When Karnack ISD hired Amy Dickson as its superintendent just over a year ago, the district had recently made the tough decision to close its high school due to financial constraints.
Now, a year later, Dickson has spearheaded several campaigns at the district to not only make improvements to its structures, but increase its student enrollment.
She has managed this feat all while Texas legislators have continued to cut funding to the district, which is considered a Chapter 41 or "Robin Hood" property rich school requiring almost a third of its yearly budget to be given back to the state, despite being one of the few districts in the state to have a 100 percent economically disadvantaged student population.
While Dickson said the growth and improvements at Karnack ISD have been the result of a team effort between staff, trustees, students and the community, she recently pointed out several things that have contributed to that growth.
"We have our ACE program that serves as a great opportunity to educate students around the clock," Dickson said. "ACE is an after-school program and out of 145 students in the district, 108 of them are in the ACE program."
The community in Karnack does not have a daycare so Dickson said the ACE program not only helps working parents out to make sure children aren't sitting at home alone in the evenings, the program also helps them academically and feeds them a hot meal every afternoon.
The district's ACE program runs from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and runs five days a week during the summer months.
As KISD students recently celebrated their 100th day of the school year, Dickson said enrollment is up to 145 students this school year from 124 students.
"I attribute that enrollment growth to our small classroom sizes, we average just about 14 students per class," she said. "We also have a one to one technology ratio, meaning each child has their own Chromebook, excluding Headstart students."
Dickson said another factor she believes contributes to the district's growing enrollment is the cafeteria.
While many public school districts across the nation are being blasted for cutting calories, taste and providing little to no nutrition, Dickson said KISD's progressive cafeteria director is concerned about student health.
"We are tilling a garden this spring to grow our own food as part of the ACE program," she said. "We also buy local organic lettuce from Doodley Dee's Farm and each afternoon, every student gets a fresh fruit as part of our fresh fruit and vegetable grant."
The district also rated "met standard" this year by the Texas Education Agency and earned one distinction for closing performance gaps.
With the preliminary roll out of the state's new A-F accountability rating system this spring, Dickson said the district averaged a C.
"We do have areas of needed improvement and growth but I do believe this rating system, which is still being ironed out by legislators as we speak, is very skewed and misleading for people to see and understand," she said. "Next year, I'm also looking to hire two new interventionists who would be in charge of screening kids and pulling out and working with those students who need help."
In addition to successful programs and enrollment growth, Dickson said the school has experienced success within its athletic department.
"We have basketball and track and our boys basketball team is currently undefeated," she said. "We are playing for the district championship against Union Hill today. Athletics really bring the community together here."
Dickson's idea for the "Adopt a Room" project last fall also brought the community together to help fix up some of the school's buildings and rooms.
The most recent area completed as part of the $9,500 Phase 1 part of the project included updating the district's administrative offices, renovating and updating two locker rooms, completely rebuilding a coach's office, updating two hall restrooms, updating the school secretary's office, six classrooms and the teacher's break room.
"We definitely intend to keep improving the campus as we can by either fundraising or with the help of local volunteers," she said. "We want to continue to work on projects like the parking lot in front of the school, a new sign out front of the school, covered awnings for students and new carpet in our main hall."
Dickson, whose mother and father both served as superintendents at East Texas school districts and whose sister is a school teacher, said she came up with the "Adopt a Room" idea after realizing the school couldn't afford the needed renovations and updates due to the state's inadequate funding system.
"None of this would have been possible without the help and support of numerous people, organizations, community members and the Karnack ISD staff," she said last month. "Not only did people donate money and supplies, they donated their time and this was a labor of love."
It's also been a labor of love for Dickson, her husband and two sons, who also joined in on the work.
"There was never any doubt growing up that I wanted to have a career in public education," she said. "Every conversation we ever had around the dinner table growing up was about public education and in all of these conversations with my parents and sister, the love of children was evident in everything they discussed."
Before coming to Karnack ISD, Dickson, a Hallsville High graduate, served as an elementary school principal at Marshall ISD and later an administrator.
She earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from Stephen F. Austin State University and plans to pursue her doctorate in education from Texas A&M in the coming year.
"I want to continue my path or personal growth," she said.
Dickson, who has a special passion for the Karnack community and especially the Caddo Lake region said coming to the district has been a blessing for her.
"I've learned quite a bit since coming to Karnack ISD and I continue to learn every day," she said. "I believe in having a spirit of service and anytime you come into a new place, it takes a while to find your stride but for me, the community, staff and students at Karnack ISD have made it very welcoming and have been so supportive."
Dickson said she looks forward to continued progress at KISD and tries to maintain an open door policy with staff, students, parents and community members.
"Part of our strategic plan has been to let the public know what we're doing," Dickson said. "If someone is looking for a small, individualized and personal relationship building experience, then Karnack ISD is a great place for them to come and visit."
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