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A Visit with Donna Houser, Anderson High School Principal
by Tom Goodman
February 17, 2011

Across the next few months, I want to periodically use LeaderLines to introduce you to some community leaders in our area.  Since they serve the same neighborhoods we serve, we can benefit from their observations about our neck of the woods.  I welcome your suggestions of community leaders you'd like me to interview.  First up, Donna Houser, principal of Anderson High School.

Donna, tell us a little about yourself, where you were raised, your family, and what you enjoy doing when you're not serving as a school principal. 
I am from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I am married to my high school sweetheart, and we have two wonderful daughters.  One of our daughters is a pediatrician in the Phoenix area and is expecting our first grandchild this month, and one is an attorney outside of Dallas.  I used to love to run, but with five foot surgeries under my belt, walking will be my recreation of choice.  I love to read, and ballet is my passion -- watching and appreciating, not performing.
I know that you have served as principal at Anderson High School since 2007.  What other schools and positions did you serve in before coming to Anderson? 
I worked at the University of New Mexico in the Dental Programs as a part-time instructor for nine years when my children were small.  I then went on to become a Science teacher in a middle school in Albuquerque and eventually went into administration.  When I moved to Austin ten years ago, I joined the Bowie High School staff as an Assistant Principal.  I was at Bowie for three years.  I was then named the principal of Murchison Middle School and served that community for three years before moving to Anderson High School as the Principal.  I am completing my fourth year as the Principal of Anderson High School.
Tell us a little about Anderson.
Anderson High School is a comprehensive 5A high school educating approximately 2100 students.  Faculty and staff take pride in serving the educational needs of all its students with instruction ranging from special needs to gifted.  Rigorous curriculum offerings include Advanced Placement courses, International Baccalaureate courses leading to an IB Diploma or IB Certificate, and many dynamic Career and Technology Education courses.  Anderson is a very successful high school.  In December, Anderson's Chinese language program was recognized as a Confucius Classroom Network School and is now a model for other schools in the country.  Earlier this month, Anderson was named by the National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA), a department of ACT, Inc., to its list of 2010 NCEA Higher Performing Schools in Texas.  This recognition identifies schools that have consistently outperformed their peers serving similar student populations and recognizes their achievement in bringing more students to college and career readiness than expected.  Our school's football team went to regional play-offs this November.  Our marching band made it to state competition for the first time ever.  Our wrestling team won their 16th consecutive District title last week.  Anderson's SAT and ACT scores exceed district, state, and national overall average scores year after year.  This is just a small sampling of the talent our students exhibit in athletics, fine arts, and academics.

Many of our fine arts classrooms were recently renovated to meet the growing student interest in those courses.  We invite members of your church to attend our performances in music, theater, and art.  You will not be disappointed!

We have a wonderful parent community who support our programs and school with their advocacy, their hard work, and their resources.  We have the highest level of PTSA involvement in our vertical team of schools of any schools in Central Texas.  We could not have the fine programs at Anderson without the hard work of our parents.
What do you think are the biggest challenges students from this community face? 
Our student body is quite diverse.  Some of our students face challenges associated with coming from homes that are struggling financially.  We have recently created a clothes closet and now collect gently used items and gift cards to support students who are in need.  Another portion of our student body, those arriving from middle and upper-middle class homes, are stressed as they feel the need to achieve and succeed.  Whether this stress comes from parents, from the state's top-10% law, or is self-imposed, these children strive to be the best and sometimes feel the pressure of it all.
As a community leader, how would you hope to see community organizations like Hillcrest Church address these needs within our own programs?
Involvement from outside organizations is greatly appreciated at Anderson High School.  When our students see that the neighborhood cares about them and is working in conjunction with school administration to make their campus a better place, then they work harder and appreciate what is before them.  I believe that Hillcrest Church already donates their facilities to our Fellowship of Christian Athletes club so that they might meet weekly.  That is a tremendous gift to our school, as our facilities are in constant use with extracurricular happenings.  I might also suggest that your membership consider participating as speakers in our career chats.  You could also partner with our PTSA and support our own parent education programming, our annual Trojan Spirit Fest, and our Resisting Alcohol & Drug (RAD) Committee.
What does the faculty at Anderson most need from parents and other adults in the community?  Are there mentoring programs or tutoring programs that need adult volunteers?
Anderson does welcome adult volunteers to mentor and tutor students.  We have specific staff members who coordinate those programs once the volunteers have been processed by Austin Partners in Education.  Many students are transferring into Anderson from schools that do not meet accountability standards.  When they arrive at Anderson, they sometimes require interventions to bring them to grade level or they could use an understanding ear as they step into a new school environment.

In addition, Anderson is working to develop career-focused programming.  This currently takes the shape of lunchtime career chats.  We'd like to expand that effort to create field studies, or internships, with local businesses that welcome our students for an entire semester to learn about different occupations.
Every year for 30 years, Hillcrest Church has welcomed the Anderson staff back to the new school year by holding a lunch for your staff in our gym.  One of the things we do is ask the faculty to complete a short form at their table, and we ask if the staff has any prayer requests as the school year begins.  I've always been touched by the things the staff writes on those forms.  As we close this interview, are there any items you'd want us to add to our prayer lists?
We always appreciate prayers for our students and staff -- that they remain healthy, safe, and focused at the task at hand, which is education.  We also ask for your membership to pray for our local school board members and legislators as they make decisions on funding our public schools.  We hope they will make decisions that will continue the improvements that are being made for the children of our community and state.  With the newest round of budget cuts to education, we will be asking our community to volunteer even more in the school.  We will be asking parents and community members to help in the library; copy and collate materials for the teachers; help in out science labs by organizing materials, setting up lab trays, and replenishing stock; become tutors in our Read Naturally classes for our Special Needs students, etc.  There is always a need at a large, comprehensive high school.

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