Introducing TEACH Talks: Q & A with Dr. Grenita Lathan
A Note from Co-Founder Susan Sarofim
Hello, I’m Susan Sarofim, a co-founder of TEACH, and I’d like to introduce you to TEACH Talks, our new interview-style series featuring leaders in education.
To Educate All Children, better known as TEACH, is a Houston-based, independent 501(c)(3) organization founded in 2005 and serving the Houston Independent School District. Our mission is to create safe, calm classroom environments by providing intensive training and coaching to teachers and administrators.
We actually are not public-school educators. We are, however, a nonprofit that supports the education sector through our innovative programs, which have proven results in conflict de-escalation and resolution. These programs provide countless benefits such as dramatically decreasing disciplinary referrals, improving student achievement, and increasing graduation rates for Houston’s children, many of whom live daily in crisis.
TEACH’s strong and successful partnership with Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the country, has given us the opportunity to better understand and truly appreciate education from the administrative side. HISD operates 280 schools with nearly 210,000 students, 75 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged.
So we’ve developed TEACH Talks – interviews that let us share quick Q&As with individuals who operate our award-winning school district. Who doesn’t like a peek behind the curtain? I know I do!
Anyway, it’s about taking a look at education not just from the angle of what a student learns, but rather from how the school district runs and its impact on our community. There are many interesting, talented and dedicated people involved in HISD’s often unrecognized success.
We will also be speaking with individuals and entities throughout the state who shape education. Quite simply, through TEACH Talks, we want to shine a light on some of our Texas education heroes for you.
Our series will be distributed on toeducateallchildren.org, via social media channels, and to our email subscribers. And if you are not already a subscriber, join today so you don’t miss a new episode.
Thank you from all of us at TEACH for your interest in education. We hope you enjoy TEACH Talks.
Dr. Grenita Lathan
Interim Superintendent, Houston Independent School District
TEACH is honored to kick off TEACH Talks, a unique Q&A series featuring leaders in Texas education, with Dr. Grenita Lathan, interim superintendent of the Houston Independent School District.
Dr. Lathan – who holds a bachelor’s degree in business education from North Carolina A&T State University, a master’s in business education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and a doctorate degree in business education from Southern Illinois University – embarked on her impressive educational career as a teacher in Eden, N.C. in 1991.
She quickly moved up the educational ladder in several leadership positions, including assistant principal, principal, and chief elementary school improvement officer of the San Diego Unified School District, and became interim deputy superintendent in the same district in 2009.
In 2010 she took on the position of superintendent of Peoria Public Schools in Illinois. Five years later, she relocated to Texas to assume the role of HISD’s chief school officer over elementary transformation schools. During this time, her many accomplishments included elevating 20 schools from an improvement-required state rating to a met-standard rating.
Dr. Lathan was promoted to HISD’s chief academic officer in 2016, before taking the role of interim superintendent for HISD in March 2018 as the first African American woman to serve in this role since the district was established in 1924.
During her 29-year career, Lathan has become recognized for her tireless work to create educational equality for children. However, her other great aspiration is championing women in education through mentorship and coaching focused on personal and professional growth. She truly lives by her mantra, “If I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain.”
After you read Dr. Lathan’s TEACH Talk, we feel sure you will agree that she is a gifted, passionate educator who leads with her heart and always for the betterment of our Houston community’s children.
Q&A with Dr. Grenita Lathan
SS: Hello, Dr. Lathan, and thank you for joining us for TEACH Talks today. Let’s begin with your background.
Susan Sarofim: When and how did your deep passion for education begin?
Dr. Grenita Lathan: Oh, from the very beginning. It would speak through my interactions with not only my Sunday school teachers, but through my teachers in our local schools, and I always wanted to be like them. I wanted to be a teacher or a social worker. And I have been blessed to be able to do both in work roles.
SS: You’ve been in the interim superintendent role since 2018. What has surprised you the most since you took that position?
GL: What surprised me most is still the opinion some people have of our school district, because we have a wealth of opportunities for students at HISD. You know, there are students graduating with an associate degree before they graduate high school. There are a number of students who are able to pursue certain career and technical opportunities and graduate with a level 1 and level 2 certificate. And like I said, I think the public perception has been the most surprising. People don’t realize that HISD provides a quality education to all children.
But it also keeps me up at night because of the challenges we have ensuring that we have equitable resources across the entire district to make sure every child of every school has what he or she needs to be successful in life.
