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?

Covalt's boss, Gayle Fallon, says she rarely hears of kids switching from private to public, but rather of the traffic between charter schools and regular public schools. She sits on the board of a charter school in the East End, and says the concerns of those parents differ from those of west Houston parents.

"When you ask the parents why their children are there, they say the children are zoned to Jackson [Middle School]. And we get the same answer: It's gangs. It's safety rather than education."

Even the tale of Lee and Westside plays into Covalt's assertions that Hispanic students are getting shortchanged. Most of the kids who left largely Latino Lee for Westside this year were Anglo. Now with 1,000 fewer students, Lee has half as many Anglos and African-Americans, at about 10 percent each, while Latino students increased from 61 to 77 percent. Asian-Americans stayed at 6 percent. Lee Principal Steve Amstutz and Westside Principal Van Beck say that Lee's racial shift is not the result of white flight, just distance. It just happens that most Anglos live west of Gessner, the dotted line of division.

Scarborough Principal Sharon Anson says if she knew why private school kids were coming back, "Maybe we'd market it."
Deron Neblett
Scarborough Principal Sharon Anson says if she knew why private school kids were coming back, "Maybe we'd market it."

An open enrollment policy allows students zoned to either school to attend the one they prefer, but because busing is not provided, most of the Latino students at Lee can't get to state-of-the-art Westside.

Van Beck refutes any notion that Westside serves only middle-class white kids. "This school has got a reputation in HISD as "Whitey High.' But it is in fact 40 percent Anglo, 30 percent Latino, 20 percent African-American, and 10 percent Asian and other minorities. And every year that Anglo percentage is going to go down."

When people see a new school and Kickerillo custom home builders around the corner, they assume all white kids go there, he says. "All sorts of kids come to Westside."

Abbott says HISD has addressed funding inequality with a decentralization program this year so that principals can plan their own budgets. "The new funding system also includes a weighted per-pupil formula similar to the state's, which eliminates the inequality because the dollars will be based on the needs of the children -- more money for the harder-to-educate children," he says.

Covalt calls the program foolish because principals aren't necessarily good administrators. "They're in academics primarily. That's why scores are going to go down, because they are so busy doing other things they don't stick to academics."

Private school educators say they're not worried about defectors. Enrollment is up. St. Agnes spokesperson Bonni Hayes chuckled at the notion that students left her school for a wide range of activities elsewhere. She rattled off a list of sports and clubs, adding that if a student didn't like what she saw, she could start her own group. Diversity? They've got that too, she says. About 10 percent of the St. Agnes student body is on financial aid, 22 percent is non-Catholic and 22.8 percent is nonwhite.

"One of the pictures that we use is a picture of the principal surrounded by three students, one black, white and Muslim in traditional Muslim dress," she says. "And I've always liked that picture because it communicates a message that you don't have to be Catholic to come to St. Agnes."

Principal Nevle says students leave for all sorts of reasons, whether they tire of traveling, want to attend school with their girlfriend, or are recruited by sport teams, a practice that is technically barred. Attrition for lower-class Strake students, including those who were kicked out, is 5 percent this year.

"I kind of see myself as a sheepdog. Every now and then, one of the lambs wanders off; it's my job to see the wolves don't get to it before he goes -- and if it's okay with him and his family," Nevle says. "Sometimes I say, "If you give us a few more weeks, we can turn it around. And we can do a great deal for you, and you can do a great deal for us.' In other instances, there are so many things that starting fresh is probably what he needs."

In a time of virtually unparalleled economic prosperity, it seems that more families than ever have the means to send Junior to private school. And with school vouchers a point of contention between the presidential candidates, the question remains, Has public education failed?

That debate leaves some parents waffling. This year Sandra Corbett pulled her youngest daughter out of private school for HISD's Lovett Elementary in the Meyerland area. Years before, she did the opposite, taking her eldest daughter out of Herod Elementary because of racism.

Children told her daughter Saudiia that they didn't want to play with her because she was black. And Corbett felt ignored at PTO meetings when she brought up race issues. When Saudiia started to fall behind in her gifted and talented program, her mother says, the school did not work more closely with her. Instead, she says, it demoted her to regular classes, where she made straight A's without studying.

For middle school, Saudiia attended Imani, a private school for African-Americans. But then she chose HISD's High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Corbett has been pleased with the atmosphere and academics, but still hesitated to withdraw eight-year-old Yara from Imani.

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