When Remy Godfrey started as the Marlin High School principal three years ago, an event during her first fall semester helped set the tone for what she would find in the struggling school district.

She took two days off in November to nurse a nasty case of the flu and returned to her students asking where she had been. They asked whether she had left them and whether she would be leaving for good sometime soon.

After all, that’s what the others had done.

The students’ expectation she would be leaving is a symptom of a major illness school officials said has crippled Marlin Independent School District since at least 2003, or as far back as state records go on the Texas Education Agency website.

The only consistency in the district for more than a decade has been the lack of it, officials said. With a divided community, at least seven superintendents since 1999, according to TEA records, and teacher turnover rates that have been almost 20 percent more than the state average for more than a decade, the district has faced closure more than once.

And it may face the possibility again soon if it can’t meet state academic standards this year, which would be the sixth year in a row of failed state ratings, according to TEA records.

“When I first started, there was really no support for teachers. Teachers were told TEKS Resource System, we’re going to buy into this system. Go for it. And some of the things were great, but if you don’t have professional development to develop the teacher, teachers can often times get frustrated and lose their way,” Godfrey said. “You had a lot of teachers frustrated and when they wanted to go out and seek help, they never would really find the solution or someone there to be supportive of what they were trying to do.”

Despite improvement efforts, students continue to ask whether teachers, principals or administrators are sticking around longer than a semester. The questions only emphasize the crucial role of the district’s strategy, started within the past year, to bring in and hold onto educators with a sense of dedication and an ability to put the focus back in the classroom, school officials said.

A $15,000 starting-salary increase approved last February has allowed Marlin ISD to hire 22 new teachers across its three campuses, Godfrey said.

Godfrey, who also serves as an assistant superintendent, has played a vital role in the hiring process to bring in a “wrecking crew” of talented teachers, Superintendent Michael Seabolt said.

“We’ve got some great hires in Marlin, and it’s because of the salaries,” Seabolt said.

And in February, the state took over the district’s elected governing board and appointed a state board of managers to help turn the district around, making Marlin ISD the fourth district now operating under the TEA’s control, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said.

None of the five districts with a state-appointed board put in place since 2003 have gone on to be closed, but the state has closed six districts since 1999 for financial, safety, management or academic issues, Culbertson said.

Marlin ISD is also facing a $1.1 million deficit budget and a student population that is 98 percent economically disadvantaged and regularly leaving the district for the possibilities of better opportunities, teachers said. But they’re trying to do everything they can to help students who remain meet state standards and pass the three state benchmark exams at the fourth-, eighth- and 11th-grade accountability levels, they said.

The district’s problems certainly do not rest with the children, Seabolt said. There’s been no central vision, and Seabolt said he suspects Marlin ISD may have had more than the seven superintendents listed since 1999.

He was brought in almost two years ago to turn the district around and has recently faced scrutiny by Marlin residents for trying to maintain the increased teacher salaries in the face of the district’s financial issues by proposing to eliminate at least 10 other crucial education positions.

“You want to know why? Just look at whenever you try to change anything in Marlin,” Seabolt said. “They come after you, and it’s been my experience they don’t care if it’s true or not. And if they can’t get you professionally, they’ll make a go at you with a personal attack. They’ll make it up.

“They don’t care, and it’s been a long time since anybody’s had the desire to stay here and ride this bucking bronco to see if you can make it for eight seconds. . . . You’ve got a community that’s broken up into 20 different factions mostly down ethnic lines. The black community is just shattered, and everybody’s king and everybody’s got their followers, and nobody comes together. You want to pave this street? Then this group’s mad at you. You want to pave that street? That group’s mad at you. The end result: Nothing gets done, and the school district’s a large symptom of that, of the community not coming together.”

Exposing opportunities

The district now has more than 800 students, fewer than it has building space to accommodate.

No one uses the upstairs portion of the 1970s high school built for 1,100 students, and no one has in a few years, Godfrey said.

Bulletin boards filled with student recognition and folders full of scholarship applications line the halls, asking seniors where they’ll be seen in 2017. And this school year, the campus started an AVID program and Success Academy students can lean on to get individualized help with work and improve STAAR scores. There are also more pep rallies and motivational speakers than before, Godfrey said.

