Put self-care into practice

The state of our mental health and well-being fluctuates from day to day and from week to week as we process the events unfolding around us. While we cannot control the obstacles we face, we can put simple practices in place to care for ourselves and cope with daily stressors. 

Review the following self-care practices, and consider which ideas could benefit your outlook and well-being. 

  • Boost your self-confidence by completing a task that plays to your strengths. Then move on to something more difficult once you have shown yourself that you can take the first step. 
  • Practice thankfulness with a gratitude journal. Write three to five things you are grateful for each day. 
  • Make room for creativity by testing out a new recipe, project or hobby. Creativity has been positively linked to well-being. 
  • Laugh out loud to decrease stress and produce joy. You can do this by spending time with friends, watching your favorite comedy or telling someone your favorite joke.  
  • Get ahead by meal prepping or selecting your work outfits in advance. Not only will you save yourself some brain space in the morning, but you will also feel more in control of your day.
  • Explore your home. You do not have to wait for an official vacation to make wonderful memories. Make a Dallas bucket list and become an at-home tourist to appreciate what is around you. 
  • Prioritize your loved ones by scheduling a game night or planning a dinner. Research has shown that people are more likely to feel happy when they spend time with friends and family. 
  • Spend time in nature to increase your energy and boost your health. Whether you take a 30-minute walk through your neighborhood park or explore a new trail, the fresh air will help you feel healthier.
  • Hang out with a pet. Spending time with animals can lower your cortisol levels and increase your oxytocin levels, leaving you feeling happier and less stressed. 
  • Get a good night’s sleep by turning your thermostat to a cooler temperature, avoiding screens right before bed and sticking to a regular sleep schedule. 

Start small and challenge yourself to turn one or two of these practices into daily habits. If you need support, ask a friend, family member or co-worker to join you and help keep you accountable. 

You can also take advantage of Dallas ISD’s Employee Assistance Program by LifeWorks. This confidential, secure platform has counselors on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as countless other resources and mental health tips that are available to staff at no cost. Reach out to LifeWorks at (972) 925-4000 or visit www.dallasisd.org/benefits and click on Benefits Resources to access online EAP information.

*Source: Mental Health America

Channeling speech therapy through music

Rees Davies never would have guessed that he would become a speech-language pathologist at Charles A. Gill Elementary School when he was starting his career, but now he would not have it any other way. With his trusty speech therapy guitar, Nadine, in hand, Davies is passionate about transforming student lives every day. 

“In grad school they told me, ‘An SLP can take a paperclip and make an activity out of it,’ and that is definitely true with Nadine,” Davies said. “Everything is an activity, and it’s motivating for my students because it’s musical. They want to keep the beat and be a part of it.”

Nadine—who was named after a Chuck Berry song—has her own language, with chords representing everything from basic emotions to colors and phrases. Many of the students Davies encounters struggle with conversations and turn taking, so Davies often “talks” with Nadine to model communication, asking her questions and having her respond with different notes. 

While Nadine is a constant in Davies’ practice now, he never could have predicted where he would end up when he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in 1996 with a speciality in guitar. After several years of teaching music and playing in theaters and bands, the recession of 2008 hit, and Davies started looking for alternative paths. His wife suggested speech-language pathology, and Davies decided to apply for an SLP program with a goal of working in a public school district. 

By 2015, Davies completed his SLP program, found a new home campus at Gill and began doing traditional speech therapy. Still, he said he felt like something was missing… until he picked up his guitar again and realized he could incorporate music more heavily into his therapy practice. 

Davies found that his traditional guitar was too large to carry around, so he began bringing his smaller “backpacker” guitar instead. That’s how Nadine became a staple of his work. 

Today, his students get the opportunity to practice articulating, following instructions, making auditory associations and recognizing emotions in fun ways—all by listening to Nadine’s instructions and following Davies’ cues during activities. 

Davies meets with anywhere from three to six groups of up to six students a day, and he said the impact of their time together is “inestimable.” Not only has he cheered on countless students as they pronounced their names correctly for the first time, but he has also helped students go from speaking one word in first grade to putting full sentences together and doing well in classroom settings by fourth grade. 

