Don't Worry, Be Happy

HISD parents want information about possible changes in the GT/Vanguard program. The administration calls any fears baseless.

It began with e-mails that had made the round of parents and finally got to the Houston Press. Phone calls followed. Houston school superintendent Abe Saavedra was looking to eliminate the Vanguard program, the special magnet program for gifted and talented students. The kindergarten-through-eighth grade T.H. Rogers was on the chopping block. And you might as well forget about Carnegie High School.

According to the e-mails and calls, Saavedra thinks such programs elitist. Word on the street is he's not too fond of any of the other magnets either, viewing them as a transportation nightmare that sucks money out of the district in gasoline and the fleet of buses required to maintain it.

It was said Saavedra would be in favor of a GT program in every school instead of specialized centers of cream-of-the-crop-dom. But wait, isn't there already a gifted program in every HISD school?

Parents spend a lot of time wondering what Abe 
Saavedra really thinks.
Courtesy of HISD
Parents spend a lot of time wondering what Abe Saavedra really thinks.

Well, yes, but then of course some are just fine, but others are what could best be described as "in name only." They're placeholders without substance. These certainly won't meet the needs of the high-performance kids or the aspirations of their parents -- some of whom are once again poised to bolt to the suburbs or private schools. A skittish lot, many of them, but cut them some slack: They're trying to stay invested in public schools in an urban setting. They're the true believers. They think HISD at its best is the best place to be.

Word also is that it's practically a done deal that "sibling preference" -- the practice of allowing a younger brother or sister into a Vanguard program because an older sibling already made it -- is going to end, maybe by this spring. Each little kid will have to make it or not on his own merits. (And we'll all know who the dumb one is now, won't we?)

Critics are divided about whether the whole thing is well intentioned, a subterranean plot or a trial balloon hoisted on Saavedra's behalf by a 19-member PEER-review committee commissioned by the administration. Even rumormongers acknowledged that more kids need a better chance at a quality GT education. And there's a lot to be said for students not having to spend hours on buses crisscrossing the town for an education.

Others pointed out that drawing back to the neighborhood school concept would pretty much resegregate the district, countermanding the original impetus behind the magnets. HISD would be breaking its covenant with parents, the understanding that they're in it for the long haul if -- and only if -- they have a chance to send their kids to any school in HISD.

It's all rubbish, declares Terry Abbott, press secretary for the district. Nothing but urban myths, says Karen Soehnge, chief academic officer for HISD. All they plan to do is add more good programs, to make things better, not to eliminate. How could people think this?

Well, perhaps because when people don't get answers, they make some up. Or they expand upon partial answers. It's scary, and scary is always more interesting.

Of course, sometimes they're right.

We have little way of knowing, because the Vanguard and GT PEER (Peer Examination, Evaluation and Redesign) committee's meetings are not open to the public. Guests are there by invitation only. They've been meeting weekly since November, sometimes at the Anti-Defamation League (home of committee chair Martin Cominsky), sometimes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (its director of education Beth Schneider is on board) and sometimes at HISD.

Abbott thinks there's been more than enough communication to parents. Didn't Saavedra say he was going to look at everything when he became superintendent? And just two months ago, didn't the board adopt a monitoring document setting new standards and expectations, which includes re-examining all its programs?

But even committee chair Cominsky expressed reservations last week about the slow release of information, saying he wished the district would issue a press release or something. "We've asked for some additional publicity. We've asked for a way that people can come to the HISD Web site and reach us." He's getting the calls from upset parents as well. He wants them to know they have nothing to fear.

Last Thursday, Soehnge addressed the school board meeting and told one and all that everything was fine, and specifically that the Vanguard schools were safe. Apparently someone decided it was about time to say a little something more after all.

Terry Abbott says it's not true that PEER committee meetings are not open to the public because, after all, "Members of the public form the committee." Oh, boy.

The committee needs a closed session to be able to concentrate, to just fact-gather right and left, he says. Community leaders and retired administrators sit on the committee, but there are no teachers or students included.

He and Soehnge explain there will be plenty of time for public comment later. Cominsky says a survey will be sent out to parents. Once the committee report is presented to the administration in mid-January, a series of public meetings will be scheduled.

They mean this to be comforting, of course, but really it makes people crazy. Parents don't want to chill while official reports are being created. If they can't stop something bad from happening, they at least want to know about it right away so they can implement a plan B.

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