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Year in Review: Many changes took place on the education front

Thanks to a change in federal leadership and a contentious Texas legislative session, the topic of education has been at the forefront of several conversations in 2017. Betsy DeVos took over as the U.S. secretary of education in Washington, D.C., while state legislators in Austin tried (and mostly failed) to overhaul the school finance system.

Changes trickled down to the local level, too. The University of North Texas found some new leadership in a former NASA administrator and Texas Woman’s University named its first-ever mascot. We also shined a light on several issues that will carry over into 2018: Denton ISD’s Lee Elementary School will have a new name next school year, more low-income kids are having trouble reading and we could be on the brink of a measles outbreak due to a drop in vaccination rates.

Check out what crossed our radar this year and what we’ll be keeping an eye on well after New Year’s Day:

NASA deputy administrator picked as next chancellor for UNT System

Lesa Roe, the former deputy administrator at NASA, left her 32-year career at the space agency to pursue a new career — chancellor of the University of North Texas System.

Roe, 54, was named the sole finalist for the position in August during a UNT Board of Regents meeting and began her new job in October. She replaces Lee Jackson, who was at the helm of the UNT System for the past 15 years. Jackson announced his retirement in March.

Her background is notably different than what people might expect for the leader of three universities and a law school. In her time at NASA, she orchestrated the team that put the Curiosity rover on Mars and led research on the international space station.

Roe said a lot of the skills she learned at NASA will work at the system, such as leading a team.

"We have similar missions in what we do — really advancing knowledge, discovery and inspiring the next generation in science, technology, engineering and math," she said. "The institutions will provide that pipeline for the next generation."

While he wasn't involved in the search for his replacement, Jackson said he believes Roe will make a good fit for the UNT System.

"Lesa Roe is deeply experienced at making tough decisions and managing people in budgets," he said. "She led teams of scientists as a people-oriented person, which makes her well qualified and prepared to work with our campuses, faculty and students. I think there will be a lot of carryover from her career as a leader of engineers and scientists into higher education."

TWU launches new logo, first mascot and slogan

Texas Woman's University has its first-ever mascot: a white and maroon owl with its wings spread, holding a Pioneers banner in its talons.

The new mascot logo for Texas Woman's University was unveiled in August. DRC
The new mascot logo for Texas Woman's University was unveiled in August. 
DRC

The mascot, a new logo and slogan were all unveiled in August during the university's fall assembly for faculty and staff. With a new look, TWU officials said they hoped to unify different campuses, departments and initiatives and communicate the school's mission, said Carine Feyten, president and chancellor of the university.

Work on the rebranding took about a year and was spearheaded by Commerce House, an advertising agency in Dallas, for $75,000, said school officials. The last time the university renovated its logo was in 2002.

The new logo was inspired by the fountain outside of Blagg-Huey Library on the Denton campus, and forms the letters T and W. This is a symbol of the school starting to call itself Texas Woman's instead of TWU colloquially, said Cindy Pollard, associate vice president of  marketing and communication.

The story behind the owl is also inspired by symbolism on campus, Pollard said. The statue of a pioneer woman on the southwest side of campus is fondly called Minerva by students, after the Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare. In mythology, her companion animal is an owl.

"The students love the owl; she’s fierce and wise," athletic director Chalese Connors said of student reaction. "They love the sleek design and thought it’s about time we had a mascot."

The athletics department and university spent the year rolling out the new identities, ranging from getting new business cards for professors with the new logo to all new gear for the athletic teams. The basketball team was the first to have the owl on its uniforms.

Denton school board reaffirms vote to rename Lee Elementary for Alice Alexander

The debate over schools named after Confederate generals came to Denton ISD's doorstep this year.

Denton ISD Board of Trustees voted Nov. 15 to change the name of Lee Elementary School to Alice Alexander Elementary School.DRC
Denton ISD Board of Trustees voted Nov. 15 to change the name of Lee Elementary School to Alice Alexander Elementary School.
DRC

The  school board came out of closed session at its November meeting and voted unanimously to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School for Alice Alexander at the start of the next school year. Alexander was an African-American educator who taught in Denton for 45 years. She died in 2007 at age 100.

There was no specific agenda item that referenced any renaming of a school facility, which led to some accusations from community members and attorneys that the school board violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Board members decided to reaffirm their action at the December meeting and again voted unanimously on the change, this time under an agenda item titled "Consider approval of naming of district facilities."

