News Archives - HCTC

Improving Lives One Student at a Time

Families & Literacy, Inc. offers adult education

Mindy Wendele holder Pre-GED book while standing in door wayEducation can unlock doors to a host of opportunities, and one organization in Kerrville works to ensure everyone has a key.

Families & Literacy, Inc. serves 300 adult students annually in a five-county area. “Our students are solicited through word of mouth, business and community contacts for folks who need a little help meeting their educational goals,” says Executive Director Mindy Wendele.

Students complete coursework that can better the circumstances of entire families. “Our students’ ages are 17 to 97. It’s truly adults,” Wendele says. “If we can help the adults in the family be better educated, they can help their children, their grandchildren and so forth.”

Students pay a maximum of $135 a semester, or roughly 19% of the true cost. “Our board feels very strongly that all of our students should have a financial investment in their education goals,” Wendele says.

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE

Luisa Loyola takes the GED assessment test.
Luisa Loyola takes the GED
assessment test.

There is a robust English as a second language program, with six levels of ESL classes. The most advanced students recently replaced textbooks with laptops. “It’s helping the students feel more comfortable using a computer, and, of course, they’re learning high-level English at the same time,” Wendele says. The laptops stay in the classroom, but students can access the web-based program to complete assignments from their home computers, their phones or public computers at the library.

HCTC provides the broadband connection that makes innovations like this possible. “Our relationship with HCTC is wonderful,” Wendele says. “They are such an important part of our everyday world. They support so many nonprofits by providing sponsorships for events and fundraisers, personnel to work and volunteer, and providing the technology for our computers that we live and breathe with every day. They are there constantly to help us do our mission to help our students and their families, and thus help our community.”

EARNING A DIPLOMA

Students working to earn their high school diplomas begin by taking a skills assessment. “The diversity of our students is huge,” Wendele says. “The younger the student, the closer to the time that they were in some sort of organized classroom. Obviously, the older ones have been away from it a lot longer, so there are different levels and abilities. If they can master these assessments, age doesn’t make any difference.”

Aides come in as needed to assist students. “We have a wonderful relationship with our local university here in Kerrville, and so we use their students to help our students in those cases,” she says.

PREPARING TO JOIN THE MELTING POT

Julie Zuver looks on as Brianna Wood takes the GED assessment test.
Julie Zuver looks on as Brianna Wood takes the GED assessment test.

Immigrants working to obtain U.S. citizenship also find support at Families & Literacy. The civics and U.S. government class prepares them for the 100-question multiple-choice test and the oral interview they must pass in order to become naturalized citizens.

“It’s a long, long journey, and it’s expensive,” Wendele says. “We try to raise as much money as we can to keep the cost down for our students. They’re going to have all kinds of expenses with immigration attorneys and all of those things, so the least expensive thing is us.”

COMMUNITY PARTNERS

Families & Literacy provides course materials and volunteer instructors, and community partnerships provide the classrooms. “We have a situation where our classes need to be in the evenings because these are adults and they’re working,” Wendele says. “All of our classroom space is mainly with First United Methodist Church, and then we also branch out to our First Presbyterian Church. It’s their education buildings, and they’re not being used so much in the evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it works out beautifully.”

Working parents don’t need to worry about finding a sitter — child care is provided. “It makes a huge difference,” Wendele says. “That has been a stumbling block for many years because, obviously, if you’re trying to work all day long when the children may be in school or day care, and then you’re trying to take classes at night, if you don’t have anyplace to take them, that’s another expense. We’re so blessed that the Methodist church provides staffing for our students’ children. That really does help.”

SPREADING THE WORD

Students who complete the courses sing the program’s praises and often refer others. “Many of our students who have been successful with us become our greatest advocates, our greatest ambassadors to help others,” Wendele says. “Those folks become our champions to have other people come to us and say, ‘Help me now.’”

