Houston ISD headquarters bore more than a passing resemblance to a city under siege Wednesday.
People and video cameras were pouring into the Hattie Mae White administration building on West 18th Street. An emergency press conference had been called by two school board members to talk in dire terms about how the largest school district in Texas could be taken over by the state.
And with just another nine months to put it all right, the feeling of urgency was pervasive.
With signs at the front desk directing everyone to another building to use the bathroom — turns out a pump had broken, cutting off water to the restrooms – it seemed as though little was going HISD’s way at the moment.
Board President Wanda Adams and longtime trustee and former president Rhonda Skillern-Jones made it clear they intend to go down fighting in defense of schools the state has called "chronically under-performing." That and that State Representative Harold Dutton, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and who carried the bill making the takeover possible, is definitely off their Christmas card lists.
Bolstered by Dutton’s House Bill 1842 passed three years ago (and apparently a little-read one by legislators ahead of the vote), Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is apparently taking steps to either close down public schools that have been on the state’s Improvement Required list for a number of years, or appoint a board of managers that he may believe will do a better job for students than some of the school board members in districts throughout the state.
“It’s been two and a half grueling days of meeting with the Texas Legislature on this issue,” Adams said. “This is very personal to me. I was born and raised in the Fifth Ward. And my high school is considered one of the top high schools on the list and that is Kashmere High School. So these last two days have been very, very emotional to me when someone looks across the desk and asks me why don’t I close Kashmere High School.”
Both said there seemed to be little recognition of the strides the district has made since 2013 when between 60 and 70 schools were labeled IR by the state. Preliminary results will be released next Tuesday, August 15, and Adams said they will show additional improvement.
Adams and Skillern-Jones decried the effort, pointing out that most of these schools are among the poorest in the district. Skillern-Jones also pointed to what she called a lack of funding to help counter the problems brought about by pervasive poverty.
The schools that have repeatedly failed to meet standards after being assessed in areas including attendance, test scores and graduation rates are: Kashmere High School, Wheatley High School, Worthing High School, Blackshear Elementary, Dogan Elementary, Highland Heights Elementary, Kashmere Gardens Elementary, Victory Prep North, Victory Prep South and Woodson School (K-8).
Actually, the Victory Prep North situation has probably resolved itself since according to Adams, that in-house charter school’s officials have said they want to go back to just one school and absorb everyone into Victory Prep South.
The district’s plan is to target these schools with an intensity of effort, Chief of Staff Cynthia Wilson said.
Skillern-Jones, whose district includes Kashmere, has been a champion of the school and points out that in the two years Nancy Blackwell has been principal, the high school has shown more progress than in several years before. The school was the subject of a cover story in the Houston Press last December.
The state had already sent in a TEA conservator, Doris Delaney, in the 2016-17 school year to help out. Kashmere will be 60 years old this coming school year.
The two board members weren’t any fonder of the option of losing their jobs, although Skillern-Jones said she’d rather walk away from her elected position than see any school closed. But she also warned that the entire effort was an attempt to cripple the public school system.
“When vouchers don’t work, when privatization efforts don't work, when charter management efforts don't work, when annexation efforts don't work, this is just the next gateway in dismantling public education,” Skillern-Jones said.
"No one is talking about the fact that we have 283 schools. Ten of them are on this list. So we have 273 are working well. But that's not the focus of this," Skillern-Jones said. "This is a precedent to dismantle public education. And it's not just a local trend, it's not just a state trend. It's a national trend. And it's coming from the culture in this country of using the last pot of public money for private profit.”
Skillern-Jones also discussed the fact that the state keeps raising its standards and that any time a school gets close to hitting its marks, the needle is moved. And she said that last year the district had 20 schools come off the IR list.
Following the meeting, which was not attended by Superintendent Richard Carranza, the HISD press office issued the following statement:
Houston ISD is aware of major concerns the Texas Education Agency has expressed regarding several of our schools considered "chronically underperforming." HISD shares the agency's concerns and is working closely with TEA on the transformative work we must do at the local level to ensure every HISD student receives an excellent education. HISD leadership remains committed to creating global graduates, regardless of their zip code or circumstances.
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The matter will be discussed again Thursday night at the board’s regular monthly meeting. TEA representatives will be present.
A bank of TV cameras stretched across the front of the HISD meeting room in preparation for the speakers.
Photo by Margaret Downing