Fifth-grader Bianca Cardenas sniffed the air, searching for the musty smell she'd always associated with school, as she walked into Thurgood Marshall Elementary. She inhaled the stinging aroma, a mix of fresh paint and cleaning supplies, while her seven-year-old sister Ceanna gaped at the gleaming mural of storybook characters splashed on the wall across from the main office. The campus, built by North Forest Independent School District in 2000, had been completely renovated since Houston Independent School District took it over 56 days earlier in a merger ordered by the Texas Education Agency.
Standing against the wall of the gymnasium, Bianca and her mother and sister watched as HISD Superintendent Terry Grier strode past them, immediately surrounded by cameras and reporters there to capture the moment. North Forest was declared legally dead on July 1, but the district's true end came on the morning of August 26 when Grier walked into the school, owning the place, a campus shined up to be the crown jewel of the North Forest acquisition.
North Forest was a long-troubled district with a litany of problems and classes filled by mostly poor, minority students. Officially, HISD never wanted North Forest but was just there to do the right thing, though opponents of the merger argue that HISD, a district with its own troubles, had everything to gain from taking over the school district.
When TEA first announced North Forest would be closed in 2011, the remarks by members of the HISD school board were polite and innocuous. After the state education agency made the final call that North Forest would be annexed by HISD in 2013, HISD trustees discussed how they might go about taking control of the small district. It seemed as if all nine of them were choosing their words carefully, making it clear they were only following state orders.
HISD officials couldn't openly go after North Forest or reject it, said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, but Grier and company were ready once they got it. "There was no correct public statement. If you don't want them, you're a racist, and if you do, you're greedy. It was the administration and the school board, though. They saw an advantage for HISD, and that advantage was economic," Fallon said.
In the final days of North Forest's existence, Michael Feinberg, creator of the Knowledge Is Power Program, also known as KIPP, proposed setting up a board composed of charter schools to run the district. There was also talk of inviting a university to help run North Forest, or perhaps splitting the school district among neighboring districts, including HISD, Humble and Aldine.
Under Feinberg's plan, the new board would take possession of North Forest and work with different charter schools to try out various educational ideas, but he never got much traction with TEA, he said. "It seemed the state had a priority in getting rid of a dysfunctional school system at all costs," Feinberg said. "The state was in Nightmare on Elm Street X, and they didn't want to see Freddy Krueger come back to life again."
TEA officials seemed to have made up their minds long before they closed the district, Feinberg said. The TEA solution was one that state officials had been locked onto since 2011 — slipping North Forest's 7,000 academically underperforming African-American and Hispanic students into the ocean of more than 200,000 students spread out over 283 campuses in HISD.
After years of struggling, North Forest was swallowed up by HISD, the largest district in the state and the seventh-largest in the nation. The formal mission is to ensure that North Forest students get a better education, presumably one that will be reflected in higher test scores, but HISD administrators will have the option of applying for exemptions for the next couple of years, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. Low scores from North Forest won't affect HISD's academic rating with the state. Whether it succeeds or fails in turning around North Forest schools, this is a win-win for HISD. The school district is so large that 7,000 students being dropped in barely creates a ripple in overall results, Culbertson said.
TEA Commissioner Michael Williams said the merger was the best thing for the students of North Forest. This despite the fact that HISD has had its share of challenges — critics would call them scandals — in the past few years. The accusations of cheating on standardized tests, falsification of attendance rates, a contractor system allegedly riddled with corruption — including the allegation that school board member Larry Marshall, who has been embroiled in a civil lawsuit since 2010 for an alleged bribery and kickback scheme, set his friends up with contracts and accepted bribes — the uncompleted 2007 bond program that was found to be behind schedule and over budget in 2010, all contributed to a long list that doesn't get brought up in TEA documents discussing why HISD was the perfect solution to the agency's North Forest problem.
With constant budget shortfalls, including a gap of more than $70 million for the 2013-14 school year, HISD, though it has a larger and more diverse tax base, isn't without its own financial problems. Like every other district around the state, HISD suffered from the state budget cuts in education funding made in the wake of the Great Recession. In fact, it highlighted its own deficiencies just last year when Grier, administrators and school board members urged voters to approve a $2 billion bond election. HISD schools lacked air conditioning and were in a state of disrepair that could be solved only by an infusion of millions of dollars from taxpayers, they said.
Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, based in Austin, said that education funding is still well below where it was before 2008 and that state funding will never return to the level it was at then for HISD and other Texas school districts.
But HISD didn't have to look for extra money to fix up North Forest, thanks to TEA funding. Crews moved in the day Grier took possession of the campuses, and reports came out about the sorry state of North Forest's classrooms and buses. Officials recounted how rats and bugs were found in Fonwood Elementary, the school Bianca and her sister attended last year, never mentioning the fact that the school was slated for closure by North Forest.
The state of North Forest's campuses was trumpeted by HISD officials as further proof that they were the solution to the smaller district's troubles. The picture painted was one of a rotting school district that HISD was courageously swooping in to save, despite the fact that HISD has aging schools in similar states of disrepair, according to former HISD general construction manager Issa Dadoush.
By taking on North Forest, HISD gets all the real estate attached to it, including a high school and sports facility slated to be built in North Forest with $80 million from the state, according to state Rep. Senfronia Thompson. HISD will most likely sell any North Forest property not repurposed, according to district policy, HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. The district will also receive an injection of funds from the state to cover the cost of renovations and the rapid annexation — HISD has spent about $25 million so far — and an additional $35 million in funding for at least the next five years, Spencer said. HISD must assume North Forest's $60 million in general obligation and maintenance tax debt, Spencer said, but TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the state agency officials will do all they can to ensure they aren't placing too great a burden on HISD.
Spencer said Grier never initiated the move to consolidate the districts. After assuring the Houston Press that an interview with Grier on North Forest would be no problem, the HISD communications office subsequently said that Grier was unavailable for comment. Questions for this story were answered by Spencer via e-mail or telephone.
After the district was formally closed, North Forest's 58,000 registered voters were split between HISD board trustees representing two existing districts. The voters were placed in either District 8, represented by Juliet Stipeche, or District 2, represented by Rhonda Skillern-Jones. Neither is up for re-election until 2015, meaning the voters of North Forest have gone from having an entire board elected directly by them to a situation in which they won't have any say in who represents them for the next three years.
A push from North Forest residents to add two seats and give them their own HISD representatives was ignored, former North Forest board member Silvia Brooks Williams said. All of North Forest's estimated 1,000 employees were fired when HISD took over. The employees were invited to re-apply for their jobs, but with no guarantees. Only 74 of approximately 500 teachers working at North Forest when it closed were rehired, Spencer said.
The move also works out for Grier, who has been at the helm of HISD since 2009 and is not seeing the results promised from his school turnaround program, Apollo 20, according to former HISD school board member Carol Mims Galloway. North Forest schools could provide a welcome distraction and a way to burnish Grier's record at a time when he needs it, she said.
On the first day of school, Hilarion Martinez, the new principal of Thurgood Marshall, who was overseeing a staff hired in less than two months, had a strained smile on his face as he speed-walked through the halls to make sure everything was in order. Martinez never stopped smiling as he rattled off the changes they were making — a longer school day, reading programs, access to new gadgetry including computers and iPads, any incentive he could dream up to get kids excited about coming to school — repeating the usual party line about how happy he and his new staff were to meet these challenges.
As the media event for the first day of school rolled along, Martinez stood in the doorway of a classroom as Grier handed out school supplies donated by energy companies. One little girl, her long black hair swept into a pony tail and topped with a yellow bow, looked up as Grier handed her the supplies. Her brown eyes went from Grier to the bank of cameras behind him and down to the supplies, and she burst into tears. Grier and the cameras edged away as her sobs continued and she dropped her head to her desk. There would be nothing but smiles recorded on the first day of school.
North Forest was one of TEA's "problem child" districts years before its demise. The district started as a single school serving mostly poor white rural children in northeast Houston about 90 years ago. By the time desegregation rolled around, the area had blossomed into a pocket of white suburbia along US 59. When all Texas schools were ordered to integrate in the 1970s, African Americans began moving into the area, attracted by the excellent schools. As they moved in, the whites moved out. By the end of the decade, the community was predominantly African American, as it is today.
