A call comes in over the walkie-talkies "There are students who can't get into the school. The gates are locked." School receptionist Cherlyn Pinkney immediately goes into action, calling out for help and soon the late-arriving students and their cars are inside the black fencing.
The gates at Sterling High School are there, it is explained, not to lock in the kids, but to keep trouble makers and the bad guys out. That this occasionally backfires is part and parcel of the days at this school in south Houston. Principal E. Dale Mitchell says three nearby apartment complexes give him a run for his money, but then it seems he has a lot on his plate.
The third principal in just five years, Mitchell's trying desperately to make sure the graduating class of 2013 has as many kids in it as possible, setting aside extra class sessions, computer time so they can meet their graduation requirements. Earlier dire warnings got a big yawn from several members of the senior class.
Then there's the inescapable fact that Sterling, set in an oddly rural part of the city of Houston and badly in need of a redo, has about 900 students. Another 1,100 students who are zoned to Sterling instead opt to go to other schools in the school-choice district. In December, a 14-year-old student brought a loaded handgun to school saying that he needed it to protect himself from neighborhood gang members. The magnet students who transfer in for either the aviation program or the Futures Academy do not represent an impressive number — between 61-66 total was the principal's estimate. Still, the Washington Post recently placed Sterling among the top 9 percent of public schools in the country, based on its Advanced Placement course offerings.
At 900, even though it's the largest school in the south part of the district, Sterling fails to meet the desired Houston Independent School District threshold of 1,000 students at a high school and as a result, Superintendent Terry Grier's administration proposed a merger with nearby Jones High School (a longtime troubled school with an even greater decline in enrollment now tracking at fewer than 475 students) beginning in fall 2013. Once Sterling's new school is built, all the kids — including those from Jones — could move back over.
Talk about your non-starters. Concerned parents, the NAACP, the school's PTO president will all tell you this plan is not only unworkable but dangerous, that Sterling and Jones kids don't mix well. Even the principal, doing his best stiff-upper-lip routine, clearly does not see this as optimal.
"Basically my concern is the security of the children. They are very territorial. This is my neighborhood. Those kids, that is their mentality," said Linda Turner, the Sterling PTO president.
Larry McKinzie, a former teacher in HSID, who has continued to interest himself in student affairs, said no one in the community wants the merger. He, like others, has other issues with the school, wants it to be better, but what is absolutely clear that whatever problems Sterling has — they want to keep it as Sterling.
Senior Lonnie Hilson won't be around next year for the temporary move to Jones but he's concerned and talking to anyone who'll listen. He has his own very active list of complaints about Sterling (sanitation, some teachers he says who aren't engaged, too many courses taken by computer, vice principals who won't listen to him), but still wants to see it remain on its present campus.
In fact, he regrets having gone on FOX News 26 in support of the bond election, because he never thought there would be a consolidation as a result. "Jones is a rival school. It raises big safety and security concerns," he said.
The local branch of the NAACP has raised its voice. "You have children, gangs, neighborhoods that sometimes don't jell," said Dr. Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, education chair of NAACP-Houston branch.
Actually, HISD did listen. At a March 7 school board meeting when the merger was to be voted on, (along with the Ryan and Cullen middle school consolidation which was approved) trustee Larry Marshall had the measure held. Sterling is not in his district but trustee Paula Harris had a prior engagement and missed the meeting as did Grier — which did not go uncommented upon by the audience.
"We tapped on the brakes," says HISD chief spokesman Jason Spencer. The district is taking the time to gather more data, he says.
All of which is encouraging but not completely reassuring to the Sterling community. Every person talked with mentioned the $1.89 billion bond election in 2012 saying they were assured that something would finally be done for Sterling — things that hadn't been done after the 1998 and 2007 bond elections.
"There was a bond in 1998, there was a bond in 2007 which we never received. So after they did the 2012 bond, we don't trust HISD anymore. Because we haven't received what they already promised in the beginning," Turner said.
They say the district was all making nice with them until after the election and that there were going to be two new schools — one for Jones and one for Sterling — not just one.
"When they first came out they told us we were getting a new school. We asked them where we going to put our kids," Turner said. "The area high school officer told us they were going to put T-buildings on the property." It was only later, after the bond passed, that the administration started talking about merging Sterling and Jones, she says.
Spencer makes it clear the 2012 bond issue never said anything about Jones getting a new school. But with distrust comes communication breakdowns. And critics hold a photo of a poster promising a new school for Jones; no one ever told them to take it down.
Dale Mitchell is a compact bundle of energy, the type of principal who's tough to catch up to because he's often out of his office, seeing to things around the school. But, he says, he'll hang around at school till midnight to meet with a parent. Coming from a small district, he came in with a lot of budget experience that's helped him a lot at Sterling.
He's also very white in a school that's very not.
He was a principal at Hutto Middle School in Round Rock and a rather acclaimed one at that, receiving Region 13 Principal of the Year honors for the 2008-2009 school year which was also his first year at the school.
Arriving in January of 2012 (never a good sign when you have a new principal halfway through the year), Mitchell knew going in that more than a couple members of the Sterling community didn't want him there because of his complexion; feeling they hadn't been listened to when they told HISD administrators they needed a black principal. He knew there had been turnover problems.
"I inherited a deficit in the budget," he says. The previous principal had projected a larger enrollment than happened. HISD cut him a break and let him keep the six extra teachers he wasn't able to fund through the end of the year.
