by Mary Ann Lopez
More than 30 school board members attending txEDCON23 TASA | TASB Convention in Dallas took a field trip to Mesquite ISD where they learned about an innovative districtwide program that is having a positive impact not only with students and staff, but on the entire district community as well.
The Mesquite Promise is based on four guiding principles — excelling, belonging, dignity, and making a difference — and 16 habits aligned with those principles. The goal is to create a supportive learning environment that nurtures student development, while removing barriers so they can learn, grow, and be successful.
Trustees took a bus from the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to visit two of the district’s schools, located about 17 miles east of Dallas. Mesquite ISD spans 60 square miles, including Mesquite, Garland, and Balch Springs. It serves more than 38,000 students on its 52 campuses and has about 5,400 employees. Trustees visited Rutherford Elementary School and Vanguard High School, taking student-led tours and enjoying two lunch panels, the first of which included students, followed by teachers, librarians, and district leaders.
In the opening presentation at Rutherford Elementary School, Mesquite ISD Superintendent Ángel Rivera explained that The Mesquite Promise is a set of beliefs and a way of life.
“The promise is about student outcomes,” he said. “It may look differently at different schools, but it’s always about outcomes.”
The Mesquite Promise isn’t something only relegated to teachers or administrators; it is a part of every aspect of the district because, Rivera said, “everyone, regardless of title, has an impact.”
Putting The Mesquite Promise into practice required a mindset shift, he said.
“Young people are not problems to be fixed, but fires to be lit,” Rivera said. “The Mesquite Promise is a lens to view our shared commitment, a framework to identify opportunities and encourage and support positive habits with simple strategies and resources. It’s a promise we make to our students, our community, our parents. And it permeates every decision and interaction.”
How students put the four guiding principles into action will vary, and some actions may seem small, but when each student takes initiative, it can have a larger, lasting impact. For example, the first promise, “You Were Made to Excel,” is tied to four habits: taking initiative, being accountable, setting ambitious goals, and pursuing your passion. For students, that might include picking up trash to keep their campus clean, helping others, studying for a test, or acknowledging when they’ve made a mistake.
In June 2020, Mesquite ISD formed the Leadership and Empowerment Team, which was tasked with finding ways to remove obstacles while encouraging belonging and dignity for all. To make a systemic change, the district launched The Mesquite Promise.
During the field trip, students from Rutherford Elementary School and Vanguard High School made presentations and guided trustees through their individual campuses, showcasing the programs offered to students and explaining how they tie in with The Mesquite Promise.
Winford Adams Jr., vice president of the Spring ISD board, was one of the visiting trustees.
“I wanted to learn more about what Mesquite is doing in regard to The Promise,” Adams said. “It’s a good opportunity to see what is happening on the ground. I’m always looking for innovative programs, whether around the state or the country, to see what we can do at Spring.”
During the lunch panels, held at Vanguard High School, students shared how as a result of The Mesquite Promise, they feel welcomed and encouraged to participate at their schools. Students said they feel they have a voice and that based on the actions of adults in the district, whether they be teachers, staff, administrators, or board members, they know the adults in their lives care about them.
“It’s very important for everyone to feel involved and respected, especially at school where you feel like you’re part of a family,” a high school student shared. “At Poteet High School, we’re reminded of The Mesquite Promise regularly. It’s unique to Mesquite, but it’s impactful. When you leave the school, you remember the values.”
Elaine Hornsby, president of the Mesquite ISD board, was one of the panelists. She said that before The Mesquite Promise existed, the board discussed how they might improve district culture. What resonated was the belief that everyone deserves dignity. That was the starting point for the program.
“It’s been very powerful with the school board,” Hornsby said. “It is in our minds [when we make decisions]. ‘Is there dignity in this? Are we giving dignity to every person?’”
Aziza Basha, a fifth-grade teacher at Cannaday Elementary School who is in her fifth year of teaching at the school, said she incorporates The Mesquite Promise every day.
Before The Mesquite Promise, she found it challenging to connect with some of her students, no matter how much she tried. Incorporating The Mesquite Promise tenets, she was able to create surveys at the start of the year that offered her insights into her students, learning more about their interests. Over the course of the year, she creates activities to reassess their interests and skills, so she can support and encourage them, and find ways to connect, so they know they are made to excel and that they belong, which are two of the four tenets of The Mesquite Promise.
“The Mesquite Promise brilliantly ties in four brilliant principles: excelling, belonging, dignity, and making a difference, in an effort to achieve one goal — promoting a sense of belonging,” Basha said. “With its 16 habits, educators are able to meticulously deliver purposeful lessons, have meaningful conversations, and make lifelong differences!”
Belinda Gonzalez, board secretary at West Oso ISD in Corpus Christi, said she appreciated that trustees were able to see how The Mesquite Promise impacted not just one school, but the entire district as well.
Her fellow trustee, Rose Soto, agreed, saying that she thought a program like The Mesquite Promise would be a great benefit for their district and its students.
Arden Dawson, vice president of the River Road ISD school board in Amarillo, said of all the programs and field trips he’s attended over the years, this one stood out as one of the most significant that he’s experienced.
“My mind was blown from the very first campus, how all the kids were bought in [to The Mesquite Promise]. The kids, the community, the board, the principals, and administrators: it’s taken all of them to make it happen,” he said. “I thought we would see what we typically see when a board or a school is presenting, something cool, but not necessarily something we could do in our district.”
Dawson said that while some programs might be cost prohibitive for districts to replicate, The Mesquite Promise could be adapted to a school district and its needs without much financial impact. He plans to take what he learned back to his district.
“The concept can make a difference on every one of our campuses,” Dawson said.
Mary Ann Lopez is a staff writer for Texas Lone Star.
This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of Texas Lone Star.