Carter, Okla. had a population of 256. So how does a man like John Folks, who came from such humble and rural beginnings, end up serving as the Superintendent of one of the largest school districts in Texas and eventually rise to be the Superintendent of the Year for the second largest state in the nation?
As with most things, it started at home.
Cecil and Walene Folks were school teachers in rural southeastern and central Oklahoma. In fact, Dr. Folks actually had his mother as his math teacher in junior high school, and had his dad as a geometry teacher in high school.
It was during his dad’s math class that Dr. Folks met the girl who would later become his wife, although at the time he said he didn’t even like her because she was constantly getting him in trouble by talking to him in class. They would both later go on to the University of Oklahoma, both getting bachelor’s degrees in education. He would continue to pursue post-graduate studies at the University of Oklahoma and eventually earned his doctorate degree.
He began his teaching career as a math teacher in Port Arthur, Texas after first considering a career as a FBI agent. At that time you had to be 23 years old to be hired by the FBI, but during interviews and evaluations for the Bureau he met a recruiter from Port Arthur ISD – and the rest, as they say, is history.
Although not known at the time, history was already being written on the Folks education legacy when he was named Teacher of the Year in his first year of teaching at Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur in 1970.
Dr. Folks returned to his home state of Oklahoma two years later as a teacher at Western Heights Public Schools in Oklahoma City. Three years later, he followed his father’s footsteps when he went to work for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, working at various positions before eventually becoming Associate Deputy State Superintendent. In 1984 he was elected State Superintendent (the equivalent to the Texas Education Commissioner) and served in that capacity for four years.
But John Folks yearned to have a more direct impact on student learning and more time with his wife Wyvonna and their two then-young sons, Mark and Michael. He became Superintendent of Midwest City-Del City Public Schools in Oklahoma and then served as Dean of the School of Education at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
In 1997, 25 years after he left the Lone Star State, he returned to become Superintendent of Spring ISD in Houston. In 2002, he was lured to Northside ISD, and over the next decade, the Oklahoma native made an indelible mark on the District and the entire state of Texas.
Under Dr. Folks’ tenure at Northside ISD, the District racked up numerous honors, all while facing enormous enrollment growth and serious financial challenges. In 2005, Northside was the first district in the state to receive the HEB Excellence in Education Award, and in 2007, NISD was one of five finalists in the nation for the Broad Prize, the Nobel Prize of education.
But Dr. Folks’ most personal achievement came in 2011 when he was named the Texas Superintendent of the Year by the Texas Association of School Boards for his statewide leadership and his unwavering and vocal support of Texas public education.
He ruffled the feathers of elected officials in Austin more than once, but at the same time he won the admiration of lawmakers from both political parties. During legislative sessions, Dr. Folks made regular trips to Austin, often daily, to testify on the impact of legislation to Texas school districts, both large and small. His leadership and expertise in school finance and operations were particularly critical in 2011 when the state slashed public education funding by $5.4 billion. But Dr. Folks was on the front lines from the start, speaking out against the cuts, and even rallying support on the steps of the Capitol.
No matter who Dr. Folks talks to, he speaks the truth, plain and simple. His sincerity and honesty have earned him the trust and respect of staff members, fellow educators, elected officials, business leaders, journalists and, most importantly, taxpayers. In fact, while serving as NISD Superintendent, voters approved three consecutive bond issues for $1.7 billion in bonds for new schools and improvements and renovations to existing schools.
While Dr. Folks did so much for Texas public education as an outspoken advocate and as Past President of both the Texas School Alliance and the Texas Association of School Administrators, his dedication and commitment to the students and staff of Northside ISD had no limit. His expectations for staff members were high, but no higher than the ones he set for himself, and his love for the District was evident in his tireless efforts to improve instruction, curriculum, and ultimately, student success. He was – and remains - a role model for aspiring school leaders across Texas.
He retired in May 2012 after a 42-year career in education, although he continues to teach a graduate-level course for future school administrators at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and is a Sunday School teacher at MacArthur Park Church of Christ.
Since retirement, he and his wife Wyvonna have traveled to Alaska and Florida, and have spent time with their two children, and their six grandchildren. He also continues to participate in two of his passions: golfing and bicycle riding.
Folks credits his parents and grandparents for making him the person he is today. Their strong commitment and passion for learning, quality education, hard work, and work ethics are qualities that he hopes to pass on to the students at Dr. John Folks Middle School.