By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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Several parents say adults who were involved with every facet of their children's education were increasingly replaced by parents who didn't immerse themselves in school efforts. District officials and parents both assert that in many ways, the difference between Westbury and Bellaire lies in the boosters, the adults who support a school, who raise its extra money, who finance its playing fields and computers and field trips -- the people who keep its community reputation alive and well. At Westbury the saying goes: "Why is Bellaire proclaimed the No. 1 high school baseball team in the country? Because its boosters said it was."
Rita Woodard, who was an aide to Eleanor Tinsley on City Council, started volunteering at Westbury in 1989 when she had a granddaughter there. She believes replacing the unsafe wing will be good for the school, which she agrees has been on the decline. "I think it's just been one of those things that happen. The schools are not maintained like they should be. Things don't get repaired."
Parents also place some of the blame on the school principals. Dr. Shirley Johnson was, by all accounts, a good principal who was innovative and in control. She worked the hallways in tennis shoes, was anywhere and everywhere. But she was sometimes at odds with the administration, and some teachers found her to be meddling, parents say.
Johnson was followed by Elodia Hough, who wasn't up to handling the many needs of a school in transition, several volunteers say. Then came Ivy Levingston, straight from elementary school. Her first contribution was a standard dress code. There would be order in the halls. This has led to a common complaint that she is more concerned about discipline than academics.
And Levingston perhaps hasn't adjusted to older students. One volunteer pointed to the principal's insistence on calling the portable buildings "learning cottages," a sophomoric term that probably hasn't gone over too well with high schoolers.
Still, Woodard calls Levingston a knowledgeable person trying to do a good job in a school that's hard to manage. But Woodard and others also say Levingston prefers to forge ahead on her own, without help or input from the outside community.
Jeff Tucker, a printing and advertising business operator, says there's no comparison between Bellaire and Westbury academically or in sports. He has a unique perspective, having a stepdaughter who played on the Bellaire softball team that went to state and a son at Westbury because that's where Tucker's ex-wife lives. He's also been active in raising donations and getting sports equipment for several HISD schools. Westbury, he says, just doesn't have Bellaire's ties to the business community.
And its sports program is faltering. After last fall's first grading period, 17 kids dropped off the football team, Tucker says, and by the end of the season, there was no JV team because so many kids had to be pulled up to varsity. Other parents tell similar stories: a 150-member band down to 55 students in four years, a decimated drill team. The baseball team, which made it to the playoffs one season, did next to nothing the following year, losing most of its players.
"In a perfect world or a Bellaire High School, coaches are given updates every week on their players," Tucker says. "You can argue is it right or is it wrong. It's right 'cause it helps the kids."
He says the football and track teams are still good, but the academics have slid, and it's tough to attract kids.
"Westbury is the redheaded stepchild. They've received nothing for the longest time," Tucker says.
Another parent is equally harsh: "Westbury's in a death spiral from the facilities to the programs to the leadership. Once you start in a declining situation, the next negative event feeds that decline at a faster pace. If you're going to just patch Westbury together, then it seems you really are just providing an overflow for the underperformers."
Several dingy apartment complexes that face the school on one side haven't helped. For years parents tried to get HISD to buy the low-rent units and demolish them for more campus space. They had absolutely no luck until August, when the school board voted to buy one of the complexes.
As one Westbury parent put it: "Bottom line, there are more kids in our neighborhood that attend the two 'good' schools than attend their neighborhood school. Is this what HISD intended?"
The new school wing, with all its promise, is another source of dissension. Some parents complain they haven't been included in the planning. Principal Levingston says everyone receives regular updates through community meetings and newsletters.
But that's just telling them what's been done; that's not including their ideas, critics say. Woodard notes that an architect has been hired for $600,000 to draw up plans. She and others in the group Friends of Westbury High School want a meeting.
"I don't think we have a right to demand anything, but we certainly have the right to make suggestions," Woodard says.
Lindsay and Levingston talk about bringing in "professional academicians" to help them understand what programs are needed, and plan to poll students about preferences.