Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators
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Inside the Luxury Training Compound Designed Just for Educators

When visitors first approach the Holdsworth Center’s new West Austin Campus, its full scope is somewhat hidden; they pass a small guardhouse through a nondescript gate. But after descending a winding road from the top of the hill, the full grandeur of the facility quickly comes into view. 

With over a dozen buildings, including overnight accommodations, spanning 44 well-landscaped acres along the shores of Lake Austin, the campus at first glance resembles a luxury resort. There’s even a boat dock. However, what may appear as a vacation destination to some, is in fact, a leadership academy designed exclusively for superintendents, administrators, and classroom teachers.  

The Holdsworth Center was founded in 2017 by Charles Butt, chairman of H-E-B. Butt has dedicated much of his personal and corporate philanthropy to Texas public education. He has helped develop the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards, the H-E-B Read 3 early literacy program, and Raise Your Hand Texas, an advocacy organization focused on public policies that support and improve public schools. His latest project is named after his mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth, a teacher herself.  

“Charles believes, and we at the Holdsworth Center believe, you cannot have strong public schools if you are not investing in the people who make public schools: teachers, principals, and district leaders,” Holdsworth Center President Dr. Lindsay Whorton explains. “Frankly, in the U.S., we have not made the level of investment that we need to make in educators to support them to create the types of schools we need.” 

The Holdsworth Center, with its new $200 million facility, represents the type of investment that educators deserve but seldom see. Its amenities include state-of-the-art classrooms, lecture hall space, an open-air amphitheater, walking trails, and over 180 rooms to accommodate overnight stays. It more closely resembles the locations where CEOs and business leaders attend corporate retreats, an intentional part of the design.  

“Charles wanted to create this place because it is what educators deserve and [represents] the value that they hold for our society,” Whorton says. “I think of the campus as a functional place designed to support certain kinds of work but also as a monument that is a testament to how important educators are. I think teachers and principals feel that when they are here.” 

That certainly is the case for Creighton Jaster, a principal at Lamar CISD’s Wright Junior High, who was among the first educators to attend training at Holdsworth.  

“When you go there, you feel like the most important person in the room,” Jaster says. “You feel like you are valued and not just that lonely teacher or principal.” 

A Focus on Leadership 

The Holdsworth Center’s training program focuses on leadership. Whorton points to research that indicates strong, inspiring leaders make for strong schools and, in turn, help improve student achievement. Not only does the organization help individual educators become stronger leaders, but also it aims to help school districts grow their own leaders and build their own systems for developing future leaders.  

“When we say leadership, one thing is important to clarify: We are not talking about specific jobs or roles,” Whorton says. “A lot of times when we talk about leadership in schools, we think you are talking about the principal or the superintendent. We think leadership is something that you do, and that leadership should be done from all levels of the school system. So for us, that is about building the leadership capacity of teachers, principals, and assistant principals, all the way through to district staff.  

“That is the mission we have: to strengthen leadership so that Texas schools can serve their students.” 

This mission began in 2017, even before completion of the physical campus. The organization selected seven districts from across Texas for the inaugural class of the Holdsworth Partnership, a five-year investment in developing leaders in individual school districts. The districts themselves selected campuses to participate in the program, and those campuses’ principals selected team members to undergo training.  

“First, we invest in the superintendent and key leaders in the central office in what we call the District Leadership Program,” Whorton explains. “It is a two-year program involving 35-40 days of learning over that time, so significant time in the summer and on the weekends, like an executive MBA program. 

“Through that program, we really focus on building the individual leaders and their team skills in three areas: personal leadership, their ability to grow and empower others, and their ability to make change.” 

Beginning in the second year of the partnership, the Holdsworth Center works with cohorts of school principals and campus teams in a similar two-year program covering the same three leadership areas but with a focus on students and campus issues.  

Program graduate Reny Lizardo, a principal at Arlington ISD’s James Bowie High School, remains impressed by the caliber of the training.  