For more information on Families & Literacy, including a class schedule and details on donating and volunteering, visit familiesandliteracy.org.

A Class of Their Own

Broadband brings education to students on their schedule

Students sitting at desks with headphones on listen to laptopsIn 2012, Aziza Zemrani was busily putting together an accelerated online program for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The curriculum would allow students to complete courses they need in just seven weeks from anywhere in the valley or beyond. But there was a lingering concern about handling presentations using the available online technology.

“I needed them to present so I could see their skills and competency in communication,” Zemrani says. “We use Blackboard Collaborate, which allows for face-to-face engagement and interaction. But my colleagues were worried about how it would work if we had a student with a disability.”

As if in answer to those concerns, the program’s first cohort group in 2013 included one deaf student, Phillip Robinson. When it came time for each student to present that June, the university’s Center for Online Learning and Teaching Technology worked with the disability office to arrange for a sign language interpreter to present with him.

“He presented live with his classmate, and it was beautiful,” Zemrani says. “He was almost in tears telling me this was the first time he was able to present live like that in an academic setting.”

Robinson graduated in December, joining hundreds of other students who have come through the accelerated online program of the university in Edinburg, Texas. While Zemrani originally expected the program to appeal primarily to students from outside the state or even the country, it has also been popular among local students in the valley looking to fast-track their education.

“Some of these students might be working two jobs, so they can’t fit traditional classes into their schedule,” she says. “With the online program, because of the course delivery and structure, students can take up to two more modules and finish in one year.”

A PLACE TO START

Online courses like the ones offered at UTRGV are taking off across the country thanks to improved broadband access. But with so many online options available to students, it can be daunting to figure out which one is the best fit. That’s why the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system contracted with Distance Minnesota to act as a single point of contact for all online students in 2004.

Distance Minnesota was founded as a consortium of three local colleges that wanted to offer online courses. Today, the organization partners with 37 colleges and universities throughout the state, answering any questions prospective or current students may have about their online options.

“We do chat, phone assistance and email assistance seven days a week,” says Distance Minnesota Executive Director Lisa Leahy. “In all, we handle approximately 25,000 student inquiries a year.”

But more than acting as a helpline for students, Distance Minnesota compiles data on the programs each school offers and the level of interest in each course. This makes the organization a resource for schools deciding which classes to offer online and for students looking to fulfill a specific course requirement. That help is particularly important for making online programs accessible to out-of-state or international students.

“Throughout our nearly 20-year history with the school system, we’ve come to understand what each of the individual universities has to offer,” Leahy says. “Many of us have worked closely with the faculty and the administration on these campuses. So if a student has a specialized need for a certain class, we can tell them the best course is at this school, and often we’re able to put them in touch directly, whether they’re in Argentina, California or New York.”

VIRTUAL HIGH

Students sitting at desks with headphones on listen to laptopsCollege coursework isn’t the only level at which online programs are giving students more flexibility. Connections Academy, a nationwide program that offers tuition-free online K-12 public schooling in 28 states, launched a new online academy last fall in Tennessee. Since it opened, the academy has grown from about 750 students to 1,300 enrolled.

The Tennessee Connections Academy is authorized by Robertson County Public Schools, though it is available to students throughout the state. The system was already using a virtual curriculum from Connections Academy’s parent company, Pearson, to offer online classes to approximately 50 students. So it was a natural partnership to work together to bring that same experience to students across the state.

“It’s a unique learning environment with certified teachers in all subject areas for the kids,” says Derek Sanborn, principal at Tennessee Connections Academy. “The students are able to interact with their teachers and other kids with live lessons throughout the week. They receive textbooks and other materials at each level, and it’s all at no cost to the parent.”

The online academy is held to the same standards as any public school in the state, and students are required to attend for sixand- a-half hours each day. The program has been a good fit for kids who may be homebound, live in remote areas, or even be on traveling sports teams, allowing students to complete their hours in the evening or on weekends.

