have been preparing her for the everyday challenge of being in charge of staffing a school district with over 800 employees.

“Working in Human Resources is very challenging because you’re working with people, and not every person is the same,” she said. “Not every situation is the same. You have similarities and you gain experience with that but nothing is ever a cookie cutter. You have to look at things differently and you to approach things from a business aspect and a people aspect in order to understand what motivates people. I always try to ask myself, how can we look at a situation differently in order to have a positive outcome for everyone involved?”

Although she never had a burning desire to necessarily be a teacher, it is hard to look at Britni’s life and say she wasn’t destined to have some role in education. Her mother became a teacher during Britni’s early years as a student in Chapel Hill ISD, just east of Tyler. Her father was always involved in a sales career and is now Maintenance Director with JDS Restaurants, which owns Taco Bell franchises.

When Britni was in the fifth grade, her mother took an offer from the Department of Defense to teach overseas, which landed the family in Okinawa, Japan, for a year. The experience was a positive one for Britni, who found herself taking in an entirely different culture than the one she’d grown used to back in Texas.

“It was a lot of fun,” she remembers. “We lived in a high rise apartment on a military base. I got to go to a summer camp…my parents had to put me on a ship because the camp was on another island in the Pacific. I was gone for like 2-3 weeks in the summer, and I lived with a traditional Japanese family. In Japan, the bathrooms are community bathrooms; so the whole family bathes together. I remember as a fifth-grade girl and everybody putting on their bathing suits and just going into the community shower. It was really interesting to see a different culture.”

She immersed herself in Japanese culture while she was there, so much so that she admits she learned a little of the language and customs, such as breaking a raw egg over rice for breakfast in the morning and hoping the rice was warm enough to cook the egg.

After a year, the family returned to Chapel Hill and Britni finished school, graduating as salutatorian of her senior class in 2000. She had already made her collegiate plans, but not without some tough moments.

“I attended a summer camp at Baylor and visited when I was a freshman or sophomore,” she said. “I fell in love with the school. I remember coming home and telling my parents that I didn’t want to apply anywhere else. Of course, Baylor is a private Baptist school and it’s fairly expensive, so I remember my parents saying well, we can’t afford that. But I was determined that that’s where I was going to school, and it was the only school I ever applied to, so I just worked harder. I applied for scholarships and kept retaking the ACT and SAT to improve my score, to get more scholarship money.”

She had met Ronan Searle, of Marshall, as a senior at Baylor after a sorority sister set them up. Britni’s plans had been to potentially move to Colorado where she had been working summers at a camp, but ironically Ronan also had been working with an uncle very near that camp. Instead of moving to Colorado when that summer was over, she decided to move back home to Chapel Hill – which was less than hour away from Marshall and her future husband, she says with a grin.

That was in August of 2004, and she spent that next school year as a substitute teacher at Chapel Hill High School. She taught freshman IPC class and “loved it,” she said. However, she didn’t feel the call to full-time teaching, and soon entered the world of human resources and employee recruiting.

“That experience probably helps me today,” she said. “I tell you what, not having formal training as a teaching and walking into a classroom, I had 110 students and just understanding each one of them individually and differentiating the learning with each of them, that’s a tough job. That helps me today, knowing how we should support our teachers, how we should support our employees in the school district.”

She moved to Dallas and got into sales and recruiting, and then moved to Florida, where she worked as an Executive Recruiter for Parker and Lynch in Jacksonville. She and Ronan then married, and the couple moved back to Waco as Ronan entered law school and Britni went to work as Client Relationship Manager, in Human Resources, at Baylor.

After having their first child, Grant, the couple wanted to move back closer to home, so the Searles moved back to East Texas in 2012. Ronan went to work with his father, Dean Searle, at a law practice in Marshall. Britni, who had prided herself as a hard-working, career-minded “millennial,” found herself suddenly as a stay-at-home mom.

When she became pregnant with their second child, however, all the toughness, grittiness and never-quit attitude she now searches for in prospective MISD employees was put on full display – in herself.

Growing Pains

The emotion in Britni Searle’s voice in talking about that tough holiday season in 2012-2013 is still very piercing, which paints a vivid picture of the seriousness of her son Matthew’s birth even 3 ½ years later. Thankfully, the picture ends with a smile, but for a two-month stretch from Thanksgiving to late January, on most days, that picture was cloudy at best.