While there is always more work to be done, Davies said he loves what he does and cannot see himself working anywhere else. After all, the need for student support is great, yet the impact is even greater. 

“Every student has something important to say, and other people have important things to say back to them,” Davies said. “I always try to get students to buy into that idea—you can change your world by just opening your mouth and saying things. It’s not just for other people; it’s for you.” 

Take a step toward school leadership

Did you know that Dallas ISD is partnered with four universities across Texas, with each university allowing participants to earn their master’s degree in educational leadership while obtaining a principal certification?

Dallas ISD is invested in developing future leaders to meet the needs of our diverse community. Aligned with the district’s beliefs and School Leadership’s commitment to cultivating leadership to inspire an unwavering commitment to equity and excellence so all students become career- and college-strong, Dallas ISD is proud to offer outstanding university partnerships as individuals begin their journey toward school leadership. 

University partners include Southern Methodist University, University of North Texas at Dallas, Texas A&M University-Commerce and Texas Tech University. These programs offer curricula tailored specifically to the district, and partial tuition reimbursement is offered for qualifying participants as additional support from Dallas ISD. 

Dallas ISD’s strategic partnership and collaboration with these universities uniquely position the programs to develop leaders whose learning experiences will effectively prepare them to lead Dallas ISD schools.

Minimum eligibility requirements: 

  • Bachelor’s degree 
  • Two years of successful teaching experience 
  • Current Dallas ISD employee in good standing 
  • Endorsed by principal 
  • Additional eligibility requirements by each university, such but not limited to completion of GRE and minimum GPA.

If you are interested in starting your journey toward school leadership, apply today! University program overviews and applications can be found here.

For more information, please contact the Leader Excellence, Advancement and Development (LEAD) team at lead@dallasisd.org or follow the department on Twitter, @LEAD_DallasISD

Leading with benefits

Diedrae Bell-Hunter is described by her colleagues as a leader, a visionary and someone who is innovative and supportive. So it was no surprise when Employee Benefit News (EBN) recently recognized Bell-Hunter, executive director for Benefits in HCM, with one of its Excellence in Benefits Awards for 2022. 

In her role with the district’s Human Capital Management Department she leads teams which support health benefits, leaves, wellness programs, employee relations and other resources as well such as policy and compliance. She has led her team through many challenges. None like the pandemic. 

“What benefits departments hopefully have become on the other side of the pandemic is a people servicing department,” said Bell-Hunter, who has worked in HCM for 17 years and in Benefits for 6. “For us, it’s how we responded to the needs of the employees of this district. We are much more people-focused, and there’s much more concern for the condition of the employee and how we can help the employee and their families.” 

The Benefits Department’s 11 staff who serve approximately 23,000 employees had to quickly adapt and respond to changing circumstances due to the pandemic and find not only new ways to offer the usual services and resources, but creative ways in which to deal with new challenges, such as serving employees working remotely. 

Her leadership was recognized by EBN, a prestigious online publication that serves over 300,000 leaders in the areas of employee benefits, human resources and workplace culture. Although Bell Hunter is grateful for the award,  she attributes her success and this notable recognition to her team. 

“I would not have been able to have been recognized without the work that they do,” she said. “We made sure we put the health and wellness of staff and students first in the district. They came through, they listened, they worked hard 24-hours a day, seven days a week. There was never a time when they said no, or that it was too much.” 

Not only is Bell-Hunter the only African American woman to be recognized with this award—something she hopes will change in the future—but Dallas ISD is the only school district in the country to receive the Excellence in Benefits Award. Her wish is that the district leads other school districts in doing this work. 

“That’s our goal–to make Dallas ISD shine,” she said. “I would like to see us be the number one school district in the country for teaching people self-care, health and wellness, wellness programs, benefits and rewards that we offer to our employees.”

