Superintendent Interview Series

A Destination of Excellence: A Conversation with Tomball ISD Superintendent Dr. Salazar-Zamora


Daybreak Health CEO Alex Alvarado talks to Superintendents from across the country to discuss topics and trends affecting their school communities like chronic absenteeism, student mental health, academic outcomes, and more. These Superintendents represent districts from urban to rural, large to small, and range in their minority enrollment and number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Our goal is to capture different voices and perspectives on the challenges facing our schools today.

A Destination of Excellence: A Conversation with Tomball ISD Superintendent Dr. Salazar-Zamora

After recently being named 2023 Texas Superintendent of the year, Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora sat down with Alex to talk about what makes her district a “destination”. The Tomball ISD superintendent shared her insights into the fast-growth district’s commitment to academic excellence and community engagement as well as mental health support for students and staff.

Leading a Fast-Growth District 

What's particularly striking about Tomball’s story is its growth trajectory. Despite the challenges many districts in Texas face with declining enrollment, Tomball has seen a significant increase in student numbers over the past decade, from 9,000 to over 23,000 students. Superintendent Salazar-Zamora attributes this growth to several factors. Firstly, the district's commitment to academic excellence plays a significant role. With an A rating and a focus on teaching and learning, Tomball has become an attractive destination for families seeking quality education, with Dr. Salazar-Zamora saying, “We love to say we're not just a district but a destination and not just a destination but a destination of excellence.” 

Additionally, the district's proactive approach to welcoming newcomers and ensuring they feel a sense of belonging has been instrumental. Integrating all of these students hasn’t been easy, but Dr. Salazar-Zamora says that the district has been able to support all students through three main touchpoints: high academic standards, a collaborative culture, and trust. “Success looks different for all students and in Tomball we believe that every child truly needs to find a place to belong, a passion to pursue and a love for learning that serves them well beyond the years they are with us.” She went on to add, “If the child finds that place, their people and a sense of belonging, they will be far more successful than if they feel isolated and unheard and unseen.” 

Creating a Hub of Innovation and Learning

Despite facing setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Tomball remains resilient. Dr. Salazar-Zamora shared the bittersweet story of the Academy of Energy and International Business, a groundbreaking initiative that would have allowed students to receive their entire high school experience in industry. The plan didn't come to fruition due to pandemic-related blockers, but that didn’t deter the district's spirit of innovation and commitment to providing unique learning experiences for students.

Despite initial challenges, Dr. Salazar-Zamora and her team seized the opportunity to purchase a property at a fraction of its original value, securing a valuable asset for the district but also opening doors to endless possibilities for its students. The property, now owned by the district, will serve as a hub of innovation and learning. There will be practical classes in “cybersecurity and drone development, a 911 call center, legal services with a full courtroom where a justice of the peace is actually holding court there for our students to participate there. We [will] have aviation if [students] want to learn how to fly a plane or [learn] how to work on a plane.” The plan is to give students access to a diverse range of educational pathways, so that they are prepared for academic success and also equipped with skills for the future job market.

Destigmatizing Mental Health in the Community 

One of the standout aspects of Dr. Salazar-Zamora’s leadership is her emphasis on community engagement and mental health: “When I think of a successful district and the health of a district, it's not just the academic health, right? It is truly the mental health of not just the students, but also the staff, the parents, and the community working together to make sure that everybody is okay and [that they know] that it's okay to talk about it if you're not.” 

"We talk about so many things," Dr. Salazar-Zamora reflected, "but we rarely just sit back and talk about mental health in itself." This sentiment encapsulates the heart of her message – the need to remove the stigma surrounding mental health conversations in the community.

For example, Tomball recently hosted its first all-district-wide mental health event, part of their Parent University initiative. This event brought together students, parents, counselors, and community members to discuss crucial topics like suicide prevention and recognizing signs of depression. But Tomball's dedication to mental health isn't a recent development spurred by current events; it's been a foundational principle for years: “We recognized some time ago that you had to have a student that is of strong mental health in order for them to achieve all that they can achieve.” 

Mental Health Supports for Students––and Teachers 

However, Dr. Salazar-Zamora recognizes that the end goal of community mental health support isn't just academic achievements; it's also about nurturing holistic well-being for all students. Tomball has faced challenges and tragedies, including instances of student suicides—a heartbreaking reality that no educator should ever have to face. “I don't care what size district,” she said, referring to the suicides. “It is not acceptable not to say that we could stop that from happening forever.”

Dr. Salazar-Zamora prioritizes mental health support in her district, allocating resources towards initiatives like Hope Squad—a program designed to help students in need. After she won Texas Superintendent of the Year, she gifted her $5,000 prize to the Hope Squad. 

Dr. Salazar-Zamora believes that supporting mental health isn't just about implementing programs; it's about fostering a culture of empathy, understanding, and resilience. "A well-rounded child includes one with strong mental health," she notes, highlighting the district's commitment to nurturing the holistic development of students.

Behind Tomball’s comprehensive mental health strategy lies a dedicated team of professionals who continually assess and adapt their approach to meet the evolving needs of students and staff. Dr. Salazar-Zamora emphasized the importance of feedback and reflection from her staff, ensuring that initiatives are not only effective but also sustainable in the long run. “We will challenge each other often and talk about, well, what have you seen? What have you heard? What's working? What are people asking for? What does research tell us? What can we learn from what has happened in the past? How can we make it more robust?” Dr. Salazar-Zamora says. It’s all in support of making each individual staff member “a stronger person, a stronger teacher, a stronger support system.”

Because it's not just about students; Dr. Salazar-Zamora also acknowledges the critical role of staff well-being. As a leader, she understands that a healthy, supported staff is essential for creating a positive learning environment. Given that, Tomball has taken a unique approach to addressing mental health by incorporating innovative practices like goat therapy and puppy therapy into their professional development days for staff: “The laughter alone has to make you feel better, right?” These unconventional methods serve as powerful reminders of the importance of laughter, connection, and emotional well-being in the learning environment.

Dr. Salazar-Zamora’s 37 years in education are a testament to the transformative impact of innovation, resilience, and compassion in education. By embracing challenges as opportunities for growth and prioritizing the well-being of students and staff alike, she has created a thriving educational community where every individual has the opportunity to succeed. In the increasingly complex world of education, leaders like Dr. Salazar-Zamora inspire us to navigate challenges with courage, creativity, and unwavering dedication to the well-being of our students and communities.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.