The Searles’ first son, Grant, was barely a year old when Britni and Ronan found out they would be welcoming a second baby into the family. But it also became quite apparent, very early, that her second pregnancy would be much more difficult than the first. Britni made it to 29 weeks, but Matthew was born premature at Willis Knighton South, in Shreveport, and was admitted to to the NICU there on Nov. 26.

Britni and Ronan spent the following days and weeks driving back and forth from Marshall to Shreveport, to be at Matthew’s bedside. The visitation regulations were very strict, with the toughest being that Matthew’s older brother, Grant, couldn’t come visit because he himself was only 15 months old. So Britni and Ronan found themselves living life in two different places, with their two children separated from each other and from mommy and daddy, across the state line, as the weeks dragged on and on.

By Christmas, Britni had almost reached a breaking point.

“It was…a difficult Christmas,” she said. “I remember being with (Matthew) all day on Christmas Day, then coming home thinking that something just wasn’t right. I came back to Marshall and we were having the big Christmas dinner with family and everything and we got the call from the hospital.”

Matthew’s fever had spiked, which was highly unusual for a premature baby. Britni and Ronan jumped in the car and sped back to Shreveport to be with their son, leaving behind another son, their family, and the general idea of Christmas. It was a long, tough ride.

“We saw him for 30 minutes and then we had to leave the unit,” she said. “I wasn’t going home after that. We stayed with some friends in Shreveport.”

Seeing her newborn baby lying helpless in intensive care was one thing, but overall, the strain of trying to be mommy to both young boys who were miles apart, and the stress of keeping up that schedule, had almost become too much to bear.

“I just remember our family being separated because our first son wasn’t old enough to go into the NICU so anytime we would go over to see Matthew we couldn’t take (Grant) with us,” she said. “Our family was separated for weeks at a time across state borders. It was really…really challenging. It was tough.”

Thankfully, Matthew improved gradually with each passing day, and the Searles were able to bring their little boy home for good on January 25, 2013. It was a day that Britni, for sure, will never forget.

“I remember we named him ‘Matthew’ because that means ‘gift from God,” Britni said. “At 18-20 weeks I knew were were going to have a difficult pregnancy. Probably from that point I bonded with him, even before he was born. The whole time he was in the hospital I just remember him being a gift. He’s part of my testimony every single day.”

Due to the premature birth, Matthew has had some developmental delays that the Searles have addressed. He had to do some speech therapy and occupational therapy, but the therapy was done very early following the birth and Britni says that now he is a perfect, healthy child.

“He’s developmentally great…we did all that therapy early on and then we’ve caught him up with everything,” she said. “He’s absolutely perfect and healthy to this day. It’s just a miracle.”

A year passed, and once she knew Matthew was going to be fine, Britni felt like it was time to go back to work. She found a position working as a Human Resources Consultant at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview, and hit the ground running as though she’d never left.

But she knew her heart was back in Marshall, with her husband and her two little boys. And the future for all of them was hurtling forward like a freight train.

Part Of The Solution

Marshall ISD’s Director of Human Resources position opened up in the fall of 2015. Always prepared and forward-thinking, Britni says she kept tabs on potential openings with companies in the area looking for human resource professionals. When the MISD position went up, she knew she’d found what she was looking for.

She kept going back to that one year she’d spent as a substitute teacher in the classroom, along with all of her experiences growing up with a mom teaching in two different countries. Her experience in the field of human resources and recruiting in the corporate world, combined with her upbringing in education, made for a perfect match.

“I was tickled and excited to come on board,” Searle said. “It’s been a lot of work. The toughest part has just been putting some processes and procedures in place and outlining them. We do a lot of things on paper, so coming from the business world where sometimes you have more resources with technology, I found that you have to be a little more creative and you have to go through a couple of extra steps because we are funded through public funds. Those were some of the immediate challenges and differences I faced jumping into the hiring season this summer.”

As with any company, the hiring of employees in a school district is not an exact science. It’s not about hiring every person who is qualified to do a single job, Britni says. It’s about hiring, and retaining, the right qualified person to do the job.

