Gary Henry, Principal
Valley Oaks Elementary School
Spring Branch ISD
Raise Your Hand Alumnus ’13 (REEP)
This is a story about a playground – a playground that came to be when a principal engaged key stakeholders in the construction of his new elementary school in Houston. While the school district, community, and parents all collaborated to rebuild Valley Oaks Elementary, one special group of stakeholders – fifth grade students – helped shape the overall vision, from blueprint to build out.
Valley Oaks Elementary was selected to be the 12th school rebuilt as part of the $597.1 million bond program approved by Spring Branch voters in 2007. Demolition began right after school let out in May of 2013. For the next year and a half, Valley Oaks students, teachers, and staff relocated to a transition school known to Houstonians as the former Edgewood Elementary.
Principal Gary Henry, a thoughtful, humble leader, guided the campus and surrounding community through this time of change and growth. He wanted to engage all stakeholder groups in decision-making and recognized there are many groups critical to the success of a school. As the campus leader, he sought buy-in from each of these different groups.
“It is very scary to empower people at the campus level in fear they will make a mistake or create more problems,” Henry reflects. “I have found if you surround yourself with extremely competent staff members, empowering them to make major decisions is not only a great experience, it makes your environment thrive. When people feel they have a voice AND have the power to improve systems within the school, they feel valued and respected as professionals.”
The tools and training Henry received as a member of the 2012-2013 cohort of the Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), through sponsorship by Raise Your Hand Texas, aided him with his charge.
The REEP program teaches principals how to apply business ideas – financial management, entrepreneurial leadership, situation analysis, lateral expansion, etc. – to a public school setting.
“As school leaders, I do not believe we realize the impact we have on our community nor do we realize how similar our jobs are to CEOs of major businesses and/or corporations,” Henry reflects.
Henry’s REEP training and the campus rebuild were perfectly timed with one another. He had a chance to reconstruct the physical school building and the campus and community culture, applying business theories gleaned at REEP. The marketing aspect of the REEP program particularly struck a chord with Henry.
“The REEP program helped me with the correct perspective regarding marketing and its importance,” he said. “Marketing is simply communicating, informing, and being that positive figure for the campus. It means getting out in front. It means a lot of communication with families and with the community. Doing things a little bit differently than other schools might do. Every school is different. Every school has its own identity and culture. Everything you would do to market and promote a business you should do for your school.”
Everyone in education says they put students’ interests first. But not everyone asks students what they think, what they need, and what they want. Principal Henry did just that when he involved students – his customers – in a key part of the school construction process – designing the playground. Check out the video and read the rest of the story.
One stakeholder group that is key to schools, and yet often is overlooked, is students. Henry ensured students weren’t overlooked in the new construction planning process. He selected a committee of 5th graders to design the new school’s playground. While a playground may sound like a small thing, to students it’s a big deal.
These students created a list of playground essentials and desirables. They selected the color scheme, and the types of climbing, swinging, and sliding surfaces.
Two representatives of this committee, Audrey and Caroline, shared proudly about their role.
“We helped Mr. Henry get an idea of what the kids were looking for,” Caroline explained.
By giving the student body voice and ownership during the design phase, Principal Henry ensured students became invested stewards of the new school.
From Audrey and Caroline’s accounts, it worked.
“It was cool because it felt like you could be a part of your new school.” Caroline said with a smile.
Audrey spoke about feeling empowered, “When you look back on the school you can tell the kids after you that you helped design the school.”
Principal Henry’s efforts paid off in a big way. When the new Valley Oaks opened, students were ecstatic.
The campus is modern and spacious by design. Big windows let in a flood of natural light. Each wing of the campus features open collaboration space, showcasing a bright, informative mural relating to the TEKS of that grade level. The topics range from Texas history to Texas marine life to Texas energy sources. Smartboards are integrated into every classroom. Hallways are decorated in encouraging commands: “Be Happy!” “Be Courageous.” “Serve Others.” “Show Kindness.” These all lead to a centerpiece that reads, “Valley Oaks will always be the place that I remember.”
And the playground …
The playground is enormous, colorful, and everything an elementary school student could want.
“I think our screams were pretty self-explanatory for all of the adults,”Audrey said on seeing the playground for the first time. “We were just like, oh my gosh this is so awesome!”
“That pretty much sums it up.” Caroline agreed with a laugh.