“It’s easy to get along with people like us,” says Barbara Porter, who founded Austin’s St. Francis School in 1985 and plans to retire after 36 years at the school’s helm on June 30th. “It’s not as easy to get along with people who are different – religiously, academically or economically.”
Porter, 78, grew up in the north of England, taught in private schools in the United States, then partnered with committed parents in Austin to create an inclusive, non-denominational place of learning, academically rigorous, but not culturally inflexible, from kindergarten through eighth grade. grade.
“In the beginning, only the genius, charisma and leadership of Barbara Porter kept St. Francis together,” says Douglas Laycock, a former professor at the University of Texas School of Law and one of the first supporters of St. Francis. “She inspired everyone, parents and teachers, to do amazing things by building a school together.
“There were only 50 families that first year. The teachers were great, but she could only pay them $9,000; it’s about $23,000 today. For years, the only employees were Barbara and teachers. Parents and volunteers did all the rest.”
Now at the University of Virginia, Laycock and his wife, Teresa A. Sullivan, 2010-2018 UVA president, met Porter because their first son was rejected as too young to start in other elementary schools. from the city.
Porter told them instead, “I don’t care how old he is. I want to meet the kid.”
Porter’s educational philosophy, “excellence without exclusivity”, has fueled St. Francis over the years with a growing staff and student body in a range of locations. This fits well with the school’s namesake.
“He was such a good guy,” Porter says of St. Francis of Assisi. “He cared for people. He cared for animals. He embodied everything we cared about. And oh, there wasn’t a school in Austin with that name back then.”
The road to the United States and Saint Francis
Barbara Porter was born on March 17, 1944 – towards the end of the Second World War – in the industrial town of Burnley in Lancashire. She grew up near Barrowford.
“You could see the glow of Manchester from 30 miles away,” says Porter, who hasn’t lost his brave, down-to-earth way of speaking in Northern English.
Her father worked as the general manager of a company considered a critical supplier of wartime textiles. He also served in the National Guard. Her mother was a housewife.
Sporty, athletic and adventurous, Porter remembers being rather outgoing and a bit rebellious.
“My sister always said, ‘Never let her down,'” Porter recalled with a smile. “‘She will dissertate and tell all the family secrets.'”
Like other middle-class English families of the time, the Porters travelled, though not extensively, mostly to old seaside resorts, which had lost some of their pre-war luster.
Porter studied at the Victoria School of Education at the University of Manchester.
“I wasn’t bookish at all,” she jokes. “Maybe that’s why I’m so good at my job.
“Truly, I loved literature and my English teachers. My favorite was DH Lawrence. My mother hid my copy of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in the cake tin. I’m going to get a piece of cake and there’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.”
Porter taught at a series of schools during the 1960s, including a “really tough place”, Stamford Hill Primary School in London.
“My class was made up of 38 children, ages 7 to 8, from all over the world,” Porter recalls. “And me a brand new teacher. It taught me everything I know.”
The ardent Beatles fan brought this hard-earned teaching wisdom to a grammar school in his hometown before breaking away from English provincial life.
“I fled to the United States to avoid marrying a man who was still chasing me,” she jokes. “My dad said, ‘If you want to go, go.'”
From 1968 to 1971, she taught at a private Episcopal school in Indianapolis.
“It was wonderful,” Porter says. “Way ahead of its time. Integrated. The rest of the city was not.
“They recruited three more English teachers and we all lived in the same four-bedroom house. I think our rent was $30 a month each, but again, we were only making $3,400 a year. “
Porter spent the next four years at a school in Sacramento, California, which taught the children of some state leaders, including those of Governor Ronald Reagan and future Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
She married Wayne Porter, a career Air Force officer, and followed him to Spain for three years. She, however, rejected life on the base.
“The officer’s wife is not my style,” she says. “If you want to send me to hell, it’s here.”
Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin was their last posting.
Wayne Porter had three adult children from a previous marriage. They have a son, Chris Porter. He is now 42 years old and an electrician.