“I have a saying. You hire for attitude, and you train for skill,” she said. “In a school district, the most important quality for me when we look at hiring people is that we hire people who love kids and who want to be a teacher for the right reasons. They want to provide an impact in other people’s lives. I don’t necessarily look at credentials or experience only. I look at finding right person who fits into our culture here in MISD, because it is very unique, and also someone who enjoys working with a diverse population of students. It’s about finding and keeping people who fit into your culture.”

To that end, since coming on board to MISD, Searle has been helping build an image of the district to make it more competitive and attractive to teaching professionals. Across-the-board raises for both teachers and non-teaching staff have certainly helped, as has the promise of new, state-of-the-art facilities to meet the needs of students and teachers in today’s environment.

“I remember the bond and all that when it came up, and I was a community member,” Searle said. “I had young children, and I remember seeing all the positive and negative things that were out there. I just remember saying, you know what, we have to invest in our children. That’s something we have to do. Starting with that investment, yes, it’s in buildings, and the second piece of that is bringing in and keeping the right teachers on board in our district.

“Yes, I agree that buildings can only take you so far. But, it’s ultimately what goes on in the classroom and recruiting and retaining the right teachers that ultimately is what is going to make a difference and help our community in the long run.”

As Superintendent of MISD, Dr. Gibson appreciates that attitude in his chief personnel recruiter.

“What I love most about Britni is that she has bought in and she is invested in what we are going to do and who we are going to be,” he said. “She has two young sons who will be educated in Marshall ISD. We have to get it right when it comes to educating the students of Marshall and she fully understands what is at stake. She has chosen to be a part of the solution, and not a part of the problem. With people like her, we will get MISD where it needs to be.”

It is her life experiences, including fighting through the very difficult time sitting at her youngest child’s bedside as he fought through his own challenges of a premature birth, that has helped Britni Searle prepare for the calling she has now.

“I’ve experienced some true blessings but also had some challenges, and I feel like that has helped me become a gritty person,” she said. “Overcoming some personal challenges has helped me grow as a person to say that if there is a road block, I’m going to come up with a plan A through Z, whatever it takes, to figure out how to solve it and push through and make it happen. That’s the attitude I want in people we hire and people who work here. Yes, we have challenges, but we must push through and solve problems, and that requires tough, gritty people. There is too much at stake for us not to be successful. I love that challenge.”

-- Story by David Weaver/MISD Director of Communications & Public Relations

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Day Of Progress Lasts A Lifetime For Skinner Family

The Skinner Family (from left): Kristin, Madie, Molly Michael and Matt

Madison Skinner is just like any other seven-year old child in the summertime. She likes to swim, much like her older sister, Molly Michael, who is already swimming competitively as she prepares to enter the fourth grade at South Marshall STEM Academy.

Madison, or Madie, as she is more well known, is entering the second grade at William B. Travis Elementary. She enjoys the freshness of dipping her face in the cool water of a swimming pool, or the exciting rush of entering the water after a trip down the slide.

All of this is normal for most children over the course of a hot Texas summer in Marshall. But for Madie and her family, a simple pleasure such as swimming is something much more.

It is a profile in courage.

15-20 Minutes
Matt and Kristin Skinner, both graduates of Marshall High School, had celebrated the first birthday of their second child, Madie, in June of 2010 and were going about their normal, everyday lives in August of that year. Matt was working in Longview, and Kristin had a dental appointment the afternoon of August 25, 2010. Molly Michael was at preschool, and Madie was with a babysitter.

Madie was 14 months old.

Matt, a graduate of Baylor University, will never forget the phone call he received.

"The sitter called me, and by the way she was talking I knew something had happened,” Matt recalls. “She was sobbing in the phone that Madie had fallen in the pool and the EMT's were working on her in the ambulance. I found out later that the Marshall PD blocked every intersection en route to the hospital to ensure Madie got there as quickly as possible. With the CPR and medical attention given to Madie by MPD and Marshall EMT's, she would not be here today. I want people to know we have an awesome town, school district, police and fire departments.”

Kristin, who graduated MHS in 1998 and went on to graduate from Texas A&M, was sitting in the dentist’s chair, across from the Good Shepherd Medical Center in Marshall, having a cavity filled.

