By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (June 16, 2015) — Seventeen years ago Debra Miller had a vision. On June 30, she will walk away from a legacy.
It was the summer of 1998 when Miller first contacted the Texas Education Agency about the need for an alternative type of educational campus in Stephenville.
“I had been a counselor at Stephenville for six years and I would see kids who needed help. Their parents would come in my office and they couldn’t get their kids to go to school or they would run away,” Miller explained. “I finally called TEA and I told them I really need to start a private school of some kind to offer kids another option or choice, a place to go to school. And I told them the kids I need to serve probably can’t afford private school, so they told me to start a charter school.”
Miller received the application from the Texas Education Agency and began filling it out.
“The process was so different then than it is now. I did it in a couple summer months and now it would take at least six months to get approved,” Miller said.
But filling out an application was just part of the process. Miller still had to go before the Texas Agency and state school board and plead her case.
“I had to convince them why we needed the school, and they had only approved 20 in 1995 and 40 in 1997 so I was worried we wouldn’t be approved,” said Miller.
But everything lined up just right.
“That ended up being the only year they accepted all the charters,” Miller said. “I took it as a God thing and we went off to the races.”
Just like that, Erath Excels! Academy and Erath Excels! ISD were born.
Seventeen years and hundreds of impacted lives later, Miller is retiring. June 30 will officially be her last day serving Erath Excels!, which now includes Huston Academy on the outskirts of Stephenville and Shoreline Academy in Taft.
But that is now. When Erath Excels! opened its doors to students for the 1999-2000 school year, it met in a building on College Street in downtown Stephenville.
“Our first year my philosophy was I was not going to have any rules except for the very basic ones. I knew these kids were sick of rules. We had very little dress code, anything,” Miller explained. “As the years progressed, I can now tell you why every rule is in place at every school because I have had to put them in. You put them in because you have to.”
With few rules, and not enough teachers, Erath Excels! began enrolling students.
“I thought we would have about 40 that first year and we ended up having about 80,” she said. “I didn’t have enough teachers. The Coke guy was in our building one day and said his wife was a teacher and we hired her real quick.”
The Coke man was Keith Taylor and his wife Carol Taylor is still with the district today.
With Miller guiding the way, Huston Academy moved to Bosque River Center then to a warehouse on US Highway 377.
But Miller had another vision, and this time, she had Weldon Huston in her corner.
“He joined our board in 2005 or maybe even earlier and I said that we needed a real school building and he just kind of took it upon himself to make it happen,” Miller said.
Huston went to work writing a United States Department of Agriculture loan, searching for land and making sure the district had the land secure until they were ready to build. In 2010, Huston Academy opened on Peach Orchard Road, just behind and across the street from Bramlett Implement.
Even before that, the district had expanded to include Shoreline Academy in Taft, which opened in 2008-09, and Erath Excels! was regularly serving 100 or more students.
“We had 130 at one point,” Miller said. “Nobody believes me, but one year we graduated 75.”
Huston Academy, which now serves grades 8-12, is currently home to about 100 students, Miller said. There are six teachers, two aides and additional staff, and she says the staff at Shoreline, minus the administrative staff in Stephenville, is about the same size.
“It wasn’t just myself, I had a lot of help,” said Miller. “Mr. Huston, our board president now, has just been huge for us. He believes in our mission, our vision, and he is the reason we have this great facility. And I’ve had amazing board members, not just him. I mean, we’ve had some really great ones who have always been willing to give of their time to make decisions concerning our school and our youth.”
Miller is retiring from education. She has been splitting time between Stephenville and Austin, where her husband, Sid Miller, is the Texas Agricultural Commissioner. The new superintendent is Mike Scott, formerly a principal in Stephenville and Santo and a resident of Stephenville since 1993 (related story).
“Mike will do a great job, I’m so excited for him to be taking over,” Miller said. “I really believe Mike is the person who we need to go out into the community and explain what we’re doing here and the opportunities that we have available, because I’ve always thought there is a misconception from people in general.
“I want our students, parents, teachers and staff to be proud to be at Huston Academy, or Shoreline Academy, and proud to tell others they are here,” she continued. “We are proud, but I don’t know that others in the community really understand what we have to be proud about. Mike is the right person to correct that misconception and really share that sense of pride.”
Scott certainly has big shoes to fill.
“I think when I look back at it all, what I’ll remember the most are all the lives that have been impacted here, and there have been a lot. I’ve seen it in students, and I’ve heard their stories. I know this place is making a difference,” she said. “It makes a difference for students, and it’s made a difference for teachers who have grown and gone on to other opportunities and some who are still here.”
Making a difference in those lives was exactly the vision Miller had 17 years ago, the vision Scott is adopting now.
“This is a very special school district and I’ve been very blessed to see it become what it is now,” said Miller. “It’s hard to let it go, but I know there are big things ahead for Huston Academy and for the district.”