“We also have students who may have been bullied in their school or didn’t feel safe. Maybe the traditional setting wasn’t motivating for them,” Sanborn says. “I think giving parents that choice is really important because they get to decide what’s best for their kids.”

NEW ENGAGEMENT

Even with the increasing quality of online classes, there are still challenges educators work to overcome, including engaging students.

One way Tennessee Connections Academy attempts to address this issue is by scheduling in-person field trips, allowing families to meet and connect with their teachers and other students.

In her own classes, Zemrani has recorded live classroom sessions and used apps like Flipgrid to allow students to record short intro videos about themselves. While engagement continues to be a challenge for any online course, she believes finding new solutions is well worth the investment.

“We have students in the military who may be called to serve somewhere in the middle of their program,” Zemrani says. “The online course is a great opportunity for them to finish their program when they might not otherwise be able to. Broadband is so important to that.”

Turning Intuition Into Ambition

School district puts technology into students’ hands

From pre-K students using touch screens to learn their ABCs to high schoolers studying computer science, the Ingram Independent School District is preparing children to thrive in a digital world.

A NEW WAY OF LEARNING

Young male at computer creating graphic on screenBy the time children are old enough for school, they’re already familiar with devices like tablets and smartphones, so making technology part of the classroom experience is a natural progression. “Kids live in a technology-driven world,” says Ingram ISD Assistant Superintendent Mindy Curran, adding that students’ preexisting interest in technology makes for a smooth transition. “It’s intuitive for the kids. They are plugged in all the time.”

In elementary classrooms, web-based programs are building reading and math skills, while middle schoolers are using a program called Naviance to explore what careers align with their interests and strengths. The technological offerings ramp up for older students. Ingram Tom Moore High School is one of a growing number of schools across the country with a cybersecurity program, and Curran says the 3-year-old program is popular.

“There are a few high schools out there doing this now, because the workforce push is there,” she says. “We have not had to limit it, but I will tell you, that teacher’s schedule is running really tight. Right now, it’s been a really good, solid-running program. We’ve added students every year.” Eighth graders are now able to take the introductory cybersecurity class. “The younger the student, the more interest there is,” Curran says. “It keeps trickling down, and they get more excited, which draws in more kids.”

KEEPING CONNECTED

Andrew Burroughs and Taylor Alexander are students at Ingram Tom Moore High School.
Andrew Burroughs and Taylor
Alexander are students at Ingram
Tom Moore High School.

A solid broadband connection, provided to the district by HCTC, is essential to Ingram ISD’s daily operations. It affects everything from communication between parents and teachers to high school students taking classes for college credit. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s not just a piece of what we do. It’s so ingrained into just your day-to-day functioning,” Curran says, “so you need a strong, reliable internet provider.”

The increasing focus on technology and the addition of courses of study like cybersecurity seek to position students for success. “The job demand is just huge, so when we were looking at a potential redesign of some of our pathways a few years ago, we were looking at the upand- coming job demands that are there,” Curran says.

“It’s great if you have a four-year degree or an advanced degree, but you don’t have to have that to have a job waiting for you,” she says. “There are postsecondary certifications you can get that will get you a job. Those are high-wage, high-demand jobs waiting for students, so that’s what drove it.”

Money Matters: Turn to Online Tools

Graphic of computer with tax form on screen and money in the backgroundTax season is far from anyone’s favorite time of the year, but it’s a good opportunity to take stock of your finances. In the past, this may have meant visiting an accountant or sitting down at the kitchen table with shoeboxes full of statements and receipts. Fortunately, technology has made it easier to track your banking and expenses and to even keep your credit secure. All it takes is your internet connection.

MONEY MANAGEMENT

There are several money management tools on the market. Some, such as Quicken — quicken.com — are software applications that offer web and mobile options, but full functionality requires their desktop version. Others, including Personal Capital — personalcapital. com — are online services accessed through a web browser.

