WISD administrator looks for ways to serve students, community
By Sonia Duggan
When Elizabeth “Liz” Garrett started student teaching at Northeast ISD in San Antonio 48 years ago, little did she know she would culminate her career making a difference for the underserved students at Wylie ISD.
Her lifelong love of learning, teaching, and guiding students to help them reach their potential – no matter what the obstacle – has had many high points over the years. She has worked as a teacher, a principal, and as a consultant for Region I and Region 10 Education Service Centers until Wylie ISD hired her 11 years ago after relocating to the area.
As the Special Programs and Special Services Coordinator for the district, Garrett manages Federal Programs and Special Services under Renee Truncale, Ph.D., the department director. The federal programs include Title I, II, III and IV students, and the Special Services aspect deals with homeless, migrant, foster care and pre-K students. Over $1 million in funding is managed by the department and Garrett’s responsibilities include applying for grants and finding funding opportunities for the programs.
After a decade with Wylie ISD her passion for the job has not waned. She loves her department because she believes they are helping people at a bigger level and making a big impact.
“You can’t fix it all but you can make it better. People have hope knowing you are going to give them help or listen,” she said.
Garrett is quick to give accolades to Truncale and the team, Intervention Coordinator Belinda Feuerbacher, District Translator Sandra Pineda-Hernandez, and ELL (English-language learners) Coordinator Diana Pecorino, who work in the Special Services Department to ensure that the needs of students are met and they have access to, and can enjoy, the benefits of a quality education.
Because of her role in the district, Garrett is very aware of the challenges and the needs of the homeless. With the passage of the McKinney-Vento Act in 1987, coordinators or district liaisons must identify the students in need and see they get the necessary services to be successful. Under the Act, the term “homeless children and youths” means individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and includes children and youths: who are sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.
While some individuals think Wylie has no homeless, that is simply not the case. Over the years, and with growth, the numbers have changed but the school year average is around 67-72 students.
“I have had as many as 180, but right now there are exactly 70 kids identified as active homeless,” she said. “If I could do anything, I just want to increase awareness of how to identify homeless kids,” Garrett said.
In the district, most of the students identified as homeless are with family and five are unaccompanied youth. Garrett said sometimes aunts, uncles and grandparents suddenly become caregivers. Once she knows of the situation she steps in to offer help, though often they are resistant – their pride being the biggest barrier.
“It’s hard to say ‘I need help,’” she said. “Bottom line is we are a resource. We want people to take advantage of us.”
April 2016 was one year that was truly an exception as many students and their families became homeless after the hailstorm hit, and destroyed, many Wylie homes. Many were forced to live in hotels or with relatives or friends outside the city, forcing transportation challenges for her department. The state mandates transportation must be provided to or from a student’s school of origin.
“Our highest number of homeless kids was the year of the hailstorm,” she said. “We had over 400 students,” Garrett said. “In spite of the large numbers, WISD managed,” Garrett said. “We ran out of money on the grant side but had federal funds. We were very fortunate.”
With no emergency shelter in Wylie for the homeless to turn to, Garrett said they have made adjustments over the years as needed. “ I do have an agreement with First Baptist Wylie if we get in a pinch and need to have a family come spend the night, but it’s only happened one time in 10 years,” she said.
Garrett believes her early years teaching at a migrant school in Mission CISD helped prepare her for the job that she has today.
“While I had multiple teaching opportunities in Mission CISD, all of which prepared me for the deeper understanding of homelessness and poverty, the Rio Grande Valley, specifically Hidalgo County, was the poorest county in Texas at the time.”
In her job as a campus facilitator at Cantu Elementary in the early 80s, Garrett saw homes that consisted of chicken coops, cardboard housing, dirt floors, shanties, and more.
“Homelessness in the valley is different because it’s very cultural to take in an individual, a family member, or anyone in need,” she said. “So often it may not be viewed as homelessness, however, having a home and losing it for whatever reason is homelessness.”
The process of identifying students in need or homeless is a thorough one starting with the WISD online enrollment process. In Texas, most districts choose to use a student residency questionnaire (SRQ) to help determine whether or not students qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act. Wylie is no different.
When students enroll they are asked two basic questions regarding their living situation that may flag them as homeless, and depending on their response, they may be flagged and given a SRQ with more questions as to why they are in the situation they are in.
The SRQ’s are turned in to the school counselor then sent to Garrett who previews them before returning them to the counselors. Once counselors find a determination of need for items such as field trips, school supplies, clothing or basic hygiene items, they submit a requisition. Once approved, they (counselors or Garrett’s office) can start shopping with the students for items needed. Over the years, and with growth in the district, the process is now streamlined.
According to the Texas Education Agency, students on Title-I campuses may receive additional supplemental services to the services being provided on their campus through the Title-I, Part A set-asides as well. Services may include: personal school supplies, items of clothing that are necessary to meet a school’s dress requirement, immunizations, supplemental counseling services, tutoring, costs associated with credit recovery, or other similar activities to address a child’s opportunity for school success.
“We’ve gotten too big so we figured out how to handle it (shopping) without dropping everything in the middle of the day,” Garrett said.
With extra grant funds this year, Garrett was able to hire a family liaison to help families shop for basic necessities including hygiene items and clothes and jackets for school.
“When the state endowed us with a bit more money to serve these children, Liz quickly went to work to provide the homeless community a Spanish speaking liaison,” Truncale said.
Garrett hired Yolanda Morton, a long-time community member and retired English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher from Hartman Elementary. Truncale reported that in addition to hiring Morton, Garrett reserved a portion of the (extra) funds to assist the transportation department for busing the students when circumstances require this service.
Last December, the department adopted and shopped for 70 children for Christmas who were identified as active homeless. Basic essential-type gifts were provided using grant funds while the district-wide Wylie Way program provided more specialized gifts for qualifying children.
Celebrating student success is big for Garrett. She speaks proudly of the fact that in the 2016-’17 school year the district had 12 homeless seniors and they had 12 graduate. She said she loves it when program students come to her their senior year and ask for a letter for their FAFSA (Free application for Federal Student Aid).
“The excitement comes from knowing that they were able to do something so they could stay in school and later go to college,” she said. “Most kids in the program finish. It’s not me. It’s the district. It’s the team. It’s the family of who we are.”
Though Garrett plans to retire at the end of the school year, she admits she’ll miss the interaction.
“My hope is just because the person changes, the need shouldn’t,” she said. “Counselors know what to do. I’m not worried.”
There’s no doubt Garrett will stay busy though. She remains passionate about serving those in need – not just on behalf of the school district – but outside her job as well.
“Working for the Wylie ISD isn’t just a job for Liz, it’s her calling. She has a deep concern for the homeless and for those in need within our community,” Jon Bailey, missions pastor for First Baptist Church Wylie said.
Through the years, Garrett has continued to support the local effort to communicate the needs of the homeless in Collin County by participating in Collin County Homeless Alliance meetings, and, along with Bailey and others, has investigated opportunities available in Wylie to help the homeless as well. “Part of the goals of this team are to explore, listen to and find opportunities to assist,” she said.
Garrett and her husband, Mike, have developed deep roots in the community. They have two sons, both educators, and five grandchildren; three currently attending Wylie schools. As active members of FBC Wylie, the couple serves with the ministries of the church. In addition, Garrett is also part of the Community Resources Group that is made up of different churches, organizations, and charities in the area that work together to meet the needs of families who need assistance.
“Through the group we have been able to coordinate our efforts more effectively to reach and resource those in need,” Bailey said. “Liz is always busy trying for look for solutions to show love to people in the community who she serves.”