Marathon school a success story
By RICHARD MARK GLOVER
MARATHON – The Marathon Independent School District recovery might be one of the best stories in Texas education today. A signature away from annihilation three years ago, Marathon ISD went from $50,000 in the bank and an “unacceptable” Texas Education Agency rating to “acceptable” and more than $1 million in the bank today.
“It was sitting on (state education agency executive director) Robert Scott’s desk waiting for his John Doe,” said Neal Harrison, retiring MISD Superintendent.” They were going to close us down and bus our kids 38 miles to Alpine.”
Those were the conditions when Harrison took over. But with the help of two seasonal Marathon residents who happened to be state lobbyists, Scott was convinced to drive west from Austin and check out the school.
“He fell in love with it,” said Harrison. “We got a second chance and with a lot of hard work from the community, financial help from J. P. Bryan and the newly created Marathon Foundation, and others, we’ve turned it around. It feels good to be able to spend some money again and not be on the TEA radar.”
Plus all six graduating seniors have college scholarships.
“There are scholarship funds for any college they choose, and if they go to Sul Ross, their entire Bachelor program is paid for,” said Harrison. “And we already have reserves for next years’ seniors.”
Nine different school grants have been established in Marathon including five teacher bonus programs, and a technology grant.
Along with the grants came another gift that you might say fell out of the sky.
“The new telescopes will be installed behind the elementary building by the end of August,” said Harrison.
The two 14-inch telescopes, part of Sky Titan (telescopes in teaching astronomy net), an astronomy education group headed by Wyoming resident Scott Mecca are in the works.
“Everything we’re doing is geared toward making rigorous resources available in the educational community,” said Mecca, who formerly taught physics, chemistry and astronomy in public schools and now works as an information technology consultant.
The students in Marathon will have the opportunity to do low level research,” said Mecca. “Hands on experience – imaging, classification – they’ll learn how to use a telescope and create relationships with scientists worldwide.”
The automated telescopes are fitted with a robotic mounting system that can point accurately into deep space. They can also coordinate with other telescopes including one of Sky Titan’s sister telescopes, west of Sydney, Australia, another dark sky zone.
“Dark skies are a resource, and it will attract people,” said Mecca, who grew up in a family business that catered to tourists.
“Mecca heard about the Big Bend National Park designation as an International Dark Sky Park, then checked the dark sky map and called the Marathon school,” said Bill Wren, McDonald Observatory Public Affairs Specialist.
“Astronomy will be part of our curriculum next year,” said Harrison.
Harrison, 69, who started as a teacher at the Jesuit College Prep School in Dallas, nearly 40 years ago, tendered his retirement to the MISD board earlier in the year. The school board, chaired by Donaciano Fuentez, is in the search, like Marfa, for a new superintendent.
“I know of at least three people who want the job,” said Harrison.
Harrison believes that with rigorous support from the community, private grants and making use of the town’s resources, small schools like Marathon can be exceptional.
“Small schools are viable,” said Harrison. “And sometimes they can help a town work.”
Harrison has no intention of leaving Marathon, a town who has seen its population shrink from 800 in 1990 to 430 according to the 2010 census.
“It’s a great community, excellent school board and I don’t plan to leave the area, but it’s time. I’m nearly 70. I need to retire. Got a little piece of property here that I’m going to build on,” said Harrison. “And watch some stars.”
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