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By RISD Superintendent, Dr. Jeannie Stone

Voting is a bedrock of our democracy.

In the Richardson Independent School District, we are working hard to create a culture of voting. We pride ourselves on educating the whole child and graduating students who are complete citizens.

Elise Curry is an assistant principal at Richardson High School. For more than a decade, she has held three voter registration drives for students annually. In conjunction with National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25, she was in the hall during lunch handing out registration forms and encouraging all students to get involved in the democratic process. We are always telling our students to make their voices heard, and there’s no better way to do that than by voting. If you are not happy with the way things are, the only way to be a part of the conversation is to vote.

We had a voter registration booth at our college fair at Berkner High School in September, and we also help new teachers and new parents change addresses to stay current and ensure they are eligible to vote in all local elections, extending our culture of voting to all community members.

When he was principal at Berkner, Henry Hall used to congratulate every new 18-year-old student with a cupcake and voter registration form, welcoming them to adulthood.

Hall, who is now RISD Executive Director of Instructional Technology, would have lunch with the students and further explain the importance of voting. We know that the earlier in life that you cast your first vote, the more likely you are to become a lifelong voter.

In RISD, we connect our students to the entire voting process by embedding this education into our curriculum for the government class that all Texas high school seniors are required to take.

For 20 years, Casey Boland has taught AP US History at Lake Highlands High School. She has often taken students into the polling station. The students get the practical hands-on experience that enhances the theoretical concepts they’ve learned in class.

This is what we strive for in RISD. We educate our students to be active citizens for life. We teach them to remain connected to their communities. We teach them to remain connected to the democratic process not just through lectures in government classes, but through civic engagement activities in the community.

RISD has a particular connection to this election cycle because we placed a tax ratification question before our stakeholders. Several North Texas school districts have a TRE on this ballot, as administrators continue to grapple with the state’s complex school funding formula and the needs of a growing populace.

Our decision to put a referendum on the November ballot came from a recommendation by a team of 300 RISD community members who met six times last year to draft a five-year strategic plan. This plan includes additional expenses. These expenses need funding. We’re asking our stakeholders to approve that funding through an increase in the tax rate.

We have held six community information sessions since the beginning of the school year that have been well attended. RISD stakeholders are interested and engaged. They know how important each vote is. There is both strong and coordinated opposition to the TRE, and a concerted effort to support ratification of the TRE.

This is exactly what Casey Boland teaches her AP History students. Every day she navigates discussions that expose them to various opinions, various positions and various ideas on every issue on the ballot from the race for Texas senator to the bottom of the ballot school district referendums.

We encourage our students, staff and stakeholders to vote. We do not tell them for whom to vote. That’s up to them. All we can do is connect eligible voters to the process.

Go vote. Stay connected.

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Understanding Differences is a disability awareness program established by the RISD Council of PTAs to help students empathize with their peers through simulations.

The first program of this school year was held at North Junior High School in October for 5th graders from Canyon Creek, Greenwood Hills, Mohawk, Northrich and Prairie Creek. The program includes stations designed with input from district therapists that simulate what it’s like to live with a disability.

“Richardson ISD is committed to providing meaningful experiences to all our students to help support them socially, emotionally and academically,” Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum says. “Understanding Differences is an opportunity for our students to experience what it might feel like to spend a day as a student with autism … maybe as a student who is experiencing hearing difficulties or eyesight difficulties … a student with dyslexia. It creates an opportunity for our students to be immersed in the experience and to relate … to develop empathy and most importantly to understand how they as a friend, how they as a peer can support those students who might be differently-abled than they are.”

Brian Spann is living with muscular dystrophy. He spoke in October to the RISD 5th graders about how he is an eagle scout, how he was a member of his high school band and how MD doesn’t prevent him from doing anything he wants to do.

“Living with a disability doesn’t affect your desire to do great things,” Spann told the students at North. “A big thing we are trying to teach [students] is to stand up and protect. And also just be kind to other people that have differences by understanding that they are made differently, but we can help them achieve great things.”

The RISD Council of PTAs plans to have all campuses experience this program on a two-year rotation. Over the past few years, Hollis Owens coordinated the program for the Council’s Special and Gifted Education arm.

As SAGE chair, Owens created a volunteer committee to help man and operate stations, while she worked with RISD therapists and staff to review and update each station. She added a writing disability station and improved equipment. Owens also worked to include adults with disabilities as volunteers in the program during her stint as chair that ended in 2017.

Beth Sheehan and Debbie Bono are current Understanding Differences coordinators, and they’ve picked up where Owens left off. They met with RISD Director of special student services, Dr. Cindy Lawrence, and Deputy Superintendent Branum to create a plan in which all fifth graders would travel to junior high campuses to experience the hands-on program.

In November, 5th graders from Aikin, Forest Lane, Merriman Park, Moss Haven, Skyview and Stults Road will attend the program at Forest Meadow Junior High. 

Then, in January students from Audelia Creek, Forestridge, Harben, O. Henry and Springridge will go to Liberty. And in February, the fifth grades at Big Springs, Dartmouth, Mark Twain, Terrace, Richland, Yale and MST will bus over to Apollo Junior High to participate in Understanding Differences.

Current SAGE Chairwoman Emily Villamar-Robbins says “feedback has been extremely positive, and numerous teachers and parents have contacted us to share how meaningful the program has been for their children.”

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RISD Trustee Kristin Kuhne will participate in a yearlong education leadership program through the Texas Association of School Boards.

Upon completion of the program, Dr. Kuhne, an RISD graduate and current Board vice president, will earn Master Trustee status from the statewide nonprofit.

TASB selected 34 other school board members from across Texas to be a part of its 2019 leadership class.

Dr. Kuhne is excited to connect with other trustees and learn about best practices happening across the state. She plans to attend four more leadership sessions through June. Each session has a unique theme that builds on the previous session and features nationally recognized experts in the fields of leadership development and education, according to TASB, which started its Leadership program in 1993.

“Each site visit was selected to address a specific issue the trustees in the cohort identified as a challenge in public education today?—?poverty, equity and literacy to name a few. I hope the knowledge I gain from this experience will help me to do more to help all our students reach their fullest potential,” Dr. Kuhne said.

The group meet recently in Dallas and heard from Peter DeLisle, a leadership trainer, who focused on characteristics of effective leadership and team building. The TASB conference attendees also heard motivational speaker and author Debra Fine discuss “The Fine Art of Small Talk.”