Cara Cooke, superintendent of Kilgore schools for five years, has accepted a position as interim superintendent at Aransas Pass ISD.
A special school board meeting called for noon Friday includes two action items: consideration of Cooke’s resignation and of the appointment of an interim superintendent. The trustees’ next regular meeting is set July 23.
Superintendent here since 2013, Cooke notes the new job will allow her to be with her husband who has worked in that area since February.
“I interviewed on Saturday and they offered me the job on Saturday,” Cooke said. She explained she called the KISD board of trustees the same day to inform them of her decision. “I’m going there as an interim superintendent. They needed someone quickly. I’ll enter as interim superintendent, working there diligently. My intention is to show them what I can do and obtain full-time superintendency.”
News of Cooke’s resignation ignited a firestorm on social media Monday – complaints about discipline, student drug use, low staff morale and more. The announcement comes three weeks after trustees’ contentious June 18 board meeting at which parents lodged complaints about those same issues.
While there have been ups and downs at KISD during her tenure, Cooke says she has accomplished things at the district which leave a lasting impact.
“When I was hired, they wanted to move students to greater academic achievement. We’ve hit standard every year academically and students are more engaged in the classroom from elementary to high school. I really think it’s that engagement and student access that I’m most proud of,” she said.
In February of 2013, Cooke was named a finalist for the superintendent position on a 6-1 vote, chosen from a field of 32 applicants. She applied for the position when former superintendent Jody Clements left the position to take a job with Longview ISD. Before coming to Kilgore, the east Texas native was assistant superintendent at West Oso ISD in Corpus Christi.
During her time in Kilgore, Cooke has been responsible for a number of changes at KISD. In some cases, those changes were direct responses to criticism from parents of students and staff members.
For example, at the trustees’ June meeting, several parents delivered heated criticisms of the district. They pointed to several issues, including allegedly widespread drug use on the high school campus, a high number of student fights and a lack of discipline, low test scores and a teacher turnover rate they perceived as excessive.
At the meeting, Cooke and the board responded by adopting – to vocal approval from parents – a new drug testing policy for the high school. While Cooke admitted during that meeting test scores needed to improve, she said student fights were not excessive and maintained teacher turnover rates were normal. She also pointed out, during all five years she worked for KISD the entire district had received “met standard” ratings from the Texas Education Agency based on their acceptable test scores. Many STAAR scores at KISD have been and currently are below state averages – as previously reported, preliminary standardized test results to be presented to the board indicate scores dropped in a number of areas.
Addressing the issue of teacher turnover, Cooke responded that teachers have left their jobs for a variety of reasons, not solely because of problems at the district. However, one former KISD teacher, Stacey Bandy, cited problems with the administration as one of the reasons she recently chose to leave her job.
Despite these criticisms, Cooke has also overseen positive changes in the district during her tenure. Most notably, she championed an effort to have the district recognized as a “district of innovation.” In 2017, the KISD board of trusted voted unanimously to approve the measure.
Texas Education Agency allows school districts to adopt the designation if they meet certain performance requirements, which KISD met. The innovation designation allows districts to make changes to their curriculum and their calendar.
Cooke also cited curriculum changes as some of the improvements made at KISD during her time as superintendent.
“I tried to change the mindset into 21st century learning, especially at the high school, where we have the career tech pathways, a state-of-the-art welding lab and partnerships with KEDC (Kilgore Economic Development Corporation) and the Texas Workforce Commission,” she said.
She also pointed to the expansion of the dual-credit program as another accomplishment.
“We went from 11 students taking dual credit at KC when I arrived to something like 150 students taking dual credit,” she said, noting the district helps students pay for tuition for dual-credit courses.
At school board meetings, she supported an effort to revamp the high school, including cosmetic upgrades to the building and a plan to bring in experts to assess safety protocols. Those upgrades have been underway this summer.
Cooke believes KISD has great things in store for the future.
“There’s a lot this community has to be proud of,” she said. “We have great teachers. If the community will rally around this district, there’s nothing this community cannot accomplish.”
Cooke said she wished the best for her fellow staff members at KISD.
“I wish them the best, I love them. I will always consider them my family and a part of my heart will always have that Bulldog spirit.”