Mark Estrada, ’06, ’10

Editor’s Note: Mark Estrada was named 2021 Region 13 Superintendent of the Year.  He  is currently a doctoral candidate in the Cooperative Superintendency Program at The University at Texas at Austin.

Lockhart ISD Superintendent Mark Estrada began spring break this year thinking his students and staff would return the following week. Instead, developments surrounding COVID-19 began moving quickly and “every day that went by, it became more and more clear that we were not coming back to school,” says Estrada, who holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Texas State. What began as a week of cancelled classes turned into a remote learning plan for the remainder of the school year.

To meet the challenges presented by COVID-19, the district distributed laptops to students and converted their parking lots to WiFi zones so that internet would be accessible to families who don’t have access. As a long-term solution to meet the needs of families without internet, Estrada has developed a partnership with an internet company to build WiFi towers across Caldwell county.

The towers are one piece of Estrada’s larger plan to redesign what teaching and learning looks like in Lockhart ISD. For the past four years, the district has brought in cohorts of teachers who have been trained specifically in blended learning. In two years, Estrada says, his hope is that the district can provide each of its students with a device for learning to continue at home. Right now, they are 20% away from that goal. However, even if every student in the district were equipped with a device, about 600 Lockhart ISD families (roughly 1200 students) live in internet dead zones. For the time being, Estrada says the district is sending paper fliers and schoolwork packets to reach families who don’t have access to electronic communications but building WiFi towers will help to connect every student to high speed internet for the long term. When the towers are in place, students will be able to connect to Lockhart ISD’s network, the Lion Link, with all the district’s restrictions and filters applied so that remote learning can take place in a safe online environment.

Developing a distance learning plan for an entire school district was no small feat. Throughout it all, Estrada says the safety of his students and staff has been at the top of his priority list. The most difficult issue for him continues to be ensuring that Lockhart ISD students have their basic needs met. On weekdays, the district is serving well over 10,000 meals per day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) to their families and has a partnership with Communities in Schools that allows for them to provide families in need with gift cards.

According to Estrada, the district has been successful because teachers’ voices have been involved in every step of the process. He has relied heavily on teachers, many of whom are also Bobcats, for decision-making around remote learning. As the school year has progressed, district administrators continue to meet with a teacher advisory group of about 40 teachers a couple times each week. Estrada says the district’s staff has consistently and happily stepped up for their community, and he is inspired by how they have risen to every challenge.

Story written by Emma Carberry and originally published in the Texas State University Newsroom on May 22, 2020.

Mark Estrada hosts a virtual meeting