By Joshua Benton
BYNUM, Texas — You can’t buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas in Bynum, population 225.
But, thanks to a core of teachers who demanded change a decade ago, you can get a good education.
“It’s amazing to see some of the things our kids can do with the right support,” said Polly Boyd, a former teacher who is now superintendent.
Bynum is one of only eight school districts in Texas to be rated “exemplary” for the last six years. It’s also evidence that high standards, hard-working teachers and individual attention can produce results in any school, anywhere.
“This school’s got a reputation for pushing you,” said senior Justin Elliott.
The town itself is just 20 blocks, boxed in by gravel alleys and cornfields. Ever since the liquor store shut down, the school district’s 84 square miles do not include a single store, unless you count the post office.
The closest town of any size is Hillsboro (pop. 8,232), the I-35 outlet mall capital. And for years, student dreams didn’t extend much further.
“These are poor kids,” Ms. Boyd said. “They’re great kids, but some of them probably have never seen an escalator.”
In the 1980s, Bynum School – the district’s one campus, holding students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade – didn’t do much to inspire optimism.
“Abbott a neighboring district was focused on academics and we weren’t,” said Edward Sumrall, the school’s counselor/speech teacher/golf coach. “The smart kids would go there.”
The district went through four superintendents in a five-year stretch; for a time, the Texas Education Agency posted a monitor in Bynum to make sure the administration was functioning properly. To save money, the school hired only first-year teachers and paid them the lowest salaries allowed by state law. As soon as they learned how to teach, they fled.
“People were saying, ‘Just shut it down, send our tax money somewhere else,'” Mr. Sumrall said.
Teachers speak up
In 1992, the school board was ready to search for yet another superintendent. But Ms. Boyd and a few other teachers were tired of the revolving door. They approached the board and asked that it not hire a superintendent. We know what this school needs, they said. Let us tackle Bynum’s problems.
“We told each other, ‘We’ve either got to find jobs someplace else or turn this around,'” said Ms. Boyd, the school’s principal at the time.
They asked for the ability to offer higher salaries. Once granted, they went on a recruiting spree, targeting experienced teachers in neighboring districts that paid the state minimum.
“We told everyone, ‘We’re going to make this the best little school in Texas,'” Ms. Boyd said.
Together, they searched other area districts for the best academic programs, putting a strong focus on reading. They put a new layer of paint on the run-down school building. Teachers began to view improving the school as a common cause.
“If you say something bad about our school, you’ll have 30 teachers down your neck in an instant,” said school board vice president Jack Tucker.
Researchers often argue on behalf of small schools, saying they create better learning environments than the thousands-strong throngs of some campuses. It’s impossible for a kid not to get individual attention at Bynum, which has only about 230 students from Bynum and neighboring towns.
“You can’t hide in the back of the room here – we know everything about everyone,” said Charlotte Anderson, the school’s principal/librarian/curriculum director/special education teacher. (In Bynum ISD, no one wears just one hat.)
Because of its size, Bynum has only one or two teachers in each subject. Students often have the same teacher in each subject from sixth grade on. On a campus of solid teachers, the star everyone points to is Sara Dubose. For nine years, she has taught math from seventh grade to graduation.
She has a unique style. When the class approaches a new concept, Ms. Dubose explains it only generally. “I want a slight feeling of discomfort,” she said. “Your mind has to grab at the concept if you’re going to really understand it.”
Students then work a problem set in class. As soon as they’ve completed the set’s first four problems, they raise their hands. Ms. Dubose comes over and checks their work immediately.
“They get instant feedback,” she said. “If they’re not understanding something, you find out what the problem is right away. They’re not going to get by without learning how to answer these questions.”
Seventh-graders sometimes react negatively to Ms. Dubose’s methods, unsure how to respond. But once they see the results, they come around. And since she’ll be teaching them for the next six years, difficult adjustments only happen once.
“She’s awesome,” said junior Stephanie Reece, who wants to be a doctor. “I came here not knowing a thing about math, and now I’m awesome at it.”
After a few years with Ms. Dubose, it’s not unusual for special education students to get A’s in precalculus. Last year, the statewide passing rate for the Algebra I end-of-course exam was about 60 percent. In Bynum, it was 100 percent. (Bynum had perfect passing rates on all four of the state’s end-of-course exams last year – algebra, biology, U.S. history and English.)
With that kind of success comes confidence – a key element for a student body of farmers’ sons and daughters, some of whom might not know their full capabilities.
“We have parents who say, ‘Well, I wasn’t good at math, so I don’t expect my child to be good at math,'” Ms. Dubose said. “We’ve got to show them what they can do.”
A decade ago, perhaps one or two Bynum graduates might enroll in college each year – usually nothing farther away than Hill College, the two-year school in Hillsboro.
In last year’s graduating class, 20 of the 21 students went on to college. (The other one entered the military.) Fifteen of them graduated with the state’s tougher “recommended” or “distinguished” diploma – a rate more than double the state average.
Ten of the 21 students had already earned college credit by the time they left Bynum, thanks to a dual-enrollment plan with Hill College.
Every once in a while, people still talk about consolidating Bynum with neighboring school districts. Bynum spends about $1,300 more per student than the state average. It chooses to pay for a full-time counselor, a full-time nurse, and other niceties rural districts typically lack.
But that talk gets quieter with every test score, every college admission and every educated child the district produces.
“There are kids in larger districts who fall through the cracks,” Ms. Boyd said. “Here, we’ll never let that happen. We’ll do whatever it takes to let them learn.”