“I just remember the assistants kept coming back into the room and asking, ‘is she done yet? Are you finished yet?’”she said. “That happened three or four times before they finally came back and said, ‘ok, well she’s got to go.’”

Madie at Special Olympics this last May.
Both parents found out what had happened when they arrived at the emergency room at GSMC-Marshall. Madie had slipped out of the house and wandered into the swimming pool – alone. By the time she was discovered in the pool, several minutes had elapsed.

The exact amount of time Madie spent floating unconscious in the swimming pool isn’t known.

“We can only estimate…anywhere from 15-20 minutes,” Matt said. “No one really knows.”

Medical personnel told her parents that the brain ceases to function usually after seven minutes without oxygen. Using that as a gauge, for all intents and purposes, Madie drowned that day in the swimming pool.

But medical personnel managed to stabilize her, despite the odds, long enough to allow Children’s Medical Hospital from Dallas to send a life-flight aircraft to Marshall. Kristin was the only parent allowed to ride in the aircraft with Madie back to Dallas, and Matt was preparing to follow them via car until some of his high school friends secured a private plane that allowed him to literally follow Kristin and Madie in the air.

Things looked dark and bleak for the Skinners that day, which still remains a blur for a mom who simply wanted to see her little girl open her eyes again.

“I don’t really remember much of what happened that day, to this day,” says Kristin. “All I know is that I was at the hospital and people kept telling me how sorry they were for us, for Madie. I finally had to just tell them to please stop telling me they were sorry, that I didn’t need to hear that. All I wanted was to get Madie where she needed to be so we could take care of her.”

The staff at Children’s in Dallas cared for Madie around the clock for the next 2 ½ months. Matt and Kristin were told on several occasions that the brain damage suffered by the oxygen loss was anywhere from manageable to irreversable. They received so many medical opinions from different doctors throughout their stay that they finally began to tune most of it out.

“It got to a point where all I wanted to say to anyone was that I don’t care what the odds are, Madie is going to be that kid that everyone talks about as a miracle,” Kristin said. “Madie was going to make it and be a miracle.”

The days were long at first. The baby was unconscious for most of her early stay but Matt remembers a time late one night after a few days in Dallas in which a nurse woke him up from her bedside.

Make-A-Wish helped Madie meet Mickey Mouse recently.
“She called me over and said that she wanted me to see this,” Matt remembers. “I looked and Madie had opened her eyes and was looking around the room. She had the most beautiful baby blue eyes before the accident but at that moment her eyes were dark, a much different color. We didn’t know if she could even see us, so I just leaned over and started talking to her in her ear.”

As the days progressed, Madie continued to defy the odds and predictions. The critical 72-hour period passed and she began to be able to periodically breathe without being intubated. On the fifth day, she had her first seizure – a big seizure that did more damage to her and required her to be re-intubated. That proved to be the only seizure she experienced for years following the accident.

She also went through a period of “neuro-storming,” a process in which the brain, after it has been basically shut off for a period of time, begins to fire back up similar to the reboot of a computer. At that point, basically every part of Madie’s body and every nerve ending began to “fire off” again, which created long periods of deep, prolonged pain for the little girl.

“If she was awake, she was screaming, and sweating, and flexing every muscle in her body,” Kristin recalls. “That went on for months. She took so much medicine over that time, antibiotics, pain medication, all of it.”

Eventually Madie progressed to a point where she began therapy, and at that point Matt and Kristin – who had been at her bedside every minute since the accident until that point – began switching off week-to-week. The intent was to have someone with Madie all the time while also having someone at home with Molly Michael, to give their oldest daughter some semblance of normalcy at the beginning of the school year.

Madie with Winnie the Pooh at Disney
Coming Home
Madie’s fight continued into November, and she progressed enough in her recovery to be able to finally be released from Children’s just before Thanksgiving. At that point, the Skinners began the process of adjusting from a “normal” family life to one with a child who, just months earlier, and been just another one-year old to one with that child now having special needs and requiring extra care.

But that didn’t matter to them, or their friends, or the Marshall community. Madie was home. Madie had fought and defied the odds. The Skinners and their host of friends began celebrating every day, because “it was another day with Madie in it,” Kristin said.

