A Question of Competence

State Comptroller John Sharp has suggested that HISD needs to fire more incompetent teachers. But as the case of Beverly Goodie shows, it's not that simple. Just how do you tell who's incompetent? And what happens when you try?

With 1,100 students, the new Cage campus was overcrowded from the moment it opened. But when Carrillo Elementary opened nearby in January 1993, it siphoned off 250 students, reducing Cage's enrollment to a more manageable 880 students.

The opening of Carrillo also shook up Cage's administration; the principal moved to the new school, opening a slot that was filled by Steven Amstutz, then a 33-year-old administrator who had spent three years as principal of Mark Twain, an elementary school in the Stella Link area. Amstutz, too, seemed like a good choice for Cage. He had started his teaching career in a largely Hispanic Denver Harbor elementary in 1981, he speaks Spanish and he has adopted three Hispanic children. And he knew Cage, having worked there as an assistant principal for three years before taking over as principal of Twain.

During her first 13 years at Cage under three different principals, Beverly Goodie, like most HISD teachers, had received nothing but good to excellent evaluations. While an assistant principal at Cage, Amstutz himself had given Goodie good marks. But as principal, he began to find things about her teaching style that disturbed him.

Amstutz, it seems, was not shy about making Cage over. He had ideas, and he pushed them. And he also seemed willing to find teachers who shared his vision. In his first three years, almost the entire teaching staff of approximately 50 was turned over. A dozen teachers moved to Carrillo with the old principal in January 1993. At the end of the 1993-94 school year, another 13 teachers left. Five more departed the following year, and in the 1995-96 school year, 14 teachers, among them Beverly Goodie, were replaced. The net result is that Amstutz has been able to recruit almost all of his school's faculty.

The reasons for the departures, of course, varied. Some former Cage teachers, who spoke only on the promise of anonymity, complained that Amstutz had a problem with teachers who didn't agree with him. Other teachers, though, had followed him from one school to another. Whether Amstutz was arrogant or just being an effective leader depends on who's talking. As one teacher who had few problems with Amstutz says, "Different people saw him in different lights. I didn't have a problem. A lot of people complained, but my opinion was, why complain? Just get up and leave."

In person, Amstutz is genial and energetic. It's obvious that he's made a lot of changes at Cage, in part because he's been mandated to do so: During the last several years HISD has given more decision-making power and budgetary authority to principals. This shift has come as the state has urged large school districts to decentralize and put decision making at the campus level.

Before conducting a campus tour recently, Amstutz paused in the school's central office to see if he could solve a computer problem by prowling the screen with a mouse for a few minutes. When he arrived at Cage, he says, the school had a handful of outmoded computers. Through a grant from Compaq, every classroom now has at least one computer, and all the classrooms are networked with fiber optic cable and have access to the Internet. The computers are used for accelerated reading, and the bilingual children access Spanish-language material through the Net.

Using the space freed by the movement of students to Carrillo, Amstutz has created special classes for disabled pre-kindergarten children, thus allowing them to stay in their own neighborhood. Two classrooms are devoted to children with disciplinary and emotional problems; Amstutz says his teachers have a good record for helping these children "lose their labels" and move into regular classrooms. Amstutz encouraged a team of teachers to convert three classrooms into a learning center in which students who are falling behind or who need accelerated work can get help. The hours of these teachers are staggered so that children can come early and stay late. The center is calm, clean and cheerful.

"A school," says Amstutz, "should be a delightful place, like Disneyland. It should not be raggedy and full of cruddy old junk."

Cage's library is crammed with books, 22,000 of them, the highest ratio of books to students in the East End, Amstutz believes. Using the school's discretionary budget, he's buying 2,000 to 3,000 books a year and filling the classrooms with them. If they don't have access to books, he points out, children can't enjoy reading.

Amstutz seems to be a resourceful principal. Working closely with the University of Houston education department, he has secured ten student teachers for Cage. He has also seen to it that Cage hosts a summer training institute for the Teach for America Corps, a federal program that pays college tuition for students in exchange for a commitment to teaching. These young teachers, some from elite colleges and universities, earn their teaching certificates while on the job. Eight of Cage's teachers were recruited from the Teach for America program.

On first impression, Amstutz seems anything but a difficult man. He does not fit the stereotype of a principal as rigid disciplinarian. Dressed in cotton slacks and blue shirt, Amstutz seems bright and almost cuddly, the model of what a parent would want in a principal.

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