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'Best profession on this planet': White Oak ISD superintendent enters final weeks before retirement

Mike Gilbert believes education is and always will be about people.

The soon-to-retire White Oak ISD superintendent says no machine or program can replace the impact a teacher can have on a student.

Keeping that ideal in mind is what kept him in education for 39 years and what assures him the future of the district he’s led for 13 years is safe.

Gilbert’s last day is Dec. 20, the final day of the fall semester.

The White Oak ISD board this past week approved former Gladewater ISD Superintendent Mike Morrison to serve as the interim superintendent until a replacement is hired by March 1. His first day will be Jan. 6, when students return from the holiday break.

Gilbert said he believes it is the right time to retire and is ready to spend time with his family.

“I’ll be the first one to say my family, a lot of times, were put on the back-burner for the work I did for everyone else’s kids, especially when I coached,” he said. “I saw everyone else’s kids a lot more than I saw mine. I’ve got two grandsons now, and hopefully I can spend a little time connecting with them. I’ve got a wife I’ve dated since I was 15 years old, and we need to spend some time together. She’s pretty special.”

As he prepares for his last weeks as White Oak ISD superintendent, Gilbert said he believes he is leaving the district in great shape.

“There are a lot of places that have good structures, good software, good hardware,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good leadership team. We have a good board, (and) we have great teachers and support staff that really care about our kids. And in turn, because of that commitment and care, our kids care about the people that they work with.

“I’ve said for a long time — kids don’t perform at the highest level they can for people that they don’t care about or don’t care about them, and that just is not the case here.”

Gilbert said he believes White Oak ISD is special. He started his tenure as superintendent in 2006. Before that, he was principal at Spring Hill High School and also spent time as White Oak High School principal.

Gilbert also previously taught and coached at high schools in Texarkana, Lindale and Wills Point.

Although he sees White Oak as a superb district, Gilbert takes little to no credit for getting it there.

“I also want to be clear: that was (the case) when I got here,” he said. “We had teachers who cared about kids, kids who cared about teachers. It’s a close-knit, small-town atmosphere. Probably my best accomplishment is I didn’t mess it up.”

He said the district focuses on transparency, communicates with parents, has a strong relationship with the community, works with the county and partners with churches.

Other districts can try to recreate what White Oak has, but Gilbert said it would not be easy.

“The thing that’s hard to recreate is that, in a community this size, this is a hub of activity, really, of everything that goes on here,” he said. “We still have probably at least two-thirds of our graduates every year are 13-year Roughnecks. There’s a stability here of people that live in this town and stay in this town, and I think that school’s a big part of that.

“Really, it all comes back to relationships, showing a genuine concern to the kids in your classroom all the way from pre-K to 12th grade,” Gilbert said.

During his time as superintendent, Gilbert said he has seen the district win 11 state championships — from journalism to basketball to bass fishing — and even the University Interscholastic League Lone Star Cup, which is a conference-wide award.

But Gilbert said remembering those accomplishments just remind him of the people who worked hard to achieve them.

“Winning championships, getting awards — those kind of things are a source of pride because it’s the accomplishment of our kids that gets us there, but the way they care about each other is probably number one on my list,” he said. “That’s all this business is really about, is people.”

Gilbert said when teachers come into the district, one of the first things they are assured is that White Oak ISD invests in its educators.

“We make sure they have what they need,” he said. “We make sure our teachers are trained. We want to be a ‘this-century’ school. We want to have technology available for our kids, but that technology is not any good if you don’t train your teachers how to do it well.”

Gilbert, along with the school board, also oversaw the completion of the 2017 bond projects, which upgraded the district’s infrastructure. He said the bond was important because it assures there will be a safe, effective place to keep having school for the next 20 years.

Over the course of his career, Gilbert said he has seen many changes to education. In all those changes, though, educators are still preparing children for jobs that have not even been created, .

A positive change is an improvement in instruction, he said. Now that there is more oversight of what is required in classrooms, training and expectations are better, which results in children learning more.

“You’ll hurt some people’s feelings sometimes in the community when they’re talking about how much tougher school was when they were in school. That’s just not true. It’s not even close,” he said. “In 1965, which was before I started, you could graduate from high school with 13 credits. Thirteen credits will get you to be a sophomore now. We require more courses, more credits. The material we cover is much more significant than it was.”

As he ends his career in education, Gilbert said what he wants to see changed the most is the focus on testing.

“We take the state’s test because the state tells us to, but that’s not what we work on every day,” he said. “Our focus is to create good citizens that can work together with people and know how to solve problems.”

A multiple choice test just cannot measure those qualities, Gilbert said.

