Don't Worry, Be Happy
It began with e-mails that had made the round of parents and finally got to the Houston Press. Phone calls followed. Houston school superintendent Abe Saavedra was looking to eliminate the Vanguard program, the special magnet program for gifted and talented students. The kindergarten-through-eighth grade T.H. Rogers was on the chopping block. And you might as well forget about Carnegie High School.
According to the e-mails and calls, Saavedra thinks such programs elitist. Word on the street is he's not too fond of any of the other magnets either, viewing them as a transportation nightmare that sucks money out of the district in gasoline and the fleet of buses required to maintain it.
It was said Saavedra would be in favor of a GT program in every school instead of specialized centers of cream-of-the-crop-dom. But wait, isn't there already a gifted program in every HISD school?
Well, yes, but then of course some are just fine, but others are what could best be described as "in name only." They're placeholders without substance. These certainly won't meet the needs of the high-performance kids or the aspirations of their parents -- some of whom are once again poised to bolt to the suburbs or private schools. A skittish lot, many of them, but cut them some slack: They're trying to stay invested in public schools in an urban setting. They're the true believers. They think HISD at its best is the best place to be.
Word also is that it's practically a done deal that "sibling preference" -- the practice of allowing a younger brother or sister into a Vanguard program because an older sibling already made it -- is going to end, maybe by this spring. Each little kid will have to make it or not on his own merits. (And we'll all know who the dumb one is now, won't we?)
Critics are divided about whether the whole thing is well intentioned, a subterranean plot or a trial balloon hoisted on Saavedra's behalf by a 19-member PEER-review committee commissioned by the administration. Even rumormongers acknowledged that more kids need a better chance at a quality GT education. And there's a lot to be said for students not having to spend hours on buses crisscrossing the town for an education.
Others pointed out that drawing back to the neighborhood school concept would pretty much resegregate the district, countermanding the original impetus behind the magnets. HISD would be breaking its covenant with parents, the understanding that they're in it for the long haul if -- and only if -- they have a chance to send their kids to any school in HISD.
It's all rubbish, declares Terry Abbott, press secretary for the district. Nothing but urban myths, says Karen Soehnge, chief academic officer for HISD. All they plan to do is add more good programs, to make things better, not to eliminate. How could people think this?
Well, perhaps because when people don't get answers, they make some up. Or they expand upon partial answers. It's scary, and scary is always more interesting.
Of course, sometimes they're right.
We have little way of knowing, because the Vanguard and GT PEER (Peer Examination, Evaluation and Redesign) committee's meetings are not open to the public. Guests are there by invitation only. They've been meeting weekly since November, sometimes at the Anti-Defamation League (home of committee chair Martin Cominsky), sometimes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (its director of education Beth Schneider is on board) and sometimes at HISD.
Abbott thinks there's been more than enough communication to parents. Didn't Saavedra say he was going to look at everything when he became superintendent? And just two months ago, didn't the board adopt a monitoring document setting new standards and expectations, which includes re-examining all its programs?
But even committee chair Cominsky expressed reservations last week about the slow release of information, saying he wished the district would issue a press release or something. "We've asked for some additional publicity. We've asked for a way that people can come to the HISD Web site and reach us." He's getting the calls from upset parents as well. He wants them to know they have nothing to fear.
Last Thursday, Soehnge addressed the school board meeting and told one and all that everything was fine, and specifically that the Vanguard schools were safe. Apparently someone decided it was about time to say a little something more after all.
Terry Abbott says it's not true that PEER committee meetings are not open to the public because, after all, "Members of the public form the committee." Oh, boy.
The committee needs a closed session to be able to concentrate, to just fact-gather right and left, he says. Community leaders and retired administrators sit on the committee, but there are no teachers or students included.
He and Soehnge explain there will be plenty of time for public comment later. Cominsky says a survey will be sent out to parents. Once the committee report is presented to the administration in mid-January, a series of public meetings will be scheduled.
They mean this to be comforting, of course, but really it makes people crazy. Parents don't want to chill while official reports are being created. If they can't stop something bad from happening, they at least want to know about it right away so they can implement a plan B.
In fact, there are several PEER committees going now, including a separate one on magnets that hasn't quite geared up. All will have the same charge: to review programs and look at data. According to Abbott and Soehnge, who is also a committee member, no decisions have been made on sibling preferences or anything else. Committee members are unsure what they can and can't say about the process, so they refer most questions to Abbott.
Abbott is the explainer and apologist for the district -- in large part because he encourages administrators, trustees and educators not to talk to the media, particularly the Houston Press, because he says we're too negative. He did allow a phone interview with Soehnge, which he sat in on, but we didn't talk to Saavedra himself. For the most part, Abbott is the self-assigned pit bull HISD defender who often speaks on behalf of whatever superintendent is in power. (Witness last week's televised fracas at Westbury High. Amid shots of Abbott telling the media that yes, this was serious, but overall the integration of New Orleans students into Houston schools was going smoothly, TV cameras mixed in with overhead views of the kids throwing punches and being rounded up by cops.)