SS: What are three achievements during your tenure as Interim Superintendent you believe will make the most significant long-term impact on the district?
GL: Most definitely, one of the three things that come to mind for me is our Achieve 180 program. It is a program where we focus and provide additional resources to some of our lowest performing campuses in the district. I am proud of being able to move the number of schools that were F-rated out of that status, in particular Kashmere High School, and improving the rating of the other lower-rated schools. I think about Blackshear Elementary that has now been out of what we used to call “improvement required” for two years now. This would have been a third year had we not encountered COVID-19.
And then I think about the expansion of pre-k and the fine arts in the district. I am very excited that in this school year, every elementary school in our district had a certified fine arts teacher for the first time, I think, in almost 20 years.
And then, finally, meeting the academic needs of our students through our Wraparound Services, our various mentoring programs and our ROSES Program for young ladies. We also have our Miles Ahead scholars’ programs that are targeting students at Worthing, Wheatley and Kashmere High Schools.
SS: Can you share with us your dream for the future of HISD?
GL: That for every child who graduates from an HISD high school, they are able to pursue either the career of their choice or attend the college of their choice with the finances they need. That they are able to pursue their life’s dreams. My dream was to become a teacher and then move into administration. I’m living my dream. Every child in our district should be able to live their dream, not only the dream they have for themselves, but that their families have for them.
SS: We are in unusual circumstances right now with COVID-19 affecting individuals, schools, businesses and organizations, in many different ways, around the world. And HISD, of course, is no exception. Tell me a bit about how things have been going for HISD and for you, and how are you keeping the district’s morale up?
GL: So, you know I want to start by saying thank you to all of our members of Team HISD. Our staff, they just embraced this challenge which I know sounds strange, but they embraced it. People have stepped up; they are doing more than what they are asked to do. We have been able to launch HISD at Home, which is an online learning platform. Our teachers and principals have done amazing and creative things as it relates to really engaging students virtually. It’s been an easy transition.
I think the heartache is still trying to reach the students that do not have access to technology, so we have tried to deploy laptops and hotspots, but we have not been able to reach 100 percent of our students. So that’s the hard part of this process. We are providing paper-based instructions and the students can pick up paper packets, but we all know we want students to have the same access to all of our available resources. We are going to keep trying to reach as many children as possible as it relates to the technology piece.
Our parents have also been phenomenal. Our students have been creative, and that’s what we like during a time like this, but we are still worried about our students’ social and emotional health. We are providing webinars for our parents that are not only live webinars but are also recorded so the parents can go back, replay and listen to the webinar at another time. Our Wraparound specialists are still engaging with our students virtually. And our various mentoring programs are still connected to students.
I am also really excited about our food distribution program in collaboration with the Houston Food Bank. We have always had some form of market program with the Houston Food Bank at some of our campuses, but this district-wide distribution of 2,500 bags of food per day across the city at five different locations has been very powerful.
For four Saturdays, we had a massive food distribution at NRG Stadium. I want to thank the Texans for giving up their stadium so we could to do that. We gave out 4,000 bags of food to families. It has been a major undertaking but has been one of the spotlights of this COVID-19 crisis for us at the district. We are feeding families. People have been coming out of the woodwork wanting to help us and provide support. We are very thankful that we are able to reach students and their families.
SS: Hopefully, students will return to school this fall. What are some challenges for which HISD is preparing?
GL: We are preparing for a possible virtual school, and we are preparing, of course, for a face to face school year. If we cannot have school in person, we will continue working with HISD at Home as it relates to engaging students and providing the resources that our teachers need to reach our students. We are also preparing what we call an “instructional continuity guide” so that we are okay in the event, let’s say, that we do start school and then we need to shut down again. We will be more prepared because we will have a guide for principals, teachers and parents. They will know what to expect. We have been pushing that information out, of course, over the past several weeks, but it would be great to have that for the grading process and the attendance process. Everything that parents need to know up front we are preparing now.
SS: TEACH has been working with HISD since 2005; therefore, I need to ask you, somewhat shamelessly, about our partnership. Since you have been the Interim Superintendent, can you briefly tell us about the impact TEACH is making on the 25 schools currently implementing our programs?
GL: Most definitely. We can go back to when I came in as Chief in 2015. TEACH provided training to the Chiefs, and then currently you are reaching over 1,100 educators in our district, which I believe is around 25 of our campuses. It makes a difference when a teacher has not only the full number of minutes to instructionally teach students but also when they are able to truly engage. Our teachers learn more skills in how to make the necessary adjustments to keep students on track and so, yes, TEACH has made a tremendous difference.