“There’s still a lot of people that hang a label on a school based on a test that happened one day in the spring over one subject area, and quite frankly, that’s just insane,” he said. “We’re an A district, good for us. They’re hanging numbers and letters at schools where there are a lot of good things happening to consider and they don’t give weight to, so I’d like to see that diminished.”

Despite those challenges in the industry, Gilbert said he still believes the work he did was valuable.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of the best profession on this planet and doing the most important work that can be done on this planet and to do it with the highest caliber of people that are around,” he said. “The last 13 years, I think I’ve been a part of the most important work that I’ve ever been exposed to.”

Festive fun: Christmas at the Courthouse draws thousands to downtown Longview

Eight-year-old Gabe Herrera waited in line Saturday evening in downtown Longview for something he has never done before: ride a pony.

“It looks like fun,” he said.

Gabe came with his brother, Jacob, 3, and mother, Gracie, and waited to ride one of four ponies in a small corral set up on Methvin Street.

The Herrera family of Longview were among more than 2,000 people who attended Saturday’s Christmas at the Courthouse. The event has been going on since 2002, and the courthouse grounds have been lit up since before Thanksgiving, said Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano.

The four-hour event featured the showing of “Shrek the Halls,” live music, a magic show, rides on a train and wagon, merry-go-round, free food, a bounce house slide, a visit by Santa and Mrs. Claus and more. Long lines formed for many of the attractions.

“It’s real beautiful,” Amy Duran of Tatum said as she watched “Shrek” on a large outdoor screen. “It seems real organized.”

She said she also came to watch a friend’s child perform in Dance Dolls, a pre-teen group from Tatum.

Tony Fong of Longview said he has been coming to the courthouse event for three years and brought daughters Sofia, 1, and Sandra, 8.

Sandra said she likes looking at the lights.

Like the Fongs, Dustin Wisdom of Longview said he has been coming for three years. He waited in line for the bounce house slide with his four children — ages infant to 5 — wife Carease and their 4-year-old niece.

“The kids just have a lot of fun,” Wisdom said. “They like to get on the rides and drink hot chocolate.”

Several children apparently enjoyed climbing aboard a Longview SWAT Team vehicle. Small children hopped on a stool and peeked through the roof of the vehicle.

“I really like looking out at the top,”Averie McQueary, 8, of Longview said after she got down. “I could see the moon and the people and the train.”

Free food also was a draw, but the sheriff’s office apparently had not planned for the number of attendees hungry for hot dogs.

“We went through 1,000 (hot dogs) before we could say ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Gregg County Fire Marshal Mark Moore said. He said his crew started serving hot dogs and 5 p.m. and ran out about 6:15 p.m.

Official: Base shooter watched shooting videos before attack

PENSACOLA, Fla. — The Saudi student who fatally shot three people at a U.S. naval base in Florida hosted a dinner party earlier in the week where he and three others watched videos of mass shootings, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Officials investigating the deadly attack were working Saturday to determine whether it was motivated by terrorism, while President Donald Trump indicated he would review policies governing foreign military training in the United States.

Family members on Saturday identified two of the shooting victims, both of whom were hailed as heroes for trying to stop the shooter and flagging down first responders after being shot.

The shooter opened fire inside a classroom at Naval Air Station Pensacola on Friday, killing three people and wounding two sheriff’s deputies, one in the arm and one in the knee, before one of the deputies killed him. Eight others were also hurt. Both deputies were expected to survive.

The official who spoke Saturday said one of the three students who attended the dinner party hosted by the attacker recorded video outside the classroom building while the shooting was taking place. Two other Saudi students watched from a car, the official said.

Ten Saudi students were being held on the base Saturday while several others were unaccounted for, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity after being briefed by federal authorities.

A U.S. official on Friday identified the shooter as Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. The official also said the FBI was examining social media posts and investigating whether he acted alone or was connected to any broader group.

Two U.S. officials identified the student as a second lieutenant in the Saudi Air Force, and said Friday that authorities were investigating whether the attack was terrorism-related. They spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose information that had not yet been made public.

In remarks at a gathering of top U.S. defense and military officials on Saturday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked whether he could say definitively that the shooting was an act of terrorism.

“No, I can’t say it’s terrorism at this time,” he said, adding that the investigation needs to proceed. He declined to discuss details of the investigation so far.

President Trump also declined to say whether the shooting was terrorism-related. The president tweeted his condolences to the families of the victims on Friday and noted that Saudi King Salman had reassured him in a telephone call that the shooter “in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people.”

But in comments echoing those made earlier by Esper, Trump said Saturday that he would review policies governing foreign military training in the U.S.

The U.S. has long had a robust training program for Saudis, providing assistance in the U.S. and in the kingdom. Currently, more than 850 Saudis are in the United States for various training activities. They are among more than 5,000 foreign students from 153 countries in the U.S. going through military training.