The African-American community gained control of the school board in the late 1970s, making North Forest one of the largest African-American-run districts in Texas.
Former HISD superintendent Billy Reagan said he watched North Forest during those early years and thought of trying to make the district a part of HISD then. He put out feelers to TEA as early as the late 1970s, he said, but was told it would never be allowed to happen because desegregation laws prohibited two primarily minority-populated districts from merging.
Reagan proposed that the Humble superintendent — whom he competed with to see whose district could get the better test scores — step in and see if the state would allow Humble to annex the school district, but the Humble superintendent never made a move, he said. None of the neighboring districts seemed interested either, Reagan said.
North Forest ran into problems in the mid-1980s when North Forest administrators and teachers had the lowest TECAT (Texas Examination of Current Administrators and Teachers) scores in the state. In 1988, financial issues began to surface. Questions were raised about how the school board and the administration were managing finances, drawing TEA attention. However, that was also the year Carrol Thomas was hired as the latest superintendent.
Thomas said he came in with a clear plan for North Forest. He said he made sure to treat everyone, from trustees to staff and students, equally, something he said had not always been the case with other superintendents. He looked for ways to connect with the community and help schools provide what the community needed, such as WIC-sponsored clinics that would provide birth control and that were run in the schools, he said.
He raised test scores, improved the graduation rate and cleaned up the district's financial record-keeping in just a few years, winning awards for his time as superintendent, according to state records. State support was as much a key to his success as was connecting with the school board and the community, Thomas said. "The TEA wanted the school district to succeed. It was their mission, and they sponsored me and helped me make it happen," he said. When Thomas left to become the superintendent of Beaumont ISD in 1996, North Forest began to founder again.
In the early 2000s, state laws were changed to make it easier for TEA to close underperforming districts, said Thompson, one of the representatives of the North Forest area.
Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, a district that was almost a mirror image of North Forest in both demographics and history, was closed in 2005 and merged with Dallas ISD. Kendleton, another district run primarily by African Americans, was annexed to Lamar in 2010. A handful of underperforming school districts were intensively reviewed, but annexation seemed to happen only with black schools, Chris Tritico, the Houston lawyer representing North Forest, said.
The beginning of the end for North Forest started in 2007 when TEA installed financial and academic conservators, Tritico said. A more drastic takeover was announced in a coolly worded letter from then-TEA commissioner Robert Scott in 2008 firing the superintendent and board and replacing them with a board of three state-appointed managers. "In the intervening years, progress has been sporadic and regression has been frequent," Scott wrote. "School governance is unstable in North Forest ISD and has been so for quite some time."
The agency took that step just after the board fired the previous superintendent, James Simpson, for allegedly attempting to investigate board members and administrators, according to the TEA report. He was given a $233,000 buyout, but then the board repeatedly tried to rehire him, a decision Scott mentioned in his letter firing the board as a symptom of what was wrong with North Forest.
The district's financial hijinks hit a new low when the state found that officials had used bond money to cover shortfalls in payrolls. The school district's bonds were downgraded to junk status, district accounts were negative, North Forest couldn't get approved for any loans to bridge the gap in funds, and district accounts were constantly in the red. In 2008, Ruth Watson, the head of special education, was found to have awarded federal grants to her own family, a development that led to more scrutiny by the state. Even the state-appointed managers couldn't get a handle on things.
George McShan, one of those state-appointed managers, said he thought North Forest board members and administrators were so focused on grappling for power that they lost sight of priorities. Everything McShan and the other managers tried to do was met with obstinacy from North Forest officials, he said.
Adding to the difficulties, the managers were dealing with a chronically underfunded school district, McShan said. The school finance reforms in the 1980s and 1990s still left North Forest short on funding, Thompson said. Enrollment dropped from about 13,000 students in 2000 to around 8,000, when the board of managers took over. The numbers continued to slip as parents chose to put their children in area charter schools, meaning there was even less state funding. The district couldn't offer competitive salaries. Teachers received almost no extra training, and there was no money for campus repairs, McShan said.
