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Thirty-five years after its founding, the San Antonio Women’s Hall of Fame has created a legacy of recognizing outstanding women who have made significant contributions in their respective fields.
Lila Cockrell, Edith McAllister, and Jocelyn Straus were among the first class of women inducted into the hall. This year, 14 women will join the ranks at an induction gala on March 23. The 2019 class includes four who shaped San Antonio’s education landscape during almost 150 years combined in education.
Below are the stories of the four education honorees: Doris Slay-Barber, who helped design systems that keep schools running; Francine Romero, who emphasized community engagement at a rapidly changing University of Texas at San Antonio; Donnie Whited, who changed the way an alternative school treated its students; and Adelina Silva, whose passion for student success led her to create programs to support Alamo Colleges students facing challenges.
A member of the ‘Crayola crowd’ exceeds expectations
Doris Slay-Barber can barely believe that a young girl who grew up in rural Texas chopping weeds, picking corn, and milking cows grew up to have such an impact on San Antonio schools. But looking back at her more than four-decade career in education, she sees her legacy: School districts still use versions of the software she helped create to schedule classes, create transcripts, and report data to the Texas Education Agency.
It probably wasn’t a surprise to her siblings – Slay-Barber was the oldest of six children and eager to adopt a teacher role. When her brothers and sister were young, Slay-Barber would teach them the alphabet before they started school.
It is no wonder that Slay-Barber grew up wanting to be a teacher, even promising her superintendent she would return to East Central Independent School District to teach after college. She attended San Antonio College and then St. Mary’s University.
In the decade Slay-Barber would spend working in East Central, she taught everything from kindergarten to seventh grade. Kindergarten wasn’t required at the time, Slay-Barber said, so many kids came to school without any exposure to reading. This started her on a quest to find better reading programs.
Along the way, Slay-Barber began interacting with Region 20, one of the state’s regional education service agencies that support public schools. Region 20 was so impressed by Slay-Barber that they hired her. She worked in the technology and instructional services department, developing computer programs to assist school districts.
Slay-Barber recalls her director saying he didn’t think she would work out in the department because she was part of the “Crayola crowd.”
“That’s what they called the teachers,” Slay-Barber said. “Well, it worked out. I spent 17 years there. If you challenge me like that, I will work even harder.”
Over the next two decades, Slay-Barber worked with a version of software that districts still use. The program computerized registration, attendance, report cards, student transcripts, and other essential components of a school’s operations.
After working with districts from Eagle Pass to La Vernia, Slay-Barber wanted to have an impact on a smaller scale. In the early 2000s, she moved to Northside ISD and began crafting training for some of the software she had previously helped design and implement.
It was important to Slay-Barber that all staff in the district had access to training, not just the administrators. One of the highlights of her career was seeing Northside staff get recruited by other districts because of their training.
But her career was not without challenges. When Slay-Barber was pursuing her master’s degree, she was away from her son for long periods of time. To overcome the separation, she would record stories and observations on cassette tapes to be played back for him while she was gone.
“It is one of those things that so many women face, but you do what you have to do to fulfill your job and keep your employer happy and fulfill your own personal goals,” Slay-Barber said.
Slay-Barber advises other women interested in pursuing an education career to never be afraid to take on new opportunities. Doing so led Slay-Barber to a 40-year career that took her to unexpected places.
Engaging the community at UTSA
Francine Romero never saw herself as a university administrator, but once she was promoted to associate dean at UTSA, she thrived. Her new role allowed her to pull the community onto campus in ways that had never been done before.
“You know how it is with most people who get their Ph.D., they sort of slide sideways into education,” Romero said. “They give you a little bit of training in how to be a teacher, but it is very minimal. Then all of a sudden you have a job at a university.”
After growing up in New Jersey, studying in California, and working at Middle Tennessee State University, Romero moved to San Antonio. UTSA hired her in the late 1990s as an adjunct professor, and a little more than a decade later she was promoted to associate dean of the College of Public Policy. Throughout her career, she taught classes on land use and planning law, administrative law, public administration, and public policy.
Skeptical of her new responsibilities as associate dean at first, Romero found she loved the job. Part of her new role was building a greater public connection to UTSA’s Downtown Campus.
So when then-Mayor Julián Castro called a colleague of Romero’s to ask if the campus would host the launch of SA 2020, an initiative that targets and tracks progress on goals for San Antonio’s future development, and the colleague wasn’t interested, Romero immediately responded.
