A Fixer-Upper

Allen is going to have to make a lot of changes to bring his school up to standard.
Deron Neblett

When HISD Superintendent Kaye Stripling sent a task force of educators into Jesse Jones High in January to sort through what had become one of her more dysfunctional schools, there were fears that members of the group were too close to beleaguered principal Lawrence Allen.

Allen had been removed from his position "for the betterment of the whole school," according to one of his supervisors, then reinstated within days -- all right around the mid-year Christmas break.

The campus was an eyesore with sewer backups, graffiti, nasty restrooms and moldy locker rooms. The school didn't seem to know whether students were in or out of class or exactly what classes the kids were signed up for anyway.

After Allen's brief ouster and a Quanell X street-corner demonstration, there was a very public split between parents of the students in the gifted magnet program known as Vanguard and parents of students in regular classes (see "The Great Divide," March 7). The former wanted Allen out. The latter made it an issue of community pride that this African-American leader would continue to be a role model for kids.

Many of Allen's supporters, while admitting that the facilities weren't all they should be, insisted that, overall, the novice principal had done far more good than harm in his three years at the helm.

Well, the task force's 24-page report is out, and Allen's supporters might want to reassess their position.

The report issued by the committee, headed up by longtime Allen family friend Hilbert Bludau, said principal Lawrence Allen presides over an unsafe school where students wander the campus unsupervised and throw trash and garbage throughout the building and grounds. Student records are missing or inaccurate. One full-time PE/history teacher teaches no classes. "Staff members…propagate negativity, distrust and dissonance."

Allen provides no assessment of the job his teachers are doing, no academic direction and apparently has little idea of what's going on with his budget, the report stated. If he does understand his muddled budget, the only thing that's clear is that he's lost control of it.

This is a school that paid a consultant $800 a day for 36 days to teach math tutorials. At the same time, Jones was regularly running out of money for supplies and equipment because it was spending so much on temporary and permanent staff. As of January 24, 14 of 21 accounts for extra duty pay, hourly pay, day-to-day substitutes and overtime were over budget. It's not that the school doesn't have enough teachers -- in fact, the task force said it was overstaffed -- but so many teachers spend so much time at off-campus functions that there's a huge call for substitutes. There aren't enough substitute teachers to fill the need, and classes go unsupervised. As for the teachers themselves, far too many are uncertified, the task force said.

Copy machine leases for the 2001-2002 school year weren't paid until last January. "Only $6,850 was budgeted for maintenance supplies. As of January 24, $5.74 remained in the budget for the second semester." Many bills were delinquent as of April. Teachers are buying their own supplies, and there is no system for keeping track of those materials.

The school has a bill totaling $120,389 for textbooks lost in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 school years. Textbooks can't be stored in a centralized room because of roof leaks.

"There is no system for monitoring the budget," investigators concluded.

This is a school with no systemized plan for improving student academics, no communication with and among faculty and staff, a shaky professional development program and a counseling office that does little counseling and makes students feel "uncomfortable."

Beyond that, the school fails to meet "the minimum requirements of a safe, comfortable and healthy environment," the report said. "The number of custodians is not sufficient to maintain a building of this size and enrollment. The plant operator does not have command of the scope of work or the organizational skills necessary to clean the building."

If a friend like Hilbert Bludau would make this assessment, Lawrence Allen has to be happy one of his enemies wasn't in charge of the investigation.

A long-standing complaint from Vanguard parents at Jones has been that the quality of counseling is poor.

The task force echoed these complaints: "Some students are uncomfortable seeking assistance from the counselors," and course scheduling changes were not always completed in a timely manner. Financial aid and Scholastic Aptitude Test enrollment packets are not made available to all seniors, investigators said. Student records aren't correct in either the Limited English Proficient program or the special education program. Special ed teachers are keeping student folders in nonsecure areas.

Vanguard Parents Organization members were very unhappy with counselor Joyce Woods. Following Allen's ouster, HISD removed Woods from the Vanguard program for poor performance; she transferred to the regular counseling offices at Jones.  

But since she was still in charge of scholarship applications and since the Vanguard program never replaced her, she has continued to have a huge impact on Vanguard students.

For 18-year-old Katie Gallagher, that impact has had serious consequences.

Historical figure Jesse Jones cut a huge swath in Houston. Jones High was named after him. His sizable estate created the Houston Endowment, which bankrolls the Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Scholarship Program. A Jones scholarship is both prestigious and lucrative for graduating seniors. Each recipient gets $12,000 in increments over four college years. This year, $3.8 million in scholarships were awarded to area graduates.

A downtown Rotary Club committee considers applicants on leadership, character and citizenship, but the most weight is placed on "academic attainment" and "economic necessity."

Katie was second this year in her senior Vanguard class at Jones. The salutatorian had SAT scores of 800 in math and 730 in verbal, and has been accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she has a partial scholarship. Her résumé of honors and activities is exhausting. It includes four years of varsity tennis, captain of the team for two; French Club; Junior Engineering Technology society for four years, president for two years and VP for one. The former Girl Scout scored first in district UIL competition in calculator, math and number sense, and second in news writing. These achievements and more were listed in an accompanying letter of support from counselor Woods.

Moreover, Katie's father, Don, makes $27,000 a year as a self-employed landscaper. Her mother works a few part-time hours each day. The $12,000 scholarship for Katie would make a crucial difference.

It would seem that she was a shoo-in.

