It has been a year since Jeanette LaFevers retired as coordinator for McAllen ISD’s International Baccalaureate program, but her life continues to be a great adventure.
Her story begins on a farm in Tupelo, Okla. LaFevers’s mom was a teacher and her dad was a farmer and rancher.
“I was raised with a good work ethic and with the knowledge that education is the key to the future,” LaFevers said. “These gifts from my parents are the most valuable gifts anyone could have given me.”
After graduating from high school, LaFevers entered East Central University in Ada, Okla., where she triple-majored in biology, chemistry and mathematics. She met her husband, Gary, while in college, and the two married during her senior year.
Marrying Gary proved to be another adventure in Jeanette’s life. A career military man, marriage to him meant constant movement all around the world.
“You know,” LaFevers said, “I used to think moving all the time was such a hindrance. I was always the new teacher, always the floater. Now I realize that is what allowed me to see really good and really bad education. It truly influenced how I look at education.”
In 1988, the couple moved to McAllen when Gary accepted a position with the University of Texas-Pan American. LaFevers took a job at McAllen High School teaching biology and anatomy and physiology. That same year, she earned a master’s in education with a concentration in science from East Central University.
Two years later, LaFevers moved to Rowe when the school opened. There, she taught biology, chemistry and physics and later became the science department head. In the early ‘90s, LaFevers earned a second master’s, this one in physics, from Texas A&M. Over the years, LaFevers earned an impeccable reputation for educational rigor and for truly caring about her students and their education.
In the spring of 1999, word spread that the district had decided to offer a buy-out for veteran teachers, and after much deliberation, LaFevers decided to accept it. At the time, she had no idea that her next adventure was about to begin.
Unbeknownst to LaFevers, MISD Superintendent Dr. Bob Schumacher and McAllen Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Ahlenius had been working to create a center for excellence in education. According to Ahlenius, they originally considered a magnet school; however, it turned out to be cost prohibitive. They decided instead to pursue an IB program, but it would be unlike the typical IB, which is housed on one high school campus within the district. Instead, they wanted McAllen’s IB program to be independent and pull interested students from Memorial, McHi and Rowe. They had to convince IB International to let them move forward with this plan.
LaFevers was oblivious about all of this until one day when then-Assistant Superintendent Yolanda Chapa asked to speak to her after a meeting about the district’s buy-out. In that discussion, Chapa told LaFevers about a “new program” the district was considering and said Schumacher thought she would be a great person to run it. Intrigued, she told Chapa she was definitely interested in hearing more about it.
When district officials told her they were considering an IB program, LaFevers recalled the four years she lived in Germany. Her friends’ children attended an IB school there, so she knew a bit about the program.
Jeanette’s next adventure turned out to be a trip to Round Rock to learn about the IB program at Westwood High School. A small group of teachers and central office administrators joined her on the trip. They headed back to McAllen, not yet convinced McAllen was ready for an IB program but determined to remain open-minded.
“We conducted surveys, talked to parents and to students,” LaFevers said, “and in the end, we decided to do it.” LaFevers was named IB coordinator.
The McAllen Chamber of Commerce donated $10,000 so the original group of IB teachers could attend the regional IB conference in Quebec City, though the program would not begin until the following school year.
“It was fabulous,” LaFevers said. “We got a lot of information and made so many contacts at this conference.”
Instead of taking the buy-out, LaFevers taught at Rowe half-day during the 1999-2000 school year and then worked on the voluminous application to become an IB school. The future IB teachers helped her after school hours throughout that year.
The next school year, LaFevers taught at Rowe half-day and then taught eighth graders at a special high school level math and science program at Lamar while awaiting the authorization visit from IB International. That visit proved to be favorable.
“It was so exciting when we got the letter notifying us that the program had been authorized,” Jeanette said.
Twenty-one high school students walked in the doors of the IB program at Lamar Academy in the fall of 2001. At the time, LaFevers was the only full-time teacher on the campus. The other teachers worked a half day at their home campus and a half day at IB.
“It was like that for three years,” LaFevers said. But as the program grew, the teachers became full-time IB faculty members. LaFevers taught and coordinated the program for three years, transitioning to full-time coordinator the fourth year.
The first year, only juniors were accepted into IB. The following year, juniors and seniors made up the student body. Three years ago, the district expanded the program to include ninth through twelfth graders. Three MISD middle school campuses now follow IB guidelines as do seven elementary campuses. Cathey Middle School has already received authorization from IB International. Fossum and Travis are awaiting authorization letters. Five elementary campuses are fully authorized. Sanchez and Perez, the two newest MISD elementary campuses, will have authorization visits this year.
Although LaFevers retired at the end of the 2007-2008 school year, she continues to play a critical role in the success of IB, working as a consultant for MISD, the IB organization, Texas International Baccalaureate Schools and individual schools and districts considering implementing IB. She also serves on IB authorization and evaluation teams.
Ahlenius has no doubt LaFevers was the perfect person to create and run the district’s IB program.
“Without her, this program would never have made it,” he said. “She was the heart and soul of making it work. Bob (Schumacher) had her pegged from the beginning, and it was the most critical decision for its long-term success. She guided the program from its infancy to maturation. Our community owes Jeanette a huge debt of thanks because the IB program has helped position McAllen ‘ahead of the curve’ with businesses looking to move here and its reputation as a high-caliber, quality education program that is a model for the IB program around the world. She is a first-class educator, and we were very lucky to have her here when we started the program.”
The Chamber continues to support IB by providing scholarship money to IB students and profiling the program annually in its magazine, used to recruit individuals and companies to our area.
When LaFevers retired, she handed the reins to Lori Schlesinger. Schlesinger has benefited tremendously from LaFevers’ years of experience and her expertise.
“She helped me make as much of a seamless transition as possible,” Schlesinger said. “And she is still committed to its success.” Schlesinger credits LaFevers for working tirelessly to make it a Texas law that students who earn an IB diploma graduate with no less than 24 hours of college credit. This law took effect Sept. 1, 2005.
Although MISD’s new superintendent, Dr. James Ponce, only recently met LaFevers, he is very much aware of the impact she has had on the IB program.
“I haven’t had a chance to get to know Mrs. LaFevers very well yet,” he said. “But I have heard from many people who tell me she is an exceptional individual. She is at the root of the IB program’s incredible success, a program that challenges students and has educators from around the country looking to McAllen ISD.”
Becky Jones, whose daughter Annie earned an IB diploma, also raves about Jeanette.
“In her role of administering the IB program, Jeanette took the time to understand each student’s academic and personal strengths, interests and goals,” Jones said. “She realized and respected the individuality of each student, shortcomings and all. Somehow she created an environment in which all participants — students, parents and teachers — worked toward positive outcomes.”
The program that began with 21 students will educate more than 300 this year. One hundred percent of MISD’s IB graduates have enrolled in college.
What started as a decision to accept a retirement buy-out resulted in a wonderful adventure for McAllen ISD and Jeanette LaFevers.