Superintendent Mark Porterie talks path to Stilwell Award; great work by Port Arthur education team

Published 12:36 am Thursday, January 19, 2023

When Dr. Mark Porterie accepts the 2023 Arthur E. Stilwell Award next week, he will be doing so on behalf of 1,300 employees and 8,200 students in the Port Arthur Independent School District.

“We’re all in this together,” the superintendent said. “It’s not just me by any means. It’s all of us. No one would have known me and what they think I do if it weren’t for the Port Arthur Independent School District. I’m with people — I’m with students and adults. So it’s because of them that I’m being recognized for that honor, but it comes with a whole lot of people.”

Porterie will receive the award at the 123rd annual banquet for the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce. And it’s a recognition he holds in high esteem.

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“The Arthur Stilwell Award represents a beautiful place — Port Arthur,” he said. “It represents a place where people have grown up. Where your childhood friends are still your friends today. Your childhood friends’ parents have gotten older, so now you see them in more of a mentor-type mode.

“We’ve seen businesses that have grown, and we’ve seen businesses that have closed down. We’ve seen schools that were merged from three high schools into one. We’ve experienced so much here. But we still are here. And Arthur Stilwell started that. He’s our father. So it’s an honor to even be considered.”

Path to education

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Porterie left Lamar University and began what would be two years of work at Texaco Chemical Company.

“That was good,” he said. “At that time, my age group, our fathers were in the plants and the shipyards that were here, and that was plentiful. That job took care of us. At that time, if you worked at the refinery, that was the end. You didn’t have to do anything else.”

But he felt he could do more.

“At that time, I was making a whole lot of money,” he said. “But I just felt that wasn’t my purpose.”

As the son of an educator, Porterie changed his path. And 31 years ago, when he began working as a teacher at PAISD, his salary went from $87,000 to $21,000.

He wanted to do something that was meaningful and found guidance in former PAISD superintendent Louis Reed.

“He invested in me, among others,” he said. “I got my certification because I didn’t want to let him down. And people, over the years, have helped me. I never regretted leaving the refinery. Never. Not once.”

Working in education

Porterie called the field the all in all.

“Every day there has been something different,” he said. “The refinery was very routine. There is nothing routine about education and dealing with children.

“Every day there’s a child that’s going to come in with a different concern. There’s a child that’s going to come in with a different smile, a different answer, a different concern, or even they may be one way on Tuesday and by Friday they’re totally different.”

For the longtime educator, watching the growth in the students is the reward.

“That’s the high for us — the growth,” he said. “I think we all need to be needed, but educators need that feeling of being needed. When you have 20 kids in front of you, and you’re teaching them, and they’re learning, they’re actually getting it — that’s incredible. That’s an incredible feeling.”

Strengths and challenges

Since becoming superintendent in January 2014, PAISD has faced a multitude of challenges from severe weather to a pandemic that launched school districts into unprecedented territory.

When PAISD closed on March 16, 2020, officials assumed it would only be for a couple of weeks. Instead, it was five months.

“That was a dark time,” Porterie said. “But I do thank God for the people that I have around me — the executive team, the teachers, the custodians, maintenance, the cafeteria workers, technology. If it weren’t for everyone banning together and being able to talk and come up with ideas and to keep moving forward, I think a lot of us would have lost our minds.”

However, uncertainty became the biggest challenge.

“I think with our children, that was the most frightening because they weren’t with us on a day-to-day basis.,” he said. “As educators we understand what some of our children go to when they leave us and go home in the afternoon. But the good thing about it, when they leave us, we know they’re going to return the next day. In this case…we didn’t know what was happening with our children at home.”

But the district maintained through the work of every department.

“We have to give a lot of credit to our teachers who work incredibly hard getting our kids to where they are. And not just teachers. You have our counselors who work with them. You have paraprofessionals that do an incredible job,” he said. “And let’s not forget child nutrition that has to prepare meals.

“Early in the morning, five o’clock in our transportation department, the buses start rolling. And you have the maintenance that — I guarantee you — if the lights go out, they’re calling. And our custodians. If a teacher walks in their room and the garbage has not been emptied, that makes for a horrible day.”

He called it a puzzle where every piece is 100 percent important.

“There are people who may not see or understand what we do,” Porterie said. “But anytime an individual gets up in the morning and comes into a classroom — in secondary you might see 140 to 160 kids sometimes in one day. You’re not doing that just because it’s a job. You’re doing that because you have a heart for kids.”

The banquet

The Jan. 26 event is a kick-off to the City of Port Arthur’s 125th anniversary celebration. The event begins with cocktails at 6 p.m. followed by the program at 6:30 p.m. The keynote speaker is Port Arthur native and actor G.W. Bailey. Chamber Financial and Administrator Director Joe Tant said the banquet, which can accommodate 842 people, sold out this week.