“What? Get him back on the phone!” Romero recalls saying. “We’ve got to get people onto campus.”
Since that event in 2011, Romero has worked to grow UTSA’s role downtown through community engagement. She pushes her students to get involved through service learning and community projects and leads panel discussions on campus for community members and students.
There’s still much progress to be made, but Romero can see the community becoming a much bigger part of the downtown university’s campus culture.
“Sometimes it is hard if we have an event on a Thursday night, we might not have a lot of people there,” Romero said. “Engagement with the community will come more naturally. I see it when people start asking us when the next event is.”
Bringing students and the community together is one of the most satisfying pieces of her job, Romero said.
A different approach to alternative schools
Donnie Whited roots for the underdog. In her first teaching job in San Antonio, Whited worked with special education students at Sam Houston High School. Decades later, Whited would go on to lead San Antonio ISD’s alternative school for five years, altering the way district staff and others viewed her students who had been placed there because of behavioral issues.
Whited’s first teaching experience at Sam Houston carried her forward to roles at Davis Middle and Jefferson High schools. When it came time for a promotion, her bosses encouraged her to apply for the principal position at nearby Navarro High School. Instead, Whited was interested in a vacancy at Estrada Achievement Center, San Antonio ISD’s alternative school.
Campuses around the district sent students with behavioral issues to Estrada. The typical student stayed for about a month and then returned to their home campus. Whited’s mission as the school’s principal was to treat each student with honor, dignity, and respect.
“I wanted them to know that they were not throwaways as they were on their campus,” Whited said.
Without any mandated state testing, Whited was free to alter the campus so it would benefit the kids attending. She assigned each student a team named after a Texas college. When new students arrived, they were given the rank of rookie and could move up to varsity based on their behavior.
Whited used prizes to award attendance and named a “Shepherd of the Week” for students that acted as leaders. Students were assigned to service learning projects and played organized sports to foster a feeling of being on a team.
In her five years leading the campus, Whited learned about the impact of trauma on students and emphasized treating students’ mental health needs. She formed partnerships with local mental health care providers. The campus became a training ground for other SAISD staff who wanted to become aware of the way trauma impacts a students’ experience in school.
When students would return to their home campuses, Whited said she would hear that administrators had remarked on their transformations. Whited recalled one student who came to Estrada with his shoes on the wrong way. When he returned to his campus, Sam Houston High School, he
started urging his peers to go to class and served as a hall monitor. Sam Houston’s principal called Whited and told her that the student “thought he was the principal.”
For Whited that was the perfect illustration of what Estrada could do – if you treat students with dignity and respect, they can be leaders.
“I want people to care about the underdog, the at-risk kid, the kid who is the … most disruptive kid on campus, because that student needs attention,” Whited said.
Supporting students as they face challenges
Adelina Silva is the child of parents who hadn’t completed high school. For her, school was a refuge and a place she could show she was equal to her peers by paying attention and asking questions.
And when Silva walked onto San Antonio College’s campus in the 1970s and saw a course catalog with all of the school’s offerings, she was struck by the opportunities it represented.
“The counselor handed the catalog to me and I asked how much it was – I wanted to buy it from him,” she said. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘For you, it’s free.’ When he said that, it really energized and motivated me.”
Decades later, after obtaining both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in four years, Silva now oversees the production of that same course catalog in her role as the vice chancellor for student success at Alamo Colleges.
The South Texas native’s passion is creating systems and programs that propel students to success. Early in her career, Silva realized her heart was in adult higher education, so she returned to the same community campus to work in SAC’s counseling office. There, she helped set up a career library and a women’s center to help female students returning to school after some time away.
“In 1981, we opened it up without a lot of funding and in borrowed space,” Silva said. “Faculty volunteered to staff the center for emergencies or drop-ins. We immediately started documenting – one of my trademarks – and in one year, we had 5,000 slips of paper detailing different visitors.”
The Women’s Center is still in operation today.
More recently, Silva helped to launch AlamoADVISE alongside Chancellor Mike Flores, who was then serving as Palo Alto College’s president. The program aims to have a 350-to-1 student-to-advisor ratio in the community college system.
Through her four decades in education, Silva tries to keep in mind how she felt as a young student with little money to pay for classes. That’s why she says she’ll do everything she can to keep course catalogs free.
“When we look at budgets and someone suggests we start charging for the catalog, I remember the feeling I had when it was free for me,” Silva said. “If I can do anything to prevent that, I will. It was a big impact on my own experience.”