By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Mosey down the main hallway at Lone Star High School West, at TJJD’s Ron Jackson campus, and you’ll be stopped by a splash of colors that dance across the otherwise white-painted cinderblock walls.
Get closer and you’ll see drawings of Disney princesses, Sponge Bob, the Lion King, hearts, confetti and caps and gowns in joyful explosion of bright pinks, purples, blues, and reds. The colors virtually leap from the concrete and the words beckon too as you pause to appreciate these compact, lively artworks.
“Your talent is who you are. You should be proud of it,” reads one message in scrolly letters. It’s attributed to and features a depiction of Tinkerbell, arms raised and ready to fly away on purple wings.
Each brick features a different picture, with inspirational messages from the graduate who made it as they passed through Lone Star HS West. The students who created this collective mosaic have indeed flown onward. They finished their high school education here at Lone Star HS West and won the privilege of stamping one cinder block space with their thoughts and designs, a legacy for them and an invitation to future students.
“It started it in 2019 when I became principal that spring,” said Principal Helen Spearman. “We had been talking at our campus about how to get more things on the walls for the kids, murals maybe. We wanted something that would recognize our graduates better, because they’re not all here to walk at graduation.”
It’s the nature of juvenile corrections that youth may be discharged (a good thing!) before the bi-annual graduation ceremony takes place.
Spearman and the staff wanted something meaningful for those students who did so often graduate with little fanfare, and they wanted that something to permanently honor the students’ accomplishments -- not have to be rolled up and discarded later.
“I wanted to have a way for the kids to leave their positive mark on the place and have a spot to brag about their accomplishments to the other kids,” said Spearman, who returned to her hometown of Brownwood in 2012 to teach at LSHSW after teaching English in Waco at The AJ Moore Academy.
And so began “The Graduation Wall,” an incentive, reward and beautification project rolled into one.
Now, four years into the project, Spearman says the youth don’t let anyone forget when they’re in the queue for the next brick. It’s become almost as important as the cap and gown photos that the school takes so the students have keepsakes.
“That’s one of the first things they ask when they get their GED or diploma, they’ll ask, can I paint my brick now?”
“We give them a sheet of paper so they can sketch out what they’re going to do to make sure nothing inappropriate,” Spearman said. “. . . We have learned some shortcuts to help them get their design on the brick by shading it with pencil and pressing the back onto the brick.”
Each student gets some time to design their contribution and then one full day out of class to render it on the wall.
“It’s a fun thing. They get attention while they’re out there working on it,” Spearman said.
The results have been nothing short of wonderful. Spearman pointed to the work of their latest graduate, who depicted the cartoon characters Rick and Morty. The artwork is amusing, with Rick yanking Mort’s eyes open. But the message is a solid, positive, even profound one: “Keep your eyes open so you can move ahead with your goals.”
By Barbara Kessler, TJJD Communications
Gainesville State School Superintendent Darryl Anderson and his campus find themselves in a happy place this fall.
Anderson visited Austin in August to attend the TJJD Board meeting, where we heard that Gainesville State School, which currently serves about 140 youths, is close to fully staffed with Juvenile Correctional Officers. That wasn’t the case – for hardly any facility -- coming out of the COVID years with their challenging quarantines and volatile schedules, followed by the period of the "great resignation" in 2021-22 that stretched employers everywhere, including TJJD.
Today, though, the numbers at the Gainesville campus, tell a story of recovery. The just-enacted five percent raises for state employees and JCOs (who also got a bump in 2022) undoubtedly helped. This was backed by a mighty team effort by HR recruiters and staff who promoted the campus, improving retention as well as recruitment.
Meanwhile, campus leaders have striven to build a positive culture marked by respect, collaboration, and communication. And at the center of this invigorated campus vibe, adding bonhomie and direction is Anderson, a leader who exudes calm, models respect, and knows how to empower his team.
“He problem-solves a lot,” says Assistant Superintendent Michelle Washington Hawkins. “If there’s a problem, he’s open to all solutions. He’ll let the staff create our own culture. It’s so positive and uplifting.”