Abbott works through the list of denials in rapid fire, if carefully couched, terms. Saavedra has not said he considers magnet programs elitist. Asked if there are plans to break up Rogers and Carnegie, Abbott says he "has never heard that suggested by anyone." He's also never heard anyone suggest that gasoline costs are being considered as part of this review. (HISD has a transportation budget of $31 million, of which an estimated $5.1 million was spent last year for magnet students and $700,000 for Vanguard.) Some will find these messages reassuring. Others, more cynical, note the careful lawyerlike wording. Still, Abbott could just be trying to be absolutely truthful, aware that he may not himself know what exactly is going on.
But sometimes he seems not to know when to stop with the denials. Asked if the administration was concerned that relatively few Hispanic children are enrolled in Vanguard or magnet programs, he e-mailed: "I've never heard that said in this administration." Oops.
According to Soehnge, the district is very concerned about this. Across the country, she says, districts are struggling with the lower participation level of African-American and Hispanic children in gifted programs. That's why, she says, they have adjusted the criteria for gaining access to the program. In addition to Tier 1 students who qualify for GT and Vanguard by testing, there are Tier 2 students who don't qualify but show promise of being gifted, she says. More reliance on parent and teacher recommendations and better outreach have resulted in more of these kids coming into HISD's GT system, she says. Of course, what she calls better inclusion, others call a weakening of the program. As one parent put it: "They give the illusion of being a truly gifted program, and that's really not the case."
Tammy Livermore, three-time PTO president at Rogers and herself a Hispanic, says cultural differences account for some lowered support among Hispanics for Vanguard and GT. Hispanics like neighborhood schools -- it's their school and all the sisters and brothers and cousins go there, she says. The local school translates to a reluctance to transfer. Add to that recent immigrants who barely speak English and who may be ill equipped to negotiate a tour of the various magnet schools before making their choice.
Asked if there was pressure from some non-magnet schools to regain students lost to Vanguards and magnets, so the home school's test scores could rise, Abbott responded: "That's laughable. The test scores of our kids are the test scores of our kids -- all of them, regardless of what school they attend."
When it was pointed out that the state's rating system of schools depends in large part on how well each school's students perform on standardized testing, and that principals and teachers are rewarded and punished accordingly, Abbott still insisted his answer was a no. "That's absolute nonsense."
That, of course, doesn't jibe with the experiences of many parents of GT students who say home school administrators try to talk them out of transferring and if they can't, adopt an abruptly chillier demeanor toward them during their remaining days.
It's an old complaint, but one worth hearing. HISD trustees are elected from geographic areas. They are supposed to respond to their constituencies. But magnet school parents living across town can't vote for the trustee assigned to their school. So who are the trustees going to listen to? The people who can elect or defeat them? Or parents who have no say in the matter? Several parents said there is pressure on trustees from parents of non-Vanguard or magnet students to steer money away from magnets and Vanguard.
But Soehnge insists the district remains committed to its special programs. Some magnet schools have waiting lists; others have spots open all year. According to Soehnge, some of the best programs may be replicated, the worst beefed up if possible.
As far as GT goes, Soehnge believes there will be more specific standards set in place across the district. Yes, the district has been hearing complaints about the quality of some of the GT programs. In some schools, GT is a full day of classes. In others, it's a two-hour pullout from the regular day. In some, only one or two GT students are left in an entire school. The state says they must receive special services, and Soehnge insists it can be done within a regular classroom -- but that's kind of a stretch to put your mind around.
Soehnge even expects that the Vanguard program, rather than being eliminated, will be expanded. "Our goal is to improve quality across the district, not to close a bunch of programs." She says the district is looking at early college models. "Our goal is not to keep kids in a certain area. Our goal is to see more choice."
Some parents are questioning this, too, saying they've heard that while there may be more Vanguard programs, students will be restricted to the one in their district.
Others say they've heard Saavedra wants each school to be all things to all kids. "You tell me that every single neighborhood school is going to offer Japanese and Chinese?" Livermore hooted. She also said that comments have been made that a lot of parents will go work second jobs and put their kids in private schools. But then, so what? They'd still be paying HISD taxes.
Another frequently repeated scenario is that funding will be decreased at the Vanguards and increased in the neighborhood GT programs. Eventually, people will be more accepting of the neighborhood programs since the Vanguards won't be what they used to be.
All of which sounds a bit more Machiavellian than anyone would like to think a district or a superintendent would be.
One parent said that she believes Saavedra has no ugly motives here -- that everything he is trying to do is for the good. "But I think there may be bad consequences," she said glumly.
People are spending huge chunks of their lives trying to piece together exactly what Abe Saavedra really thinks about all this. We'd like to tell you, but again, he didn't meet with us.
Maybe the next time you see Abe Saavedra, you should ask him what's on his heart and mind. You know, just ask him. Really specific questions, though. None of this generalities stuff.
And please let us all know. The last thing we need is more secrets.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.