“I have been in education for 14 years, I have gone to a lot of training as a principal, and this is by far the best training and professional development I have ever experienced,” Lizardo says. “It helped me grow so much as a leader. We learned how to make better decisions, how to have conversations, and how to be a better leader. We also learned how to be a healthier leader and manage our time better.” 

As part of the training, the Holdsworth Center works with some of the best experts from around the country and, in some cases, the world. Many are experts on education and leadership, but educators also hear from leaders in other disciplines, such as organizational psychology and business. Whorton says they seek out any expert who could help the educators become better leaders.  

“We also look at high-performing organizations to see how they develop their people and how they coach them for inspiration,” Whorton explains. 

Participants also hear from wellness experts.  

“One of the objectives is helping educators manage their physical, mental, and emotional resources,” Whorton says. “We teach about nutrition and physical activity. You try and remind people that some of the things educators may do often, like skipping lunch, are not great for their body.”  

Jaster says: “They are focusing on the whole person and your whole experience. It is about you understanding the importance of yourself as an educator and valuing yourself and then translating that into the work that you do.” 

As principals, Lizardo and Jaster also received executive coaching, something both administrators found extremely helpful. The coaches would meet with them one-on-one, visit them on their campuses, and help them set individual goals. This process even included surveying both peers and subordinates about their strengths as a leader as well as skills they could improve.  

Pandemic Delays Campus Opening 

The pandemic that has affected so many aspects of education impacted the Holdsworth Center and its participants as well. The program first began accepting school districts in 2017 before the physical campus was completed. Educators then met in hotels or other conference spaces for their training.   

When construction was complete in 2020, however, COVID-19 made in-person gatherings at its facilities impossible and necessitated a switch to virtual learning for all of 2020. Fortunately, when the pandemic began to briefly subside this summer before the onset of the delta variant, the Holdsworth Center campus and technology allowed for in-person gatherings in a safe but limited way.  

“What we have going for us is we have a lot of square feet, and we have the technology to do hybrid learning,” Whorton explains. “So, throughout the summer, we had people on campus, socially distanced and sometimes in different classrooms, interacting with their colleagues virtually.” 

This opportunity to reconnect in person on the Holdsworth Center campus was a memorable experience for the educators.  

“It was nice after a year of being locked away to be able to see everyone and be treated like an executive on our own compound,” Lizardo says. “Everyone was there for a singular purpose, and just having those moments was really big. That compound, there is nothing [else] like that in education in the United States that I know of.” 

Jaster agrees: “It is a beautiful campus. It provides you a getaway to truly focus on the work.” 

Educators See Lasting Results 

Jaster says his Holdsworth experience has altered how he approaches both his own leadership role as well as how he fosters leadership among his staff.  

“I think as a principal it has given me the ability to reflect on letting my staff have a voice in what we do for our students,” Jaster says. “I have to have some transparency and be able to listen to them and make better decisions for the campus.” 

“It has given me the tools to look at certain individuals and see different potential that they have. Because I see that different potential, I can provide them opportunities to become a greater leader. So, I may see somebody that I feel really could be a good administrator, and then I foster that and then provide them opportunities and resources to get them into a master’s program or to shadow my assistant principals, so I can grow them and insert them into the pipeline.” 

Since completing the program, Lizardo and his fellow participants have continued to grow as leaders. He recently enrolled to pursue his doctorate in education, and three of his teacher colleagues have since become assistant principals. In addition, Lizardo says one of his colleagues, who has not moved into administration, feels like a more confident leader.  

“That teacher believes they are more confident as a teacher—a stronger leader in the building with a bigger voice,” Lizardo says. “It is not just for people who want to be administrators.” 

Most importantly, Lizardo says the lessons he learned from Holdsworth continue to shape his approach to his job and problem-solving skills.   

“I learned there isn’t one way to fix one thing,” Lizardo explains. “There isn’t a magic bullet to fix all of our problems in education. But there are resources and ways to get there, and it is all about having the insight and skills to know where to find those resources.” 

Author: Michael Spurlin