Talks with the Superintendent

Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde will hold two virtual meetings on Wednesday, Nov. 30—one for central staff at noon and one for campus staff at 4:30 p.m.—to discuss the results of her entry plan survey and to have an opportunity to connect with staff and answer their questions. Each virtual meeting is scheduled to last about 30 minutes. If you have questions you would like to share ahead of time, please use this form. To participate in the talks, please register for the one of the two meetings:

Central Staff: https://dallasisd.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_jEVtu2XMTzyQypPM5nl1Lg

Campus Staff: https://dallasisd.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_NV1PrWtETp-fVwYvFN9lOQ

If you would like to send in questions ahead of the Talks with the Superintendent sessions, please share them below.

Central staff session • Noon • Nov. 30

Campus staff session • 4:30 p.m. • Nov. 30

Share your question

Don’t miss out on this opportunity to connect with Superintendent Elizalde. We look forward to seeing staff at their respective virtual meetings!

Native American Heritage Month: Tracy Palmer celebrates American Indian education

Every time Tracy Palmer, a specialist with Dallas ISD’s American Indian Education Program, sees a Native student graduate, she is glad she chose a career where she can help transform the lives of students like her.

Growing up in Oklahoma, Palmer remembers not being able to read or write because she did not have American Indian educational support, so seeing Native students graduate is “one of the greatest moments,” she said.

“Once I knew who I was and where I was, I felt like I had a big moment in life—that ‘ah ha’ moment,” said Palmer, who has been with the district since 2008. “I can actually say my dream came true, so I always tell our graduating students, ‘I’m so proud of you. You made it.’ And they will say, ‘Thank you for helping me. Thank you for caring. And thank you for what you do. You’ve changed my life.’ Those are memories that can never be forgotten.” 

Palmer started her career in Oklahoma as a proud second generation college graduate, earning first her associate’s degree from Haskell Indian Junior College and bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Tulsa and then her master’s degree from Oklahoma City University thanks to a grant-funded scholarship written by Stuart Tonemah of the Kiowa tribe. The scholarship enabled a small group of American Indian educators across the country to pursue a master’s degree specifically in gifted education for Native American students. 

“I initially thought I wanted to be a full-time artist, but then a teacher got a hold of me and said, ‘Why are you here? You need to be an educator,’” Palmer said. “That was it. I applied for the American Indian Research and Development Inc. scholarship.” 

That was when Palmer—a registered member of the Muscogee Creek Nation Tribe of Oklahoma, who is a quarter Creek, a quarter Seminole, a quarter Cherokee and a quarter Irish—found her true calling. She went on to be a field worker and project coordinator for several Oklahoma public schools, specializing in youth advocacy and American Indian education, before finding her way to Texas as a cultural consultant and tutor for Fort Worth ISD. 

From there, she joined the Urban Inter-Tribal Center of Texas as a job developer with employment and training, which further equipped her with more of the skills and contacts needed to thrive at Dallas ISD. 

“We did outreach for so many avenues beyond the regular services, and those relationships were crucial,” Palmer said. “It was a great job that gave me four and a half years to learn about the Native population here, who came for everything from clinical and mental health support to outreach services and our food pantry. Then I got the opportunity to transition to Dallas ISD. This is the largest district in the United States that I have ever worked for.”

Now, Palmer takes great pride in her work with Dallas ISD’s American Indian Education Program, which provides Native students with cultural enrichment programs, college and career preparation, truancy and retention support, culturally competent counseling, representative book clubs and more. She also has a vision of providing STEM enrichment opportunities to Native American students in the DFW area by collaborating with another American Indian Education Program in Fort Worth. 

After three decades of service to American Indian education across Oklahoma and Texas, Palmer said it has been an “honor” to practice her culture and remind Native families that they have “the legal right, the civil right and the cultural right of preservation and understanding of who we are as traditional people indigenous to this continent in pursuing an education.”

But none of this work has been an individual effort, Palmer said. She is glad to have spent so many years working alongside talented, passionate people who are dedicated to providing opportunities and support to Native students, and she is looking forward to the work still to come. 

“I really believe in servant leadership,” Palmer said. “As a Native woman, I can say being a servant leader in education has been a privilege. To see our Native people, our students of Dallas ISD, walk across that graduation stage, I know that no matter what their career, vocation or dream is, I was just a small part of that. That is why I am here.”