Anderson arrived at Gainesville in the fall of 2019 after a two-year stint as assistant superintendent at the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood. He immediately sought out community leaders to address what he discerned was a brewing disaffection toward the campus.
“We had to reestablish ties with the local community,” he said, after some employees who’d been terminated were painting an inaccurate picture of the state school operations. “We met with the mayor, the county judge, the chief of police, the county commissioners. We introduced ourselves and said we had a new administration. They were very receptive and said themselves that this facility is a cornerstone of the community.”
Anderson’s next step was to set a good tone and reach out to everyone on campus, something that Washington Hawkins says appears to come naturally to him. He touches base with everyone on campus regularly, from dorm staff to treatment teams to educators at the school, she said. He does not lead from his office, but strolls the campus, praising the good things he sees and making himself available to help with difficulties.
“He is very firm and fair and consistent in what he does. He has a lot of experience behind him, and you can tell,” she said.
Family Enrichment Specialist Stephen Claybrook echoed Washington Hawkins' assessment, saying Anderson's greatest attribute is his consistent approach to staff and unwavering commitment to the agency, which inspires the staff to want to stick with their work helping youth and their families.
"He is a leader by nature," said Claybrook, who previously worked as a chaplain at TDCJ. "I have worked under many wardens and administrators and I rank him up there with a few of the best."
Community Resources Coordinator Kevin Hill sees Anderson as the glue that keeps the Gainesville team together. "What impresses me the most is that he is a man of the people. Mr. Anderson takes time to know all of the staff and youth at GNS. His job is very demanding, yet he never turns down an opportunity to visit or participate in campus activities." And he apologizes for those events he has to miss.
Anderson's democratic approach seems key to the loyalty he instills. Hill recalled a recent day he was trying to safely move volunteers to a campus event. "I recognized that the Superintendent golf cart would be a great alternative for transport," he said. "I felt like I was asking my dad to borrow the car for a Saturday night date! Mr. Anderson loaned me the cart without any hesitation."
A winning combo of education and experience
A Nacogdoches native, Anderson went to college at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia where he lettered in football, though he completed his degrees at Texas A&M University – Commerce (a master’s in counseling education) and Huston-Tillotson University in Austin (a bachelor’s in physical education).
He boasts three decades of corrections and residential care experience, working with adults and youth in various settings. He was a client care specialist at Promise House in Dallas, supporting activities to help youth reduce stress and build life skills, and served as director of the Austin Transitional Center, a 420-bed facility for justice-involved adults needing substance abuse treatment.
Earlier in his career, he served as a Sr. Warden for several Texas correctional facilities, ranging from minimum to maximum security and up to 1,200 beds. These included the North Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility, Kyle Correctional Center, Lockhart Work Program, and the Willacy County State Jail. Before that, he was a Deputy Warden at the Travis County State Jail and Kyle Correctional Center.
Anderson worked outside of Texas briefly at mid-career -- as a Sr. Warden at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility and as Assistant Facility Administrator at the Florida Civil Commitment Facility for sexually violent predators, a unique 600+ bed facility where he developed expertise in administering the PREA law.
He returned to the classroom to teach criminal justice classes at Remington College and the University of Texas at Austin, and he maintained his Red Cross certification for First Aid and CPR.
Education is a big part of his family’s life. His wife, Denise, teaches education counseling at Texas A&M. Their daughter went to medical school and became a gynecologist. Their oldest son is a computer programmer, and their youngest son is a junior in high school at Gainesville. (Darryl and Denise also have four grandchildren, the latest one, Felicity, was born Sept. 10.)
Anderson himself is a lifelong learner, having honed managerial skills and an engaged leadership style that helped him transition smoothly from adult corrections to the juvenile side.
It’s been a great move, he says, reflecting on how he so often heard adult prisoners say they wished someone had intervened in their life when they were younger and showed them better options.
Now that’s what Darryl Anderson and his team are committed to doing, helping TJJD youth find their North Star, a positive, productive path forward through the treatment, education, and life skills they learn at Gainesville State School. Anderson knows how to inspire youth and staff, says Washington Hawkins. “He teaches, he molds, and he believes in the mission statement,” she said.
