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How Premont ISD Beat The Odds And The TEA To Stay Open

Premont ISD has struggled with low attendance, low test scores and poor finances for years, but when a letter from the TEA came threatening to close the school, everyone knew that something must be done.

Football is everything

The first football game of the season for a small town high school in Texas is always a big deal, but for Premont High School the game means much more than another mark in the win or loss column. Premont ISD is walking a tightrope with the Texas Education Agency, and is one microscope away from closing its doors.

However, on this night everyone is out cheering for the local boys, and in a town where the district employs the majority of the population, each person in attendance has a vested interest in the success (or failure) of Premont High School -- both on and off the field. By the time the final whistle blows to end the 45-0 rout in favor of the visiting team and the tired boys in red shake hands, there is a clear foreshadowing for what is yet to come.

Credit David Martin Davies / TPR
Coach Russell talks to his players following the tough 45-0 opening day loss as Junior Nathan Powell looks on

Letter from the TEA

Premont ISD has struggled with low attendance, low test scores and poor finances for years, but when a letter from the TEA came threatening to close the school, everyone knew that something must be done. At the beginning of the semester, Premont ISD Interim Superintendent Ernest Singleton issued a challenge to the students at Premont High School. He confirmed the stories that were floating around town and told them that if everyone doesn't get their act together, they are going to lose the school.

"More than ever in the history of Premont it is your responsibility to step up to the plate this year as young boys and girls. And I don't care if you are struggling, we will help you. Everyday you come and goof off, you are hurting the chances of Premont to stay open past next July."

The ultimate sacrifice

In Texas, high school football is more than just a game for the players and their families. In some towns there are people who haven't missed a game since they were the ones on the field, keeping track of the star players and unsung heroes that work so hard each summer and fall. For many of these places, the ritual of a Friday night in the bleachers is the driving force that keeps everyone together.

Singleton said that if he can appeal to the TEA to get more time, the school -- and thus the town -- can be saved. Top of the list was financial stability, which was helped by the passing of a tax increase to help makeup for shortfalls in state funding, but the increase wouldn't be enough. The school needed upgraded science labs to get up to TEA standards so something big had to go, and when the district cut sports, the world started to pay attention.

"I think that most of the community understands," said Premont ISD School Board President Carmen Garcia, "and so they are backing our decision because we had informed them before we voted to agree to this amended abatement from TEA that there would be drastic changes in programs and sports might be one of them."

Credit David Martin Davies / TPR
Premont ISD Superintendent Ernest Singleton has no intention of being its last. He had once helped save Benavides Junior High in nearby Duval County after the state threatened to shutter it, and he is planning a similar rescue in Premont.

Singleton estimated that about $70,000 was saved in the initial semester, and about $100,000 will be saved next fall. It was a tough decision, but one that has saved Premont and bought them precious time - at least for now.

Trapped in the middle of a financial and academic fiasco of which they now play a major part are the students at Premont schools, who are shouldering the burden of uncertainty and sacrifice that was left to them by years of poor performance and mismanagement. These students have to live with the pressure to save their town and school, and do so by giving up the things that make them happy.

Credit David Martin Davies / TPR
Cheerleaders and other children cheer at the opening game of the Premont High School 2011football season. Sports programs at Premont have been canceled in order to upgrade science labs and stay on track with the TEA.

Premont High School junior Maria Elena Navarro was looking forward to her senior year and trying out for head cheerleader, but now feels hurt and frustrated.

"It's very confusing, and it's very, very stressful. And it's unfair because we do our part in making the grades and everything, but we're the ones that -- we can't, I can't be in volleyball. I mean, I've been a cheerleader all three of my high school years and I was going to tryout for head cheerleader, and then all of a sudden -- Boom -- there's no football, you can't be cheerleader, nothing. And it's like: 'Well, I wish you would've told us this earlier, I could have left.' You know, it's a lot of unfairness, a lot of stress, it's horrible.

Premont today

These students embody the on-going struggle facing this small town and others like it across the country. With budget cuts forcing everyone from the federal government to small town school districts to make tough decisions, Premont has taken the toughest step. They have sacrificed something big, sports; a central figure in school spirit, town pride and for all intents and purposes, the thing that holds small towns like this together.

Without sports the people of Premont are rallying around each other, and for the time being they have saved their town and schools. But they aren't out of the danger zone yet. There are more education budget cuts on the floor of the next legislative session, and for districts like Premont who are already walking a fine line, even a small budget cut could be the straw that broke the camel's back.

*This episode of Texas Matters was originally broadcast on July 13, 2012

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi