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Ivy Levingston was flying high May 18. Returning from an educators' conference in Kansas City, the Houston Independent School District principal was buoyed by that kind of post-seminar confidence in which all things are possible.
Just after touchdown on that Thursday, her pager went off. It was a 911 call from the district. Her assistant said her school, Westbury High, had been declared unsafe, its students ushered out, its doors closed tight. She'd been shut down.
When Levingston had left for the conference, everything was fine. The school year was winding down, and much-awaited renovations were under way in the oldest wing of the building, built 40 years ago. Now experts were saying that the three-story, 75-classroom Gasmer wing was so dangerous that students couldn't be allowed back in to retrieve the contents of their lockers.
Like the homeowner who remodels a room and rips off one board too many to find a thriving nest of termites, renovation crews had pulled up some flooring to find a suspect concrete slab underneath. Core sample tests at two labs determined that the second and third floors failed their load-bearing requirements. Whether they ever were up to code or weakened over time or whether the code just got too tough, that's an enigma covered in the dusty patina of time. In any event, the concrete that was supposed to test out at 3,000 pounds per square inch had made it up to only a thin and stretchy 1,400 to 2,000 psi.
"Once the test results came in, the decision was easy," says Richard Lindsay, HISD's senior project executive. By five-thirty that evening they knew they weren't going to let anyone back in.
(In the weeks following, the district tested its other schools built from 1956 to 1965, Lindsay says. None of them had Westbury's structural problems. There's surplus bond money to cover the increased costs of Westbury's makeover, he says.)
At seven-thirty the next morning, the school's administrators met with Superintendent Kaye Stripling to stare at the building. Many would rightfully say that this was the perfect example of HISD at its best: getting the kids to safety, keeping them safe, working through the night on plans that would enable them to negotiate the last week of school and finals with nary a misstep.
But many also would label this an equally perfect example of HISD at its worst: neglecting a school, thereby creating a crisis that never had to happen. And all this the result of in-district politics that passed over Westbury while the needs of more prestigious schools were handled much more quickly.
Others, more moderate, disinclined to protest but a bit uncomfortable with the downward drift of the Westbury facility over the years, saw a gift in the near collapse.
Instead of patchwork, they were going to get a new school -- well, at least a big chunk of one.
With its reputation as the largest school district in the galaxy, Houston ISD has a lot of sibling rivalry. Several Westbury parents and alums are clearly envious of the reputation and perceived higher status held by Lamar and even more so by Bellaire High, Westbury's neighbor three miles down the road. Lamar and Bellaire suffer from overcrowding, while Westbury's size has declined. Last year 2,008 students were enrolled; this year 1,750 are expected.
When first built in the early '60s, the Westbury subdivision was the next step outward from Meyerland. Westbury High School's student body reflected its neighborhood of mostly white, middle-class, blue-collar people.
Today, Westbury High is more than 80 percent minority. Critics, the devoted supporters of the school who don't think it is getting its due, say it doesn't represent its (white) surrounding neighborhood anymore. But District Superintendent Richard Lawrence says Westbury High represents its neighborhood, one that takes in Westbury -- yes -- but also Maplewood North and South, and Glenshire. In fact, it covers all of the very diverse area bounded by South Main, Gessner, Braeswood and South Post Oak. This is an area increasingly filled with children in apartment complexes, he says.
In any event, as Westbury High has changed from predominantly white to predominantly minority, its fortunes have changed. Basic maintenance hasn't kept up. One person who toured it four years ago says half the female restrooms weren't in operation and there was rotting garbage stuffed atop the third floor. Air conditioning was out for three days in a row during high temperatures, but no classes were canceled. The 5A school had "potholes" in its outfield.
"There's no toilet paper, no paper towels. The bathrooms are dirty," says Rita Woodard, former PTO president at Westbury and the dean of volunteers at the school. "When we'd have PTO meetings," she says, "we'd always go to maintenance and say, 'Please see that the restrooms are clean.' "
Woodard hurries to say other schools deal with the same issues. But then she says, almost wistfully, that she has visited Alief and Fort Bend schools and that "They're always so clean. They're not dirty. They're kept up."
Aggravating the sense of unease has been the movement of Westbury students to Bellaire and Lamar, either through transfers or home sales. Parent Jeff Tucker tells of a Westbury couple who rented a Bellaire apartment for four years so their child could go to school there, leasing out their Westbury home in the meantime, and then moving back home after graduation in June. It's a flight not only of whites but of all sorts of brains and talent in a search for what is perceived to be a better public school. It's not only the students, parents say. It's teachers, too, many of whom left for the new Westside High School.