Alice Alexander (far right holding white sign) teaches her first-grade class at Fred Moore School. The Denton ISD school board recently decided to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School after Alexander for the upcoming school year.Kim Cupit
Alice Alexander (far right holding white sign) teaches her first-grade class at Fred Moore School. The Denton ISD school board recently decided to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School after Alexander for the upcoming school year.
Kim Cupit

"Even though I did not know Mrs. Alexander, I would think she would want us to take this as a learning experience," board President Mia Price said. "We'll never be above learning anything. If we can benefit from this experience and celebrate Mrs. Alexander, we'll do what we feel like is the right thing to do because transparency has always been important to this board."

Some who spoke at the December meeting thought the school board’s decision to rename Lee was an attempt to “erase history” following months of debate over whether to remove Confederate imagery from public places. Others believed the name change was a long overdue tribute to Alexander, who had a profound impact on the schools she worked in and the neighborhood she lived in.

"For her to be honored for something she absolutely loved, we're just grateful," said Zelinda Pegram, Alexander's daughter. "If she were here, she would just be smiling and maybe even dancing."

United Way study shows fewer Denton County students reading at grade level

In its 2017 Community Needs Assessment, the United Way of Denton County found the number of "economically disadvantaged" third-graders reading at grade level in Denton County dropped 10 percentage points in four years.

Those numbers follow a similar trend statewide. In Texas, 65 percent of economically disadvantaged third-graders were reading at grade level in 2016, compared to 69 percent in 2012.

But Denton County's rate is dropping much faster. United Way studied state test scores in local public schools and noted the drop from 80 percent of children reading at grade level in 2012 to 70 percent in 2016.

"It is really concerning, but it's multifaceted," said Alicia Froidl, United Way's director of education and workforce initiatives. "You really can't just say there's one thing that causes it. It's one of those huge, complex issues that doesn't have just one approach that's going to work."

The county's rapid growth may partially contribute to the problem, Froidl said. A bigger population can bring more economically disadvantaged students, more English language learners and more kids who are considered homeless. Students with those challenges traditionally struggle in school.

Third grade is a critical time for students in their education. Up to third grade, kids are learning to read. Once they get into the fourth grade, kids read to learn. School districts say they’re working to solve the problems in the classroom, but United Way is looking for solutions to implement before kids ever enroll in school. That could include getting more mothers access to proper prenatal care, helping parents get certifications to move into higher-paying jobs and getting more kids into prekindergarten.

“That's what we're trying to create: equal access regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of the neighborhood you live in, regardless of race or ethnicity," Froidl said.

Percentage of unvaccinated Denton County students inches upward

More unvaccinated children walked the halls of Denton County schools this year, causing some health experts to warn about potential disease outbreaks.

All children who attend public or private schools in the state are required to stay current on seven vaccines. But because of a 2003 law, parents can sign an affidavit refusing vaccinations for "reasons of conscience."

According to numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the rate of conscientious exemption waivers in Denton County rose from 2.05 percent of the student population during the 2015-16 school year to 2.92 percent in 2016-17. Denton County is now seventh in the state with the highest percentage of exempted students, up from its No. 10 spot the previous year.

Because of the way disease spreads, epidemiologists say the number of people vaccinated needs to reach a "critical mass" to be most effective. Each disease has its own threshold, or the minimum percentage of immune people a community needs to stop an outbreak. For example, measles and whooping cough microbes can't spread effectively if 94 percent of the population is vaccinated.

"In some communities, the rate of measles vaccinations is approaching that threshold," said Glenna Harris, a local pediatrician and former Denton ISD school board member. "We live in a community with two universities and a two-year college. People's failure to be able to assess data and facts instead of their own world view is sad."

Jackie Schlegel, executive director for the Keller-based Texans for Vaccine Choice, said the vaccination debate in Texas isn't about the science behind it. It's about parents' right to make medical decisions for their children.

"It's a slippery slope when we start to allow the government to make medical decisions," Schlegel said. "What I'm worried about as a parent is waking up tomorrow and living in a state like California where they've taken the role of parenting out of the hands of the parent."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.

FEATURED PHOTO: New University of North Texas System Chancellor Lesa Roe poses for a photograph in August at The Adolphus in Dallas. Roe took over for former UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson, who retired. Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News