TEACH Talks with Mayor Sylvester Turner, Part 2

Jan 6, 2022

Welcome to TEACH Talks, Featuring Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

Welcome to TEACH Talks, a series featuring one-on-one interviews with some of Texas’s most influential leaders—many of whom are shaping the future of education for hundreds of thousands of children attending Houston’s public schools.

In partnership with the Houston and Aldine Independent School Districts, TEACH supports educators through proven coaching and training programs to create productive, engaging classroom environments for thousands of children each year.

In this episode, we are pleased to be joined by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for the second in a two-part conversation between Mayor Turner and TEACH Executive Director Alvin Abraham. Watch as Mayor Turner highlights the many ways the Mayor’s Office supports public education, shares his hopes for Houston’s children and even gives us a hint about his career plans as his second mayoral term comes to a close.

You may also read the full transcript of the interview below. Our series will be distributed on ToEducateAllChildren.org, via social media channels, and to our email subscribers. If you are not already a subscriber, join today so you don’t miss a new episode.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner

Elected in December 2015 and overwhelmingly reelected in December 2019, Sylvester Turner is serving his second four-year term as Houston’s 62nd mayor. Since taking office, Mayor Turner has expertly managed significant challenges facing the nation’s fourth-largest city, including budget deficits, homelessness and natural disasters, and is currently leading Houston’s response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

As an advocate of education and a champion of young people, Mayor Turner created the Hire Houston Youth program to provide jobs and internship opportunities for thousands of young people each year. Additionally, his signature priorities include Complete Communities, an initiative designed to revitalize and improve Houston’s most under-served neighborhoods by partnering with local stakeholders to leverage resources to create a more equitable and prosperous city for all Houstonians. He also forged public-private partnerships to improve neighborhood parks and expand Houston’s technology and innovation footprint.

As a life-long resident of Houston, Mayor Turner is passionate about his city and continues to live in the Acres Homes community where he grew up. He is a graduate of the University of Houston and earned a law degree from Harvard University. He began his law practice at Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. and later founded Barnes & Turner Law Firm.

Read Mayor Turner’s full bio here.

Interview Transcript

Alvin Abraham: Hello. My name is Alvin Abraham, executive director of To Educate All Children, but you may know us around the Houston community as TEACH. Thank you for joining us for our continued video series, TEACH Talks, which features one-on-one interviews with some of Houston’s most influential leaders, many of whom are shaping the future of education for our community’s approximately 209,000 children attending our public schools.

TEACH is a Houston-based nonprofit, and we believe every child deserves a great teacher. Through our partnerships with the Houston and Aldine Independent School districts, TEACH supports educators with intensive coaching and nonverbal classroom management skills to build productive and engaging learning experiences for children. Our school partners see a decrease in discipline referrals, an increase in instructional time in the classroom, and overall, an increase in reading and math scores through TEACH’s proven programs.

Today, we are pleased to have Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner return to TEACH Talks for Part 2 of a truly engaging conversation. The fact is, when we sat down to edit this interview with the mayor, we found his answers to our questions were so insightful, deeply intentioned and often inspirational, we couldn’t leave any footage on the cutting room floor. Therefore, we wanted to share this interview in its entirety by creating two episodes. If you happened to miss Part 1, please check our website at ToEducateAllChildren.org.

Mayor Turner has been in office since 2016 and is currently serving his second term. He served 27 years as the Representative for Texas House District 139, worked on the House Appropriations Committee for 21 years and served as Speaker Pro Tem for three terms. That’s quite an accomplished public service career, but it’s important to note that Mayor Turner’s political path was founded at school.

He served as senior class president and valedictorian at Klein High School and speaker of the student senate at the University of Houston, from which he graduated magna cum laude with a BA degree in political science. Following, he obtained a law degree from Harvard University. One of nine children, the lifelong Houstonian and our 62nd mayor was raised in the Acres Homes community by parents who knew hard work. His mother was a maid at the Rice Hotel and his father, a commercial painter.

In our second sit-down with Mayor Turner, he will share his aspirations for Houston’s children after a challenging few years, how the Mayor’s Office advocates for public education and a few fun facts about himself. We’re so excited about this video. We hope you enjoy it.

AA: You have been an incredible champion for public education, and for that TEACH thanks you greatly.

Mayor Sylvester Turner: Thank you.

AA: Can you please give us three of your accomplishments for public education of which you are most proud?

Mayor Turner: I will tell you during my entire stay in the Texas Legislature, serving on the Appropriations Committee for 21 years, advocating, fighting for significant funding for public education. I value that a great deal, because there were some challenging times during the legislative process, but fighting to make sure kids received what they needed, teachers received what they needed. Communities in Schools, for example, is one of those key programs that I’ve always championed. So that’s one, the work during the legislative process.

In terms of whether it’s on the elementary, secondary or higher ed, I taught law school for 17 years at Thurgood Marshall, Texas Southern. That’s when I was an attorney at Fulbright and Jaworski. They asked me to commit for two years just to go and offer my time teaching at Thurgood Marshall. I loved it so much, I stayed for another 15 years, while I continued to be a partner and continued to serve in the legislature. So that I value quite a bit. So when you say TEACH, look, I’m all on that program.

The third as mayor, there was no Mayor’s Office of Education before I came in. I created the Mayor’s Office of Education. I’m glad that I did, because you can’t have a successful city without having good quality schools. In fact, you can’t have a successful city going in one direction and your school systems going in another. But when both are aligned and moving in the right direction, then you can have a very productive, successful city with a bright future. So the Mayor’s Office of Education was my way of saying that we have to find a way for the city of Houston and our school districts to be working together and not separate and apart as if we are on two different tracks.

AA: Can you explain to us even more deeply the relationship between the Mayor’s Office and the Houston Independent School District?

Mayor Sylvester Turner: A very close one. You know, the Houston Independent School District bears the city’s name. We have 17 independent school districts that cover the city of Houston. The city of Houston is 640 square miles. But the Houston Independent School District bears the city’s name. So there is a special affinity towards HISD. But I would say we’ve worked very closely on a periodic basis. For example, I meet with all of the 17 school districts. And I invite them to city hall and discuss how the city can partner with them. And I constantly say to people and say to them, you know, I’m not a superintendent. I’m not trying to be the superintendent, but we can partner, okay? There are certain things that we can make sure to do. And so working with the superintendents very closely, I probably speak at countless schools.

AA: Love that.

Mayor Turner: Countless, and not just at the big graduations, you know. And I’m talking about from pre-K, kindergarten, reading, you know. I thoroughly enjoy showing up to career days… and then during Harvey, for example. Thousands of kids were impacted, families lost almost everything. We worked with some of the nonprofits, one in particular outside of the state of Texas, in which we handed out five-thousand $1,000 gift cards. To those kids and their families.

AA: Wow.

Mayor Turner: We’ve been working, for example, with Baylor College of Medicine, being successful in getting a grant that dealt with students’ mental and behavioral health. Very, very proud of the Mayor’s Office of Education, working with Baylor, making that happen. My Brother’s Keeper’s program, which is with the city of Houston, is now in several of the schools, and we’re looking to expand that. That was the program that was started under Barack Obama’s administration. But the My Brother’s Keepers program with the city of Houston is one of the best in the country now. And we are partnering directly, for example, with HISD. And then we worked with UNICEF, in some cases with HISD. So having that direct involvement… with HISD works well for the school, but it also works well for the city. And then, just another example, I periodically will go and have lunch.

AA: I love that.

Mayor Turner: I’ve gone and had lunch with the kids, with the students at Booker T. Washington High School, and talked with them. And I said, no, no, no administrators, no faculty, just the students and me. And let me tell you, students are very candid and they tell you exactly what’s on their minds. And those conversations have been very, very helpful, and then from that some other initiatives have spring forth from those types of meetings.

AA: Wonderful, thank you. During this unprecedented past year with the COVID-19 pandemic and the tragic big freeze in February, how do you believe this last year will shape education in the future and the Houston community?

Mayor Turner: It depends on how we handle it, okay? The winter storm, the big freeze in February, the pandemic over the last 14 months, you’re talking about some challenges. Let me answer it this way. If we handle those situations poorly, we will lose a generation of kids. Because during this time you’ve had a number of kids, for example, that are learning remotely. And that’s hard, okay, that’s hard. It’s especially hard when you have thousands of kids that started off initially without the devices or the Wi-Fi connection. If you don’t have the tools to work with when you’re learning remotely, then how can you learn? Then you combine that because there are some parents, for example, who are not computer literate. So it was difficult for them to assist their children.

