A Fixer-Upper

Jones High needs a lot of renovation -- and not just the buildings. At least HISD can't pretend it doesn't know it has a problem. Its own task force told it so.

When HISD Superintendent Kaye Stripling sent a task force of educators into Jesse Jones High in January to sort through what had become one of her more dysfunctional schools, there were fears that members of the group were too close to beleaguered principal Lawrence Allen.

Allen had been removed from his position "for the betterment of the whole school," according to one of his supervisors, then reinstated within days -- all right around the mid-year Christmas break.

The campus was an eyesore with sewer backups, graffiti, nasty restrooms and moldy locker rooms. The school didn't seem to know whether students were in or out of class or exactly what classes the kids were signed up for anyway.

Allen is going to have to make a lot of changes to bring his school up to standard.
Deron Neblett
Allen is going to have to make a lot of changes to bring his school up to standard.

After Allen's brief ouster and a Quanell X street-corner demonstration, there was a very public split between parents of the students in the gifted magnet program known as Vanguard and parents of students in regular classes (see "The Great Divide," March 7). The former wanted Allen out. The latter made it an issue of community pride that this African-American leader would continue to be a role model for kids.

Many of Allen's supporters, while admitting that the facilities weren't all they should be, insisted that, overall, the novice principal had done far more good than harm in his three years at the helm.

Well, the task force's 24-page report is out, and Allen's supporters might want to reassess their position.

The report issued by the committee, headed up by longtime Allen family friend Hilbert Bludau, said principal Lawrence Allen presides over an unsafe school where students wander the campus unsupervised and throw trash and garbage throughout the building and grounds. Student records are missing or inaccurate. One full-time PE/history teacher teaches no classes. "Staff members…propagate negativity, distrust and dissonance."

Allen provides no assessment of the job his teachers are doing, no academic direction and apparently has little idea of what's going on with his budget, the report stated. If he does understand his muddled budget, the only thing that's clear is that he's lost control of it.

This is a school that paid a consultant $800 a day for 36 days to teach math tutorials. At the same time, Jones was regularly running out of money for supplies and equipment because it was spending so much on temporary and permanent staff. As of January 24, 14 of 21 accounts for extra duty pay, hourly pay, day-to-day substitutes and overtime were over budget. It's not that the school doesn't have enough teachers -- in fact, the task force said it was overstaffed -- but so many teachers spend so much time at off-campus functions that there's a huge call for substitutes. There aren't enough substitute teachers to fill the need, and classes go unsupervised. As for the teachers themselves, far too many are uncertified, the task force said.

Copy machine leases for the 2001-2002 school year weren't paid until last January. "Only $6,850 was budgeted for maintenance supplies. As of January 24, $5.74 remained in the budget for the second semester." Many bills were delinquent as of April. Teachers are buying their own supplies, and there is no system for keeping track of those materials.

The school has a bill totaling $120,389 for textbooks lost in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school years. Textbooks can't be stored in a centralized room because of roof leaks.

"There is no system for monitoring the budget," investigators concluded.

This is a school with no systemized plan for improving student academics, no communication with and among faculty and staff, a shaky professional development program and a counseling office that does little counseling and makes students feel "uncomfortable."

Beyond that, the school fails to meet "the minimum requirements of a safe, comfortable and healthy environment," the report said. "The number of custodians is not sufficient to maintain a building of this size and enrollment. The plant operator does not have command of the scope of work or the organizational skills necessary to clean the building."

If a friend like Hilbert Bludau would make this assessment, Lawrence Allen has to be happy one of his enemies wasn't in charge of the investigation.

A long-standing complaint from Vanguard parents at Jones has been that the quality of counseling is poor.

The task force echoed these complaints: "Some students are uncomfortable seeking assistance from the counselors," and course scheduling changes were not always completed in a timely manner. Financial aid and Scholastic Aptitude Test enrollment packets are not made available to all seniors, investigators said. Student records aren't correct in either the Limited English Proficient program or the special education program. Special ed teachers are keeping student folders in nonsecure areas.

Vanguard Parents Organization members were very unhappy with counselor Joyce Woods. Following Allen's ouster, HISD removed Woods from the Vanguard program for poor performance; she transferred to the regular counseling offices at Jones.

But since she was still in charge of scholarship applications and since the Vanguard program never replaced her, she has continued to have a huge impact on Vanguard students.

For 18-year-old Katie Gallagher, that impact has had serious consequences.

Historical figure Jesse Jones cut a huge swath in Houston. Jones High was named after him. His sizable estate created the Houston Endowment, which bankrolls the Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Scholarship Program. A Jones scholarship is both prestigious and lucrative for graduating seniors. Each recipient gets $12,000 in increments over four college years. This year, $3.8 million in scholarships were awarded to area graduates.

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