Last chance

You have only a few more days to complete the policy acknowledgement and compliance training before the Monday, Nov. 14 deadline. 

Step 1: Complete Policy Acknowledgement

Using their email address and password, employees will log into the policy acknowledgement website at https://PolicyAcknowledgement.dallasisd.org to acknowledge the Employee Handbook, Annual Employee Notification of District Policies, Family Relationship Disclosure, and Confidentiality Requirements.

Step 2: Complete Compliance Training in Cornerstone

Employees will use their email address and password to log into Cornerstone at https://dallasisd.csod.com. The compliance training assignment will be in the “My Assigned Training” section located on the “Welcome” page or on the “Learning” tab under “View Your Transcript.”

Training includes child abuse awareness, educators’ code of ethics, copyright and licensing, dress code standards, employment concerns and employee rights, staff safety protocols, FERPA, sexual harassment, and workplace bullying. Training for campus staff will also include anaphylaxis and auto-Injectors, bloodborne pathogens, bullying, and Section 504.

For assistance with technical issues in Cornerstone, go to the Live User Support tab in Cornerstone to access the live support team.

Training for substitute staff only: Both the policy acknowledgement and compliance training are available in the Compliance Learning Portal. Substitute staff will use their employee ID, last name (as listed in Oracle), and date of birth to log into the portal.

Links to the policy acknowledgement, Cornerstone, and the substitute portal can also be accessed on the Policy and Compliance website at https://www.dallasisd.org/hcmpolicy.

For additional questions or assistance, please contact Human Capital Management’s Policy and Compliance team at HCMcompliance@dallasisd.org.

Driving student success in Dallas ISD

Dallas ISD is celebrating National Educational Support Professionals Day on Nov. 16 to recognize the bus drivers, office staff, cafeteria crews and more who make it possible to educate all students for success. 

CDL bus driver Brenda McAfee is one of about 800 CDL drivers and 100 MPV drivers who contribute to Dallas ISD’s overarching mission. She has been in the district for the past nine years and said she “would not trade it for anything.” 

McAfee, a proud Dallas ISD graduate, worked in bank administration before finding her way behind the wheel of a school bus, and it did not take her long to fall in love with the work. She picks up and drops off about 23 students a day, often starting her morning at 6 a.m. and working through 6 p.m. 

Her responsibilities keep her busy, but McAfee always goes above and beyond to communicate with parents and keep her students safe. As a mother of four and a grandmother of eight, she understands the importance of being focused, fast, flexible and friendly to keep each family on track, and the feedback she receives from parents speaks volumes. 

“Mrs. McAfee does such a good job caring for my autistic son,” one parent said. “He is one of the many amazing kiddos in her route, and I am so blessed to be connected with such a wonderful person. She has a heart of gold and goes beyond to make sure the kiddos are well taken care of. Thank you so much, Mrs. McAfee.” 

Another said, “She is an awesome bus driver. My son loves her, and she takes my 3-year-old son to the bathroom while he waits for his teacher to come and get him. Sometimes, it’s the little things that count. She is a great asset to Dallas ISD.” 

Bus drivers across the district are critical to student learning and acceleration. As they carry students from various neighborhoods to their classrooms, they are among the extraordinary educational support professionals who make Dallas ISD home. 

“Through the assistance of Transportation Services, our students are able to participate in some of the most rigorous classes, which would not have been possible several years ago,” Student Transportation Services Executive Director Jaime Sandoval said. “Transportation Services has increased the level of participation at our choice and innovation schools, thereby impacting the overall achievement of our students districtwide, and our bus drivers make this happen every day.” 

For McAfee, serving Dallas ISD as a bus driver is defined not only by contributing to student success but also by joy.

“My students just touch my heart,” McAfee said. “When I drive up, they are so excited and happy to go to school. I really love it, so as long as Dallas ISD will honor me to work for them, I will be a bus driver for the rest of my years.”

Dallas ISD recycles for the future

America Recycles Day has been celebrated for 22 years, and Dallas ISD is doing its part by promoting recycling on Nov. 15 and every day in all of the district’s schools and facilities. 

