Superintendent candidate loves seeking knowledge
By Nick Dean
Editor in Chief
When Dr. Bonny Cain was in school she was the kid who fed on education. New knowledge was her lifeblood, extra worksheets were sweeter than dessert and going to college was inevitable.
After several bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and nearly 23 years as an administrator, 19 days now stand between Cain and her new role as Waco’s most recent catalyst in its education system.
Tuesday night, the Waco Independent School District Board voted unanimously in favor of naming Cain as its sole finalist to fill the city’s vacant superintendent seat.
The search for a new superintendent was sparked when Dr. Roland Hernandez, the former superintendent, suddenly announced he was leaving to take a position as the chief administration officer in Corpus Christi ISD.
Waco’s school board sifted through more than 40 applications and eventually settled on Cain, the current superintendent of Pearland ISD, after two interviews and a trip to her current district on Monday to interview a spread of Cain’s colleagues, including teachers, administrators and Pearland businesspeople.
Cain has been Pearland’s superintendent for 11 years — far surpassing the average tenure of a Texas superintendent by nearly nine years.
“Education became a priority because it was so much a part of my life and it is an environment I love. I was one of the ones who asked the teacher for extra worksheets so I could teach school to my dog,” Cain said.
Cain grew up in an impoverished setting, and her roots parallel the current status of Waco’s youth as poverty runs rampant throughout the city’s schools. Eighty-eight percent of Waco students are classified as economically disadvantaged — a statistic four times greater than Pearland ISD.
Cain says her background will help her overcome the challenges associated with grave poverty in schools.
She stands as a testament that impoverished upbringings don’t preclude paths to higher education and she attributes that success to her family’s unceasing advocacy for continuing education.
“I was raised in a low-income environment and my parents and extended family — from the very beginning — told my brother and I that education was the key to a fulfilling and productive life, that it was the difference maker,” Cain said.
“I didn’t even know that people quit school at 12th grade. It was always, ‘When you get out of college, when you get out of college.’”
With family support, Cain always entertained the thought of continuing her education and she spent many years as a student herself.
She graduated from Gladewater High School and earned her first degree, an associate of science degree, from Kilgore College. She then enrolled at the University of Houston at Victoria and completed a Bachelor of Science in elementary education.
Cain also holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the same university. But three degrees didn’t fulfill her appetite.
“I began teaching reading in Alvin and I realized I didn’t know everything I needed to,” Cain said. “So I went back.”
She entered the University of Houston at Clear Lake and finished a master’s in reading from the university. Following that, she enrolled at the University of Houston’s main campus and completed her doctorate in education and cultural studies.
Step toward new beginning
Cain has been working at Pearland ISD for 23 years, holding various positions in the district’s administration. After her 11 years as superintendent, the Pearland school board did not renew Cain’s contract. The vote was a split 4-3 decision and was initially a point of concern for the Waco School Board.
Angela Tekell, a Waco board member who traveled to Pearland Monday to visit with some of Cain’s closest colleagues, said the reasons behind the nonrenewal was “very subjective” and involved “particulars to Pearland.”
Five of the seven Pearland School Board members are serving their first terms and have expressed desires for a “new direction,” Cain said.
“It is really not a bad thing; there is not a bad guy in this. They just want a different direction,” Cain said.
“If you make really tough, not popular decisions, you know that over time a lot people get upset. Chances are you are going to wear out your welcome.”
Tekell said all concerns about the nonrenewal were quelled after Monday’s meetings and the board is enthusiastic for the future of the district.
“We were convinced after visiting all those people that the decision [not to renew] was very particular to Pearland. She had met all her goals set of her by the Pearland board with very high marks,” Tekell said.
“Any concerns that we had going in were completely satisfied. We were told many times on Monday that they are concerned about what their future holds and concerned about their future without Dr. Cain.”
Cain’s years of experience were evident in her proposals and Tekell said she was most impressed by the extent to which Cain had gone to prepare for the position.
“It is as though she has been at work for six months already,” Tekell said.
“One of the things that really impressed me was how quickly she was able to ascertain what our needs are here and begin to think about how to tackle them.”
Cain’s goal for Waco schools is simple: make them places kids want to be.
“I want hooks. I don’t care if it is football, soccer, baseball, art, ROTC or technology. That school district has to have hooks for kids that make them want to be there, so they feel good about being there,” Cain said. “They have to think that it is the next best thing they have next to home. A place they can be safe and successful.”
Cain will also look to increase the participation and success of Waco’s athletic and fine arts departments.
“We consider our athletic department as crucial to student success, because it is the group element. We want them to seek out a group to be in,” Cain said.
“We use our athletic department and fine arts departments to be a place for the students to not just be academically successful, but be socially successful and successful in athletics and fine arts. At one time Waco ISD was a powerhouse in football and other areas, and I would like to see that again.”
Waiting in anticipation
“I can’t wait to get to Waco ISD,” Cain said.
Unfortunately for her, Texas law requires a 21-day period between the announcement of a superintendent finalist by a school board and the meeting “at which a final action or vote is to be taken on the employment of the person.”
Both Tekell and Cain tied the period of waiting to matrimony.
“I think the idea is that it makes boards accountable and lets the community know who it is before the ink is on the paper,” Tekell said. “It is kind of like a marriage in that if anyone has a reason against it they can say it now.”
Cain took the opportunity during her two visits to Waco to delve into the atmosphere of the city. She said she talked to residents while at a convenience store or a restaurant to gain further understanding into the public’s perception of Waco schools.
“If it was something that didn’t match me, I didn’t want it. It is kind of like getting married. If it is not a good match, it won’t be a happy marriage,” Cain said.
“I wanted to make sure that I heard things that matched my interest levels and my abilities. And I think I found that.”