Regardless of which you choose, these personal finance managers allow you to view and track your spending, savings and investments in a single screen, without the need to visit different sites or remember multiple passwords. The main dashboard for Personal Capital, for example, lists your bank accounts, investments, credit card balances, personal loans, mortgage and other assets, and its colorful graphics correspond to your net worth, budget and savings.

Along with a quick-glance view of your finances, Quicken allows you to organize and pay all your bills online, as well as manage a small business. The company’s Home and Business option tracks assets and liabilities in a complete balance sheet.

Even if you are only looking for a simple way to manage your budget, these tools are worth a try. Personal Capital is a free service, and Quicken offers a starter plan for $34.99 a year.

TAXES

If your income is $69,000 or less, the IRS offers a free way to file your return: www.irs.gov/filing/free-file-do-your-federal-taxes-for-free. While the IRS offers a free option for those earning more, it is far from easy to use.

For those with a higher income who want to file from their computer, the better option is to use a commercial service, such as TurboTax, E-file.com or H&R Block.

CREDIT LOCK

Credit is an important part of your financial life, so protecting it from improper use is a must. You may have heard of “freezing” your credit, but you can also “lock” it. Both prevent creditors from accessing your credit report — protecting you from new accounts being opened without your knowledge — but there are differences between them.

Freezing your credit with all three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — is free, but Experian charges $19.99 a month for a credit lock.

Whether you choose to freeze or lock your credit, remember you are entitled by law to a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the credit reporting companies.

Shutterbugs In Training

Photography project - blurred figures sitting at dinner room tableHCTC Graphic Designer Gabe Herrera taught photography techniques to a group of seventh graders in the Destination Imagination class at Notre Dame Catholic School. This photo shows how students are using the slow shutter speed technique to practice capturing motion while the main subject of the photo is still. Destination Imagination is a hands-on learning system active in over 30 countries that fosters students’ creativity, courage and curiosity. Students complete openended challenges in the fields of STEM, fine arts and service learning. Participants learn patience, flexibility, persistence, ethics, respect for others and their ideas, and collaborative problem-solving. Teams showcase their solutions at a regional tournament, and they may go on to state and global competitions.

The Birdiest Festival in America

Cranes on wooden post
Viewing seabirds is only one reason to plan a trip to the South Texas coast.

For more than a decade, Corpus Christi has celebrated its designation as the “Birdiest City in North America.” Thousands of people flock to the coastal town every year to see the birds that pay it a visit as they migrate north and south, as well as those who call Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend home. The Coastal Bend consists of nine counties along the Gulf Coast, including Nueces County, which contains three of the best birding locations — Corpus Christi, Port Aransas/Mustang Island and Padre Island.

“Springtime is the best time to see birds in Port Aransas and the coastal area of South Texas,” says birding enthusiast Ray Dillahunty of Port Aransas. In a recent talk about our winged friends, birding expert Greg Miller said the best birding anywhere in the United States could be found in April in Nueces County. “He calculated that an active birder in Port Aransas could see 147 different species in a day,” Dillahunty says. “At the Birdiest Festival in 2019, there were two daytrip groups that saw 150-plus species in one day in Nueces County.”

Many enthusiasts describe bird-watching as hunting without a firearm. They sit sometimes for hours, waiting for their soughtafter bird to appear before taking a shot — with a camera, not a gun.

PORT ARANSAS

Port Aransas has a nature preserve, Charlie’s Pasture, that capitalizes on its birds. The preserve, which includes 1,714 acres of freshwater, brackish water and the Gulf’s saltwater, offers the perfect recipe to entice songbirds, wading birds, raptors and others, including the rarest and most endangered of all — whooping cranes — to its wetlands.

“A huge number of birders from around the world come to see the whooping cranes,” Dillahunty says. “There were 20 whoopers in the world in 1941, and today, there are over 500 wintering in the National Seashore just north of Port Aransas. We’ve had a resident pair in Charlie’s Pasture for the past two years, too.”

