Sterling High School: Keeping It All Together

As Sterling High School’s year comes to an end, merger talk has the community upset, critics say they can’t trust HISD, and its latest principal is pulling out all the stops to try to get kids to graduation.

A call comes in over the walkie-talkies "There are students who can't get into the school. The gates are locked." School receptionist Cherlyn Pinkney immediately goes into action, calling out for help and soon the late-arriving students and their cars are inside the black fencing.

The gates at Sterling High School are there, it is explained, not to lock in the kids, but to keep trouble makers and the bad guys out. That this occasionally backfires is part and parcel of the days at this school in south Houston. Principal E. Dale Mitchell says three nearby apartment complexes give him a run for his money, but then it seems he has a lot on his plate.

The third principal in just five years, Mitchell's trying desperately to make sure the graduating class of 2013 has as many kids in it as possible, setting aside extra class sessions, computer time so they can meet their graduation requirements. Earlier dire warnings got a big yawn from several members of the senior class.

Senior Lonnie Hilson says Jones is a rival school and its students shouldn't be mixed with Sterling kids.
Margaret Downing
Senior Lonnie Hilson says Jones is a rival school and its students shouldn't be mixed with Sterling kids.
Principal Dale Mitchell has covered his office with charts full of plans for improving graduation rates at Sterling.
Margaret Downing
Principal Dale Mitchell has covered his office with charts full of plans for improving graduation rates at Sterling.

Then there's the inescapable fact that Sterling, set in an oddly rural part of the city of Houston and badly in need of a redo, has about 900 students. Another 1,100 students who are zoned to Sterling instead opt to go to other schools in the school-choice district. In December, a 14-year-old student brought a loaded handgun to school saying that he needed it to protect himself from neighborhood gang members. The magnet students who transfer in for either the aviation program or the Futures Academy do not represent an impressive number — between 61-66 total was the principal's estimate. Still, the Washington Post recently placed Sterling among the top 9 percent of public schools in the country, based on its Advanced Placement course offerings.

At 900, even though it's the largest school in the south part of the district, Sterling fails to meet the desired Houston Independent School District threshold of 1,000 students at a high school and as a result, Superintendent Terry Grier's administration proposed a merger with nearby Jones High School (a longtime troubled school with an even greater decline in enrollment now tracking at fewer than 475 students) beginning in fall 2013. Once Sterling's new school is built, all the kids — including those from Jones — could move back over.

Talk about your non-starters. Concerned parents, the NAACP, the school's PTO president will all tell you this plan is not only unworkable but dangerous, that Sterling and Jones kids don't mix well. Even the principal, doing his best stiff-upper-lip routine, clearly does not see this as optimal.

"Basically my concern is the security of the children. They are very territorial. This is my neighborhood. Those kids, that is their mentality," said Linda Turner, the Sterling PTO president.

Larry McKinzie, a former teacher in HSID, who has continued to interest himself in student affairs, said no one in the community wants the merger. He, like others, has other issues with the school, wants it to be better, but what is absolutely clear that whatever problems Sterling has — they want to keep it as Sterling.

Senior Lonnie Hilson won't be around next year for the temporary move to Jones but he's concerned and talking to anyone who'll listen. He has his own very active list of complaints about Sterling (sanitation, some teachers he says who aren't engaged, too many courses taken by computer, vice principals who won't listen to him), but still wants to see it remain on its present campus.

In fact, he regrets having gone on FOX News 26 in support of the bond election, because he never thought there would be a consolidation as a result. "Jones is a rival school. It raises big safety and security concerns," he said.

The local branch of the NAACP has raised its voice. "You have children, gangs, neighborhoods that sometimes don't jell," said Dr. Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, education chair of NAACP-Houston branch.

Actually, HISD did listen. At a March 7 school board meeting when the merger was to be voted on, (along with the Ryan and Cullen middle school consolidation which was approved) trustee Larry Marshall had the measure held. Sterling is not in his district but trustee Paula Harris had a prior engagement and missed the meeting as did Grier — which did not go uncommented upon by the audience.

"We tapped on the brakes," says HISD chief spokesman Jason Spencer. The district is taking the time to gather more data, he says.

All of which is encouraging but not completely reassuring to the Sterling community. Every person talked with mentioned the $1.89 billion bond election in 2012 saying they were assured that something would finally be done for Sterling — things that hadn't been done after the 1998 and 2007 bond elections.

"There was a bond in 1998, there was a bond in 2007 which we never received. So after they did the 2012 bond, we don't trust HISD anymore. Because we haven't received what they already promised in the beginning," Turner said.

They say the district was all making nice with them until after the election and that there were going to be two new schools — one for Jones and one for Sterling — not just one.

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Hutto Middle School is in Hutto, Texas. Mr. Mitchell was a wonderful principal that supported his students and faculty. He couldn't make it to our last day ceremonies the semester he left so he sent a video instead. There wasn't a dry eye in the audience. The students miss him as much as his faculty does. I know that Dale Mitchell can make a difference at Sterling, especially when the students, parents, faculty, and community trust and believe in him.

Dom Nelson
Dom Nelson 1 Like

I agree with you GJohn81 as I am actually a former valedictorian of this school. It disappoints me where the school is now, but there is shared accountability with the parents and school system. Those of us who have made it must give back, but there must also be parents, children, and school systems willing to work with us. There is much hope for the future- once the majority of families and the school systems realize that education is critical to success and career advancement in America, things will start to make progress for the better. Education also drives down crime, but it is a long process. And progress might be slow and long- we have to take one day at a time and slowly make cultural change to the norms for the real value of education, especially in inner city communities. Reach one, teach one.


@Dom Nelson Hi, I am doing a sociology project based on this article, and I was wondering if you would be willing to help me out with a few things since you were a formers student. 

Dom Nelson
Dom Nelson

Sure, send me your contact information and I can help you out.

GJohn81 1 Like

I applaud everyone's efforts to keep Sterling open and a their mission to keep students in the system.  This is commendable and one reason I have faith in our educational system.  I agree with Evans-Shabazz that closing the school would be like closing the community. I do have a question.  What has the community done to help ensure that this landmark high school stays open and is operated as a safe learning environment for our kids?  HISD cannot become a district where there are only 3-4 magnate schools serious students will attend.  The fact that the Washington Post rated Sterling as highly as it did tells us that we, in general, aren't even sure how to evaluate schools.  Those of us who grew up in Houston and have benefited from our education in the HISD must help to fix these problems and become involved.  The single biggest indicator in a school's success is parent/adult involvement and we should help provide that for all schools in the HISD, not just the ones our children attend.  I know that tough, unpopular decisions will have to be made, but Sterling and all of HISD is worth the effort.      

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