What's Wrong With Wheatley?

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

In February 1994, trustee and TSU education professor Rod Paige resigned from the school board and was named superintendent by his colleagues. One of his first problems was dealing with a swarm of angry parents led by Jo Ann Chase Jones, president of the Wheatley PTA. The parents complained that Wheatley was once again in dire straits, and the facts backed them up. There was no debate team, no drill club, no choirs and no Hispanic teachers. The swimming pool was empty. Students complained that the teachers had no confidence in their ability to learn. The only thing that seemed headed in the right direction was the basketball program, thanks to the reappointment of Wheatley's great basketball coach from the '70s, Jackie Carr. In the first full month of his superintendency, Paige removed Crawford and appointed an intervention team of two district administrators who worked for 14 weeks to once again secure Wheatley and prepare it for yet another principal.

The man chosen as Wheatley's latest savior was Horace Williams, whose history made him seem a likely candidate to deal with the school. He had spent six years teaching and two years as principal at the Harris County Youth Village, a residential high school for children assigned there by the courts. Surely, thought many parents, if Williams would understand anything, he would understand discipline.

Williams is an intense but guarded man; unlike Orum, he's not given to speeches. Some teachers and parents grouse that he's not a dynamic leader. Some say he's too hard on students, too arbitrary. Not everyone appreciates his approach to discipline, such as when he reacted to students starting food fights by limiting the cafeteria menu to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while. Others claim he's inconsistent, and resentful of experienced teachers who have something to offer. But at least he's been willing to put himself on the line. In the three years he's been at Wheatley, not many others have been willing to do likewise. Though it was parental complaints that led to the latest round of changes at Wheatley, parental involvement at the school is low and the PTA all but moribund. There are still no Hispanic teachers at a school that is now 45 percent Hispanic, though there is a Hispanic assistant principal.

The low level of parental involvement is a source of some dismay. The Metropolitan Organization, a multiracial alliance of Houston institutions, began working with Wheatley last spring to bring parents back into the school. Last fall, TMO held a neighborhood recruiting walk to enlist parental support, but today it has only 20 to 30 regularly involved parents. The group would like to have 50 to 60, and that number, they say, could be one of the keys to not just turning Wheatley around, but keeping it turned around.

One of leading participants in TMO's push is Debra Tapscott Nickerson, a night nurse who devotes her days to mentoring girls. She claims to have seen 21 children through Wheatley who are on their way to college, and she can't stop now. There are younger ones who need her attention.

Then there's Charles Savage, a genial former Shell employee who took early retirement, went on the Million Man March and decided to give something back to his community. Savage is part of the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program, a mentoring program for boys. Savage has the run of Wheatley, often conferring with his boys and drawing them into an after-school class in computer repair; students who participate in his program learn to refrain from profanity and confrontational behavior, and earn points for attending class, listening quietly and working with others. The points can be converted into prizes such as stereo headphones, T-shirts and shoes. The program seems to be reaching a number of Wheatley's male students, as well as younger boys in the neighborhood. But there are not nearly enough Charles Savages to go around in a school of nearly 1,000. And there's no comparable program among the Hispanics in Denver Harbor.

It would appear that there are only some things that a school can provide, but what Wheatley kids seem to need is adults who are interested in them. Talk to Charles Savage's kids and you get an unsparing appraisal of who the good teachers are and who the bad ones are. A good one might be the homeroom teacher who comes into Savage's computer repair class at 5:30 in the evening and gets a hug from one of the boys who owes her an apology. The boys have no trouble defining a bad teacher: It's one who puts an assignment on the board, and tells you to shut up and get to work. A bad teacher is one who ignores them, who doesn't respond.

Response, says Horace Williams, is what children at Wheatley want. But that they need something else as well is evident from the continued poor showing in Wheatley's TAAS results. For the last two years, Wheatley's performance on the TAAS tests has been rated unacceptable by the TEA. Only about half of Wheatley's students passed the test's writing component over the last three years. Reading jumped from 29 percent passing in 1994 to 68 percent in 1995, then plunged to 49 percent in 1996. In math, Wheatley has stayed at a dismally low 24 percent passing over the past two years. Most alarming of all is the percentage of Wheatley students who failed to master all three of the TAAS tests. During the past three years, Wheatley scored the lowest of all conventional HISD high schools in this category, with only 14 percent passing all three exams in 1996.

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