By state law, the board of managers could be in charge for only two years. When it turned the district back over to the community board, the problems remained. "We wanted to do new things and they wanted to do things the way it had always been done, and we could never make the transition," McShan said.
The disorder in North Forest was making it easy to build a case for closure. The state emphasized the district's low test scores, though Robert Wimpelberg, the dean of education at the University of Houston, noted that test scores are a difficult barometer to use in measuring student achievement because, he said, the tests are driven as much by politics as by a real desire to assess education quality. To really understand the educational issues in a troubled district like North Forest, you need to look past the data, Wimpelberg said. "We use data as a hammer. We use data to prove something when we should be using it as a flashlight," he said.
TEA warnings came to a head in 2011 when North Forest officials were told the district would lose its accreditation and close the following year, along with Premont ISD, a small district of about 500 students near Corpus Christi.
The North Forest TEA accreditation review for the 2011-12 school year noted that despite the state of the district's finances, the trustees had failed to hire a chief financial officer for almost a year. District officials argued that they couldn't find a qualified replacement at the salary they could offer, but that was no excuse, according to the TEA report.
The TEA report explicitly stated that agency officials are not supposed to consider a district's entire history when reviewing that district, but that in this case doing so was relevant. The report then recounted the many missteps, failings and transgressions in North Forest since the 1980s. The report argued that HISD needed to take control because of North Forest's long and lackluster history, bluntly stating that HISD offered a better education, based on overall district test scores, graduation rates and other district-wide indicators.
Premont ISD was given one more chance after the superintendent appealed to the TEA and then made the drastic — in Texas, land of Friday Night Lights — and national-news-making move of cutting the district's football program to get the funding needed to make the TEA improvements. Having given Premont another chance, TEA gave North Forest a final reprieve in the spring of 2012.
But in December 2012, Tritico said, he realized from his interactions with TEA lawyers that state officials had already made up their minds about North Forest. "The TEA clearly decided over four years ago that they were going to close North Forest, and every decision they made moving forward was in line toward closing the district," Tritico said.
The next semester's test scores wouldn't matter. The fact that North Forest High School had come within less than a percentage point — just two students — of meeting the required improvements in the graduation rate in 2011-12 was moot. In February 2013, TEA announced that the school district would lose accreditation and close on July 1.
"The district's troubled performance history spans multiple boards and multiple superintendents. While the extended performance history is not relevant in determining the assignment of accreditation status, it is clearly relevant to rebut the notion that all of the district's problems would be solved if they just had the right superintendent and the right board," stated the final TEA report, issued last April.
When Carrol Thomas heard the agency's pronouncement that it would be impossible for the right superintendent and board to save the district, he laughed at the claim. He knew North Forest could be saved, because he'd done it himself 20 years earlier. In his work with the district, he also became convinced that it was worth saving, because the institution was the heartbeat of the community.
Every North Forest official you talk to will acknowledge the school district had problems, but North Forest proponents argue the district still had potential. Many continued to fight the takeover even after it was made official, saying that HISD had similar problems but had hid them better.
After a last-ditch attempt to stop the merger under the Voting Rights Act was killed by the Supreme Court's ruling in June that struck down the pre-clearance requirement — which had meant that the U.S. Justice Department would have to sign off on any consolidation involving a minority school district — it was over, Tritico said.
Some critics argued that even if North Forest had to be absorbed by another school district, HISD wasn't necessarily the right choice.
Pedro Noguera, a professor of sociology at New York University and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education who worked with North Forest administrators in the final attempt to turn the district around, said his research and other studies have shown that academically struggling students do not benefit from being put into larger school districts. Studies by researchers at the University of Chicago and Texas Southern University indicate the same thing.
A long-term study of Maryland schools published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis in 2002 found that even when a school district gutted an urban school, replacing the entire administrative and teaching staff and starting everything new, the social stability and climate of the school changed for the worse, while student performance didn't get any better.
After a slew of closings in Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2006, the University of Chicago looked at how the closings affected students. Just announcing a school was closing had a negative impact on student performance for the final school year, according to the report. Once students moved to a different school, academic performance didn't change either way.
