What's Wrong With Wheatley?

It has history, it has heritage. But does Wheatley High School have a real future?

It seemed a time of promise. But for Wheatley, it was also the beginning of the end of an era. The basketball triumphs would continue periodically, but Wheatley, and the Fifth Ward with it, were about to change dramatically.

Although Houston eventually integrated peacefully, its conservative white school board made the change reluctantly, proposing to integrate grade by grade, a 12-year-long process. The slow pace frustrated black leaders, and in May 1965, William Lawson, then a youth minister, called Wheatley students to meet at Finnigan Park behind the school to discuss a school boycott. Five days later, only 10 percent of Wheatley's students showed up for school. In 1970, a federal judge finally ordered the district to speed up integration. At first the district began busing black and Hispanic children to predominantly white schools, but when it was pointed out that the practice was unfair, magnet schools were created to integrate the district. When Booker T. Washington was given the pre-engineering magnet program, white kids were willing to be bused to attend. Magnet programs were proposed for Wheatley as well, but none ended up being assigned to the school.

What the Wheatley students had demonstrated for, they eventually got. The results, though, were not what they expected. Who could have anticipated that tearing down racial barriers in the schools would have devastating effects on the special institutions that blacks had worked so hard to build?

"The consequence," says Wylie Henry, "is that we desegregated, but we never integrated."

The first loss was faculty. In the move to integrate, the school lost as much as half of its experienced teachers to other schools. Then the magnet programs drew the most ambitious students off to other schools. If some of Wheatley's greatest alumni from the Fifth Ward were in HISD today, chances are they would have no incentive to attend Wheatley. Ruth Simmons, who went on to become the first black president of Smith College, was a theater enthusiast, and would probably attend the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, as would such great jazz musicians as Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. Barbara Jordan would undoubtedly be drawn to the prelaw program at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. And Mickey Leland, who pretty much goofed off in high school? You wonder if he would have become the leader he became if he had not been exposed to the mix of students he passed through Wheatley with in the early '60s.

Something else changed in the '70s, says Henry: discipline. Corporal punishment was a quick casualty. Black parents didn't want white teachers hitting their children, and white parents felt the same about black teachers. Wheatley's new white teachers lacked experience teaching inner city black children, and, of course, they didn't live in the community with the children they taught.

"A lot came in and tried to be kids' friends," says Henry, "instead of their teachers."

Admittedly, the changes in discipline were not unique to Wheatley. The school was not immune to the trends sweeping the country. All over the nation young people were challenging authority, experimenting with drugs and sexuality. Divorce was becoming common. And educators were swept up trying to find ways to adjust to the changes. What made it worse for Wheatley, though, was that as the black middle class benefited from the economic gains of desegregation, it moved away, leaving behind the poor, the drug- and alcohol-addicted and the elderly who were raising their grandchildren in a neighborhood that had lost many of its leaders. The Fifth Ward was bleeding, and so was its school.

To bring new students into Wheatley, HISD changed the school's attendance zone, adding the adjacent Denver Harbor neighborhood to the east. That neighborhood had been settled by Italians and Greeks and Poles but was rapidly becoming Hispanic. Denver Harbor is separated from the Fifth Ward by north-south Southern Pacific railroad tracks that David Benson, assistant to County Commissioner El Franco Lee, calls "a semi-permeable membrane." Blacks will cross the tracks to shop in the Fiesta supermarket and the lively stores on the Denver Harbor side, but Hispanics rarely stray into the Fifth Ward. On one side of the tracks at Market Street, you see a taqueria; on the other side, you see young men play basketball in the street using a backboard nailed to a light pole. The separation is even reflected in the way HISD has zoned Denver Harbor. Its residents are expected to send their children to Wheatley, but they vote for a school board trustee in a different area.

The Hispanics were not necessarily happy about being assigned to Wheatley; many of the students preferred to attend Austin and Furr high schools, where they had become ethnic majorities. With new regulations allowing a student to attend any school in Houston in which he or she can find a place, many parents are wondering if the district will ever do anything to make Wheatley a school that's not just acceptable, but that will actually attract students. Andy Ortiz, president of the Denver Harbor civic club and a former candidate for the school board, points out that instead of attending Wheatley, his children were drawn to the magnet programs at Furr. While roughly 1,800 children are zoned to go to Wheatley, fewer than 1,000 actually attend the school.

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