Ivy Levingston was flying high May 18. Returning from an educators' conference in Kansas City, the Houston Independent School District principal was buoyed by that kind of post-seminar confidence in which all things are possible.
Just after touchdown on that Thursday, her pager went off. It was a 911 call from the district. Her assistant said her school, Westbury High, had been declared unsafe, its students ushered out, its doors closed tight. She'd been shut down.
When Levingston had left for the conference, everything was fine. The school year was winding down, and much-awaited renovations were under way in the oldest wing of the building, built 40 years ago. Now experts were saying that the three-story, 75-classroom Gasmer wing was so dangerous that students couldn't be allowed back in to retrieve the contents of their lockers.
Like the homeowner who remodels a room and rips off one board too many to find a thriving nest of termites, renovation crews had pulled up some flooring to find a suspect concrete slab underneath. Core sample tests at two labs determined that the second and third floors failed their load-bearing requirements. Whether they ever were up to code or weakened over time or whether the code just got too tough, that's an enigma covered in the dusty patina of time. In any event, the concrete that was supposed to test out at 3,000 pounds per square inch had made it up to only a thin and stretchy 1,400 to 2,000 psi.
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"Once the test results came in, the decision was easy," says Richard Lindsay, HISD's senior project executive. By five-thirty that evening they knew they weren't going to let anyone back in.
(In the weeks following, the district tested its other schools built from 1956 to 1965, Lindsay says. None of them had Westbury's structural problems. There's surplus bond money to cover the increased costs of Westbury's makeover, he says.)
At seven-thirty the next morning, the school's administrators met with Superintendent Kaye Stripling to stare at the building. Many would rightfully say that this was the perfect example of HISD at its best: getting the kids to safety, keeping them safe, working through the night on plans that would enable them to negotiate the last week of school and finals with nary a misstep.
But many also would label this an equally perfect example of HISD at its worst: neglecting a school, thereby creating a crisis that never had to happen. And all this the result of in-district politics that passed over Westbury while the needs of more prestigious schools were handled much more quickly.
Others, more moderate, disinclined to protest but a bit uncomfortable with the downward drift of the Westbury facility over the years, saw a gift in the near collapse.
Instead of patchwork, they were going to get a new school -- well, at least a big chunk of one.
With its reputation as the largest school district in the galaxy, Houston ISD has a lot of sibling rivalry. Several Westbury parents and alums are clearly envious of the reputation and perceived higher status held by Lamar and even more so by Bellaire High, Westbury's neighbor three miles down the road. Lamar and Bellaire suffer from overcrowding, while Westbury's size has declined. Last year 2,008 students were enrolled; this year 1,750 are expected.
When first built in the early '60s, the Westbury subdivision was the next step outward from Meyerland. Westbury High School's student body reflected its neighborhood of mostly white, middle-class, blue-collar people.
Today, Westbury High is more than 80 percent minority. Critics, the devoted supporters of the school who don't think it is getting its due, say it doesn't represent its (white) surrounding neighborhood anymore. But District Superintendent Richard Lawrence says Westbury High represents its neighborhood, one that takes in Westbury -- yes -- but also Maplewood North and South, and Glenshire. In fact, it covers all of the very diverse area bounded by South Main, Gessner, Braeswood and South Post Oak. This is an area increasingly filled with children in apartment complexes, he says.
In any event, as Westbury High has changed from predominantly white to predominantly minority, its fortunes have changed. Basic maintenance hasn't kept up. One person who toured it four years ago says half the female restrooms weren't in operation and there was rotting garbage stuffed atop the third floor. Air conditioning was out for three days in a row during high temperatures, but no classes were canceled. The 5A school had "potholes" in its outfield.
"There's no toilet paper, no paper towels. The bathrooms are dirty," says Rita Woodard, former PTO president at Westbury and the dean of volunteers at the school. "When we'd have PTO meetings," she says, "we'd always go to maintenance and say, 'Please see that the restrooms are clean.' "
Woodard hurries to say other schools deal with the same issues. But then she says, almost wistfully, that she has visited Alief and Fort Bend schools and that "They're always so clean. They're not dirty. They're kept up."
