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For more than an hour, the principal of Phillis Wheatley High School had been showing off the improvements he and his staff have been making at one of Houston's worst-performing public high schools. Like a town sheriff, Horace Williams strolled Wheatley's halls, a two-way radio in his back pocket and a cell phone clipped to his waistband. Every wandering soul he saw was met with a firm handshake and a direct gaze. An undercurrent of suspicion ran through his greetings. What he was really saying was this: Who are you, and why are you wandering my halls? Why aren't you in a classroom, making something of yourself and this school?
When Williams was named Wheatley's principal nearly three years ago, discipline at the school had broken down. The halls were dirty and marred with graffiti, the lockers were battered and broken, the students were walking in and out of the classrooms and drug dealers were coming onto campus from nearby apartment complexes. That's changed. The lockers have been replaced, the floors are polished and the walls are freshly painted. Four armed guards help keep the dope dealers out. And any student who haunts the halls during class hours can count on confronting Williams or one of his assistant principals.
Inside the classrooms, Williams has added dozens of Compaq computers loaded with Plato, a software program that's helped improve test scores in other Houston schools. The science labs have been recently upgraded. Wheatley offers daycare for young mothers and fathers, and GED programs to reduce the dropout rate. The teachers are using "Guerrilla Tactics," a curriculum that sneaks math lessons into English and history classes. Youngsters who have been "placed" in high school simply because of their age are identified and given remedial work. Wheatley offers after-school and Saturday tutorials for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, or TAAS.
But many of these are, of course, surface improvements. Upgrading the school's physical plant and adding new academic offerings have been one thing; improving Wheatley's dismal TAAS scores and high dropout rate has been another. Two years ago, when the state lowered HISD's accreditation rating due to the district's high dropout rate and low math scores, Wheatley was out front as an example of a problem school. Its dropout rate was the highest in the district, and its math scores among the lowest. And last fall, in their analysis of the district's TAAS data, auditors for state comptroller John Sharp found Wheatley's TAAS results near the bottom of the HISD barrel in all categories.
Still, HISD has other low-performing high schools, schools such as Jones, Sharpstown, Waltrip, Westbury and even Yates, Wheatley's long-time rival as the city's oldest historically black high school. These schools are also afflicted with the problems that beset Wheatley. So after touring his campus and after answering many questions, Williams had a question of his own. Why the special interest in Wheatley? Why do people keep talking about its problems? Why is it that Wheatley, and not some other school, has been singled out for attention?
He watched suspiciously through oval, wire-rimmed glasses, waiting for an answer. If Horace Williams had grown up in the Fifth Ward in Houston instead of the small town of Kilgore, and if he were, say, 50 years old instead of 36, and if he had attended Wheatley during its glory days in the early '60s, when it was still a racially segregated institution, he might not be asking this question. One of his classmates would have been state Representative Harold Dutton, whose district includes the Fifth Ward, and who, like many other Wheatley alumni now in positions of leadership, fails to see Wheatley as just another school with problems.
These Wheatley graduates want their alma mater to be not just a place that's acceptable, but a school they can be proud of. And they expect the first African-American superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Rod Paige, to realize this. After all, just recently Paige pledged that within three years all HISD schools would perform at or above acceptable levels on the state's accountability system. And where better to start that reform than at Wheatley?
The only question is, how will Paige do what he's promised, especially at a school where solutions have come and gone on a steady and regular basis? Perhaps the district will turn Wheatley over to the Edison Project, a for-profit company that promises to turn schools around. But that approach likely wouldn't sit well with Wheatley's alumni, who constitute a disproportionately large percentage of Houston's middle-aged black leadership. No, what the school needs, says Harold Dutton, is a principal who's a graduate of Wheatley, someone who can be counted on to understand that there's a Wheatley mystique that must be recovered -- even if today nearly half of the school's students are Hispanic, and the tradition that's so meaningful to Dutton doesn't necessarily speak to them or their parents.
So why Wheatley? It is as simple and complex as the one-word answer Williams gives when he's asked about the most difficult part of being Wheatley's principal: politics.