To get an underperforming student up to his or her grade level, UH education dean Robert Wimpelberg said, he has found that much depends on teachers themselves. Students who start the school year already behind need extra time and attention and perhaps different approaches to the material to help them catch up. If you have many students performing at different levels, it takes a skilled educator to balance the needs of all those students, he said.
If students get teachers who, through either experience or talent, know how to pull off that balancing act, it makes all the difference in the world, Wimpelberg said. However, a bad teacher can have as much influence as a good one. "If those students who are trying to catch up get two ineffective teachers in a row, they're doomed," he said.
The TSU study said HISD looked like a better option only when you compared district numbers. When you lined North Forest schools up next to those with similar student populations in HISD, the numbers were less impressive, showing populations HISD has a history of underserving, according to the report.
Carol Mims Galloway, who represented the HISD district adjacent to North Forest, opposed taking on North Forest, saying there were already issues not being dealt with in HISD schools similar to those in North Forest. "If you haven't fixed the problems in your own district, how are you going to get it done by taking on more schools with the same problems?" she asked.
Even in 2011, when North Forest had not yet officially been annexed by HISD, Grier was certain enough of getting North Forest that he put Issa Dadoush, then general manager of facilities for HISD, to work making plans on the logistics that would be required to get North Forest schools cleaned up.
At the same time, HISD was as guilty of neglect as North Forest or any other school district working to juggle budget cuts with educational needs and the maintenance that keeps district buildings in good condition, Dadoush said. "When there is a budget reduction in any facility anywhere, the very first thing they'll attack is the maintenance budget," Dadoush said. "Before you know it, there's a tidal wave of problems and facilities in desperate need of attention." Dadoush left HISD in 2012 because he was frustrated by the lack of transparency in a system that was both time-consuming and inefficient and was tired of the cost-cutting that continually sliced deep into his department budget, he said.
Grier presented the news to the HISD board that HISD would be taking in North Forest as an unalterable fact, Galloway said. TEA officials never met with the school board, instead going directly to Grier. "They told us HISD would be getting North Forest and that was it," she said. "I'm sure they could have opposed it if they'd wanted. They've opposed anything else they've wanted to."
Those issues may have been part of the appeal for HISD in accepting North Forest, Galloway said. Grier's much vaunted Apollo 20 turnaround program hasn't been the unqualified success he'd hoped it would be three years in, Galloway said. Pouring money and focus into the funding-starved schools of North Forest should provide fast, discernible results that will give Grier something to show off in place of the program that Galloway and other critics say is turning out to be a bust, she said. "We'll probably see some changes over there just because everyone is watching," she said.
And the changes will have to be more than just academic or financial.
At a teleconference town hall held by HISD officials, a mother told how her son had been bullied last year but that her complaints were ignored by the teachers and administration. Another mother asked about safety at Forest Brook Middle School for the coming year. Last year, her nephew's lunch money and shoes were stolen repeatedly on the Forest Brook campus. Now, with her daughter starting sixth grade there, she wanted to know what HISD planned to do about safety.
Rick Fernandez, the new principal, reassured her, telling her the district had just installed a security system that would provide surveillance over the entire campus. The school would also be staffed with two HISD police officers who would be provided with all-terrain vehicles so they could move around the campus quickly. "That way they'll be able to go from putting out one fire to putting out the next," Fernandez said.
Thirteen-year-old Damond Wiggins and his brothers had warned their sister Jasmine, 12, about the fights at Forest Brook, about how quickly things could get violent at the school.
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When the pair arrived for the first day of school, the incoming seventh grader could only repeat their mantra: to keep her head down and pay attention in class.
She'd be in an even rougher environment once she got to North Forest High School, her brothers said, so she'd better get focused and learn how to stay out of trouble now. "You can get an education, or you can get in a fight. You've got to choose," Damond said.
It won't be immediately clear if the merger is what everyone, on both sides of the line, has said they want — a better education for North Forest students. The students seemed excited about the spruced-up campuses, but the real proof — test scores, campus safety and graduation rates — will take longer to surface. Now we'll have to wait and see if bigger really is better.