Finalist for Nicest Place in America: Pflugerville High School, Texas
[dropcap]R[/dropcap]emember high school? It was that time when nothing was awkward and everyone was nice to you—not!
For most of us, high school was uncomfortable and embarrassing, a time of constant, tiny humiliations while we figured out how to be a person in the world.
But things are different at Pflugerville High in Texas, a high school of 2,300 outside of Austin that just happened to be the setting for the popular football TV drama, Friday Night Lights. The real-life Pflugerville High is a place where the gawky and graceless are made to feel welcome and nobody is an outsider. The students and faculty are kind and bullying isn’t tolerated—in person and online. It’s why we named it a finalist in our Nicest Place in America contest. It’s a really nice place to go to high school. Just ask Sahaj Shah.
He was 7,000 miles out of place when he first got to Pflugerville, and if ‘80s high school movies are to be believed, he was in for a rough ride.
He arrived at Pflugerville High for the first time as an immigrant from Bahrain with a thick accent and shaky English. His parents didn’t yet have jobs and barely spoke the language.
On his first day, he sat alone at lunch because he hadn’t yet made any friends. Soon, a stranger came up to him and asked him to join him and his friends. That stranger and those friends quickly became his friends. They didn’t mind his thick accent and listened to him patiently to understand him.
“All the teachers and kids really took their time to hear me out with patience even though I know that my accent was very heavy back then,” he said.
It sounds like a small thing, but in the jungle that is American high school, it was a huge act of kindness, of the kind seen every day at Pflugerville, where the school population is very diverse, with 41 percent Hispanic, 24 percent white, 23 percent black, and 7 percent Asian.
Even school pranks are “nice.” One recent prank pulled by the cool girls on the soccer team involved staying late to put encouraging sticky notes on all 2,300 kids’ lockers (“I believe in you!” “You’re the best!”). Online bullying is met with an overwhelming show of support via Facebook and Instagram comments for the target of the harassment. The school’s annual coat drive, a competition between schools across Central Texas, has seen Pflugerville gather more coats for the needy than any other high school for seven years in a row.
And, maybe most importantly, the kids are genuinely nice to one another, embracing their differences rather than ridiculing each other for them, as is custom in many other high schools.
“We just kind of overlook our differences,” said one student, Khue Tran. “I don’t really ask someone about their ethnicity. We disregard that and focus on who they are and what their interests are.”
From Tiny Town to Sprawling Suburb
It wasn’t long ago that Pflugerville barely hit the map as a town. First settled in 1849 by a German immigrant, when World War II ended, its population was still just 500. As recently as 1990, it was home to just 4,400 people.
But the economic explosion that triggered sprawl across the Sun Belt lifted Pflugerville too. Like many of its fellow Austin suburbs, it has grown rapidly over the last twenty years, to a population of over 40,000. Anchored by a six-lane interstate connecting Austin and Dallas, Pflugerville is now home to a mix of white, African-American, Asian and Latino residents, with a median income of over $70,000 per household.
Flat, hot, and surprisingly green, with trees and lawns fed by a massive, natural underground limestone aquifer, its wide streets are lined with fields, farms, strip malls, and cul-de-sacs full of two-story homes and modest ranch houses.
Like the fictional town in Friday Night Lights, football remains a huge part of this region’s identity; the Pflugerville High Panther’s 55-game winning streak during the early 1960s remains the stuff of Texas legend.
But for today’s students at Pflugerville High, sports aren’t the only outlet for their famously competitive Texas spirit:
- An annual “Pink Panther” rally, originally sparked by a desire to help a teacher battling breast cancer, now raises funds for cancer research of all kinds.
- Each month, a student vote awards a five-foot-wide “Golden Horseshoe” trophy to a staffer whose acts of kindness go above and beyond the call of duty.
- Inspired by the police shootings and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, staff began a program called “Generation Respect,” where students hold monthly panel sessions with teachers to learn from each others’ perspectives on the hot-button issues of the day.
- The school’s “Ready-Set-Teach” program pairs aspiring student teachers with elementary and special-needs students, which teachers say helps foster an environment of inclusiveness and understanding throughout the school. In one recent incident, an autistic student had an outburst because a track meet kept him from being able to walk on the track. “All the students, instead of shying away from him, ran to him to assist him,” said instructor Brettany Kokes.
- Its “Adopt-a-Child” program helps classes mentor elementary students and raise funds for their Christmas presents; “you see kids riding up and down the hallway on bikes or scooters,” said teacher Sarah Cable.
- The school band’s “Pay It Forward” campaign encouraged students to hand out stickers to anyone they heard sharing a compliment. “They ran out [of stickers] halfway through the day because it went around campus so fast,” Cable recalled.
A Helpful Community
But what students say makes the most difference aren’t the programs or fund drives, but its everyday culture of respect.
The student body has large numbers of Latinos, African-Americans, whites, and Asians; over a third are classified as “economically disadvantaged.”
But students say they generally don’t segregate by race or class, but by their interests, whether it’s sports, academics, or hobbies.
“People kind of find their way around to the group they want to be in,” said Tran.
“Whenever you go to the library, when you find someone studying the same subject as you, you can just sit with them and have a discussion. It feels like college.”
Following the school’s nomination, testimonials from staff, students and parents quickly followed via Facebook comments:
“I am very glad to be a part of a community that supports one another.”
“It is awesome to know the high school my kids go to is the same wonderful place I graduated from even though it is much bigger.”
“Wonderful place to teach and learn!”
“Pflugerville was always rated the best by people I trusted. They were correct.”
“My students also bring out the best in me. It truly is a very nice, and incredible, place.”
It’s not a perfect place, by any stretch—it has had its share of troubled students and teachers alike, including one staffer who recently resigned after reportedly using racial slurs. Students deal with the same irritations that can turn up at any large high school—“football guys got away with murder,” recalled one recent graduate—and a strict dress code featuring bans on body piercing, beards, and tattoos has drawn its share of criticism.
But the school routinely scores in the upper half of the state’s various tests and rankings. It beats state averages for attendance and graduation rates. Principal Kurt Wrinkle was recently named a finalist for an H-E-B “Excellence in Education” award, praised not only for his “very positive, student-focused environment,” but for helping develop a number of the district’s current principals and administrators.
And students like Shah and Tran give Pflugerville the award that matters most: they want to be there. “She loves school,” Tran’s father said. “She loves to spend more time at school than at home.”