Mitchell says he wanted to get back to the Houston area (he'd previously been with the Stafford Municipal School District for three years) and was intrigued by the "history" of Sterling, particularly its magnet aviation program. He doesn't mention that part of that history includes being labeled "a dropout factory" in 2007, the same year of that bond election that never delivered what Sterling expected.
"From my conversation with parents there's a feeling that the south in general has been ignored for a long time," Mitchell said. "There is a trust factor," said Mitchell, pointing out that Grier wasn't here in 2007, but the longstanding grievance remains.
"The district needs to deliver on some promises or stop making them," Mitchell said.
At first glance, Hutto and Sterling couldn't be more disparate. One is 75 percent white, the other tending toward 75 percent African-American and 25 percent Hispanic. But both schools had the same size student population and both had about the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students at about 78 percent, Mitchell said.
This fall stumbled to a start when Houston Community College didn't show up to teach a communications applications class that students have to have to graduate. After a few weeks of waiting, students were directed on online courses through the Grad Lab program and contrary to rumor, they did not have to pay for the course.
"We had 35 students who needed it for original credit and 47 students who needed it for credit recovery. We set it up in the grad Lab where they work at their own pace and there's a certified teacher who's a teacher of record for them to go to with questions," Mitchell said.
Ambitious, creative and phenomenally unsuccessful.
"We had about a 70 percent failure rate online," Mitchell said. "Not because of the academic progress but because of failure to complete the class — not showing up, not doing the work online. We were finding students wouldn't work on it for three or four weeks at a time, thinking they could wait till the last minute to catch up and then didn't receive credit for it.
So he Plan B'd it, and assigned a speech teacher to teach nothing but communications applications, installing seven sections of the class for the spring semester.
Added to that was the attendance appeal process that in the cases of transfer students, involved contacting their former schools to see if they would remove the asterisks collected by too many absences.
Teacher turnover was 13 percent last year with four retirements and three transfers (a couple of which are coming back, Mitchell said) and this year the departures stands at 8 percent. Two teachers resigned unexpectedly, one in February, the other after Spring Break and long term subs have been in place while job interviews continue.
When first contacted in early April, Mitchell said "138 students [out of a senior class of 212] are currently not on track to graduate." More recently he said he thought he'd whittled that number down to about 20. Again, the biggest problem was attendance.
He recites a litany of interventions in which the attendance message was delivered: at assemblies in August, January and March. Letters were sent home in February after individual meetings with each senior and there was a senior parent meeting in April. Extra courses were offered as well as eight additional assigned --as in mandatory -- credit recovery sessions on Saturdays.
"And students chose not to go," Mitchell said. Some seniors have so many credits to make up, "there's literally not enough time in the day on a Saturday to do it."
Turner, who most definitely does not think all is well in all the Sterling classrooms and is far from delighted with long-term subs, defends Mitchell about the students who aren't going to graduate.
"We cannot blame him for that because he's a new principal. Sterling has not had the same principal stay for over a year and a half. It changes every year. This one, he's trying to do what he can. He's not from here. Some are just not going to graduate because of what they did. They didn't go to class and then he offered them the makeup work and they didn't come."
Lonnie Hilson thinks some of Sterling's teachers have already opted out, only going through the motions of teaching their classes. He doesn't think a computer course teaches students much of anything at all, particularly in the more technical classes like the pre-cal one he's taking.
It would be easy to dismiss him as a student prone to stirring up trouble, except for the fact that he is so logical, so committed to his school in trying to make it better. And also, who better to know than a student when teachers start checking out? Pop-in visits by principals rarely uncover the truth.
Closing or merging schools are among the most unpopular things a school board can do. Whether the school is great, mediocre or somewhere in between absolutely doesn't matter to the parents, community and students calling for it not to disappear. People are fighting for what they consider an extension of themselves.
"The thing is, when you start closing community schools, you're essentially closing down the community to some point," Evans-Shabazz said.
Mitchell stressed that he's worked hours with the principal of Jones over the merger and pledges that they'll be fine should the transfer occur. But he thinks there's a good chance they won't make the move.
"The probability is that we'll stay here. We have some property behind us and we'll build behind us. That hasn't been decided; that's not my decision to make," Mitchell said. "I'm hopefully optimistic that they're listening to what we have to say. "
He's already met with leaders of the junior class, getting projects going, "getting it all together" for the next year. He gestures at charts covering his wall, considering whether a trimester system would give them a better chance to graduate more kids on time, with the added hours it would give them. He thinks they can get to 1,000 kids by next year and in two years, a new clean campus with professional support for all his teachers.
About 40 percent of Sterling grads will go to work upon graduation, the rest to college or the military, Mitchell said.
"Historically, going back almost 50 years, a large number of people from this community have graduated from high school and have not gone on to college. For a large number of people this is their college experience," Mitchell said.
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"They love homecoming. It's like Mardi Gras for a week long. So the alumni come back. We'll have a huge festival. So that's why it's important. There's that connection. That's my understanding why they're so passionate about their school. And why they want things to be great. People need to respect that."
Anyone who's ever gone to an HISD community meeting at a school and then attended the school board meeting where a final report about that get-together is presented, can attest to a certain — in some cases overwhelming — amount of disconnect. Critics say the Sterling meeting they had didn't involve any listening; it was a done-deal task clicked off a checklist by district administrators.
Whoever erected it, there's a rather sizable wall of distrust between HISD and the Sterling community. Even its principal gives witness to that. HISD promises the Sterling-Jones merger isn't a done deal and that it is trying to do what's best. The question is going to be, of course, what the district's final report will say. And all the promises they have to keep.