School Days is a unique opportunity for students to visit the Renaissance themed New Market Village of the Texas Renaissance Festival. Begun in 2005 as an opportunity for outreach, the event has grown from an attendance under 5,000 in its first year to an attendance of 45,000 in 2020.
As a career educator who was immersed in the Houston educational community, I had begun, in 2012, to hear concerns and frustrations about the lack of organization and declining quality of the event. Many of my teaching colleagues either planned to stop bringing their students, or had reached a point of knowing the programming was not quality, but the day was fun enough for the students to justify continued attendance. I had worked in the Festival’s entertainment company for many years, and so had a finger on the pulse of both the faire and the teachers. I approached the Festival’s General Manager, letting him know that when the Director position became available, I wanted to step in, to see if I could bring my understanding of both the educational world and the festival’s operations to coalesce in a cohesive organizational structure that would regain the confidence of teachers, administrators, and parents.
In 2014, I was given that opportunity.
My first order of business was to communicate with teachers and administrators, to learn what their frustrations had been. I learned that lack of consistent replies to emails and calls had been an issue, as well as programming that did not fit the logistical needs of schools (bus scheduling, lunch availability, school purchasing procedures, as examples). For the first year, I focused on replying to all questions, making email my first priority every day. It took some time, but I did develop a sense of trust with the teachers: they knew that if they had a concern, it would be addressed. I had attended this event with my own students every year since its inception, so I had a good idea of what the day looked like from that perspective. But I had never paid attention to the magnitude of registrations, ticketing, and staffing. I made that a focus in year one of my management. I asked a lot of questions.
Another issue that was clear in the first year was that the fine arts contests, which had been started by the Coordinator in 2007 and had contributed to exponential growth in the popularity of School Days from 2007-2010, had become both unwieldy and low quality. The first major change I implemented was hiring certified adjudicators from the University Interscholastic League’s bank of judges. These men and women were the very same ones who would be judging bands, orchestras, choirs, and theatre groups in the spring each year. I worked with teachers in the music and theatre fields to develop a critique system that allowed for quality feedback from professional adjudicators. Immediately, after just one year with the new judges in place, the prestige of our contest exploded.
I placed limits on the number of groups who would be allowed to register. In the past, there had been little to no structure. Students would perform under trees with whatever warm body could be grabbed to judge. By placing strict limits on the availability of performance slots, the contest leapt forward again in respect and prestige. We have waiting lists now.
Each year, I have worked alongside the TRF department heads: entertainment, traffic management, ticketing, security, food and beverage, and vendors to improve our processes. We have streamlined each and every process so that the event is running smoothly even as attendance grows. We will continue to seek out ways to get better. It’s important to me and to the rest of the TRF management staff, that the School Days event is seen as a quality, family-friendly, educational day for the students who come from all over south and central Texas and western Louisiana. I consider it my legacy.