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Amber Hall was unhappy. Although she had attended Catholic school since prekindergarten and was among the top sophomores at St. Pius X High School, she felt fatigued and depressed. Catholic school had given her a solid education, and she knew her parents intended for her to finish at St. Pius, where her own mother had graduated two decades before. But Amber told her mom she wanted to attend public school.
"Absolutely not," Martha Hall said.
Her mother had heard too many horror stories about public schools -- tales of metal detectors, gangs and drugs. Students at St. Pius warned Amber that unruly public school kids would try to start fights with her. Hall also worried that classes would be too easy for her honors student daughter. She asked, Don't you want to graduate with your friends?
Amber said she wouldn't mind if she didn't. Her parents still said no. Finally Amber's pediatrician asked her mother, "Well, if you had a job you hated and you had to go every single day, what would you do?'
"I'd look for another job," Hall said.
"Exactly," he replied.
Mother and daughter visited HISD's Scarborough High School in northwest Houston. The building, old and flat-roofed, looked like an uninspired box. Amber noticed soda vending machines encased behind bars. But to Hall's surprise, no metal detectors greeted them, and students were friendly.
"We went at lunch," Hall recalls. "I don't know, I expected police. But everyone was well behaved. They were sitting outside like any other school you went to."
The principal, Sharon Anson, told Hall that at public schools, some kids attend because the state says they have to, but many kids come to learn. That made sense to Hall. Maybe Scarborough would be the right change of pace.
"St. Pius is a very demanding school, and we just felt like she could take some of the pressure off by switching schools," Hall says. "Actually, we're finding out that AP [advanced placement] classes are very demanding also."
Now, a renascent Amber plays on the junior varsity volleyball team for Scarborough, something that never would have happened at St. Pius. "I had never played it before. They wouldn't even think of letting me play on the team." Students are nicer, she says. And the academics aren't bad either. In fact, Amber finds her classes challenging.
"Actually, it seems as though the public school system, when you're at this age, has a lot more to offer," Amber's mother says.
Amber's not alone. Sixteen kids left private schools for the 958-student Scarborough in 1999. This year, 14 more switched over. Westside High School, in its first year of operation with 1,772 students, counts 340 who had been outside the district last year; 85 of those are ex-private school kids. And Lovett Elementary welcomed 26 defectors this year, topping off its enrollment at 690 students.
Such migrations are surprising in the face of continued white flight from the district. Decades ago, HISD was primarily Anglo. But as white families moved to the suburbs, the district transformed into a majority of minorities. Today, HISD is more than half Hispanic, a third African-American, 3 percent Asian-American and just 10 percent white.
If anything, there's a movement nationally to enable more kids to attend private academies. Relentless criticism of public education has fueled the clamor for tax-funded private school vouchers and other alternatives like charter schools. In the last five years, 157 charter schools have sprouted in Texas, making it the fourth-largest program in the nation. At HISD, which serves over 210,000 children, some 1,500 students left the district over the summer, though their reasons are unknown. Even HISD itself, for the first time this school year, paid for two failing sixth-graders to attend a private, for-profit school to improve their performance.
But the widespread perception that urban HISD remains inferior ignores the choice of some families to transfer from private schools -- families that either can afford private tuition or move to suburban districts.
"There's no question that when you get into these large comprehensive high schools that you get a really wide variety of sports and clubs and the breadth of curriculum opportunities.Smaller faculty and smaller groups of kids make it cost-prohibitive; [private schools] can't afford it."
Such transfers are still rare, he says, though some kids are moving against the flow of children leaving the district. (The extent of the defections back to public school is unknown, since HISD could not provide districtwide statistics.) HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says the reason for the reverse migration is simple: HISD schools have improved dramatically.
He points to Texas Education Agency ratings on the district, which show that in the last seven years, the number of "exemplary" and "recognized" schools in HISD has increased substantially, while the number of "low-performing" schools has dropped.
"Parents feel much more comfortable now in sending their children to neighborhood schools because they know they are going to get a good quality education in a safe setting," he says.
But the answer is not that easy. Students leave private schools for many reasons. Some families cite comparable academics, better facilities, more variety in electives and extracurricular activities, and diversity as reasons to attend HISD. Some students switch to public school because they view it as easier. Other families face discipline problems for their kids or financial difficulties. (Private school tuition typically runs from $4,000 to $9,000 a year, not including books and uniforms.)