An interview with CFISD Superintendent Mark Henry
Cy-Fair Independent School District Superintendent Mark Henry has been with CFISD through several flooding events and continues serving the district while the area grows and changes rapidly.
Henry became superintendent of CFISD in 2011 after previously serving as a superintendent for several other school districts, including Milford ISD, Galena Park ISD, Sulfur Springs ISD and Collinsville ISD. Henry also previously worked as a teacher, principal and adjunct professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He received his bachelor’s in secondary education from University of Texas in Arlington, as well as a master’s and doctorate in administration from University of North Texas.
In this Q&A, Henry answers questions pertaining to topics that include his role as superintendent, CFISD’s status post-Hurricane Harvey, and community interaction.
Q: How has your role as superintendent changed over the years with CFISD?
A: Many internal components remain the same. We still serve more than 100,000 breakfasts and lunches daily, transport 80,000 students to and from school and manage a nearly $1 billion budget. However, external factors such as the proliferation of charter schools and negative perceptions of public education by politicians and special interest groups has caused a transformation in the role of large-district superintendents. We can no longer simply share good news but we also need to strongly market and be an advocate for our public schools.
Q: More than a year after Hurricane Harvey, what is the state of the district? How did CFISD adapt to Hurricane Harvey?
A: In a word, strong. The resiliency of our district during and after Harvey was something to behold. I have always felt this entire Cypress-Fairbanks community is special; and it was proven with the way that business partners, faith-based organizations and citizens came out to help schools and children in need. We have renovated and rebuilt our damaged schools and are moving forward stronger than ever.
Q: Considering the size of CFISD and the demand of the Houston area, what are the district’s biggest challenges?
A: With our size and commitment to all students, it is an ongoing challenge to truly meet the needs of all 116,500-plus students, but one that we feel is crucial and worth it. The toughest challenges, of course, are those that are outside of our control. The state versus local funding gap, for example, has never been wider, and we are in desperate need of legislation that will help a district like us that already does more with less to avoid devastating budget cuts. We have seen other districts around the Houston area burdened with having to make cuts to personnel and programs and it is truly troubling for me to think it could happen to us.
Q: How do you interact with the community in Cy-Fair? What is the value of having those connections?
A: I try to provide regular updates to my Twitter followers. If you aren’t following me, it’s @SuptMarkHenry. I also use regular email messages and blog posts as well as community forums to address the people in the community. The connections are essential because the community can have two-way connections with me and we can be an even stronger district as a result. I’m currently the Chairman of the Board of the Cy-Fair Houston Chamber of Commerce, and I have been a longtime advocate of the importance of the business community and school district working together. I have always had the belief that in order for a community to be successful you must have a strong community public school district. Research shows that a strong public school system is the key for thriving businesses, stronger faith-based organizations, lower crime rates and strong property values.
Q: What are some projects CFISD has planned for the near future?
A: We have already broken ground on our 19th middle school and have purchased land for our 13th high school. Growth has been a characteristic of CFISD since our inception and we aren’t stopping anytime soon. The community has been supportive in helping us fund that growth with the passage of four bonds this century - 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2014. CFISD’s philosophy is not only to build new schools for growth, but to also invest into our more mature communities by renovating campuses to ensure that all students, regardless of their zip code, have the same access to quality facilities, programs and curriculum.
Q: What is a common perception about public schools that, in your opinion, is false?
A: Whenever I hear the word “failing” used with public schools, it upsets me. Anyone who walks inside one of our schools will see “success” happening everywhere around them. I have found that most critics of public education will become supporters once they take a walk through our schools and observe some of our programs and curriculum. Whenever I hear someone make the statement that schools have not changed in 40 to 50 years, (that) tells me (it’s) someone that hasn’t stepped foot into a campus in years.
Q: CFISD has many programs encouraging post-secondary education. What is the value of encouraging students to take the next step?
A: Never before have students had such opportunities to thrive right away. Many of them earn certifications enabling them to enter high-paying jobs in the workforce upon graduation. Our college academy partnership with Lone Star College is enabling students to earn a two-year degree by the time they graduate high school. We piloted the program at one high school, Cypress Lakes, in 2017-2018 for 140 students. We have since expanded to five high schools and have more than 560 students enrolled. For the incredibly low cost of $72 per 3-hour course, we feel like this academy will change lives and alter futures almost immediately. The “next step” is really the “current step” in CFISD in 2018-2019.
Q: As school safety becomes a concern nationwide, what is your approach to safety as a superintendent?
A: Being proactive and vigilant is key. We were fortunate to plan years in advance to make safety components essential in the construction of all our new campuses. Our 2014 bond referendum allocated $55 million for safety and security initiatives. Now we are recognized by architecture companies such as PBK as a national leader in school safety. In 2011, we formed the Cypress-Fairbanks Police Department and to date have 108 commissioned police officers and 3 K-9s. The additional efforts we implemented this past summer are all layers that contribute to the overall goal of keeping every single student and staff member safe in our schools. See http://www.cfisd.net/safety for details of the CFISD Safety and Security Action Plan.
Q: What makes CFISD stand out from surrounding school districts?
A: I call CFISD the “littlest big district” you’ll ever see. This community is so supportive of our public schools. …We do not subscribe to “haves” and “have nots.” Opportunity for all means every student in our district gets the best chance to succeed with high-quality facilities, top-of-the-line educators and rigorous and differentiated curriculum and instruction.