For Lawrence Gullette, the ninth-grade English teacher and head girls basketball coach, the condition of the district is a familiar picture, he said. Prior to Marlin, he worked in Dallas and in East Texas school districts, he said. Though the salary increase helped bring him in, he saw Marlin as an opportunity to help a community that looked a lot like his growing up in Alabama, Gullette said.

“I went to high school in Tuskegee, small town, great history and great tradition, but the demographics were very similar,” he said. “When I look at these kids, I see a lot of kids like me growing up. Same situation, same demographics, but there we had a lot of pride. … I just wanted to come here to do what I can to help a lot of kids who look like me, who don’t have a lot of opportunities or are not aware of a lot of opportunities, and expose them to them.”

Fortunate enough to go to college, play four years of basketball and travel to Europe, Gullette spends his time trying to be a role model that can’t be found in textbooks, he said.

With a similar focus but different background, science teacher Matthew Sobotik wanted to give back to the community he’s lived in for four years. He also started this year and teaches students from the sophomore to senior level in various science classes. Before Marlin, he started in Houston and then taught in Riesel for three years, he said.

“It wasn’t until we moved here that the whole stigma of everything started coming in. ‘It’s Marlin, why do you live in Marlin?’ But it’s really not bad. We have everything we need and we have never run into anyone who was anything but nice and receptive to us,” Sobotik said.

He asked Godfrey before he started what he could expect in the high school because media has portrayed a skewed perspective, he said. Godfrey told him he would see a normal high school with normal kids doing normal things, he said.

“But the very last thing she said to me that made me feel so confident in taking this job was, ‘You’re going to fit in with these kids. They’re going to love you,’ ” he said. “I’m laid back, but in a way so they see I’m a real person. I think that’s really important, that they don’t just see me as this authoritative, teacher figure. They see me as a real individual. I share stories about my family almost daily with my students, and they share stories with me about their families. We have real conversations about real things.”

That authentic, dedicated, team effort focused on higher learning at the high school level and other campuses may be key in helping hungry-to-learn students believe in the possibility of exploring the world outside of Marlin, Godfrey said.

“People from the outside want to help, and I know it’s difficult being from the outside. I’m from the outside, and people don’t always see that as a team effort. It’s always seen as a takeover effort and it’s not,” said Godfrey, who drives in from Temple every day. “Some of these people are some of the most genuine people you have ever seen and they care about the kids, and that was Dr. Seabolt’s main thing when he first got here.”

‘We’re really that smart?’

At Marlin Junior Academy, which has 16 classrooms and got most of the new hires, the fight to turn the district around has become a family affair.

Sisters Dametra Holloway and Tamariah Manigo, as well as a couple other relatives who are Marlin graduates, not only came for the pay raise, but because they couldn’t stand to see the district fall any further, they said. Holloway graduated in 2005 and has been teaching for six years in Waco and Irving school districts, and Manigo graduated a few years later and taught in Fort Worth before Marlin.

As Holloway, an eighth-grade math teacher and volleyball coach, applauds her class for finishing a math riddle, one student asks “We got it right?” while another shouts above cheers, “We’re really that smart?” Those aren’t uncommon questions, Holloway said.

“This is the best teaching year I’ve had,” she said. “When discipline’s an issue, I know the families. I go to church with the families. I live by the families. It’s easy to talk to parents and get it straightened out. I have a vested interest in the kids because it’s my community.”

She recently noticed a child who wasn’t even in her class was absent from school. On her break, she left the campus to go check on the child and found her and several siblings hadn’t made it to school because they were out of clean clothes, she said. She stuck around to help wash their attire and make sure they’d be on campus the next day, she said.

She and her sister follow Principal Patti Ward’s stronghold goal of preventing outside conversations and conflict from seeping into class and weighing on students’ shoulders, they said. After all, the next STAAR exam is May 8, and that’s all they can focus on now, they said.

“People told me, ‘Don’t go back. They’re bad.’ But kids are the same everywhere,” Holloway said. “I never went to a school where I had perfect angels. The support is a little different, but it’s getting better.

