People came from literally near and far Sunday to celebrate with Van Alstyne Independent School District Superintendent John Spies on his retirement from public education. Spies, after giving 40 years to Texas’ children and six years as Van Alstyne ISD’s superintendent, is hanging it up and planning on a few months of actual retirement.
The reception was held the day after Van Alstyne voters approved a $24 million bond, of which Spies and his upcoming replacement, Assistant Superintendent David Brown, worked close at hand with the school board. The improvements and building will now be under Brown’s watch, but Spies said, with that ubiquitous smile, he’ll be watching closely, because he has grandkids who will be going through VAISD.
Spies came to work as the district’s superintendent in May 2011, and within a month had brought Brown on board as the high school principal. Brown became assistant superintendent about two years ago, Spies said. Spies received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stephen F. Austin, and then transferred to East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce) where he received his Doctorate of Education.
Spies lists the following as his three greatest accomplishments while VAISD superintendent: Hiring great administrators; providing structure to the academic and behavioral elements at the campuses that allow for great student success; and the district’s financial stability, which he said is “better than it was six years ago. But, it wasn’t me, it was the team. I’ve had tremendous support from the school who have allowed me to do my job.”
And, although the state has changed the way it now rates its school districts, Spies said the district is in great shape right now, but again, “It hasn’t been me, it’s through what the people in the district have done, and David will take it to the next level.”
Now, he explained, school are rated by only “acceptable” and “met standard,” but SchoolDigger.com gives its highest rating, that of five stars, to Van Alstyne ISD, which places the district in the Top 5 percent in the state.
“They look at programs offered, state scores, and diversity,” Spies said. “The majority of our graduates are college bound, and even more, I take pride in that they have success once they get there. A lot of school districts can’t make that claim.”
He said to add to that the Grayson College cooperative, or dual-credit, programs are helpful to achieve a higher level of student success in college. Even those who may not choose a four-year course of study are able to pick up certifications in careers that will advance them, Spies said. The college, too, is using the high school’s culinary arts program for dual credit enrollment, Spies added.
Grayson College’s Dean Kim Williams said she’s appreciated the partnership the district’s superintendent created between the district and the college.
“It’s nice to have had the relationship he and I have,” she said. “He’s worked hard to make things better for the students and the community. We do a lot of dual credit, and a lot of our (college) professors teach English and math to the high school students. He’s also one of our Rotarians and we’ve worked together in that group. He’s always been a real key to the community.”
School board member Debbie Nance said about Spies, “I had a little knot in my stomach that is (retirement) is really happening.”
It’s Spies’s personality she said, that makes him a natural leader, a motivator for the students.
“They see it,” Nance said. “He has to be tough and can be tough and make tough decisions.”
She listed one particular advancement in teacher preparedness that she’s admired.
“All students are not the same,” Nance said. “Some need help with anxiety and depression, and we’ll be seeing more and more of this as we grow. He’s been instrumental in helping these kinds of student needs.”
Board President Randall Morgan said that to him, one of the most impressive things Spies has accomplished has been stability.
“Financial and accountability, he has raised the bar for expectations for the whole district — staff and students,” Morgan said. “And he’s led by example.”
Morgan said he wasn’t on the board when Spies was hired, but was on it soon afterward.
“The high school was not at the top of the ratings, then, and for a priority, we asked him to raise the standard and performance for that school. The whole staff is better equipped now than they were to handle the diversity in students’s needs and requirements.”
Morgan said he and the board are excited that it is Brown who will continue advancing the district.
“He has the same high expectations that the board has and that John had,” Morgan said. “He’ll bring new ideas as the district continues to grow, beginning with the new elementary school.”
The guests at Sunday’s reception included former students and area superintendents from the previous districts Spies served before coming to Van Alstyne, such as Wylie and Malakoff ISDs. There were teachers, students, board members, and many from the community who spent time with Spies on his day of honor.
What are Spies’s personal plans, now that he and his wife, Donna, have time to make plans beyond next week’s ball game, testing periods or graduation? Donna is staying home while her husbandand his brother spend a month in Alaska.
“This has been on my bucket list for a long time,” Spies said. “I’m going to whale watch, river raft down the glacier rivers, fly fish, and zip line, and that’s before a cruise during the last week. When I get back, there’s the outdoor kitchen I’m building for entertainment, and I may consider some educational consulting.”