There are more than 750 different species of birds in North America, and 500 can be seen around the Corpus Christi area. “They are beautiful, they are ugly, they are common, they are rare,” Dillahunty says. “But they are all different in some small way. The magnificent frigatebird spends up to three months at a time over the open ocean — and its feathers are not waterproof. If it lands in the water, it drowns. How unbelievable is that?” Birding happens every day around Port Aransas, but if you’re there on a Wednesday morning, join Dillahunty and his wife, Leslie Hoekstra, at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center for their weekly bird walks at 9 a.m.

PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE

“Oh look — there’s an American kestrel,” remarks Karyn Schmitz as she points toward native grasslands on Padre Island National Seashore, a 66-mile-long, 130,434-acre national park along the Texas Coastal Bend. “And who’s that? Looks like a harrier. And if we could see a piping plover, that would really make our day.”

Ray Dillahunty works for a close-up view of birds that draw visitors to the coast.
Ray Dillahunty works for a close-up view of birds that draw visitors to the coast.

Schmitz and her husband, Tom, are volunteer guides at the national park. For nearly a decade, they’ve been spending two months each year camping in their RV in a small park with other volunteer guides. In that time, they’ve come to regard the seashore as one of the best places in the area to see a variety of birds that come to visit during the spring and winter.

Located within the National Seashore is Bird Island Basin, home to Laguna Madre, the sixth-saltiest body of water in the world. The water brings windsurfers from around the world, and the National Audubon Society considers it one of the most important bodies for birding in the world. It’s a massive quilt of coastal wetlands, freshwater ponds and native grasslands that provide critical habitat for migratory raptors, songbirds, waterfowl, waterbirds and shorebirds, as well as endangered sea turtles.

Start your birding adventure at the Malaquite Visitor Center and pick up information or arrange a guided tour. Camping is available in two campgrounds for a nominal fee; beach camping is free in designated areas. For more information, log on to www.nps.gov/pais.

SOUTH TEXAS BOTANICAL GARDENS & NATURE CENTER

Located on 182 acres in Corpus Christi, the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center is home to the Birdiest Festival in North America, which brings birders from more than a dozen states and several foreign countries for five days filled with bird-watching, educational activities and more. At last year’s festival, attendees spotted 267 different species of birds, including a Northern jacana, known as nature’s “lily walker” due to its unusual toes that allow it to walk on watery vegetation. Watchers also spotted an endangered violet-throated hummingbird.

A little blue heron walks near the shore.
A little blue heron walks near the shore.

Although the center is surrounded on three sides by busy roads, retailers and residential activity, the city has worked diligently to develop a greenbelt around it to protect its native plant habitats and natural wetlands — both fresh and salty — that attract a variety of birds. “It gives them a choice,” says the center’s executive director, Michael Womack. “It’s a place where they can feel safe.”

South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center offers walking paths and boardwalks through its wetlands and gardens, including its colorful hummingbird garden. Bring your binoculars and be amazed. The center is open daily from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, log onto stxbot.org.

“One can be a ‘bird lister’ and keep track of each bird they have spotted. Or you can be a casual birder and just appreciate the birds in their natural habitat,” Dillahunty says. “Wherever you go, there will be birds, and it is fascinating to see the variety of colors, shapes, behaviors and habitats that birds thrive in.”


Multiple cranes huddling on wooden stepsBird lovers unite!

The annual Birdiest Festival in America happens at the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center in Corpus Christi April 22-26, just in time for spring migration. This year’s keynote speaker is David Sibley, birding expert and author of The Sibley Guide to Birds. For more information about the festival and for tickets ($35 per person) log on to www.birdiestfestival.org.

Events include:

  • Guided field trips to regional birding hot spots and private ranches (additional charge).
  • Photography workshops.
  • Raptor Project presentations.
  • Bird banding and bird walks.
  • A vendor trade show.