At that point, Matt and Kristin also began formulating a plan as to returning Madie – and Molly Michael, for that matter – to a sense of peace and normalcy. They had watched their baby fight, make progress, suffer setbacks, and then fight some more. They had seen her improve through her therapy, and she began to make strides – some small, some large – over the next several months. Her constant progress energized them even more, and Kristin kept going back to what she told the doctors through first traumatic hours and days following the accident…

“Madie is going to be one of those miracle stories everybody will talk about.”

Months passed, and the Skinners fell into a routine of family – including countless hours with Madie at the doctor’s office for checkups and endless sessions of various therapy.

Summer was fast approaching.

A Dip In the Water
As the oldest child of Matt and Kristin Skinner, Molly Michael has never been afraid of the water. Her parents note that she began swimming at an early age and that she has developed such a love for it that she competes regularly as a young fourth grader.

One of their questions during the recovery process with Madie was, how would the accident affect Molly Michael in regards to swimming?

Maddie back in the pool with swim teacher Charisma Rosenquist.
“We just decided to let her decide on her own,” Matt said. “If she wanted to ask questions, we would answer them. But we wanted to do everything we could to encourage her and show her that she didn’t have to be afraid of the water, that what happened to her baby sister was an unfortunate accident.”

So the Skinners were determined to return to the pool. Molly Michael kept on swimming and loving it, and Matt and Kristin admit that it was almost like a healing experience. Surprisingly, they had no reservations about swimming or swimming pools or enjoying typical, everyday summer activities.

But what about Madie…?

“We did not see any hesitation or fear from Madie around a swimming pool or water,” Kristin said. “We followed her lead. Our goal as her parents is to let her know that she is capable of doing anything she wants to do, and that includes getting in the water. If she wanted to get in the swimming pool, we were going to do everything we could to make sure she had no fears.”

So the summer of 2011 – less than a year after she was retrieved, unconscious, from a swimming pool and literally having her life hanging in the balance – two-year-old Madie Skinner began taking swimming lessons.

And now, five years later, she continues taking lessons. Her teacher the last few years has been Charisma Rosenquist, of Charisma’s Safe Splash Swim School. Matt and Kristin rave about her ability to connect with Madie both in the pool and out.

Madie and Charisma having more fun at swimming lessons.
“Madie would swim every day if she could,” Kristin said. “She loves to just dip her face in the water and sometimes drinks too much of it, of course, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to try new things in the pool. She is just a determined kid who doesn’t believe there is anything she can’t do.

“Of course, an adult is always in the pool with her and she uses devices and other things to help her, but she is swimming. That’s one thing we have learned from all of this and stress to other parents, it literally only takes a second for you to turn your back for accidents to happen. We are not afraid of anything, and Madie isn’t afraid of anything around a pool, but we also understand that as parents we have to always watch and be aware. I think most parents understand that but sometimes we forget. It only takes a second if you are not careful,” she added.

Matt remembers the looks he got when people realized that his nearly-drowned daughter was back in the water.

“Some people thought we were crazy, some people probably said things that really don’t matter,” he said. “She is our daughter, and we make decisions based on what is best for her. Madie wanted to swim, so we let her swim. We take her to all kinds of therapy and MISD has been great for her at school, we love MISD. If she wasn’t showing improvement, then we may have not made some of the decisions. But she improves. She’s constantly getting better. So we keep going to therapy. And, she’s improving as a swimmer. Every year she does something in the pool that just blows us away.”

Today, Madie requires some help standing and will usually be seen in a wheelchair at school. She does not communicate verbally but can hear and understand every word that is spoken to her. She has also begun learning sign language, and she can certainly communicate with a big, wide, wonderful smile.

Her parents continue to encourage her and her sister to smile as much as they can. Even around the swimming pool, which is still a subject that Matt and Kristin have to sometimes tip-toe around quietly but in a very positive way.

“She doesn’t miss a word, so if we don’t want to get her too excited, we have to now spell the word S-W-I-M,” Matt said. “Otherwise, she’ll have us going to the pool all day every day.”

That's a price the Skinners are happy to pay for enjoying another day with Madie.

-- Story by David Weaver/MISD Public Relations