What's Wrong With Wheatley?

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

The breakdown in Wheatley's discipline and community pride in the school were evident as early as 1972. Counselors complained of low student morale. Two Wheatley basketball players, one of them a star, were charged with committing arson at the school. During the summer, Wheatley was burgled 14 times. The head of the Wheatley Alumni Association, Artice Vaughan, demanded that William Moore, the school's principal since 1958 and a member of its faculty since 1927, resign. Clearly, the old methods and the old leaders were no longer effective. Moore retired that year, but his successors did not fare much better. A cycle began repeating itself. Every few years a new principal would come into Wheatley hoping to improve the school, and with sad regularity, he would be forced out by low student achievement.

By 1978, there were rumors that the district wanted to close the school. Its basketball team had won a state championship for the fifth time in ten years, but some of the team members were accused of theft from two businesses during the trip to Austin for the playoffs. The students' reading scores were in the bottom 11 percent on national tests. District administrator Faye Bryant proposed that Wheatley teachers and administrators be offered a special pay incentive. Students would be offered an 11-month school schedule, and each student would work under a three-tiered contract system in which they would pledge attendance and performance in exchange for job training and college scholarships. The best would contract to be "Barbara Jordan Public Service Scholars" and would take courses in prelaw and government. But the special teacher pay incentives drew fire from teachers' organizations, and nothing came of the plan.

Instead, other solutions were tried. After the departure of principal A.C. Herald in 1978, Superintendent Billy Reagan opened a search for a new top man. The Wheatley Alumni & Ex-Students Association wrote Reagan that it would welcome the opportunity to review the final candidates for the job, and it called for action.

"Our concerns are whether your choice will be qualified to handle the specific problems that have caused Wheatley to deteriorate to its current level," the letter from the association read. "Will your choice be administratively strong enough to sweep out 'the trash' and rebuild with quality educators of the type now being assigned to schools in the north and southwest areas? Will your choice be receptive to the particular needs of the black and brown makeup of the community? Will your choice restore discipline to the school and instill pride in the hearts of the students?"

Reagan's choice for the job was Charles Herbert, who is now area superintendent for the northeast district over Wheatley. Herbert was well liked in the Fifth Ward. But he didn't stay that long. In 1983, Reagan transferred Herbert to Sterling High School and replaced him with Forest Henry. Several Fifth Ward ministers and the president of the Wheatley PTA protested loudly, saying their objection was not so much to Henry, but to losing a principal they liked. They charged that Reagan was under political pressure to give Henry the job because he was the brother of Wylie Henry, who was then sitting on the school board. Another brother, Al Henry, had been an aide to former mayor Louie Welch, who was then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. Despite the protests, Henry got the job.

He got it in the worst of times. As the crack epidemic ravaged poor black neighborhoods in the mid-'80s, teachers and students grew increasingly concerned about security threats from nearby apartment complexes. In 1985, three youths wandered onto campus and shot an English teacher who was conducting rehearsals with the drill team in the school cafeteria. The following year, a Hispanic student was shot in the face by another Hispanic student who had transferred in from Dallas. The boy who was shot had looked at his assailant the wrong way.

In 1987, a hopeful newspaper columnist reported that Henry was turning the school around. Enrollment was up, security was better and more counselors were on the campus. Even test scores were improved.

That improvement, though, was somewhat illusory; the scores were still in the lowest 5 percent of the state's schools. The difficulty of turning Wheatley around led Joan Raymond, who had been named superintendent in 1986, to consider closing the high school. But that wasn't politically possible; there were just too many Wheatley alumni who wouldn't let their old school die. So Raymond once again searched for a solution in the form of a principal. If a Wheatley alumnus such as Forest Henry couldn't fix the school, she thought, maybe an outsider could. So in 1988 she recruited a young principal named Eddie Orum from an experimental Austin school and turned Wheatley over to him.

Like Henry before him, Orum locked down the school to improve security. Then he took one of his teachers out of class part-time to write grant proposals. In 1990, Orum made the board a sweeping proposal for extra resources called "Wheatley's on the Move!" His diagnosis of the needs of his students was drastic. Some of them had never been to a shopping mall, he said. They were as isolated as Third World children and as impoverished in every sense. Orum wanted money to take children to the theater and to weekend camps. He needed daycare for the children of his adolescent parents.

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