Unexpected Excellence

Sometimes, it doesn't take much to acquire a bad reputation.  Lots of different circumstances can contribute to such a fate. Rehabilitating a tarnished image typically takes far more time and effort. I see this daily while working on the Abilene Neighborhood Initiative. A shop goes out of business because it is located in a neighborhood that has become considered "less safe." A church building is left vacant because its parishioners moved out of the area, so the church moved as well. Homes drop in value because other homes nearby are empty. The problem with basing judgments on reputation is that reputations don't always accurately reflect reality. One of the joys of my job is looking beyond the reputation of a place to see it for what it truly is. This is why I'm so excited to share about the Woodson Center for Excellence.

I met with Woodson's principal, Kathryn Walker, early in February. For starters, she was delightful, and her passion for the students was clear through every interaction with them and the faculty. She explained that Woodson has a bit of an image problem. Often, people mistake WCE for a "bad school," and think it's the place students are sent to if they have discipline problems. While I could not remember where or how I had heard this, I do remember having that impression about the school. As we chatted in her office, toured the facilities, and met some students and teachers, that preconceived notion fell away.

First off, we delved into some history of Woodson. In the era of Jim Crow segregation, Woodson served as the African-American school in Abilene. The Rams wore green and white, and the school served students from K-12. Many local community leaders attended and graduated from Woodson High School, and the school is still widely respected and honored, especially within the Black community. The school was later repurposed to serve mentally handicapped students for several years, before the Abilene Independent School District changed it to its current incarnation. With so much fluctuation in purpose, establishing and bolstering a positive identity can certainly be difficult.

Just as in the past, Woodson continues to serve Abilene students in a variety of ways. Two main programs, Bridges and Excel, form the backbone of the work done at the WCE. Bridges exists to help middle school students catch up in school if they are 15 years old and not yet in high school. The program focuses on helping students complete 8th and 9th grade in one year, and allowing them to earn credits towards graduation. Excel is a program students in local high schools can choose if they are 17 years old and at risk of not graduating on time. This program works to ensure that students earn enough credits to graduate with their peers.

Smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with teachers were two of the immediate positives I noticed while touring the campus. Principal Walker knew students by name while walking through the halls, and her rapport with them was readily apparent.  She acknowledged that the job was difficult at times, because many of these students have been conditioned to believe that they cannot achieve good grades or earn a diploma. Her hand-picked staff are masterful at proving that such assumptions are false, and a bulletin board overflowing with names of last year's graduates backs up the staff's assertions.

The Woodson Center for Excellence is located on 342 Cockerell Drive, which is in the middle of the Stevenson neighborhood. Along with WCE, Stevenson has also suffered from a poor reputation at times. My guess would be that both reputations have rubbed off on each other, which is a shame since both share so many wonderful people, memories, and histories of making life better for those around them.

But there is good news as to the reputation of both the school and the neighborhood. First and foremost, the best news is that the negative beliefs about both are not true. I've seen firsthand how welcoming and friendly many of the Stevenson residents are, and just outlined the great work going on in Woodson. Beyond that, the work of restoring the image of both is already underway. With every person who learns what WCE and Stevenson are really like, old notions of their negatives will fade and the truth will shine through.

So I encourage you to take action. First off, if you don't believe me or want proof for yourself that there is much more good than bad in Stevenson or Woodson, go seek that proof out! Walk the halls of the WCE, sit down with Principal Walker, and meet some students who are thankful for the opportunity to work towards graduation. Stroll down Cockerell Drive with me, let Gigi invite you in for a cup of coffee, or put in an hour of good work in the community garden. Good is so very evident if you are willing to look.

Also, I want you to be ready to stand up for this neighborhood and this school. If someone brings up Woodson or starts to talk about the neighborhood down the hill from ACU, make sure that the conversation is rooted in truth and not hearsay. I doubt people mean to propagate rumors, but even good intentions can be misleading. If someone suggests that Woodson or Stevenson (or any neighborhood/school, for that matter) are all bad, it's worth noting the good you know about them. If only negatives are being said about these places, it makes sense for people to only think negative things about them. As an informed citizen, you are now equipped with knowledge that can help change the reputation of two great places. And that, dare I say, would be excellent.