Rural, impoverished students see themselves in their principal

November 7, 2016 |

They say everything’s bigger in Texas.

Well … not everything.

Around 55 percent of the 1,200+ public school districts in Texas have fewer than 1,000 students.

One such district you’ll find in the quiet little border town of Presidio, Texas where quaint adobe houses and weathered trailer homes dot the rocky landscape.

On a clear day, residents probably feel like they can see forever.

They can definitely see Mexico.

Lucy Rede Franco Middle School in Presidio ISD is school to about 300 students. It sits on a hill facing picturesque mountains set against a great big Texas sky. The beauty of the geographical landscape belies the challenging resource landscape facing one of the poorest school districts in the state.

But, “Poverty is not a hindrance to success,” says principal Edgar Tibayan.

Tibayan – Dr T. as the students affectionately call him – has led the middle school in this small, impoverished, rural community for nearly 10 years. Originally from the Philippines, Tibayan’s plan was to teach in Presidio for a couple of years, then move on to another district.

Ten years later, and he’s still “giving it one more year” despite the fact that nothing about leading a school in Presidio is easy.

“We are very isolated,” Tibayan says, “and it’s tough. We need a lot. But the kids … I do this and I stay here because I love these kids.”

Principal Tibayan could probably easily relocate to a district in a city with a bigger budget and more resources. This year, the National Association of Secondary School Principals honored him in Washington, D.C. as the 2016 State Middle School Principal of the Year. And this past summer, Raise Your Hand Texas selected Tibayan for the prestigious Harvard Leadership Program — an all-expenses-paid, week-long professional development course at the Principals’ Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Having survived a childhood of severe poverty himself, Tibayan has accomplished greatness. But he doesn’t brag on it.

“I am no different than any other principal,” he says. “I’m doing ordinary things.”

Every day in both school lunch periods, you’ll find Tibayan mingling with the students, joking, laughing, giving high fives, counseling, you name it. And during recess after lunch, he’s outside under the bright sun with the Chinati mountains and Big Bend hills visible in the distance serving volleyballs across a tattered net or playing “Knockout” with a throng of young boys on the concrete basketball court.

“It’s my turn, my turn,” he shouts, and the children will respectfully throw him the ball even though they all know he’s cutting in line.

“Dr. T. is just very cool,” they say.

“He’s the best principal I’ve ever had,” says a student.

“He’s just like one of us,” says another.

Half of the students at Franco Middle School take English as a Second Language classes and have parents or guardians who speak Spanish at home, so Tibayan has had to learn their language. He speaks it fluently when he makes home visits.

“Gracias por las quesadillas,” he says to a parent, thanking her for the simple but popular Mexican dish prepared with fresh tortillas and goat cheese. The parent beams and encourages him to eat more. “They don’t have much,” Tibayan says, “but they’re always willing to share their food.”

Tibayan says it can get lonely in a place as desolate as Presidio. His fear is that because Presidio ISD is about as far away from the seat of Texas government as one can get, his school and his students will be forgotten.

“Being a bigger public school district in Texas sometimes means you’re able to speak the loudest,” he says. “We are not big. We need so much.”

From the looks of it, though, Tibayan isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He’s already talking about applying for the Raise Your Hand Harvard Leadership Program again, only this time, he wants to take a team of employees with him and learn more about how to more effectively collaborate with parents to help boost student achievement.

If you are a seated principal in a public school in Texas, consider applying for our competitive Harvard Leadership Program. Individual principals or school teams may apply. Applications are open until December 12, 2016.

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