“This has been done for many decades,” Trump said. “I guess we’re going to have to look into the whole procedure. We’ll start that immediately.”

Speaking at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California, on Saturday, Esper and others downplayed any initial impact on U.S.-Saudi ties.

Asked whether he would now hesitate to send U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia, he said, “No, not at all.” He said the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared security interests, especially with regard to Iran.

The shooting has shined a light on the sometimes rocky relationship between the two countries, however.

The kingdom is still trying to recover from the killing last year of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi intelligence officials and a forensic doctor killed and dismembered Khashoggi on Oct. 2, 2018, just as his fiancée waited outside the diplomatic mission.

Naval Air Station Pensacola is one of the Navy’s most historic and storied bases. It sprawls along the waterfront southwest of the city’s downtown and dominates the economy of the surrounding area.

Part of the base resembles a college campus, with buildings where, in addition to foreign students, 60,000 members of the U.S. Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard train each year in multiple fields of aviation.

Kinsella said the base would remain closed until further notice.

Residents of Pensacola mourned the attacks and offered their condolences to affected members of the community.

Family members on Saturday identified one of the victims as a 23-year-old recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who alerted first responders to where the shooter was even after he had been shot several times.

“Joshua Kaleb Watson saved countless lives today with his own,” his older brother Adam Watson wrote on Facebook. “He died a hero and we are beyond proud.”

A second victim was identified as Mohammed “Mo” Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school last year, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Haitham’s mother, Evelyn Brady, herself a Navy veteran, said the commander of her son’s school called her and told her Haitham had tried to stop the shooter.

The former track and field star had been assigned to flight crew training and was looking forward to graduating from the program later this month, Brady said.

“He said he was going to get his flight jacket for Christmas,” she said. “Now that’s not going to happen.”

The shooting is the second at a U.S. naval base in one week. A sailor whose submarine was docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, opened fire on three civilian employees Wednesday, killing two before taking his own life.

Longview's Walk of Honor task force upholds exclusion of current elected officials

This story has been corrected from an earlier version. 

The Longview panel making recommendations for a Walk of Honor in the city is holding fast to its guidelines — even if that means excluding the governor.

A request to recognize Gov. Greg Abbott as an inaugural inductee into the Walk of Honor recognition was rejected by members of a city task force Nov. 21 at the Longview Public Library.

The vote came one week after the task force presented recommendations for the Walk of Honor to the Longview City Council. Among the recommendations, the panel wants to restrict current elected officials and also wants to consider nominees through a predetermined process.

Mayor Andy Mack had asked the task force to amend its recommendations by allowing current statewide or national elected officials and by allowing the city to select an initial honoree outside of the recommended nomination process.

Mack plans to visit the governor “in the very near future” and wanted to offer to recognize Abbott — who lived in Longview for about six years beginning at age 6 — with a star on the Walk of Honor, according to draft minutes of the November meeting.

Mack said Friday that the City Council will not override the task force’s recommendation on the matter.

“This is a non-issue,” he said.

During discussion on the mayor’s suggestion, several task force members stated that, under normal circumstances, it was likely that Abbott could be nominated and considered for recognition once he’s left office, but that making special circumstances now might make it more difficult to stick to recommended guidelines in the future.

“They really didn’t talk about politics. They just talked about process,” city spokesman and task force liaison Shawn Hara said. “(Mack) didn’t talk about politics when he brought it up.”

Jim Cogar, a task force member who is also chairman of the Gregg County Democratic Party, made the motion to leave the recommendations as they were made, effectively preventing the governor’s consideration for a Walk of Honor star while in office.

Another member, Karen Maines, seconded the motion, and all of the members attending the November meeting — Tamika Franklin, Debbie Fontaine, Hank Guichelaar, Marshall Jackson, Scott Lewis, Vickie Slover, Cogar and Maines voted in favor of the motion.

Task Force Chairman Tim Patrick abstained from the vote.

Three members were not in attendance, according to the minutes. Vikki Jones said by email that she would vote to not make exceptions. David Choy said in an email that he would have allowed the exception, and Marion Mack said by phone that she would consent with the group’s decision.

Task force recommendations are subject to final approved by the City Council, which formed the group. Council members will consider the matter when they meet Jan. 9, Hara said.

Christmas Kid — Chase Hall

Name: Chase Hall

Age: 4

Parent: Amber Hall

What do you think it is like to be one of Santa’s elves?: It would be fun to get to feed reindeer and fly in Santa’s sleigh!

For Christmas, I’m giving my Mom: I’m giving my mom a necklace and my ninny a computer.

What is your favorite family Christmas tradition?: Cutting down a Christmas tree and decorating it.