“Darryl has done a tremendous job promoting trauma informed correction care at Gainesville,” said Alan Michel, Sr. Director of State Facility Operations. “Under his leadership Gainesville is demonstrating a positive campus culture which is reflected in higher numbers of employed staff, a safer campus and effective treatment.”
A campus on the upswing
The campus has not had a serious disruption to programming – a period in which staffing shortfalls require that youth stay in their rooms part of the day – in over a year. And HR stats show that staff retention has improved.
The campus does still have a few open slots for JCOs, but that's because it has added beds and expanded the numbers of the youth in residence. It also recently launched a canine program, and trained staff especially for that dorm. The campus is now so well staffed that it contributes to a small travelling team that can help at other TJJD campuses when they experience a staffing shortfall.
Another factor that helped lift the campus, is that Anderson assembled a strong leadership team, says Washington Hawkins. Anderson demurs on that, however, saying he “inherited” a strong team because the campus had so many experienced staff ready for leadership roles.
Furthermore, Anderson says, the campus feels embraced by the community and draws on a wide labor pool that extends from just north of Gainesville, into Oklahoma, and sweeps in Sherman, Denison, Denton, and the northern D/FW metroplex. Anderson says they staff members commuting from all those communities.
“We are sitting in a very centrally located area. We compete with the sheriffs’ departments in Denton and Dallas. But we have had the raises and that has made us competitive,” he said. “We’re at the point where we can be selective in hiring.”
That’s a great milestone to reach because corrections work is not for everyone. It takes the right person – someone who’s quick-thinking, collaborative, and compassionate with a strong motivation to help others and serve public safety -- to be successful in the field.
When the job is a good fit, juvenile corrections can be highly rewarding because direct care staff play such a vital role in helping turn young lives around.
“Our kids, they test us daily,” Anderson says with a chuckle, “and staff can be challenging at times too!”
The job requires that employees be disciplined, remain calm in the face of provocations, and keep flexible because new scenarios arise all the time, Anderson explained.
Staff must also devote themselves totally to the work while on duty. “They have to leave personal issues at the gate and for 12 hours, they have to flip the switch and turn off their personal life and the emotions that they’re going through,” Anderson said. “They have to come in and focus and keep their radar up, because every day is different.”
“This place is never going to be on remote control. You’re going to have problems and you must have a plan for how you’ll handle it and not panic,” he said. “And you learn from every situation you go into.”
(Photos: Top, Anderson with TJJD Board Chair Scott Matthew; Lower left, Anderson presents an appreciation award to Gainsville State School staffer Ryan Mayfield; Anderson grabs a treat for Baxter, a dog in the canine program at the campus.)
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
TJJD is proud to announce that two of our own have been selected to participate in the Governor’s Executive Development Program (GEDP) at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Deputy Executive Director for Finance and Operations Emily Anderson and Chief of Staff Rachel Gandy will attend this program – a three-week intensive educational training for top executives in Texas state agencies and universities. The GEDP is designed for those in executive-level positions and responsibility for charting the strategic direction of their organizations. It brings in experts to help the participants learn more about leadership styles and how to better serve the public.
TJJD Executive Director Shandra Carter nominated Anderson and Gandy for the GEDP. The Governor sends requests every year to each state agency and university chief executive officer for nominations to the GEDP program. After receiving nominations, the Office of the Governor reviews the candidates and makes their selections.
It can be a lot of information and to pack into such a short period of time. Because of this, and because three weeks can be a long time to keep most people away from their families or jobs, the program is broken into three one-week sessions, with breaks of three or more weeks in between.
Anderson brings considerable experience in state government to this opportunity. A graduate of Texas Tech University, she joined the agency in 2014 as the director of fiscal affairs. In August 2018 she became the chief financial officer, and in January 2020 she assumed the additional title of chief operating officer, before being named a deputy executive director. Prior to joining TJJD, she spent 11 years at the Texas Department of Transportation, where she worked as a lead budget analyst and a manager of business operations.
Gandy holds a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University and has received graduate degrees from both the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the UT Steve Hicks School of Social Work.
