HISD Puts Magnets Under the Microscope

Terry Grier stirs up a hornet's nest
Terry Grier stirs up a hornet's nest

Houston ISD may move to a lottery-only system in applications to any of its 113 magnet school programs.

"We're allowing principals to decide who gets in and who doesn't. We accuse some of our charters of skimming. Well frankly, we're doing some of the same things," Superintendent Terry Grier said at today's board workshop.

Billed as "a starting point for discussion," HISD trustees (missing were Harvin Moore and Anna Eastman) heard anecdotes and proposals for significant change floated when they met this morning.

The examples were plentiful and sufficiently breathtaking. According to Chief Academic Officer Chuck Morris, there's a school with 16 students in its magnet program that is funded at $250,000 a year, while another magnet with 504 enrolled kids gets only $70,000.

He said that at one school students have to pay $600 to get into a magnet program.

Other questions raised/possibilities-to-consider brought up by Grier and Morris:

-- Schools within a school may end; why not open up the whole school to the benefits of the magnet within?(This would not affect International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement programs)

-- Schools that have been receiving thousands of dollars for years may see that funding cut off if their programs or the number of students they attract are found wanting. Why should a failing school continue as a magnet program?

-- Some schools have set themselves up as magnets when they don't have the space to take in any non-zoned students.

-- Why hasn't it required board approval before a school can declare itself a magnet?

Terry Grier takes on magnet programs

Both Morris and Grier stressed repeatedly that what they are undertaking isn't about choice, but examining a system that has become, they believe, inequitable and difficult to justify in its present form.

It was clear from some of the set faces in the audience and a few comments afterwards that not everyone is buying that explanation and instead saw today as an opening salvo in a war against school choice in HISD.

 

Attempting to change the magnet system -- previous Superintendent Abe Saavedra was totally unsuccessful -- puts the administration and trustees up against a set of satisfied parents who are commonly vocal and united against any disruption of what they see as something that keeps them in the district.

Trustees Michael Lunceford and Manuel Rodriguez questioned the use of words such as "effective" and "quality" in the proposal to review how schools were doing -- calling them subjective and undefined terms.

Rodriguez and trustee Larry Marchall expressed their displeasure with the 45-minute presentation the trustees were given the day before by representatives of Magnet Schools of America, who'll be conducting the school-by-school analysis, saying it was an issue that needed more time and study by the board.

Lunceford also objected to the plan calling for public information meetings -- four nights and two days in one week in October (October 11-15) -- saying he thought more discussion was called for particularly in his district.

School site visits are planned for October 25-29, a preliminary report by December 1 and a final plan sometime in December. Parents would apply by January and get their notifications in late March as to where their children had been accepted.

In what sounded like a reprimand of critics, Grier said, "There's a lot of fear we're going to dismantle good magnets. We're not. A lot of people are working to create uncertainty rather than coming to a resolution of this."

And the irrepressible Marshall? "This is kind of like the first shot over the bow and this board better get ready," he told his fellow trustees, adding: "Somewhere down the line open enrollment has to be revisited."

That ought to calm things down.


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