Anatomy of an Intervention

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

"You can never move fast enough on this kind of thing," explains City Councilmember Felix Fraga, who served on the board of trustees from 1990 to 1993. "But it's hard to get the central office to give up some of the control and take on a more supportive role."

Paige seems to understand the necessity of that, while also acknowledging the importance of leading with a strong hand. He showed that hand this March when, less than a week into the job, he appointed two administrators to oversee Dowling Middle School and replaced Wheatley High's principal with a nine-person team. Bastian came next. All three schools knew that intervention was possible. They were among 15 low-performing schools targeted last November, when the district introduced a pilot accountability program. The program gave principals at schools where fewer than 25 percent of students passed the TAAS the authority to request whatever resources necessary to improve performance. But with the increased resources came increased responsibility: job security was tied directly to students' test performance.

Paige and other HISD officials admit that the process has proven much more complicated than was anticipated. "You can have a design, however wonderful," Paige says, "but changing the culture, the way it is viewed in the minds of human beings, is a much more complex issue. There is a large number of constituencies whose interests must be balanced and protected and honored."

Trustee Carol Galloway says that hasn't been done. Galloway, the only board member to vote against making the pilot accountability program a permanent part of HISD when the plan came up for approval in early May, says accountability assumes all schools have the same resources. It's not fair, she says, to apply the same formula to both poor, inner-city schools and schools in wealthier areas.

"We should have 250 different accountability plans," Galloway says. "Right now, it's not equitable. In order for everybody to start on an even playing field, let's give everybody the same resources and the same money. Then have them write up a plan and then hold them accountable."

Galloway also says there are no guarantees that what a principal asks for under accountability will be provided. Many principals, she says, will hesitate to ask for anything at a time when they are already being asked to do more with less. But Galloway also sides with teachers, many of whom fear that school staffs will fall prey to "dictatorial" principals who want to protect their jobs. Given the stakes, she says, principals will be reluctant to take the fall themselves. And that makes accountability a thinly veiled threat to "get with the program" or face being kicked off a campus.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, which has come out hard against accountability, agrees. "Teachers who have no choice over grouping of kids put in their classrooms, what the curriculum is, what materials are used, suddenly find themselves at fault for everything wrong with a campus," Fallon says.

Administrators and trustees say that, like any reform, decentralization will not be without its share of growing pains. But, they point out, placing control at the lowest level is a strategy that has worked in every other American industry and must work in education if today's children are to learn.

"It's a healthy thing, I think," says Fraga. "Because once principals and teachers know that it's up to them to work it out and that they cannot run to the central administration to take sides, it'll work.

"But of course, it's easier said than done."

There were good intentions aplenty when Joyce Andrews took over Bastian in September 1990. But as everyone at the school has since learned, even the most sincere efforts can be poisoned by a mixture of strong personalities, professional pride and politics.

At first, teachers at Bastian welcomed Andrews, though they were wary of her inexperience. "The first year, everybody pitched in and helped her," says one teacher -- who, like all the Bastian teachers who spoke to the Press, asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal from HISD. "We knew she didn't know what she was doing."

Despite the new terrain, Andrews appeared to have an immediate effect. In a 1991 Report of School Progress survey, more than 80 percent of the parents polled said they were thrilled with Andrews' performance. They noted increased expectations from school staff; more interaction between teachers, children and parents; greater student motivation and morale. More important, the students were responding. The same survey showed that students felt challenged. More than half even said they liked going to school. Some longtime residents sensed a stability and pride in the school for the first time in years. Ivory Green, PTA president since 1990, watched as her PTA membership leaped to more than 200 -- not bad, considering that in the past, maybe a dozen people would show up at a meeting.

But while parents were pleased with the new climate at Bastian, it was a different story for some teachers. In the fall of 1991, the start of Andrews' second year, complaints began to trickle into the Houston Federation of Teachers. Before long it was a flood, and the school was divided at its core. Open hostility and defiance marked the territory between those eager to adapt to the new vision and those intent on having Andrews removed from the school.

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