Her career achievements include winning a state fellowship funded by the Hogg Foundation. In this role, she advocated for reforms to federal, state, and local policies concerning disability and mental health services. She was also responsible for developing, supervising, and executing a targeted legislative campaign to improve the identification of and service delivery to students with disabilities.
That campaign led to important legislative changes, and she received the 2017 Justin Dart Memorial Award for Outstanding Service from the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities.
Gandy also served as vice chair of the Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities and co-facilitator of the City of Austin Youth Justice Task Force.
Anderson and Gandy join the ranks of other TJJD staff who have previously participated in the GEDP. Deputy Executive Director Sean Grove, Chief Information Officer Nate Jackson, and Senior Director of Secure Facilities Treatment Services Alan Michel have all completed the program and speak highly of their experiences.
“The Governor’s Executive Development Program is a great experience to further develop our state agency leaders,” said Grove. “I particularly enjoyed the fellowship with peers across different state agencies, and the opportunity to increase my skill set to better support our staff while working towards the highest level of customer service for the people of Texas.”
The Governor’s Executive Development Program was a positive experience, agreed Michel. “The program’s goal is to develop skills and competencies for selected state agencies leaders, which can implement change. The program increased my understanding of basic leadership styles, understanding concepts to lead change and interpersonal effectiveness.”
“During the program, you meet and share ideas with other future leaders,” Michel said. “The program guided me to develop a process, which successfully implements the change model.”
TJJD is proud to have Anderson and Gandy representing the agency in the GEDP and look forward to their contributions in helping to shape the future of juvenile justice service in Texas.
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
The Lone Star High School Southeast football team is off to a start that’s almost as sizzling hot as the weather. While the young men on the gridiron deserve all the praise they’ve been getting, it seems fitting to give some of the kudos to the coaching staff.
Head Coach Jonathan Wells and Assistant Coaches Nancy Salinas and Martin Rangel have got the Mustangs in position for a great year in the TAPPS (Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools) League, opening the season with a 2-0 start.
Coach Wells enters his third year as a PE teacher and football coach at the Giddings campus. In an impressive career spanning over 30 years that has seen him in the role as teacher, principal, and athletic director, he says coaching is really where his heart is. It’s no exaggeration to say he has a passion for it.
“You’ve really got to want to coach,” he said. “You’ve got to be passionate about it. Coaches are some of the best teachers, because coaching really is about teaching. And these kids really are fun to work with.”
A native Texan, born in Dallas and raised in Brownwood, he comes by his love of football–especially the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorns–honestly. His enthusiasm for football is so powerful that in his free time he’s likely to be unwinding by watching football games at any level.
“I’m always thinking about coaching,” he said. “I’m always thinking about plays. I’m always drawing up new plays and thinking about how I can do better as a coach. I’m always watching game film, always watching games. I love going to high school football games. Watching more football recharges me.”
Coach Salinas is also in her third year at Giddings, but started with TJJD (then the TYC) at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg. Here at Lone Star, she’s been an English teacher and then a science teacher before her current position teaching both Spanish and math. She also coaches the track team.
When Wells asked Salinas to be an assistant, she’d never coached football before. “That’s the first thing I told Coach Wells,” she said. “But I told him I’d do it and he’s been a great mentor. He’s so open to sharing his knowledge and he’s a great motivator. He’s very easy to work with.”
Martin Rangel, the longtime woodshop/construction technology teacher and former soccer coach at Giddings, rounds out the staff. “He has been a godsend to us,” said Wells. “He loves working with these kids and we really needed him.”
The coaching staff make up a pretty good team themselves. “Coach Wells and Coach Rangel focus on the plays and the dynamics of the game and I focus on building the emotional components of the team,” Salinas said. “We huddle up the kids after every practice and I have them tell the player next to them what they saw that the other kid did well today. Between us we account for over a century of experience working with the kids.”
The days leading up to the season weren’t easy ones. Getting the youth into “football shape” safely in the brutal summer heat took some doing. There was another challenge as well. “Giddings doesn’t have a weight room,” Salinas said. “So, we had to get creative.”