“He loved St. Francis,” Porters says. “Once, however, he asked, ‘Mom, why are you harder on me than anyone else?'”
The Porters were married for 17 years. They remain on good terms.
Teach and Lead in Austin
In Austin, Porter had resumed her teaching career at the Strickland School at 45th and Red River streets.
“It was very conservative, old-fashioned,” Porter says. “That’s not my cup of tea. I used to walk past the door to the staff room so I wouldn’t have to argue.”
Next came Resurrection Episcopal School in Northwest Austin, where she first taught 4-year-olds part-time.
“I didn’t know what to do, other than teach them to read,” Porter says. “Somehow I became what was called the ‘headmistress’ at the time.”
A battle between the diocese and Porter, who refused to fire some veteran teachers, eventually led to the diocese shutting down Resurrection. Some concerned parents approached Porter to start St. Francis.
They started with 50 students and moved from one set of temporary quarters to another, including Commodore Perry’s former estate which, after years of extensive renovation, has since become a luxury hotel.
Some very committed parents eventually led St. Francis to his current home, a two-story office building north of Austin Community College’s Highland Campus. A sports hall and a football field followed.
“There were no banks giving loans to schools at the time,” Porter says. “They made us take out an insurance policy on me in case I became incapacitated.”
Parents, few of whom were particularly wealthy, helped immensely along the way.
“Some funders – Doug Laycock and his wife, Terry Sullivan. Melanie Barnes and Ben Barnes, who had two adopted children. If it hadn’t been for parents like them, we never would have made it,” she says.
The student body had grown to 120 by the time it moved into its current digs; it now stands at 385. The faculty has grown from 15 at the time of the move to over 60, including part-time.
Tuition fees range from $8,354 to $11,376 per year. In addition, more than $400,000 is reserved for scholarships.
One of the school’s strengths, parent after parent says in a testimonial video shown at Porter’s retirement party, is taking kids for who they are.
“Another administrator told me that my son might never learn to read,” says Linda van Bavel. “And I was crushed by that. … So when I went to see Barbara and started watching St. Francis and told her about the difficulties, her immediate response was, ‘There’s probably a gift in there.
“It lightened my load and rekindled my love for the process and re-engaged me in raising my own son.
“I never expected how much I would love this school and its culture of inclusion. And how it has enriched my own life and the lives of my children. … As for my son, he is now in 11th grade and has a 3.9 GPA and looks forward to all kinds of college experiences.”
St. Francis students tend to head to high schools with similar cultures, including Griffin School, St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, and St. Andrews Episcopal School. Among public schools, destinations include the Academy of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Anderson High, and Austin High.
How did Porter pull it off?
“The accent is enormous,” jokes his comrade Adam Wilson, founder of the Griffin School, of which he is now director. “Somehow Barbara can be brutally honest and straightforward, yet still charming, endearing and warm in some way.
“I’ve been to many meetings that have been too serious and where there’s been an awkwardness in the space. With a wave of her hand and a pithy remark, Barbara can cut through the noise and change the whole dynamics of the room. …
“But the focus is huge. It pulls it all together in a really beautiful way.”
“I will miss the children and the people”
Porter’s partner, Robin Doughty, is a UT professor emeritus who has taught geography and the environment. He became quite the ornithologist and is now much sought after as a guest speaker on cruise ships.
“They are beautiful ships,” says Porter. “I have to come. All I have to do is pay my way.”
The couple live in Lakeway, in part because Porter is a big tennis fan and the town of Lake Travis cultivates the sport. She dreams of participating in all Grand Slam tournaments – she has already participated in Wimbledon and the US Open.
These days, however, she’s less likely to be seen on the grounds than roaming Lakeway’s many trails with Gordie, their 6-year-old English bulldog.
Traveling around the world, gourmet cooking and walking pets can’t go any further. Real retirement for such an outgoing person is a bit daunting.
“I’m going to miss the kids and the people,” Porter says. “Some are friends. Recently, I met all these people and said, ‘I’m sorry I never got to know you, because I won’t be there.'”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture, and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]