Anatomy of an Intervention

HISD has a plan for reforming problem schools. But when it reached Bastian Elementary, not everything went smoothly.

For years, Mamie Sue Bastian Elementary was perceived in Houston education circles as a hellhole -- a grim, neglected school in a low-income neighborhood, populated with teachers who didn't teach and children who couldn't learn. But the low-slung building at 7350 Calhoun, in the shadow of the Loop in southeast Houston, started losing that reputation in 1990, when a special-education teacher named Joyce Andrews became its principal.

Reviving an inner-city school locked in perpetual futility was a tall order. But after nearly four years, Andrews' knack for public relations and her vision for educating children of dire circumstance had begun to transform Bastian from an institution with a long history of failure into a much-needed resource for the entire community.

About the only thing Andrews hadn't done was prove that her students were learning. Their performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills remained among the lowest in HISD. During the 1992-93 school year, only 3 percent of Bastian's third-graders and 16 percent of its fourth-graders passed all three sections of the test.

That, Andrews' supporters insisted, was going to change this year. Everything Joyce Andrews had brought to Bastian -- new teaching methods, increased parental involvement, corporate partnerships, a community-school concept -- would pay off in a glorious display of academic achievement on this year's TAAS.

But Andrews never got a chance to bask in Bastian's TAAS score glory. It's not just that the results of the tests were mixed -- some grades did better, others about the same -- it's that by the time the tests arrived, Andrews was gone. On May 5, much to the shock of many in the community surrounding Bastian, Andrews was removed as the school's principal and reassigned to a central-office post at HISD.

The sudden shift was a result of an administrative overhaul known as "intervention," the hammer that has been held over HISD schools in recent years to help make the district's move toward local accountability work. The Bastian intervention was the third ordered by HISD Superintendent Rod Paige since he took over management of the district in late February. His first two interventions, at Dowling Middle School and Wheatley High School, were initiated because of what Paige called "desperate" conditions. In those cases, Paige said, a change in leadership was the only solution to the discipline problems and poor academic performance that plagued the schools.

Indeed, at Dowling and Wheatley, it appears that most people agreed with Paige. And intervention has shown it can work; in spring 1993, then-Superintendent Frank Petruzielo stripped Rusk Elementary of its principal and faculty, and despite fears that forcing a school to start over with a new staff was, as someone described it, "the death penalty," the Rusk intervention was a success. A year later, morale is high, parents are more involved and discipline problems have decreased.

But the Bastian intervention hasn't been so widely applauded. While accepting HISD's notion that local accountability is crucial if schools are to be reformed, and even agreeing that such accountability means that unsuccessful principals and teachers need to be removed, many in the Bastian community wonder what all that has to do with them. They say that tremendous things were already happening inside Bastian Elementary. Attendance was up; so was parental involvement. Health and social services were available on-campus to students and their families. Private money poured in for programs, computers and a neighborhood park on school grounds.

Considering all that, it was only a matter of time, some insisted, before Joyce Andrews turned test scores around as well. And if she was being removed purely because of poor test results, then, her supporters suggested, HISD wasn't looking closely enough at its schools before moving in. Tests didn't say all that needed to be said. And intervention might not always be the best solution.

Now, many in the Bastian community don't know what will become of their school. They say Edward Thompson, the principal who came in to replace Andrews, seems committed to keeping Bastian on the right track. But they miss Andrews, her tough love for students, her soft touch with parents, her optimism and her vision. Instead of focusing on the results of the latest TAAS, they are preoccupied with the question of why she is no longer Bastian's principal. And they are frustrated by the lack of answers.

"No one will give you an answer, because I don't think they know," says Ivory Green, president of Bastian's Parent-Teacher Association. "All I know is, if they had been thinking about the children, they wouldn't have done it that way."

To the naked eye, there is little to distinguish Bastian Elementary from any other K-5 school built in the late 1950s. The hallways are wide and long, the drop ceilings low. Square, milky panels cast institutional light across tile floors burnished by small feet that squeak and slap, up and down, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., in Air Jordans and hand-me-down shoes.

Along the brick walls painted tan and blue and orange are rectangular bulletin boards, decorated with construction-paper cutouts and cartoon characters celebrating new programs and student achievement. Others offer encouraging words to strengthen the students' resistance to the temptations that wait just beyond the school's walls.

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