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Educators Honored As Distinguished

Educators honored by the College of Education on March 4 include, from the left, Sue Ellen Blackmon, Distinguished Secondary Teacher; Agustin Lara, Distinguished Elementary Teacher; Shirley J. Neeley , Distinguished Administrator; Jack Alton Strawn, Distinguished Support Professional; and Julia Kahla, Friend of Education. With the five recipients is College of Education dean Genevieve Brown (far right).

Educators from across the state gathered on Saturday night to pay homage to five individuals who have distinguished themselves in the field that Sam Houston State University’s namesake was quite fond of.

The SHSU College of Education recognized Shirley Neeley, Agustin Lara, Sue Ellen Blackmon, Jack Strawn and Julia Kahla during its second annual Distinguished Educators of the Year dinner and reception on March 4.

“These people have given their hearts and souls to the field of education,” said event master of ceremonies Margaret Byrd, a 2002 SHSU graduate who is now area superintendent with the Aldine Independent School District.

“Education is our heritage at Sam Houston State University. Our namesake, (Gen.) Sam Houston held many offices, but early in his life he was a teacher,” said university president James F. Gaertner. “Late in his life he said, ‘I experienced a higher feeling of dignity and self-satisfaction in teaching in that little schoolhouse than from any office or honor I have held since.’”

Shirley J. Neeley

Shirley J. Neeley

The self-proclaimed “Cheerleader of School Districts,” as her business card once read, Neeley, the college’s Distinguished Administrator, worked in education as a teacher, principal and superintendent for 33 years before being appointed the Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas by Gov. Rick Perry in 2004.

“I remember after a few years of teaching thinking if I could make this kind of difference and have this kind of impact on an individual class, just think of what I could do if I was principal,” Neeley said in a taped presentation at the dinner. “And honestly, that was quite the motivation for moving up the career ladder from teacher to principal to central office to superintendent.

“It was also one of the motivating factors for becoming commissioner,” she said. “If you could become commissioner (she thought to herself), you might have the opportunity to make a positive impact on, say, 4.4 million children.”

A superintendent of the Galena Park school district, Texas’ largest exemplary district, from 2002-2004, she was named “Superintendent of the Year” for the Texas Association of School Boards in fall 2003.

“She’s the most energetic and the most exuberant and has more energy for education than anyone else I have ever met,” said Sue Edwards, Texas Academic Decathlon executive director.

A product of Galena Park schools, Neeley demanded that those within the district focus on keeping “the main thing the main thing” as superintendent of the district, comprised of a student population that is 70 percent economically disadvantaged and 90 percent minority, which meant accepting no excuses and focusing every day on every child that walked through the schools’ doors.

“I think one of the things I admire the most is that she is truly an advocate for the child,” said Stephanie Cravens, Texas Association of School Administrators member service representative for Regions 3, 4 and 5. “I think that’s been portrayed in every position she’s held throughout her professional career.

“She lives that; she walks that daily in her job, and I think we see the results of it,” Cravens said.


Agustin Lara

An educator in bilingual studies with the Bryan school district for eight years, Lara, the college’s Distinguished Elementary Teacher, can probably relate to his students better than most.

Growing up in a small farming town in Jalisco, Mexico, at 16, he came to the United States to work but later decided to go to school.

“I used to tell my mother and my father, ‘I’m going to school to learn English,’” Lara said in the video presentation. “And they would tell me, ‘No. You need to quit. You went to Texas to work.’

“Now my parents understand more, because when they come (to America), they come to this classroom, and they see the things I do,” he said.

His education led him to a high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M and later, after going through the Region VI Alternative Certification Program, a master’s degree from SHSU.

Lara said his most significant contributions to the field come in the way he treats his students and their families. Because of the way his parents reacted to his decision to further his education, he feels that an effective teacher should have the support of the parents and strives to gain that support through home visits before the school year begins.

“He taught to parents the value of education because so many of them come from Mexico that don’t know the value of finishing school,” said Mary Palomares, assistant principal with Bryan school district.

His own experiences in Mexican schools also impacts the way he treats his students. Lara even brought a group of his students to the awards dinner on Saturday to share the experience.

“When I started school, I was in Mexico. We had core classes under a big tree. (The teachers would say) the smart kids need to come to the side, and the kids that aren’t very smart need to come to the side. I was always on the other side,” he said with a laugh. “So now that I’m a teacher, I don’t want to do that. For me, every student is the same; every student has the right to receive a good, quality education.”

Lara’s ability to apply what he is teaching in the classroom to students’ home lives, be it in their neighborhoods or in their homeland, is what makes him an exceptional teacher, according to Dawn DeWald, principal at Anson Jones Elementary in Bryan.

“Above all, he also teaches us things like our morals,” said his student Ana Limon. “And I think that is why he got the award, because he is the best teacher you can ever have.”


Sue Ellen Blackmon

Teaching is a passion for Blackmon, the college’s Distinguished Secondary Teacher, who said it was the influence of teachers from elementary school through high school and even a passionate journalism professor at SHSU who inspired her in her work.

