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?

"I'm not saying I'm bad at taking tests," he says. "I'm saying it held me back for the curriculum. Because now at Westside I'm going to Algebra II [as a junior], but I want to take calculus [senior year], so I have to make up pre-cal. Stuff like that is getting in the way."

Holland is also making up two freshman classes -- world history and world geography -- because the public school curriculum differs from Strake's.

Students interviewed for this story happily noticed one aspect of public school: less homework. Most HISD high schools have block scheduling, where students alternate classes every other day, or take four nine-week semesters with just four classes per semester. In that system, students take home half as many assignments as in the traditional seven 45-minute periods.

HISD's facilities range from state-of-the-art to third-world, says activist Rosemary Covalt.
Deron Neblett
HISD's facilities range from state-of-the-art to third-world, says activist Rosemary Covalt.
HISD's facilities range from state-of-the-art to third-world, says activist Rosemary Covalt.
Deron Neblett
HISD's facilities range from state-of-the-art to third-world, says activist Rosemary Covalt.

Jorge Enriquez has noticed that too, and he's not pleased; he has even brought it to the attention of Principal Anson. Karl told him that with 90-minute classes, teachers don't teach the whole period, leaving time to tackle some homework. "Homework is for practice," Enriquez says. "Practice makes perfect to becoming proficient."

But Karl doesn't mind so much. Neither does Kara Safley. What once took several hours now takes about one. But that leaves time to pursue other interests.

"The homework at Grace was pretty much busywork, so I'm learning the same, pretty much," she says.

How can the HISD that these families rave about be the same one where middle school students scored low in reading and math on the Stanford Achievement Test last year? Where bus driver shortages have resulted in teachers driving school buses for extra pay? Where $1.2 billion is needed to repair aging buildings and to alleviate overcrowded classrooms?

Parents say that while not all HISD schools make the grade, some, like Bellaire and Lamar, sustain good reputations, and those are the schools they are leaving the private world for. Such a range of quality, though, begs the question of whether any schools get advantages at budget time. Administrators insist they all must cope with the same lean budgets, though they confess that a good reputation attracts top teachers. Over 2,000 teachers applied for the 140 staff positions at Westside. Involved parents also make a big difference, parents who have the time or money to chip in.

Every school district has bad and good schools, says Betsy Meyer. Prior to Westside's opening, when students were zoned to Lee High School, many of her west Houston neighbors either went private, moved two miles to the Katy district or moved two miles in another direction to Spring Branch ISD.

Lee High School was already a 35-minute drive away, and its less-than-stellar reputation scared some families. Amy chose St. Agnes to avoid Lee and its rumors of drugs, guns and pregnant teens. But Meyer recommends Westside, and feels lucky to live within walking distance of it.

"It'd be sad if this was only happening at Westside, because it benefits the richer people of the west side that don't have to pay for private school. That may not come as a perk to the rest of the city."

To Rosemary Covalt, it certainly doesn't come as a perk to other neighborhoods, especially those in the East End. A longtime community activist, HISD critic and now staff representative with the Houston Federation of Teachers, Covalt worked in the East End, but now lives on the west side. Just in the cosmetic appearance of schools, she sees an unequal distribution of wealth.

"You have facilities that are state-of-the-art and facilities that are third-world," she says. She jokingly refers to Westside as an airport, then points out poorly maintained Bruce Elementary in Denver Harbor. Its sign has fallen over, a chunk of uprooted concrete at its base.

"One of the ways HISD [attracts private school kids] is to build facilities with state-of-the-art technology. But you just can't [build only] in the upper-level communities," Covalt says. "If you really want to win people back, do it with the people who need it the most, the inner-city and East End kids who need that shot in the arm."

Though Chavez High School just opened this year in southeast Houston to serve a Hispanic neighborhood, Covalt raises concerns about its proximity to petrochemical plants, an issue that has a local environmental group accusing HISD of environmental racism. HISD says the school's air and soil are safe. Like Westside, Chavez touts impressive amenities: air-conditioned gyms, computer labs, swimming pools and its own magnet program -- at Chavez, environmental science.

About 20 students have returned from private school to attend Chavez. Covalt says most private school defections occur in west Houston. In other parts of the city, that doesn't happen, because those children don't have a choice, she says.

Her observation gels with the few numbers that HISD provided. While HISD press secretary Abbott could not supply districtwide figures for the number of students who have left private schools for HISD, or an ethnic breakdown of those pupils, he fed out numbers piecemeal from individual schools. Most of those schools were in HISD's west district, schools like Revere Middle School, with 30 private school defectors this year, and Barbara Bush Elementary, with 36.

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