, Port Arthur, Texas

February 26, 2013

Sabine Pass a David among Goliaths

Erinn Callahan
The Port Arthur News

SABINE PASS — There was a time, not long ago, when the words “Sabine Pass” would draw blank stares from anyone who wasn’t a Civil War buff or hurricane aficionado.

In recent years, the name began as a whisper around academic circles. Now, it resonates. The high’s school paltry population belies an imposing presence among the University Interscholastic League front.

“I’m not sure how they’ve found their way to success, but it got them to the Conference A state championship last year,” said David Stevens, Texas UIL Academic director, in a telephone interview. “They do One Act Play, speech and debate events, they have great stuff in math and science, journalis, language arts, social studies, writing events. To be an academic state champion, you’ve got to be really good in almost everything.”

In a state where sports — primarily football — inspires fervor of epic proportions, often at the expense of education, Sabine Pass has established an academic dynasty of sorts. The school has claimed the sweepstakes trophy for highest overall score at state competition the last two years.

“We backed up a baseball game because we had kids going to clinic for OAP,” said Superintendent Kristi Heid, herself a past persuasive speaking contestant. “We participate in all sporting arenas — we have everything here that any other district has — we just balance it very well with the arts. For some kids, band is their football. Debate is their basketball. They are not athletically inclined, and so there’s really nowhere for them to go in most places.

“But here, you get ahold of these students, and you place them on these teams, and pretty soon you don’t have to place them — they’re placing themselves. It’s very important to us that our students have that opportunity to excel in what they’re good at.”

Academic skills are more malleable than athletic skills, and the playing field is more leveled, according to Andy Bates, Sabine Pass UIL coordinator.

“Not everybody is 6-4 and runs at 4-4 40,” he said. “You can take somebody’s physical abilities and you can try to maximize them through coaching. But with academics and speech and some of the other events, it’s easier to implant those abilities in the student. No one naturally has the Declaration of Independence memorized, no one naturally knows how to give a five to seven minute speech on the fiscal cliff. But any kid can do it with the right sponsor. It’s harder for us to beat a 5A school in athletics. We can beat a 5A school in academics.”

While sports is by no means the only extracurricular option at Sabine Pass, the students are not pigeonholed into one or the other.

“I have baseball players, softball players, kids who run track,” said Brad Durio, whose One Act Play students have finished runner-up at the state competition in Austin the last two years. “The thing about the students here, they are definitely very involved in the activities that are offered. And it’s definitely encouraged to cross over to different events and different activities.

“You don’t have your stereotypical, ‘Here’s your athletes, here’s your academic groups.’ There’s definitely a crossover between the two worlds, and I think that’s one of the great things.”

The school has come a long way from when Bates arrived eight years ago.

“We have 110 kids in high school on a good day, so our numbers are very small,” Heid said. “In years past, we’d take five to 10 kids to UIL meets.

“Now, he loads up a bus with more than half our high school.”

Bates has always known the academic program at Sabine Pass was something special, but the heights he and his students have reached have surprised even him.

“This is uncharted territory for us,” he said. “We’ve always prided ourselves on doing well, we’ve tried to do better every year — and I think we’ve done that, but this is beyond some of the goals we had set. We’re hitting a new level. You can’t ever put a limit on the capacity of what kids are able to do.”

As Bates said, “Winning begets winning.” At Sabine Pass, it also begets confidence. Academic success has proved to be an effective antidote for insecurity.

Kimberly Roper, a 2012 Sabine Pass graduate who now works as an aide in the administration building, definitely found her niche. She was a four-year spelling participant — qualifying for state two years in a row — and a four-year participant in CX debate, serving as captain her junior and senior year. She and her partner finished second at the 2010 state competition.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling to know that you made it that far, especially since last year Sabine Pass took first place overall,” Roper said. “It’s amazing to be part of something that big.”

Due to the intimate nature of Sabine Pass, Roper said, she is both a better speaker and leader today.

“I liked the one-on-one that Sabine Pass offers,” she said. “If I had an issue, my coach was right down the hall. The coaches at Sabine Pass are excellent. They will always find time to work with their students.

“My vocabulary has soared. It does definitely help the argumentative skills. Getting to be captain helped me learn to take control and be a teacher, and learn to see things from a different aspect, because when you’re debating, you have to. You work on individually and a team, so you learn to work that from both aspects.”

For 2012 Sabine Pass graduate Zachary DeFrancis, his four years of UIL — he participated in a speaking event, current events and social studies — prepared him for his college years, both monetarily and otherwise.

“Last couple of years we’ve done well enough to where a couple of students received Texas Interscholastic League Foundation,” the Lamar University freshman said. “Only 90 scholarships are given in the state. I was lucky enough to receive the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation Scholarship, which every year goes to one student in the Southeast Texas area. I was very gracious to receive that award.

“UIL has been a big help for me, whether it be the awards I got because of UIL, the friends I’ve made from different schools —  UIL is just a really useful thing to do when you’re in high school. And being a small school is definitely a big plus. The teacher is able to focus on the student’s individual needs. That translates well.”

In short, the success of Sabine Pass is a culmination of several factors —  the intimate setting, and the combined efforts of the students, the teachers, the administration and the community.

“The relationship is closer with the students, so you’re more likely to know what kids might have what particular skill sets and what events might be best for them,” Bates said. “There isn’t a single student in the high school that I don’t know their name. Now, I might not teach every single one of them, but multiple sponsors do, so they know, ‘Oh yeah, this kid is definitely stronger at math.’ You might have a kid who’s just dynamite at some event and the right teacher never sees him at a larger school, and the kid might not even know that event exists. Whereas, we know the kid, the kid knows us, it’s easier for them to find us or for us to find them. And the whole community, they support those kids. They’ll drive all the way up to Austin if we make it to state.”

Perhaps the best example of the Sabine Pass legacy is Shanik Ifield. The senior auditioned for her first One Act Play as a freshman, with then-prinicpal Heid as her director. She started competing in prose her sophomore year.

“I love it, because the more you read them, the more details you find, and the more things you can do,” Ifield said. “And some of them have such good stories, like the one I’m reading this year. The points that this piece makes are just awesome.”

Since then, Ifield has won a multitude of awards at the state level — including the Samuel French Award for best actor overall in a One Act Play her junior year.

“It was crazy. I didn’t believe it — I was in shock,” she said. “I heard that the show that went before us was amazing, and I feel like it’s more likely for a guy to win the Samuel French award. And they called my name. I was like, ‘What?’ I was so surprised — it felt really good, though.”

Ifield may have been shocked, but Heid was not —especially since after auditioning for various college theater programs at a recent theater conference, Ifield received 21 callbacks.

“One of these days she’ll be somewhere,” Heid said. “I tell her all the time, ‘You’ve got to remember the small people.’

“Our kids here are just so intelligent,” added the superintendent, beaming.

“Well, most of them,” Bates said as he breezed past Ifield, who laughed.

“I won’t remember you,” she said loftily, but neither she nor Bates could suppress a smile.

Their banter is the perfect reflection of Sabine Pass — more family than team.


Twitter: @ErinnPA