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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
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."
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.
"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.
None of them think their approach to education will do anything to "inspire" the Worthing students, as has been suggested by HISD board member Lawrence Marshall. All say Worthing and Carnegie students don't really know each other at all.
If current plans prevail, that may not change much. Hypolite says as it's been explained to her, the schools may operate on staggered schedules. Carnegie would start classes at 7:30 a.m., Worthing at 8:30. They would have separate lunches, and Carnegie kids would go home each day while Worthing students were still finishing classes.
She knows her school is "struggling" right now, but an easy dismissal of its problems is unjustified. "If Worthing High School had the opportunity to hand-pick their students as Carnegie does, we would probably have the same ratings."
Worthing's teachers work in classes where the power goes off without notice. They have to take whatever students are zoned to the school. "We have children coming from middle school that are 17 years old and coming to the ninth grade. We don't have the option of putting these children out."
Many Carnegie parents are still reacting to earlier battles to disengage the school from its former home at Jesse Jones High School, which was a miserable failed experiment. Carnegie began as a program at Jones High School, was later converted into a school within a school at Jones and in fall 2002 moved out on its own into a dilapidated former elementary school building.
In that case, though, Hypolite says, Carnegie was in the same building as Jones High. This time, she says, it will be completely different "and Carnegie can keep its stellar reputation."
"We are ready to stand up and have our voices heard. Some of the Carnegie people said we didn't care, we weren't going to say anything. That's not true. Sunnyside is standing up," Hypolite says. "We are going to do everything we can do to help this proposal pass."
It is hard to determine exactly what Superintendent Saavedra will do next. He says he supports magnets — with efficiencies — but later points out that of the 200,000 students in the district, 161,000, or 80 percent, do not attend magnet programs.
He wants to move to more "choice within a neighborhood or within a region." At present, he says, "the only kind of choice we talk about frequently is what I would call an escape plan. Put 'em in a bus and take them somewhere else."
Maybe there should be some limits on where a student attends a magnet, he says. "I don't know the answer to that question, mainly because the district has never done it." HISD has four early-college high schools that he says have become very popular, and no one gets transportation to them.
Some of this discussion is an issue of equity, he says. "How much money do you invest in different kids? And is money spent transporting kids, is that really a good choice? It is, to a point, but I also believe it can become excessive."
Carnegie parents would rather they remain stand-alone in every respect, with their program used as a role model, replicated throughout the district.
They point to their growth from 173 to 400 students since they moved to their own building. Next week is Magnet Week in HISD, the time used to attract students to magnet programs. They're worried new applicants will stay away.
They feel betrayed, but not incapacitated. They have already contacted the mayor's office and school board members. They'll fight because they don't want to move to suburban school districts; they want the district to acknowledge what a crown jewel it has in Carnegie.
J. Will Jones parents just want to continue this touchstone of success they've stumbled across. They've had a reprieve once before; they hope they've got another life.
Their school is tucked away on Stuart Street off Elgin. Chances are, you've never seen it. It's part of a changing Midtown as readily evidenced by the pricey new condos across the street from it; its land is probably worth a bundle.
At Jones Elementary, a group of mainly low-income parents and students, aided by a wonderful combination of teachers and principal, pulled off a remarkable feat. At Carnegie, students ignored facility problems and concentrated on challenging courses. It's hard to see how the dedication and creativity in either case are being rewarded.
"Mediocrity, that is the whisper. We're not going to have anyone higher or lower, we're going to be bland," says Jocelyn Ellis.
Now that's a chilling thought.