By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
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In fact, there are several PEER committees going now, including a separate one on magnets that hasn't quite geared up. All will have the same charge: to review programs and look at data. According to Abbott and Soehnge, who is also a committee member, no decisions have been made on sibling preferences or anything else. Committee members are unsure what they can and can't say about the process, so they refer most questions to Abbott.
Abbott is the explainer and apologist for the district -- in large part because he encourages administrators, trustees and educators not to talk to the media, particularly the Houston Press, because he says we're too negative. He did allow a phone interview with Soehnge, which he sat in on, but we didn't talk to Saavedra himself. For the most part, Abbott is the self-assigned pit bull HISD defender who often speaks on behalf of whatever superintendent is in power. (Witness last week's televised fracas at Westbury High. Amid shots of Abbott telling the media that yes, this was serious, but overall the integration of New Orleans students into Houston schools was going smoothly, TV cameras mixed in with overhead views of the kids throwing punches and being rounded up by cops.)
Abbott works through the list of denials in rapid fire, if carefully couched, terms. Saavedra has not said he considers magnet programs elitist. Asked if there are plans to break up Rogers and Carnegie, Abbott says he "has never heard that suggested by anyone." He's also never heard anyone suggest that gasoline costs are being considered as part of this review. (HISD has a transportation budget of $31 million, of which an estimated $5.1 million was spent last year for magnet students and $700,000 for Vanguard.) Some will find these messages reassuring. Others, more cynical, note the careful lawyerlike wording. Still, Abbott could just be trying to be absolutely truthful, aware that he may not himself know what exactly is going on.
But sometimes he seems not to know when to stop with the denials. Asked if the administration was concerned that relatively few Hispanic children are enrolled in Vanguard or magnet programs, he e-mailed: "I've never heard that said in this administration." Oops.
According to Soehnge, the district is very concerned about this. Across the country, she says, districts are struggling with the lower participation level of African-American and Hispanic children in gifted programs. That's why, she says, they have adjusted the criteria for gaining access to the program. In addition to Tier 1 students who qualify for GT and Vanguard by testing, there are Tier 2 students who don't qualify but show promise of being gifted, she says. More reliance on parent and teacher recommendations and better outreach have resulted in more of these kids coming into HISD's GT system, she says. Of course, what she calls better inclusion, others call a weakening of the program. As one parent put it: "They give the illusion of being a truly gifted program, and that's really not the case."
Tammy Livermore, three-time PTO president at Rogers and herself a Hispanic, says cultural differences account for some lowered support among Hispanics for Vanguard and GT. Hispanics like neighborhood schools -- it's their school and all the sisters and brothers and cousins go there, she says. The local school translates to a reluctance to transfer. Add to that recent immigrants who barely speak English and who may be ill equipped to negotiate a tour of the various magnet schools before making their choice.
Asked if there was pressure from some non-magnet schools to regain students lost to Vanguards and magnets, so the home school's test scores could rise, Abbott responded: "That's laughable. The test scores of our kids are the test scores of our kids -- all of them, regardless of what school they attend."
When it was pointed out that the state's rating system of schools depends in large part on how well each school's students perform on standardized testing, and that principals and teachers are rewarded and punished accordingly, Abbott still insisted his answer was a no. "That's absolute nonsense."
That, of course, doesn't jibe with the experiences of many parents of GT students who say home school administrators try to talk them out of transferring and if they can't, adopt an abruptly chillier demeanor toward them during their remaining days.
It's an old complaint, but one worth hearing. HISD trustees are elected from geographic areas. They are supposed to respond to their constituencies. But magnet school parents living across town can't vote for the trustee assigned to their school. So who are the trustees going to listen to? The people who can elect or defeat them? Or parents who have no say in the matter? Several parents said there is pressure on trustees from parents of non-Vanguard or magnet students to steer money away from magnets and Vanguard.
But Soehnge insists the district remains committed to its special programs. Some magnet schools have waiting lists; others have spots open all year. According to Soehnge, some of the best programs may be replicated, the worst beefed up if possible.