Anatomy of an Intervention

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

But Andrews was determined to bring more to Bastian than jargon-laced learning strategies. Aware that schools rise and fall on the tides of the local community, Andrews pounded on corporate doors, requesting money for mentoring programs for students and for GED and English classes for parents. She offered parenting sessions and early-morning coffee klatches to encourage parents to bring their children to school themselves.

With the help of the school nurse, Andrews convinced a doctor and a dentist to treat her students. She contracted with mental-health agencies to provide after-school family counseling. And she set aside a "quiet room" to deal with problem children in the presence of their parents and a social worker. Out-of-school suspensions, which Andrews felt denied kids the only structure in their lives, were phased out. Andrews called her approach "educating the whole child." Others saw it as nothing less than a miracle.

"She understood the people," says Joyce Kuria, who has a five-year-old and a seven-year-old at Bastian. "She really worked with parents to get kids in class with the right teachers. I could talk to her about anything, and the kids just loved her. My daughter wants to be a principal because of her."

But while Andrews had little trouble selling parents and corporate donors on her methods, she had less success with teachers. It wasn't a wholly unexpected problem, she says, because DAP, the Primary Learning Community and the full-service school all demand something more of teachers than in the past. "The school was going through a paradigm switch," she says. "But it was a different type of teacher who had to be ready to receive that kind of retraining."

A number of teachers and staff members at Bastian were reluctant to join Andrews' revolution. She didn't do anything to help win them over when she brought in -- as favorites, some felt -- a half-dozen young people from Teach For America, a national teacher corps that trains recent college graduates for rural and urban teaching assignments. Discipline was also an issue. Corporal punishment was officially phased out of HISD several years ago. But spankings and verbal assaults were still considered appropriate, even necessary, at Bastian when Andrews arrived. She banished them, then told teachers to discipline troublesome students "with dignity" inside the classroom instead of sending them to her office.

The more Andrews tried to do at Bastian, the more resistance she faced. By her second year, the school was mired in a power struggle between a determined principal and a core of seasoned veterans of the inner-city classroom wars. These teachers had heard all the noise about how "every child can learn," but, after years on the front lines, had neither the patience nor the passion for what they felt to be untrue.

"Joyce could not face reality," says one teacher. "Joyce wants to keep everybody there. At some point you have to say, 'You can't save them all.' Why risk losing them all? If you have a child who's taking medication four times a day and has been to the mental clinic three times this year, he shouldn't be in a classroom. He should be institutionalized."

our months into his new job, Rod Paige is still visibly awed by the responsibility of running one of the largest urban school districts in the nation. A large, graying man, Paige favors Western boots with his pin-stripe suits and floral-print ties. He's authoritative and intense, but there's still something of the layman in him, something that suggests he might have more than a passing appreciation for the frustrations of the average parent of a schoolchild.

"As a country and as a city, we've got to cut the nonsense out and get about the business of helping children," he says, his voice shifting timbre with the passion of a preacher. "We're trying to move as much of the bureaucracy out of the way of the mission, so the mission stands clear. All of our interest is tied up in that, and to the extent that we fail our children, we're going to have a very tough time."

Paige has assumed leadership of HISD at a particularly challenging moment. TAAS scores have improved, but the number of 11th graders who passed in 1993 was still less than half the goal set by the state.

The district's highly touted alternative teacher-certification program is under investigation for shoddy hiring practices. And there's a backlog of needed physical improvements.

A central tenet of Paige's response to the problems at HISD has been to emphasize the need for local accountability. In 1990, as an HISD trustee, Paige was instrumental in drawing up A Declaration of Beliefs and Visions, a benchmark document that outlined a strategy for sweeping reform of HISD. A key element of that reform is decentralization, which places control of each school in the hands of the principal, teachers, parents and area community leaders.

Though the district has been committed to decentralization since 1990, the transfer of power from HISD's gigantic bureaucracy to its 250 schools has been slow. Political battles between administrators and HISD trustees have been intense, as evidenced by the fact that Paige is the district's third superintendent in four years.

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