By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
J. Will Jones Elementary is 101 years old, the only public elementary left in Midtown, and before they shut it down, you should know that it's a pretty good school and one that defies most notions you might hold about what's needed to improve education.
Five years ago, it was pretty lousy, ranked "academically unacceptable." Then its teachers, students and principal clawed their way up from the academic dungeon to gain the school's present Texas Education Agency status of "recognized." They expanded their small fine arts magnet to include new media; they have an in-house TV station; and they have piqued kids' interest by working on their literacy with teleprompters.
On last year's Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, its students ranked in the 90th percentile in reading, 89th in math, 77th in science and an amazing 95th percentile in writing. The number of its disciplinary actions plummeted from a high of 84 in 2003-2004 to seven in 2005-2006. Principal Brian Flores believes J. Will Jones will make the exemplary rating for 2008-2009.
This was accomplished with a 300-member student body that is 100 percent Title I (free lunches) and one that this year, Flores says, has 27 kids living at the Salvation Army, 17 at another local shelter and 40 living with other local families (not their own) who are also considered homeless. Forty-one percent African-American and 56 percent Hispanic, the school has bilingual classes and is a magnet for fine arts/media literacy.
It has a SPARK park next to it and bright halls in its own building. But the last renovation J. Will Jones saw was decades ago, and there are vast portions of the building unused; the upper-level classes at the pre-K-to-fifth grade facility are all in T-shacks.
The success, the energy, mean little when it comes to economics. As Superintendent Abe Saavedra explains, the enrollment at Jones has dropped considerably. So it will be closed at the end of this school year and its students rezoned to nearby Blackshear Elementary. Early-college high school classes now housed in temporary buildings on the Houston Community College campus will move into the discarded elementary.
Located on the other side of the Highway 288/59 bridge, Blackshear has a predominantly African-American student body. Last year it was rated "academically unacceptable." It has no bilingual program, but if there is a big enough influx of students needing Spanish language services, it will by law offer one.
With about 275 students, it actually has a smaller student body than Jones.
No one seems to know whether the fine arts/media literacy program will survive the transfer. All of the staff — teachers, support personnel and the principal — will have to reapply for new jobs. Many parents have said they're not going to Blackshear, although whether that threat will be acted upon can't be known. Obviously these are people with little leverage with the district.
How else to explain why such a successful experiment as this is being shuttered and its students moved to one of the worst schools in the district, one that some of the J. Will Jones folk refer to as "that prison school"?
Meanwhile, in the Sunnyside area of Houston, a somewhat similar drama is being played out. Carnegie Vanguard High, a school for nothing but gifted and talented students, was supposed to get a new building thanks to the latest successful bond election.
Instead, Saavedra has proposed relocating the 400-student Carnegie from its decaying building on Scott Street, to share a campus with the 1,000 students at Worthing High School in two years. By doing this, and if he can corral $4 to $6 million more in funds, Saavedra plans to give both schools new separate academic buildings with independent administrations; they would share a library, cafeteria, auditorium and gym. Worthing, which was supposed to only get a $17.1 million renovation after the bond issue, likes the step up in circumstances.
Carnegie — rated an exemplary school for the past three years and called one of the top 100 high schools in the United States by US News & World Report — does not. Its parents point out that Worthing has an academically unacceptable rating and that the level of violence at the other school far surpasses anything Carnegie has ever experienced.
According to HISD records, in 2005-2006, Worthing had 1,197 suspensions, expulsions and alternative placements. Carnegie had 14. The next year, Worthing had 964 disciplinary incidents, which represented 93.96 percent of its student body. In comparison, Carnegie had four incidents for 1.15 percent. Parent Dr. Susan Escudier says right now Carnegie students are harassed by Worthing kids walking by their campus.
"The concerns are that the cultures won't mix and that the students will not feel safe and the enrollment and quality will drop," Escudier says.
Couple that with recent discussions of the high cost of magnet school transportation by the superintendent's office, and it's kind of easy to understand why some students and parents think that Saavedra wants to do away with everything exceptional and put an end to the specialized magnet programs throughout the district.
Which leaves Saavedra arguing the negative, namely that he is not against programs for gifted students.
"I am not anti-magnet at all. I think the magnet schools have played a major role in the success of this school district over the last 30 years or so," Saavedra says. "This is no effort on my part to do away with magnets at all. But it is an effort on my part to review how successful they've been and whether any changes need to occur."