Aggravating the sense of unease has been the movement of Westbury students to Bellaire and Lamar, either through transfers or home sales. Parent Jeff Tucker tells of a Westbury couple who rented a Bellaire apartment for four years so their child could go to school there, leasing out their Westbury home in the meantime, and then moving back home after graduation in June. It's a flight not only of whites but of all sorts of brains and talent in a search for what is perceived to be a better public school. It's not only the students, parents say. It's teachers, too, many of whom left for the new Westside High School.
Several parents say adults who were involved with every facet of their children's education were increasingly replaced by parents who didn't immerse themselves in school efforts. District officials and parents both assert that in many ways, the difference between Westbury and Bellaire lies in the boosters, the adults who support a school, who raise its extra money, who finance its playing fields and computers and field trips -- the people who keep its community reputation alive and well. At Westbury the saying goes: "Why is Bellaire proclaimed the No. 1 high school baseball team in the country? Because its boosters said it was."
Rita Woodard, who was an aide to Eleanor Tinsley on City Council, started volunteering at Westbury in 1989 when she had a granddaughter there. She believes replacing the unsafe wing will be good for the school, which she agrees has been on the decline. "I think it's just been one of those things that happen. The schools are not maintained like they should be. Things don't get repaired."
Parents also place some of the blame on the school principals. Dr. Shirley Johnson was, by all accounts, a good principal who was innovative and in control. She worked the hallways in tennis shoes, was anywhere and everywhere. But she was sometimes at odds with the administration, and some teachers found her to be meddling, parents say.
Johnson was followed by Elodia Hough, who wasn't up to handling the many needs of a school in transition, several volunteers say. Then came Ivy Levingston, straight from elementary school. Her first contribution was a standard dress code. There would be order in the halls. This has led to a common complaint that she is more concerned about discipline than academics.
And Levingston perhaps hasn't adjusted to older students. One volunteer pointed to the principal's insistence on calling the portable buildings "learning cottages," a sophomoric term that probably hasn't gone over too well with high schoolers.
Still, Woodard calls Levingston a knowledgeable person trying to do a good job in a school that's hard to manage. But Woodard and others also say Levingston prefers to forge ahead on her own, without help or input from the outside community.
Jeff Tucker, a printing and advertising business operator, says there's no comparison between Bellaire and Westbury academically or in sports. He has a unique perspective, having a stepdaughter who played on the Bellaire softball team that went to state and a son at Westbury because that's where Tucker's ex-wife lives. He's also been active in raising donations and getting sports equipment for several HISD schools. Westbury, he says, just doesn't have Bellaire's ties to the business community.
And its sports program is faltering. After last fall's first grading period, 17 kids dropped off the football team, Tucker says, and by the end of the season, there was no JV team because so many kids had to be pulled up to varsity. Other parents tell similar stories: a 150-member band down to 55 students in four years, a decimated drill team. The baseball team, which made it to the playoffs one season, did next to nothing the following year, losing most of its players.
"In a perfect world or a Bellaire High School, coaches are given updates every week on their players," Tucker says. "You can argue is it right or is it wrong. It's right 'cause it helps the kids."
He says the football and track teams are still good, but the academics have slid, and it's tough to attract kids.
"Westbury is the redheaded stepchild. They've received nothing for the longest time," Tucker says.
Another parent is equally harsh: "Westbury's in a death spiral from the facilities to the programs to the leadership. Once you start in a declining situation, the next negative event feeds that decline at a faster pace. If you're going to just patch Westbury together, then it seems you really are just providing an overflow for the underperformers."
Several dingy apartment complexes that face the school on one side haven't helped. For years parents tried to get HISD to buy the low-rent units and demolish them for more campus space. They had absolutely no luck until August, when the school board voted to buy one of the complexes.
As one Westbury parent put it: "Bottom line, there are more kids in our neighborhood that attend the two 'good' schools than attend their neighborhood school. Is this what HISD intended?"
The new school wing, with all its promise, is another source of dissension. Some parents complain they haven't been included in the planning. Principal Levingston says everyone receives regular updates through community meetings and newsletters.
But that's just telling them what's been done; that's not including their ideas, critics say. Woodard notes that an architect has been hired for $600,000 to draw up plans. She and others in the group Friends of Westbury High School want a meeting.
