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.

"When they first came out they told us we were getting a new school. We asked them where we going to put our kids," Turner said. "The area high school officer told us they were going to put T-buildings on the property." It was only later, after the bond passed, that the administration started talking about merging Sterling and Jones, she says.

Spencer makes it clear the 2012 bond issue never said anything about Jones getting a new school. But with distrust comes communication breakdowns. And critics hold a photo of a poster promising a new school for Jones; no one ever told them to take it down.

Dale Mitchell is a compact bundle of energy, the type of principal who's tough to catch up to because he's often out of his office, seeing to things around the school. But, he says, he'll hang around at school till midnight to meet with a parent. Coming from a small district, he came in with a lot of budget experience that's helped him a lot at Sterling.

A lot of people thought Jones High was getting a new school too in the 2012 bond election.
Photo courtesy Larry McKinzie
A lot of people thought Jones High was getting a new school too in the 2012 bond election.

He's also very white in a school that's very not.

He was a principal at Hutto Middle School in Round Rock and a rather acclaimed one at that, receiving Region 13 Principal of the Year honors for the 2008-2009 school year which was also his first year at the school.

Arriving in January of 2012 (never a good sign when you have a new principal halfway through the year), Mitchell knew going in that more than a couple members of the Sterling community didn't want him there because of his complexion; feeling they hadn't been listened to when they told HISD administrators they needed a black principal. He knew there had been turnover problems.

"I inherited a deficit in the budget," he says. The previous principal had projected a larger enrollment than happened. HISD cut him a break and let him keep the six extra teachers he wasn't able to fund through the end of the year.

Mitchell says he wanted to get back to the Houston area (he'd previously been with the Stafford Municipal School District for three years) and was intrigued by the "history" of Sterling, particularly its magnet aviation program. He doesn't mention that part of that history includes being labeled "a dropout factory" in 2007, the same year of that bond election that never delivered what Sterling expected.

"From my conversation with parents there's a feeling that the south in general has been ignored for a long time," Mitchell said. "There is a trust factor," said Mitchell, pointing out that Grier wasn't here in 2007, but the longstanding grievance remains.

"The district needs to deliver on some promises or stop making them," Mitchell said.

At first glance, Hutto and Sterling couldn't be more disparate. One is 75 percent white, the other tending toward 75 percent ­African-American and 25 percent Hispanic. But both schools had the same size student population and both had about the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students at about 78 percent, Mitchell said.

This fall stumbled to a start when Houston Community College didn't show up to teach a communications applications class that students have to have to graduate. After a few weeks of waiting, students were directed on online courses through the Grad Lab program and contrary to rumor, they did not have to pay for the course.

"We had 35 students who needed it for original credit and 47 students who needed it for credit recovery. We set it up in the grad Lab where they work at their own pace and there's a certified teacher who's a teacher of record for them to go to with questions," Mitchell said.

Ambitious, creative and phenomenally ­unsuccessful.

"We had about a 70 percent failure rate online," Mitchell said. "Not because of the academic progress but because of failure to complete the class — not showing up, not doing the work online. We were finding students wouldn't work on it for three or four weeks at a time, thinking they could wait till the last minute to catch up and then didn't receive credit for it.

So he Plan B'd it, and assigned a speech teacher to teach nothing but communications applications, installing seven sections of the class for the spring semester.

Added to that was the attendance appeal process that in the cases of transfer students, involved contacting their former schools to see if they would remove the asterisks collected by too many absences.

Teacher turnover was 13 percent last year with four retirements and three transfers (a couple of which are coming back, Mitchell said) and this year the departures stands at 8 percent. Two teachers resigned unexpectedly, one in February, the other after Spring Break and long term subs have been in place while job interviews continue.

When first contacted in early April, Mitchell said "138 students [out of a senior class of 212] are currently not on track to graduate." More recently he said he thought he'd whittled that number down to about 20. Again, the biggest problem was attendance.

He recites a litany of interventions in which the attendance message was delivered: at assemblies in August, January and March. Letters were sent home in February after individual meetings with each senior and there was a senior parent meeting in April. Extra courses were offered as well as eight additional assigned --as in mandatory -- credit recovery sessions on Saturdays.

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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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