But when the list of winners was recently released, Katie's name was not on it. Her father began to make persistent calls to the Rotary Club, to Jones High, to the district. He wanted to know why the Rotary Club had turned down his daughter. If Katie didn't qualify, who could?

As it turns out, the Rotary never saw Katie's application. Don says he was told by counselor Woods that she didn't forward her application because it was missing some information. Katie had failed to include the tuition amount.

This amazed the Gallaghers because Katie had told Woods she didn't know what the exact tuition would be. "Mrs. Woods, she told her, 'No problem,' " Gallagher said his daughter told him. "She said, 'I'll take care of that for you. I have a book and I will fill that in for you.' "

When the Houston Press checked with Principal Allen, he gave a somewhat different reason for the rejection of Katie's application. He said it was held by the school because it was not typed. School policy said it should be typed.

This further agitated an already upset Don Gallagher. Katie didn't type the application form because she, like most everyone else nowadays, doesn't have a typewriter. There was a typewriter in the counselors' office, and other parents have said the kids were told they couldn't use it. Most resorted to using a computer, printing out their answers and pasting them onto the form, which didn't look great.

Katie tried to scan in her answers at home. She couldn't get the computer program to work and ended up neatly hand-printing her application, her dad said. Nowhere on the Jones Foundation application, her father said, does it say the answers have to be typed.

Gallagher said he went to see Woods for an explanation and she told him she'd already filed her report with Allen. Gallagher saw Allen, who never apologized, Gallagher said, but did tell him he was in charge of making the decision about who got an $8,000 Worthing Scholarship and that a letter would be headed the Gallaghers' way shortly.

The Worthing Scholarship did come through, in fact, and the Gallaghers are grateful for the consolation prize, but as Don Gallagher notes, there is a difference between $12,000 and $8,000. And Gallagher, not one to let anything drop, still wants an explanation from the highest levels of HISD about the Jones Scholarship application.

Allen toldthe Press he planned to "review all procedures pertaining to the receiving and issuing of scholarships in the future."

Jones High also wanted the Worthing Scholarship application typed, Gallagher said. The school typed it for Katie.

As the task force noted, the split between the Vanguard parents and the parents of other students will disappear by next fall. The Vanguard program will relocate to become a separate school in what had been Carnegie Elementary (see "Split Decision," April 18).  

Following Stripling's early April decision to move the Vanguard program but to retain Allen at Jones, several Vanguard parents have reported that African-American Vanguard students are being urged not to go to Carnegie but to stay at Jones and take Advanced Placement courses.

In fact, parents have said that counselor Woods has pulled kids out of class to talk to them about not making the move. When first asked about this, Allen said he had "no knowledge" of such actions by Woods. Asked if he had talked to her about it, Allen said yes, adding: "I understand that some students came to her with questions about the next school year. Ms. Woods was never given a directive to pull students to discuss this issue."

Contacted at Jones, Woods first said she would talk to the Press and set up a time for the next day. She was not available at that time, however, and subsequent calls to her went unanswered.

Since AP courses had been taught by Vanguard teachers who will be going to Carnegie, Allen was also questioned on how Jones can offer AP courses, which require special training. He said Jones will have several AP courses next year and that staffing decisions were still being made.

In the last few years, the Vanguard Parents Organization raised almost all the complaints about Jones. Some from the local community found this divisive, but after reading the report, any reasonable person has to conclude that the Vanguard PTO did the right thing, however uncomfortable it was.

Task force investigators found the school has no working communications system. Thirty teachers out of 90 attended the monthly faculty meeting in February (and this was while they knew they were under increased HISD scrutiny). E-mail is not used. There are no staff bulletins. The school needs to start sending information home in Spanish as well as English because the student body is 37 percent Hispanic.

Equipment is broken, outdated or missing parts. Students are in the wrong classes. Five teachers are floating without classrooms of their own, although some classrooms have been converted to offices.

Even when teachers go through a special training course, there's no follow-up to see if more training is needed or whether the program is being implemented as designed.

"There is no effective student record management system," the report stated. An explanation for this may lie in this determination: "Acceptance of responsibility for quality data management is non-existent." The people in charge of student data entry don't have the training or skills to do their jobs correctly.

Teachers are increasingly unwilling to serve as faculty sponsors of clubs. There is no student council. "Students appear to lack a sense of ownership in the school; and, the faculty and staff do not appear to have a shared vision of success for all students."

So the question is, what's going to happen after all or most of those troublesome Vanguard parents are gone, after HISD's attention turns elsewhere? Stripling has pledged to give Allen whatever help he needs to become a better administrator and manager. And maybe the parents of the regular students will become more involved and demand changes that should have been made long ago.

The report is direct, detailed and damning. The members of the task force did not flinch from some hard truths, saying in summary:

"A major transformation must occur at Jones High School. The children and their needs do not appear to be at the heart of the school's culture."

It's hard to read this report and believe that the district would still allow Allen to continue in his position. There are just so many breakdowns, so many areas that have fallen behind or raced out of control.

The hope, which is addressed in the report, lies in the children. "Resilience is an organizational strength at Jones High School. Although improvement is needed… students in particular, exhibited resiliency during the transitional period subsequent to the removal of the principal."

Everyone needs to keep watching Jones High. Watching the principal and the children left in his charge. Hope for the best, but be vigilant. And count on those children, and their resilience to make something more out of this than we have any right to hope for.

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