Interview with Dr. Shirley Neeley, Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency

by Doug Schmitt
Interview with Dr. Shirley Neeley, Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency

Raised in Galena Park, Texas, Dr. Shirley Neeley has always been interested and involved with education. In 2004, Texas Governor Rick Perry named her the Texas commissioner of education. Overseeing more than school districts and hundreds of charter schools, Dr. Neely serves as the head of the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

Dr. Neeley previously served as superintendent of her childhood school, Galena Park Independent School District (GPSID) in addition to holding principal and assistant principal positions. Under her leadership, GPISD became Texas' largest exemplary district.

Aditionally, Dr. Neeley has served on the Board of the Harris County Youth Program, the Texas Academic Decathlon, as chair of her local hospital Board of Directors, as president of her local Rotary Club, and on the Board of Directors of the North Channel Area Chamber of Commerce. She's also a member of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

In 2006, Dr. Neely was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame for her work in the field of education.

Tell us about your education

I attended Galena Park ISD for my entire public school education: Pyburn Elementary, Woodland Acres Junior High and Galena Park High School (GPHS). I graduated from GPHS in 1966.

I received my B.S. in Elementary Education from the University of Houston in 1971, my Master's Degree in Elementary Education from Prairie View A & M in 1975 and my Doctorate of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston in 1990.

What positions have you held in education in the Texas and the Austin area since your college graduation?

After graduation from University of Houston, I taught first grade at Richey Elementary School in Pasadena ISD for three years. I stayed home for one year when my daughter, Brandy, was born in 1974. I also completed my Master's Degree at that time.

In 1975 I began teaching 6th grade math at Jacinto City Elementary School in GPISD. After two years there, I became the Assistant Principal at MacArthur Elementary in GPISD. Next, I became Principal of Mac Arthur Elementary for the next eight years. I was promoted to principal at Green Valley Elementary School for the following three years. When the new superintendent, Dr. Don Hooper, was hired in GPISD I became his Director of Elementary Education for several years, followed by Assistant Superintendent for Support Services and finally Superintendent of GPISD from 1995-2004. In January, 2004, Governor Rick Perry appointed me as Commissioner of Education for the great state of Texas!

After receiving my doctorate, I served as an Adjunct Professor of Multicultural Education at the University of Houston at Clear Lake for several semesters.

What do you enjoy most about your job and your career?

Having climbed every rung of the ladder in the education system, I can relate special concerns, needs and interests of everyone from PK-16. It also helps to be a mother and a grandmother of three wonderful grandsons. I also ask myself how every decision I make would impact my daughter, Brandy, or my three grandsons, Zachary, Conner and Cole.

In your opinion, is the educational system (at any level) well supported by the local and/or state government?

I am very proud of the excellent relationship we have developed and work hard to maintain and strengthen between the local, regional and state government. Clearly, we all want the same thing: a world class, first class public school education for ALL 4.5 million children we so proudly serve.

What is special about students in the Austin area?

Austin students are like all Texas students: they are very diverse, enrollment is increasing daily and children are working hard to meet our high expectations at the local, regional, state and national level.

What is special about the education system in the Austin area compared to others you may have encountered or heard about?

Austin ISD is blessed to have a tenured superintendent, Dr. Pat Forgione. This is rare in large metropolitan school districts! Many of the children in the Austin area schools have parents who work for state agencies and/or some of the high tech firms in Central Texas. One unique fact is that these districts are located in our wonderful Capitol City!

What are some of the top challenges for educators (at any level) in the Austin area?

Trying to balance local, regional, state and national expectations, statutes, rules, etc.; trying to make them all integrate and work well together. Certainly our fast growth in Texas public schools and our constantly changing demographics present both challenges and opportunities. Global competition, a zero dropout rate, creating a college going culture for all children and college readiness are top priorities for all Texas public schools.

Please tell us about Texas' reformation of instructional and assessment systems.

The public schools of Texas have been in a state of reform since the passage of HB 72 in 1984, so reform is nothing new to us. Every two years, after each legislative session, the TEA staff and I work hard to implement legislative changes and reforms as well as those at the national level through No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Is Austin working to implement technology into classrooms, and if so, how?

We have Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Initiative (TSTEM) Academies through Central Texas and throughout this state. Every school district in Texas has a long-range technology plan, as does TEA. In fact, the State Board of Education just approved the TEA Five Year Technology Plan. Aditionally, we have online assessment, online curriculum, online staff development, etc.

Are high schools in the region working with colleges to provide educational opportunities for students?

Yes, please refer to our entire P-16 Office for a detailed list of outstanding programs in place and on the drawing board for continuous P-16 projects and programs. Dr. Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of Higher Education, and I work very closely together, as do our two agencies. Please refer to our Plan of Action that we have developed collaboratively as we prepare to implement HB 1.

To the best of your knowledge, what are some goals for the future of education in the Austin area?

All schools in Texas are committed to doing whatever it takes to guarantee a world class, first class public education to all children. We want the public and our tax payers to be proud of the public schools of Texas and for them to become the schools of choice for all. We are focused on doing whatever it takes to provide quality, outstanding, exemplary early childhood programs; to create a college going culture the minute children enter the school house doors and maintain that momentum until they graduate from our high schools, college and career ready!

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