Backlash Upon Backlash at HISD

The uproar you hear is screaming parents

Saavedra inherited an unwieldy mess when he took over leadership of the sprawling HISD in 2004. Houston, like many other urban districts, had begun its magnet school program as a way to desegregate the district, and over the years, it has grown ­enormously.

"We have 120 magnets throughout the system," Saavedra says. "That's 120 out of 300 schools, so better than a third of our schools are magnet schools. All the comprehensive high schools have a magnet program. Some magnets are duplicated in different schools. For example, Davis High School has a culinary magnet. Westside High School has a culinary magnet program as well."

It may seem that more magnets would translate into fewer transportation problems, but that hasn't worked out to be the case, the superintendent says, since a student is not required to attend the closest school; the policy is complete open choice. "It's basically a carte blanche that we have allowed: You select the school; we will get you there," Saavedra says.

Carnegie parents (l-r) Susan Escudier, Stan Vaughan, Anne Swanson, Noemi Montejo and Jocelyn Ellis — they're smart, feisty and tenacious, and could be Superintendent Abe Saavedra's latest, biggest nightmare.
Margaret Downing
Carnegie parents (l-r) Susan Escudier, Stan Vaughan, Anne Swanson, Noemi Montejo and Jocelyn Ellis — they're smart, feisty and tenacious, and could be Superintendent Abe Saavedra's latest, biggest nightmare.

"We have a transportation system that in some cases has very few kids on the bus. It makes for a very inefficient system."

In the "regular" transportation program, which offers a ride to any kid more than two miles away from his school, it costs HISD $221 per year on average to bus the kids. But magnet transportation runs $1,400 per student, or nearly seven times that cost, and for a magnet student who lives more than ten miles away, it costs $3,300 per student, Saavedra says.

"I'm not proposing, nor have I ever proposed, that we do away with magnet transportation. I simply have said we have to find a more efficient way to do this," Saavedra says. "We spend more money moving kids around than we do in the program itself."

This is an argument which the Car­ne­gie parents by and large reject. They say that the magnet transportation costs are less than 1 percent of HISD's total budget (HISD says 1.48 percent), and say that cost efficiencies here will do little to turn around the district's fiscal problems.

"For families without financial resources, this would remove the element of choice in HISD and sentence kids to failing neighborhood schools," Escudier says.

And as Carnegie parent Noemi Montejo asks, if Saavedra is so concerned about the costs of magnet transportation, why didn't he put the one Vanguard high school in the entire district in a more central location? Her daughter rides two hours each way to go to school at Carnegie.

Worthing PTO President Nadine Hypolite has about had her fill of Carnegie and its parents and students. "At some point in life, you're going to have to mix in with someone who is not just like you. That goes for Worthing students as well as Carnegie. They have to learn in life to adjust, and where Carnegie thinks they need to stay in their little box, that's just unrealistic in life."

"Carnegie is still going to be Carnegie. Worthing will be Worthing. We're just going to be on the same campus. So to hear their outrage, to hear them say, 'Before we go down there, we'll give the money back,' to hear that, that's disheartening. To hear that 'we'll pull our children out before we'll let them share anything with those kids at Worthing' is disheartening."

Carnegie kids say they are called "Carnegeeks" and other names by Worthing students. Hypolite insists there's no proof of that — it could have been anybody from the neighborhood.

Hypolite thinks the ones doing the labeling are the Carnegie students themselves. On Houston Chronicle blog posts, she says Carnegie students "called themselves quirky; they called themselves weird. They labeled themselves pretty much. Nobody on the Worthing side on the blog labeled the students from ­Carnegie."

In addition, she says, Carnegie kids attacked Worthing students. "They said we don't want to learn. We don't grow up in homes. Those type of comments — if there was going to be backlash — those type of comments would cause a backlash because what it definitely said to a lot of people and to me: 'We're too good to be on the same grounds as Worthing. We're too good for them.'"

Several Carnegie parents say they wish the best for Worthing, and feel the schools have been placed in competition.

"I feel myself a little angry that HISD has pitted two schools against each other," parent Jocelyn Ellis says.

Carnegie PTO board member Anne Swanson says she wants improvements for Worthing, but doesn't think the shared campus is the answer. "They need a good program, instead of a shiny building."

Students like Timothy Vaughan, a senior, say they'd hate to lose the special environment at Carnegie. Fellow senior Jenny Kutner says the same would apply if she were asked to merge with Bellaire or Lamar. Those large schools are focused on other things than just academics, she says, and aren't what she wants, no matter how respected they are. Eric Lew says his English teacher says Carnegie is the best working environment he's ever had as a teacher, and Kutner echoes that, saying many of her teachers were in Gifted and Talented programs when they were in school, but wished something like Carnegie had been available to them.

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