In the last five years, the district has made significant gains in recycling. According to Bryant Shaw, manager of the district’s Energy and Sustainability Department, recycling has increased from 12 percent to 17.1 percent. That’s approximately 23,000 tons of materials recycled every year. Nationally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the recycling rate has increased from less than 7 percent  in general in 1960 to the current rate of 32 percent. 

Since 2017, the district has also had a 52% decrease in trash going to the landfill.  That’s 48,654.13 tons in 2016-2017, compared to 15,576 tons in 2021-2022. 

One of the departments committed to recycling is Food and Child Nutrition Services. In 2015, Dallas ISD replaced the polystyrene trays with compostable plates in the cafeterias. According to Shaw, the district hopes to add compostable trash bags and utensils by 2027. 

FCNS has promoted recycling beyond the district.  

“We currently make trimmings (and other scraps which are appropriate) for composting available at no cost to schools which have gardens or which compost,” said Yetzel Meza, spokesperson for FCNS. “We support efforts at the district, city and county level which would support community-wide recycling efforts. We advocate for the use of recyclable materials in food service packaging,” 

Schools have played an integral part in this success. Staff members, students and families have become more informed throughout the years.  

“In some cases, some schools have a second generation of families participating—the parents participated in recycling when they were in school and taught their children about recycling. Now their kids are practicing this in the schools,” Shaw said. 

Rufus C. Burleson Elementary School is one of the schools dedicated to recycling. Teacher Bobby Adams, known as “the Earth man” by his colleagues, leads the school’s recycling club. According to Jessica De Paz, a parent instructor, the school used to use empty recycled boxes. Each teacher would fill the box up with recyclable items, and every Friday, Adams and the fifth grade recycling club members would pick up the boxes and empty them. 

Thanks to second grade bilingual teacher Lidice Martinez, the school now uses recycling bins donated through the city of Dallas’ Water Conservation Division. 

“I feel that teachers such as Adams and Martinez are planting a seed that will influence the students when they are in middle school, high school, college and beyond. They have planted a seed of mindfulness and environmental awareness that will impact and help the students for the rest of their lives,” said De Paz. 

For resources and activities for America Recycles Day, the EPA has created a webpage for educators at: https://www.epa.gov/recycle/reduce-reuse-recycle-resources-students-and-educators

Cleaner air with federal help

Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde joined other Dallas ISD officials and members of the North Texas Congressional delegation this week for the announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that Dallas ISD will be getting a $7.1 million rebate to purchase 25 new electric buses and the funds to build the infrastructure to charge them.

It will be some time before the zero-emission buses are added to the fleet of school buses, replacing old ones powered by diesel, but the excitement at the prospect of what they will mean for the environment and children’s health was palpable at the news conference.

“I can’t wait to see the new buses rolling down our streets, probably being quite a bit quieter than diesel, picking up our students with zero emissions and making the air even around where they wait for buses cleaner and more breathable immediately as well as for the future,” Elizalde said. 

Someone else who is excited is U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, who used to ride the diesel school buses when he was a student in Dallas ISD. Allred is a member of the House Transportation Committee and worked on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that provides the funding for the Clean School Bus Rebate. Allred attended Dallas ISD through his graduation from Hillcrest High School, and his mother was a teacher with the district for 20 years.

“I know what it’s like to ride in a [school] bus, and back when I was doing it, they were loud, stinky and didn’t have air conditioning,” he said. “As someone who played a lot of sports, you would roll down the window and try to get a little bit of relief and you have diesel fumes coming at your face; it’s not so nice. I think it’s amazing that kids are going to get to go to games on these buses.”

Region 6 EPA Administrator Earthea Nance shared that the intent behind the competitive rebate—and the investment through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—is to reduce greenhouse gases as well as to protect children’s health by replacing heavily polluting buses with clean running ones. Dallas ISD is one of 13 urban and rural districts in Texas to receive a rebate.

Elizalde credited the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees for having the vision to move the district toward a greener, cleaner future with the unanimous approval of the Environment and Climate Resolution in 2020. Pursuing funding for the 25 electric buses is part of the goals set forth by the resolution.