I think about the dinner last November where Wheatley High School was spotlighted. Wheatley has made tremendous progress not only during this school year, but over the past several years. You all have worked at some of our most challenging campuses in this district, and you are always willing to do more. You are always finding ways to reach some of the educators that maybe we haven’t been able to reach, taking them and making them superstars. TEACH gives them the confidence that they need to reach some of their hardest students in our district – students who bring so much emotional baggage to our district and to their schools. You are helping them reach those students, and so we are very thankful. And of course, you know, we are always looking to expand TEACH’s number of schools!
I have always put that plug in, but I also want to talk about what you asked me, what we are doing to prepare. Even if we have to continue instruction virtually, how do we continue to keep TEACH in our HISD at Home model as we move forward? Because this situation is calling for all of us to rethink how we approach education. We will provide virtual instruction not only at the start of school, but we will continue. So, is there another way for TEACH to continue with that partnership?
SS: Creating educational equity is clearly something that is very important to you. What specific programs are you working on now to move toward that goal?
GL: Though I do not necessarily want to specify a program, we are looking at some of our staffing models. We are looking at funding models to make sure that not only are there intervention opportunities for students, but enrichment. Enrichment is a key. Yes, we have to catch up students academically, but we want them to be well-rounded. We want to reach the whole child. And to do that, you have to couple that with various opportunities, not only exploring fine arts, but to even explore extracurricular activities. We have had certified fine art teachers on every elementary campus this past year, which is important.
What other opportunities are we looking at? What does elementary school X offer versus elementary school Y? How can we make sure students, regardless of where they live in the city, receive the same level of service that students are receiving at some of our higher-level performing campuses? That is what we ask ourselves.
SS: That is a deeply worthy goal! Thank you for the time you have spent answering our serious questions. Now, I would like to ask you just a few fun questions.
SS: What is your idea of happiness?
GL: Spending time with my family, of course. That makes me happy, being able to be a part of those moments. It is difficult not only getting together with my immediate family, but getting together with family who live in other places. So, family gatherings make me happy.
And I love being able just to relax. My staff laugh at me because I like old TV shows, or I like murder mysteries. I am a “Murder She Wrote” and “Matlock” fan. I like watching television programs where I can escape and just try to solve crimes and different mysteries.
SS: You have a husband and a daughter?
GL: Yes, I do. I enjoy spending time with them. We are really loving each other right now, but everyone is ready to go to their own work and into their own space.
SS: What is your greatest fear?
GL: Most of my staff know my greatest fear is driving over bridges.
SS: Who are your heroes?
GL: Oh, of course, my mother, my grandmother, one of my former librarians in elementary school, and former teachers who were supportive of me and always told me that, hey, you are going to be someone. I have always laughed because one thing about living in the small community I came from, if you were a teacher or preacher, there was no wrong you could do. Those were the best professions, and I still laugh because some of my family members, the elders, they don’t know what it means to be a superintendent. And so, when they brag on me [at family gatherings] and say, “Oh, she’s in Houston, Texas, teaching,” we just laugh. Oh, I am teaching, but it is just a different type of teaching.
I really appreciate the support and love that I received from educators throughout my life and from my family.
SS: What is one thing that no one knows about you?
GL: Um, let me see. I will tell you I am a big supporter of Girl Scouts. I was a Girl Scout and I earned my badges for selling the most cookies. I was also a member of the 4H Club and I made a mean, mean ranch dip. I think it was in the 3rd or 4th grade.
SS: You previously described yourself as fun, loving and reserved. Would you say your description is still true?
GL: Yes. I am still fun, loving, and I am still reserved. I take time to get to know people because I believe in the fact that everyone should model what they expect. They should also keep their word. When someone says they are going to do something, they should do it. I am still hesitant in many circles to let down my guard and to be as trusting as I would want to be. But, yes, I am still, fun, loving and reserved.
SS: Dr. Lathan, thank you so much for your time today. The entire Houston community is behind you and HISD. Thank you.
GL: Thank you so much for taking the time, Susan.
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2900 Weslayan, Suite 375
Houston, TX, 77027
Copyright © 2021 Knowledge Arts Foundation D/B/A To Educate All Children | Website by ASTOUNDZ