"I don't think we have a right to demand anything, but we certainly have the right to make suggestions," Woodard says.
Lindsay and Levingston talk about bringing in "professional academicians" to help them understand what programs are needed, and plan to poll students about preferences.
The school's transformation is not being accomplished without considerable inconvenience to kids. The parking lot has disappeared, buried under the weight of 25 shiny new portable buildings to go with the ten already there. That's where the tenth-, 11th- and 12th-graders will take core English, math, social studies and science. There are also portable potties. Think about that for some special senior-year memories. (Ninth-grade classes will be at the Chimney Rock building, finished in 1991. A shuttle bus to Butler Stadium is supposed to handle the parking problem.)
Plans to quickly raze the Gasmer wing had to be scuttled because wiring for the rest of the school runs through it. Taking it apart piece by piece is a much slower process and one that has left the center courtyard covered with a mini-mountain of debris, carefully cordoned off by a shiny wire fence.
There won't be any lockers until the future 100,000-square-foot wing is occupied. So students will be carrying around books and materials throughout the day. Which should get increasingly cumbersome come winter, with its heavy coats, scarves and mittens.
Reconstruction of the school is not expected to be finished for another two years. And that's on a very tight, fast-paced schedule.
HISD officials insist there has never been a lack of interest in Westbury. The school has gotten a fair share of the district wealth, says Lawrence, and its programs are fine. "Any student can get any caliber of education that any student wants. If they apply themselves, they get an education," Lawrence maintains.
As in all things -- especially schools -- there is a natural conflict between tradition and change. Talk about closing a school or changing a mascot, and the protesters come out of the woodwork. Often these aren't students but dedicated alumni and volunteers.
In Westbury's case, everyone welcomes some change. Many see the better lighting, climate control, other improvements and the new wing as the first steps to bigger changes. Westbury High has a swim team but has never had a swimming pool. Wipe out those nasty apartment complexes and build a state-of-the-art sports facility.
But there's division over other changes. Johnny Reb, the Rebel flag and the Rebelettes have been pushed into the dustbin (although bizarrely enough, the school still goes by a Fighting Rebels moniker with a Rebel cartoon figure adorning the cafeteria wall). School colors are -- appropriate for the Rebel name -- the historic blue and gray. But when Levingston had the walls repainted in the newer Chimney Rock section, she chose green. And while she is enthused about the bright "modern" colors she picked (where the blue and gray have been retained they're a "21st century blue and gray now"), others like Woodard are aghast at them.
And Woodard is frustrated by the principal's emphasis on the "New Westbury." Woodard says she told Levingston: "Here I am trying to get 19,000 alumni to give money, and you're calling it the New Westbury. Please don't do that."
But Levingston, now in her third year, makes a lot of good points in stressing her devotion to the "new."
"There may have been a time when Westbury went to sleep. Traditions are good. I love the traditions of my alma mater, Phyllis Wheatley High. But if Phyllis Wheatley is serving the students the way we were served in 1971, then that school is not meeting the needs of its students."
But when she's asked for her specific achievements at Westbury, the air around Levingston gets pretty thin. "I hope that I have brought to every student and staff member that we have a meaningful purpose here," Levingston says. "The students are to receive the best educational opportunities possible. The teachers are directly responsible for supporting that instruction. Everyone else here supports that relationship."
Wonderful words on one hand, but a bit disappointing if you're looking for something more concrete, such as new course offerings, higher test scores or an increase in students going on to college.
It's not just change and tradition that are colliding at Westbury. It's an emphasis on academics versus discipline, optimists versus disgruntled veterans, with a tinge of racial disharmony thrown in. Everyone promises they want a better school. No one is hearing everything the other is saying. Westbury is not as good a school as Bellaire, and all the statements to the contrary won't make it so. The shame is that Westbury is not as good as it used to be, as it certainly could be and should be.
The first year that Ivy Levingston served as principal of Westbury, her daughter began her last year of high school. Well, no child wants to change schools for her senior year, so it's understandable she stayed put. Understandable, but still a bit ironic. Ivy Levingston's daughter graduated from Bellaire High.
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