And that resonates very strongly with me. Because way before the pandemic or the winter storm, when I grew up and I had homework and I went home, my parents couldn’t assist me, you know? And my mom would say that, “Son, I wish I could, but you’re gonna have to get it the very best you can.” So there were many students who went home remotely, but their parents were not in a position to assist them. Not because they didn’t want to, they just didn’t know how, so when you’re learning remotely, no in-person classes, that’s tough.

And then you’ve had hundreds if not thousands of kids who have just fallen between the cracks. And so even when the doors are now open, many of those school kids are still away. So you gotta go and find them and bring them back into your school system. If we handle the situation poorly, we’re gonna lose a generation. If we work together and partner in a real way, and we learn from the glaring inequities that the virus and the winter storm presented, if we learn from that—and what I mean by that, we’d have to have connectivity in all of our schools, kids have to have the necessary devices. And then we also have to do a better job putting parents in a better position to assist. And if we provide all of the necessary wraparound services based on what we have learned, I believe we can come out of this even better.

Resilience is not just about your infrastructure, and building in resilience is not about city facilities. Resilience has to also occur in our school system, in our educational system. If we create an educational ecosystem that’s resilient and recognizes that from time to time you’re gonna have these shocks and stresses, then we will be in a much better position down the road. But we have to make sure that we are directing our resources in many of these communities that have been underserved and under-resourced for decades, because otherwise we’re going to miss.

So my hope is irrespective of what has occurred over the last 14 months, my hope is that we now see the deficiencies with our system, the inequities in our system, and now we are laser focused and doing everything we can to address those inequities and building in resilience within our educational ecosystem. If we do that, then we will come out even better.

AA: So your second mayoral term is soon coming to a close.

Mayor Turner: Ah man.

AA: What is next for Mayor Turner?

Mayor Turner: Ah, you know, I’ve learned that you never say never. I said a couple of years ago that running and winning this for the second term, that I wasn’t gonna run again for anything. I don’t know. I love what I do. I love this city. So I’ve learned that you just take it one day at a time, one day at a time, and tomorrow will take care of itself.

AA: So Mayor Turner, we’re gonna ask you to share quick responses, one word answers to a handful of things.

Mayor Turner: All right, what you got?

AA: Got some fun facts about Mayor Turner.

Mayor Turner: All right, man.

AA: What is your favorite color?

Mayor Turner: Blue.

AA: Favorite book?

Mayor Turner: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

AA: Great book. Favorite movie genre?

Mayor Turner: Oh, would “The 10 Commandments” fall in there?

AA: Favorite movie? I love that movie, absolutely. What is your favorite sport to watch?

Mayor Turner: Basketball.

AA: Okay, and your favorite dessert?

Mayor Turner: Lemon pie.

AA: Lemon pie, wonderful. Mayor Turner, we’re so grateful for your time today.

Mayor Turner: Thanks, Alvin, and it’s good to be with you.

AA: Thank you.

Mayor Turner: And let me thank TEACH because TEACH has done some incredible work, continues to do some incredible work. And then when you see Susan Sarofim, you tell her I said “Hello.”

AA: I will do that, absolutely. Thank you very much. Good to see you.

AA: Thank you for joining us today for TEACH Talks. I hope our time with Mayor Sylvester Turner allows you to know him in a slightly different, more personal way. We have all witnessed Mayor Turner at the helm of Houston as he has and continues to strategically guide us through some very challenging times. However, as I found in our talk, he undeniably leads with both mind and heart and he, like TEACH, passionately believes in the power of education.

To be sure, Mayor Turner serves as an inspirational role model through his own educational journey, his advocacy for Houston’s children so that they are given the opportunities to find their own paths to success through learning, has been tireless and doggedly determined. Although his second and final term as mayor is coming to a close, his legacy, particularly in Houston schools, will be evident for years to come.

Thank you again for tuning in to TEACH Talks with Mayor Turner. Please be sure to share this video through your social channels. And we look forward to seeing you soon for our next episode of TEACH Talks, featuring Dr. Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston. Thank you for supporting public education.


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