In Manigo’s sixth grade math class, her students showed an eagerness to get answers correct on practice STAAR exam packets and her walls were covered in charts and graphs. An 11-year-old boy pouted in between school bells, and told her he made a 92 on his work and wanted to make a 100 instead. That’s when Ward walked in, put her arm around him, hugged him and said, “We’re going to suck it up and show them what we’re made of.”

Moments like that aren’t uncommon either, Manigo said.

“When they see people who are from Marlin, see success, they’re able to say, ‘Hey, I can do that as well,’ ” Manigo said. “We can’t dwell on what people are saying outside. We just have to focus on what’s going on inside.”

This wasn’t isolated

Plagued by discipline and behavior issues and negative perceptions, Marlin Primary Academy has struggled to be the foundation students needed to get off on the right foot in their learning careers, Seabolt said.

Seabolt said when he started he could walk into a classroom to find teachers pushing the desks aside and throwing students a football or encounter a second-grade student profanely mouthing off to a teacher. Those weren’t isolated incidents, and some students went on to higher grade levels two or three years behind, he said.

So step by step, the new teachers and principal have been re-laying students’ foundation through positive reinforcement, randomized questioning and small group studies, Principal Kimberly McKnight said. Students even get two to three hours of dedicated reading time each day to keep struggling readers from falling behind: something the district didn’t have before, Seabolt said.

McKnight has been with Marlin for five years, but this is her first year as principal. She started as an instructional specialist and coach at the middle school, then moved over to the elementary campus as an assistant principal.

“For the first couple of years I was here, which was under different leadership, it was more about what the adults wanted and what the adults are comfortable with,” McKnight said. “In the last two years, it’s become about holding adults accountable for doing what’s best for students.”

For educators like first-grade teacher Nicole Whitehead or third-grade teacher Darius Kelley, both first-time teachers, Marlin ISD has quickly become home.

Whitehead stepped into her role in January to fill a vacancy, she said.

She calls her students “Honey,” and they’ll answer back with, “Why’d you call me honey?” as if the concept of caring is something new, she said. They’ll tell her they love her, and she’ll always respond that she loves them, too.

On her classroom walls hang posters about classroom expectations and addressing behavior issues in positive manner instead of through yelling, she said. A “calm down corner” near her desk allows her to talk one-on-one with a student who has had an outburst, reminding them occasionally, “Let’s make a good choice. That’s not how we work things out.”

“There are definitely some challenges, but compared to when I first came to this classroom to what it is now, these kids show they can do anything,” Whitehead said as two girls ran up to her desk with a hand-drawn picture and asked if she was staying their teacher. “They just have to have the right expectations and the right people to believe in them.”

Since Kelley switched from a behavioral aid to a teacher in January, his classroom has gone from fights and yelling between students on a regular basis to one of structure, where they raise their hands to answer a question. He walked in on the first day wearing a suit, and his students were shocked to see a teacher dress professionally, he said. He’ll even let students wear some of his bow ties down the halls, which often leaves the young boys beaming with pride during other classes, he said.

Kelley said many people, including members of his teaching association, encouraged him to leave the district.

“I stayed, and again, I could have gone anywhere else,” he said. “But seeing the state of the school, seeing most of these kids need role models — if I didn’t feel like Marlin needed me that bad, I probably wouldn’t have stayed. But because there’s such room for growth for these kids, and I had that passion for them, this was it. I couldn’t be anywhere else.”

‘They’ve been misunderstood.’

Seabolt said it’s likely the district will make room for more elementary teachers throughout the next year, and the trend of bringing in better teachers will continue. And if the construction of consistency manages to keep the district open, Seabolt said the district could start focusing on ways to bring students back, possibly adding a UIL soccer team next year, he said.

And test scores have already started to improve based on last year’s preliminary STAAR scores, Seabolt said earlier this school year. Almost every grade level saw progress in reading, which was the biggest weakness the district had in standardized testing, Seabolt said in August. In fact, eighth-graders passed the state standard score for the first time in years, and the district met student progress and post-secondary readiness standards, he said.

“I don’t know if these kids have been forgotten, but they’ve been misunderstood. Marlin has this mentality that it’s a rural, country, farming community, and it’s not,” Seabolt said. “Marlin is an inner-city school district that happens to be located in a rural setting. As soon as you start treating it as an inner-city school district that happens to be in a rural setting, then you’ll start getting the results you expect.”

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