By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
When the Texas Education Agency issued a reprieve for North Forest Independent School District in the spring of 2012, then-superintendent Edna Forte and other district officials believed they had a year to turn things around, Silvia Brooks Williams, a trustee on the board when North Forest closed, said.
Everyone from the superintendent on down knew North Forest had serious problems, but the district of 11 schools on 33 square miles with about 7,000 students and 1,000 employees was the heart of its impoverished community, said former communications director Anitra Brown. "With North Forest, you had a district with its own identity and its own stake and pride in that identity," Brown said. "The fundamental problem was a long history of academic and financial problems. It was going to take more than a year or two to turn it around."
Forte, an educator who worked her way up to principal and regional external funding supervisor at HISD before coming to North Forest, was appointed superintendent by the board in 2011, despite her lack of certification for the position, according to a TEA review. Forte may not have known it, but she'd taken on a hopeless challenge, critics of the consolidation say.
Forte brought in Pedro Noguera, a professor of sociology at New York University and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, and his team to work on saving North Forest.
Noguera said he knew it wouldn't be possible to transform the whole broken operation overnight. North Forest had problems that extended deep into the educational system. "There was the poverty with very high educational needs complicated by high social needs. But there was also inconsistent leadership; too much staff turnover; not enough clear, consistent focus; not enough teachers who knew what they were doing and allowed to keep doing it," Noguera said. "But we were putting together a viable salvage plan for the district."
They started providing teachers with training and support that North Forest educators had done without for years, he said. Forte took control of the budget, made cuts and applied for grants to get North Forest accounts balanced and to provide funding for the programs, Williams said.
In just over a year at the helm, Forte had done impressive work. The school district budget went from negative to a $4.5 million balance, North Forest lawyer Chris Tritico said. The graduation rate jumped from 59.1 percent in 2010-11 to 66.4 percent in 2011-12.
They worked on trying to get students to come to school and urged them to take classes and standardized testing seriously, Noguera said. Noguera and his team were starting to see results — a different attitude from teachers and students when he walked the campuses, a slight uptick in test scores and attendance. The signs of progress were there, but they were the kind that were easy to dismiss if you didn't want to see them, Noguera said.
At the same time, Forte became the first superintendent in years to have the full support and cooperation of the board, Williams said. There were still old tensions among the trustees, but those tensions dropped away as the district found itself in jeopardy, she said. "Seven people from different beliefs and experiences and backgrounds came together and realized we were going to have to find some common ground if we wanted to survive," Williams said.
As of July 2012, state officials said that Forte would have one more year to improve the graduation rate, test scores and eight other measures to keep North Forest open.
By December, though, it was clear from the actions of TEA lawyers that the school district would be closed, Tritico said. Under Forte's management, North Forest had met eight of ten conditions, but the gains didn't matter, Tritico said.
After the decision was announced, Noguera placed calls to TEA Commissioner Michael Williams to tell him about the changes Noguera was seeing and to ask for more time, he said. He said he never heard from the commissioner or from anyone else with the state agency.