Going Public

Everybody knows that HISD is supposed to be second-rate. So why are private school kids defecting back to the district that nobody wanted?

Scarborough Principal Anson doesn't know why students like Amber are coming to her school. "I really don't know. To be honest, I wish I did; maybe we'd market it," she says. "I think we have a reputation for integrity, ethics and high standards. And parents want that for their children -- it doesn't matter if it's public or private."

Holland Safley arrived somewhat nervously on the first day of his junior classes this fall. He had never been on a campus as sprawling as the new red-bricked Westside High School. It's situated on Briar Forest near State Highway 6, among recently constructed homes going for $200,000 to $1 million. The $50 million school boasts two theaters in addition to an auditorium, computer labs with Internet access, a broadcast studio, a band hall and an orchestra hall. There are 11 individual music practice rooms, a ceramics studio and four athletics fields. The eating area resembles a college food court more than a high school cafeteria.

At Strake Jesuit, Holland and his water polo teammates had to practice at a neighborhood pool because the school lacked one. At Westside, he and his sister Kara practice at the campus natatorium.

Private school teacher Karita Safley (left) had daughter Kara and son Holland transfer to HISD, saying public schools have much to offer.
Deron Neblett
Private school teacher Karita Safley (left) had daughter Kara and son Holland transfer to HISD, saying public schools have much to offer.
Amy Meyer didn't make St. Agnes's volleyball team, but Westside offered her a spot on its varsity squad.
Deron Neblett
Amy Meyer didn't make St. Agnes's volleyball team, but Westside offered her a spot on its varsity squad.

Westside Principal Scott Van Beck believes his school's facilities have swayed many parents to give HISD a try.

"No matter how much Kinkaid, Strake Jesuit and St. Agnes want to provide outside facilities, they can't match the economic power of the Houston Independent School District in terms of a wide range of programs and services," he says. "They get a $50 million building with state-of-the-art technology."

Of course, only students at the two newest high schools -- Westside and Chavez High School in southeast Houston -- have ultramodern campuses; private school defectors haven't shown up in sizable numbers at older schools. However, HISD does offer 110 magnet programs for students with specific interests like business, health professions, engineering or the performing arts, as well as gifted and talented programs. When it comes to variety, private schools just can't compete.

One reason Holland ditched Strake was its inflexible schedule, practically cemented for him. He craved business and computer courses instead of the required theology classes. Though he hasn't enrolled in Westside's integrated technology magnet program, he's already taking advantage of an advanced computer science class.

His mother, Karita Safley, teaches second grade at private Grace School, where two of her three children attended elementary and middle school. While she feels the small school provided a comfortable environment for her children then, public school is better for them now.

"For high school, I couldn't really justify the pay for private tuition, because the public had just as much to offer or more than the private schools," she says.

Amy Meyer also says Westside offers her more, namely a chance to play volleyball again. Amy left HISD her first year of high school to attend St. Agnes Academy. Though she had been volleyball captain at HISD's Revere Middle School, she didn't make St. Agnes's highly competitive squad. The sophomore now practices every morning as part of Westside's varsity team.

"HISD does not have the world's best athletics, but if you're not the world's best athlete, that's good for you," says her mother, Betsy Meyer.

Amy also finds that public school better fits independent-minded students like herself. Sometimes private school holds your hand too much. "I felt very protected at St. Agnes," she says. "I just like the freedom at Westside."

One former student of St. John's School, who left for Bellaire High School, says that aspect of public education helped him develop independence.

"St. John's is going to cram study skills and a good education down your throat, where they check up on you personally and individually to make sure you're doing what you need to do," says the student, who requested anonymity. "At Bellaire, you kind of had to know what you wanted and watch out for yourself or you can go under.But in the long run, I think that's a very good thing."

On St. Pius's manicured campus, there was always something else to buy: a calculator, T-shirt or raffle ticket. Students flaunted their 2000-model cars. "The money, really, you have to have a lot of it to get anywhere at that school. And we don't," Amber says, explaining that private schools expect students to constantly raise funds. "At Pius, it was like you were categorized by your money."

Although the predominantly white St. Pius had students of different ethnicities, it seemed categorized by color, she says. At Scarborough "everyone mixes, it doesn't matter what color."

The former St. John's student says he felt like an outcast at the private academy. Almost everyone played a sport, but athletics did not interest him. He had a few friends, but for the most part other students didn't talk to him, and he didn't talk to them.

"Although I was getting a great education the whole time at St. John's and it was a good school, I wasn't happy socially there," he says. "It seemed like it was all the same type of person at St. John's. You have your white upper-middle-class to upper-class people that lived in the same neighborhood and had known each other their whole lives."

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