Molding the youth into an effective unit working toward the same goal took some time as well.
“When we first started, these kids didn’t know how to work as a team,” Salinas said. “We worked really hard to get these kids to learn to do that. Coach Wells always tells these kids ‘We’re a family now. We have to work together.’ Seeing these kids grow together has been overwhelming.”
The early results haven’t gone unnoticed on campus. “If every kid who wanted to play could be on the team, we’d have fifty kids out there now,” Salinas said.
She said that not all of the kids felt that way when early practices and conditioning sessions were going on. “But as soon as they see the success the team has been having, and seeing the kids on the team wearing their jerseys on game day? Kids telling us they want to be on the team is a constant thing now.”
Salinas echoed Wells’ sentiments when it came to how she unwinds. “Watching sporting events,” she said. “I love the NFL and boxing. I go to Cowboys games every year and follow multiple boxers and UFC fighters.” But it’s not always all about sports, she says. “I enjoy traveling out with my daughter. We have a trip to Europe planned this Thanksgiving.”
The rewarding experience of winning football games is something the coaching staff hopes will be another example of how commitment to a goal and the power of teamwork will serve the youth when they return to their communities.
“I want people to know that even though these kids might have made mistakes, these are still young men that still need an opportunity like anyone else,” Wells said. “I tell these kids that not being very smart got them in here (because they took a path into criminal behavior) and being smart is what’s going to get them out.”
“These kids have earned an opportunity to participate in a sport that not only I love, but they love too,” Wells continued. “I can see it in these kids every day.”
Photos by TJJD Communications. Top, Coach Wells with the players; middle, taking the field; lower, Nancy Salinas and a player watch the action.
By John McGreevy, TJJD Communications
On August 31, Tina Saenz will be calling it a day. Her well-earned retirement will be a bittersweet occasion for the staff and youth at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg.
A TJJD veteran (known as the Texas Youth Commission when she started) since 1989, Saenz is an administrative assistant at the Evins campus. Over the years she’s been a clerk and a JCO before taking her current position and it’s not an exaggeration when her colleagues refer to her as “an institution.”
“She absolutely is,” said Belma Salinas, Business Manager at Evins. “I had the pleasure of working with her for over 30 years. She was always planning functions and events for the staff. Her generosity helped keep morale up.”
Saenz started her career as a clerk at Tamayo House before transferring to Evins in June of 1989. “I was placed as the first clerk for the education department,” she said. “We had one clerk and two teachers and no schoolbooks, so for about four or five months there was old-fashioned teaching going on.” This meant the teachers had materials and lesson plans to work with but everything the youth were taught came from listening to the teacher and reading what they wrote on the blackboard. “The boys enjoyed it,” Saenz said.
When asked about what her favorite part of the job(s) she’s had with TJJD, she said “To be honest, it was working with the kids. I can only speak from my experiences, but the kids have always been very compassionate and very respectful.”
There’s ample evidence to suggest that the youth felt the same way about her. “Over the years, I’ve been at Barnes & Noble, HEB, or other places and I hear my name called out,” she said. “Former residents come up to me and ask me if I am still at Evins because they were here at one time before and remember me and other staff.”
Saenz stresses that the people who work at Evins and the other TJJD facilities don’t get the appreciation they deserve. “Our staff are great,” she said. “Without our staff we wouldn’t be anywhere. They don’t always agree on everything, but in a time of need, everybody comes together to help each other out.”
This is also part of what she tells new members of staff at Evins. “This is a very difficult job,” she said, “but it does have its rewards. You may not think so, but when you see these youths out in the community and they are productive citizens, you realize that they were listening to us. Many times, they will thank you for being there for them and not giving up as many out there in their lives have.”
And that’s the enduring message she has for staff and the public as well: “Don’t give up on these kids,” she said. “It takes time. They’ve been through a lot and you have to earn their trust, but once they get to know you and trust you, you can do miracles.”
She plans to spend her upcoming retirement doing the things she’s always loved, reading books and watching movies. “For the first month I just want to relax. After that, we’ll see.”
We wish her nothing but the best.