“My philosophy, my approach to teaching, is to build character along with knowledge,” she said. “I don’t expect my students to be carbon copies of me.

“My approach is to help them develop their personalities and help them develop their learning style, helping them find their particular area of expertise and having them share that with their peers,” Blackmon said. “That’s important to me.”

A teacher for 25 years, she has been teaching journalism and advising the yearbook and newspaper at Klein Forest High School since 1988.

“Mrs. Blackmon is more like our mom and our best friend and our greatest teacher all rolled into one,” said Kaleb Lambeth, a current Klein Forest student.

“Mrs. Blackmon is the type of person who would go out of her way to do anything for anyone else, whether it’s someone who is a family member, whether it’s someone she has known for 14 years or someone she’s known for one day,” said former student Kyra Coots.

Blackmon said her most significant accomplishment to education is derived from watching and encouraging her students develop their own writing and design voice and by her own views of education as a two-way street, walking away having learned as much from her students as they learn from her.

“She has the ability to work with her students as people, to help them become what she sees their potential to be because they know she cares, they know she wants them to learn and they also know that she has very high expectations for them,” said assistant principal at Klein Forest Jim Izat. “And that’s OK, because the caring is what really makes everything happen in that classroom.”


Jack Alton Strawn

“That first school where I became a librarian was a middle school, and it was a school of non-readers,” said Strawn, the college’s Distinguished Support Professional, in his video presentation.

“I really worked so hard for five years to get those kids to come in and check out books and read,” he said. “The school changed, the climate of the school changed (when students began frequenting the library), and I just felt so blessed to be there.”

A band director for 10 years before realizing “there had to be something better for me to do,” Strawn received his master’s degree in library science in 1990.

A leader both in the Northside school district, Sandra Day O’Connor High School in San Antonio, and across the state, he not only is a trainer on brain research and learning, but also developed the high school recommended reading list program for Texas, a list that did not exist for high school students at the time, when he was specifically called for the task in 1995 by the chair of the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Library Association.

“He is so involved in the San Antonio community and in the state that he brings a wealth of knowledge and a wealth of knowledge as it pertains to learning,” said Larry Martin, Sandra Day O’Connor High School principal.

One way Strawn encourages students to read at O’Connor High School is by sitting down with students on a one-on-one basis to match them with books that might be of interest them, Strawn said.

“It makes a difference, because then you develop a relationship,” he said. “The rapport is so important because they need an adult figure who is not going to judge them, so this is just the best place to be.”
And it does, indeed make a difference, according to some students.

“He doesn’t force you to read, but gets you into it, and I don’t know anybody who’s ever really done that,” said Elizabeth German, a Northside school district student. “He makes it not about learning but about having fun and finding the right book for you.”

“He’s a very genuine person. He really cares about all of us and really takes the time to get to know us rather than just seeing us as the average student,” said Aubrey Langford, another Northside school district student. “He actually takes the time to get to know us as people.”


Julia Kahla

Julia Kahla, the college’s Friend of Education, is not only a retired administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, but she is also the namesake of a middle school within the school district.

An educator for 45 years, in the 1990s, she helped develop a Leadership Academy, mid-management internships and an administrative internship, all for teachers seeking advancement, for the Cypress-Fairbanks school district.

“I truly love teaching and that meant kids and adults,” she said.

Kahla’s programs, with now-College of Education dean Genevieve Brown, turned into principle cohorts, collaborative arrangements that allow teachers and staff to earn additional degrees or certificates taking their classes in district facilities, with SHSU.

This initial cohort has evolved since the 90s, becoming six for principals, three for counseling, three for diagnosticians, three for library science, one doctoral, three bilingual principal cohorts and one superintendent.

“We have a pool of administrators, librarians, diagnosticians and counselors that is enviable,” Kahla said. “I appreciate what the university has done to help us do that.”

In addition, four other universities followed suit and have begun offering cohorts, and Cy-Fair ISD currently has partnered in 44 cohorts with 1200 participants.

“I know that people who may not have ever ventured out of their current positions have been encouraged by Judy to take a step and to take a risk and become a principal or become a director of instruction,” said Debby Emery, associate superintendent for school administration and human resources at Cypress-Fairbanks school district. “She has encouraged people to do things like that that might have been outside of their comfort zones.”

In August 2005, Julia Williams Kahla Middle School opened with 1400 students. The school’s mascot is something that reflects both Kahla and her students, according to Marvin Webster, the school’s principal.

“The kids and the teachers are fighters,” Webster said. “The Knight can be a fighter, and that pretty well is Judy.”

“She’s extraordinarily articulate, dynamic, an out-of-the-box thinker,” said Mary Jadloski, director of secondary special programs and services for Cypress-Fairbanks school district. “She’s very pragmatic, but she’s very futuristic in her thinking.”




SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
March 8, 2006
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