Pflugerville High School, TX

"Have a great Panther Day!"

Named a Finalist Because: In an era when kids get trolled for being different, the student body at Pflugerville High goes out of its way to be accepting to all.

From the Editors: Pflugerville High School’s entry convinced us that it’s an unusually friendly and welcoming place to spend one’s formative years, without nearly all the usual teenage meanness of a school of 2,300. One explanation for the kindness is that the school’s public service programs are downright Texas-sized. There’s the Pink Panther Pep Rally to raise money for breast cancer and the band-sponsored Pay It Forward day, when students get special stickers to acknowledge an everyday act of kindness. The regular Generation Respect forums allow students and teachers to openly discuss hot-button topics—racism, gender stereotypes, dress codes—in “To Be Honest” panels. And for the past six years, the students have collected more donations for the annual Coats for Kids drive than any school in the region. Last year’s haul: 1,400 coats.

But perhaps the best place to get a sense of Pflugerville High’s commitment to kindness and inclusiveness is right in the cafeteria, where the diverse student body—41 percent Hispanic, 24 percent white, 23 percent black, and 7 percent Asian—are all just Panthers. “When you walk into the cafeteria, you don’t see pockets of different ethnic groups sitting together—you see all students eating together,” says a member of the school community we spoke with. “It’s something when people come in and visit, they take notice.”

Sahaj Shah, a student who enrolled at Pflugerville after immigrating from Bahrain two years ago, told us that he was sitting alone at lunch on his first day only for a short time before a stranger came up to him and asked him to join his friends. That stranger and those friends quickly became Shah’s friends, “even though my accent was very heavy back then,” he says. They understood and accepted him. That kind of compassion is rare in teenagers and deserves recognition.

Read Dixie Ross’s nomination below to learn more about why Pflugerville High School might just be the Nicest Place in America.

—The Editors

Students at Pflugerville High School cheer for their friends and classmates at a Friday night football game. (Credit: Dixie Ross)

I think people have the wrong perception of public schools in America.  I love the high school where I teach because we have diversity and everyone gets along well.  Overall, the students are hardworking and respectful and the faculty works incredibly hard to help each student develop to their full potential.  As much as I have taught many students mathematics at this school, they school me daily in the importance of mutual respect, understanding, and kindness.

This year, our students formed a new organization called “Generation Respect” that holds monthly forums where panels of students and teachers discuss controversial issues such as racism, politics, dress code, and academic integrity in a positive environment. The purpose is to get a productive and respectful dialogue going to encourage self-reflection and an understanding of other’s viewpoints.

Every year, our school holds a Pink Panther Pep Rally to raise money for breast cancer research. This started to honor one of our coaches who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and has become a yearly tradition. The cheerleaders design and sell a new t-shirt every year. Survivors are recognized and awareness is increased.

At Christmas, we hold our annual Adopt-a-Child event where each second period class can volunteer to “adopt” a local elementary child who otherwise faces a bleak Christmas. The high school students donate money and presents and put on a party for the children. Some classes raise enough money to adopt siblings or several children. Some of our current students were previously “adoptees” and remember the joy of riding their new bikes up and down the hallways of our high school.

Recently in my mailbox, I discovered multiple letters of gratitude from basketball players in my classes inviting me to the teacher appreciation breakfast they were hosting. They let me know that they understood that I made them work hard because I cared about them and wanted the best for them.

For six years in a row, our school has won the prize for the most coats donated to the Coats for Kids campaign sponsored by one of our tv stations. Over 1400 coats were donated by students and staff in 2016.

Principal Kirk Wrinkle (standing left) and Ready Set Teach instructor Brettany Kokes celebrate winning the annual Coats for Kids Drive for the sixth year with Pflugerville High School Ready, Set, Teach students. (Credit: Dixie Ross)

When we walked into school recently, someone had pulled a prank! It wasn’t the usual vandalism though. They had used post-it notes to post positive messages — You’re great! Do awesome things! Someone loves you! — on each of our thousands of lockers. We discovered later that it was the work of our girls’ soccer team.

Throughout the year, our Ready, Set, Teach students work with our special education students as well as local elementary students. Toward the end of the school year, those future teachers put on a “prom” for the special education students who otherwise might not be able to attend such an event. They decorate, bring the food, wear their best party clothes, and get down on the dance floor with peers who in other schools remain segregated from the general education students.

One of our students posted an unflattering photo of herself in a new swimsuit on Facebook and the trolls were quick to pounce with mean comments. Other students quickly responded though reminding her of what a great friend she was, what a beautiful smile she had, or how they admired her confidence in an attempt to drive the mean comments out of her feed.

That’s the sort of thing that happens on a regular basis at this school and when I hear about it, I am reminded that there is greater good in this world than bad.