UH Fight Gets Nasty: Closing acclaimed Human Development Lab preschool angers parents

Spaced City

Tossing Around Dead Dogs
BARC doesn't seem to care about dead animals, either




So you're a higher-up at Houston's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care, which has experienced public relations problems for the last...um, decades...and then one of your employees comes to you in February with a concern: An exposed-bed Solid Waste Department truck that hauls from the shelter to the landfill is partially filled with corpses in clear bags.

You don't really know what the employee's problem is — the dogs are already dead, after all. So we ran out of black bags — what's the big deal? And it's not like they're being paraded around River Oaks; this is the ghet-to, after all. Who gives a shit if these people have to see Fido's stiff legs poking up in the air?

So then you see the photograph, and you're all, "Gee, thanks, bub, like I don't know dogs die every day," and then a distemper outbreak hits the facility, and now you've got dogs droppin' left and right. And then in May, a volunteer spots another truck leaving the facility, with a bunch of dogs that aren't even in bags at all, let alone clear ones. The volunteer pitches a fit, and finally some Solid Waste dudes throw a tarp over the cadavers, so at least some of the stiffs are covered.

And then an annoying reporter e-mails you, asking what the policy is for transporting dead dogs.

Like, do they need to be individually bagged? Or if they're just going to the landfill, does it really matter? Or if they die from distemper, are there health concerns from hauling their exposed corpses through a residential neighborhood? But really, you just don't give a hoot about public relations, so you don't get back to the reporter. Your job is secure. These are just animals, for heaven's sake. And this is a state that executes the mentally retarded. Yeah, you won't have to look for a new job anytime soon.

The important thing is, the administration paid a marketing company $11,000 to conduct an online survey of how Houstonians view the facility. And you're pretty sure of one thing: All those people who actually live near the shelter and see the dead-dog-trucks go by...do you really think they have Internet access?


UH Fight Gets Nasty
Closing acclaimed preschool angers parents


When last Hair Balls looked into the sudden closure of the Human Development Lab, UH's venerable and acclaimed (if ominously named) preschool, the situation was just starting to simmer.

By now the stew over on Wheeler is on full boil. A Save HDLS Web site has been created, and parents have protested on the UH campus. The university's general counsel is bedeviled with gales upon gales of open-records requests, and vicious e-mails are flying back and forth between outraged parents and the honchos of UH's College of Education, which, for the last few years, has run the Lab School. Right into the ground, many parents say...

First, parents and staff are upset about the official reasons given for the school's closure. In speaking to parents, UH Provost John Antel cited "safety concerns" and a failure to adhere to "best practices," and claimed that the school was $100,000 in the red each year for the past five years. Antel also cited a disconnect between the Lab School's constructivist educational philosophy and the behaviorism that is the teaching mode du jour in the College of Education.

Parents are vehemently disputing all but the last of those reasons. When pressed at meetings with parents, Antel refused to specify the exact nature of both the safety concerns and the best practices, and Hair Balls was furnished with a financial statement that contradicted Antel's $100,000 a year claim.

Even more outrage has greeted the way the College of Education has gone about closing the Lab School. Parents feel misled and left in the lurch.

Back in December, College of Education Dean Robert Wimpleberg and Associate Dean (and ardent behaviorist) Jacqueline Hawkins sent Lab school parents a letter basically stating that the school was staying the course and looking for ways to improve.

Despite that reassuring missive, rumors started flying mid-semester that Hawkins was concocting a plan to close the school. Those plans were made public on May 11. The school is to be shuttered on July 31, leaving parents — some with special needs children — to scramble for the last full month of the summer and the eternity to follow.

Lab School parent Dr. Liz Chiao, an HIV researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine, curses their timing. "They should have let us know in December that they were closing, because then we could have looked at other schools," she says. "Instead, we got this crazy letter that said, 'We want to bring this school up to the best standards blah-blah-blah.' Just bizarre."

Dean Wimpleberg recently sent Lab School parents an e-mail notifying them a meeting was being organized to help them find alternative schools for their children.

Chiao fired back saying that these efforts, while appreciated, were much too late. What's more, she wrote, the school demonstrated a callous disregard for both the kids and their parents. "A decision that affects this many families and children, especially those children with special needs, should not have been executed as a standard business procedure, with the consequences for families as an afterthought," wrote Chiao.

Wimpleberg had also furnished the parents with a list of alternatives the parents could pursue, which inspired a blast of sarcastic fury from Lab School parent Lori "The Wine Woman" Gray: "I must just say 'WOW!' What wonderful help you have been in our time of crisis that you created for us. It was 3 weeks ago that you told us the school would be closing and you are just now getting around to 'scheduling' a meeting with Collaboratives for Children for us...???... Are you serious when we are T-minus 8 weeks? Also, thanks for the list of 'daycare' centers we can contact. Looked similiar to the phone book."

Such vitriol over the closure is to be expected, not least because the school was so well loved. "It's a model preschool," Chiao tells Hair Balls. She adds that it was one of the few preschools in Houston in which the teachers were treated with the respect due true professionals. "That's the loss to the community," she says. "This is what preschools should look like — they shouldn't be these places where teachers are paid $8 an hour."

That respect fostered an environment all too hard to find in the world of pre-Ks, she says. "The teachers get paid, they get benefits, there's very little turnover. One of my son's teachers had been there 18 years. The teachers got a lot of continuing education, and they were just really gifted with kids. Yes, they were paid well, but it was clear that they were there because of the kids."

In the end, Chiao thinks the closure is not just an indictment of the University of Houston, but the city as a whole. "To me this is such a Houston thing," she says. "They just raze everything and build new here. There's no thought for tradition. Here's a 50-odd-year-old program, but you know what, it hasn't been meeting our needs for the past six months so let's just get rid of it. And they did it without any — ANY — conversation about alternatives."


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