Update 5 p.m. March 12: A note on the HISD website, confirmed by an HISD spokeswoman says that "Proposals to reduce classroom overcrowding have been withdrawn from HISD board agenda, won't be voted on tonight." The spokeswoman says that the item was withdrawn at the request of the board president, Rhonda Skillern-Jones with the support of several board members. No date has been established for when this will be brought back for a board vote, she says.
You buy your house or sign your lease in a certain part of town after being told that by doing so your kids will go to a great neighborhood school. But then, someone decides there's too many kids at that great school and so your children can go to another school. It's not as good, not as highly rated, but there's this overcrowding issue and the state is breathing down our necks to do something right now.
After years of receiving routine waiver approval from the Texas Education Agency allowing Houston ISD to exceed the state-mandated 22-to-1 student-teacher ratio, the HISD administration announced in a sudden burst of enthusiasm that it was ready to tackle the class size problem right now. And all things considered, 1,500 waivers this year, even for the largest school district in the state, doesn't seem like a particularly good faith effort to meet the state standard.
But with the administration making its announcement well into the school year, the howls of outrage were only matched by the puzzlement of some board members.
The right now we're talking about would mean it was too late for students to reapply to other HISD schools or private schools for the 2015-16 year if they didn't like where their son or daughter was headed.
"The reason these schools are overcrowded is because these schools are exceptional," said one parent who didn't want his name used. "This action puts the responsibility of transforming schools on the backs of children and that flies in the face of reform. Reform is not to force children out of high performing schools to low performing."
Trustee Mike Lunceford has taken the lead position on this due in no small part to the fact that the highly respected West University Elementary falls in his district and plans were to move excess kids to the Rice School, which hasn't been as successful academically.
He's in favor of waiting another year to the 2016-17 school year so that any plan can be phased in and parents have more time to prepare.
The district's modified policy, distributed this week, would keep things the same for children already enrolled at the affected elementaries and also grandfather in incoming kindergarteners who expected to go to those schools.
According to the HISD website as of this morning, trustees are still expected to vote Thursday night on starting the changes for the next 2015-16 school year for all other students.
Lunceford believes that while 22-to-1 is admirable, it should be up to each school to decide how many students they can safely handle. "That's why we decentralize. Also, all the studies show 22 to 1 is no magic number."
"To say with a broad brush everyone has to be X, I have a problem with that," Lunceford says.
He's joined in his opinion Harvin Moore who says that while he too agrees a smaller class size is valued by the board and parents, that the district also has to think about what it is doing with a neighborhood. "I think we should avoid changing school zone boundaries in almost every case," says Moore who has been on the board 11 years. "If you are out of other tools and you are in an emergency situation, then all right. I don't consider this an emergency."
Trustee Paula Harris says she just wants to know if anyone can show her data that demonstrates there's a difference based on class size. "I'd like it to be able to show there's some type of academic achievement that's going to be gained by doing all this. If they can tell me where large class size affects academic achievement or if by taking one kid out they can innovate academic change. I just want them to drill down and tell me why are we doing this.
"The challenge is we do have too many class size waivers but I don't think we have to go crazy and say let's totally redo, let's redesign everybody's school assignments or go down to zero. I think that there is a way to phase in and get better results," Harris says.
A school may decide to have more students to fund ancillary teachers or a librarian or other offerings the smallest schools may not be able to offer, says Lunceford. If the school is high achieving, why are we tinkering with it, he says he wants to know.
"You should not have almost 1,300 students in an elementary school but there's are ways of working on it." What they had proposed at the community meeting at Pershing, he says, "was first come, first served."
"So last Monday you had people lining up at 4 a.m. at West U Elementary to sign-up their children into kindergarten. They had no provision for grandfathering and if you had a child in the third grade and another an incoming kindergartener then you could both go to the Rice School. Well that's no solution."
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We checked with the TEA to see what it had sent out in writing that so alarmed HISD that it adopted a plan to cut waivers in half by next year. After repeated searching, the TEA spokeswoman couldn't come up with anything other than the same emailed message the district has gotten for years: "The district's class size exception for the 2015-16 school year is granted with the expectation that the district will initiate changes that will lead to compliance with state law in the immediate future."
But HISD spokeswoman Holly Huffman says there was a follow-up phone call between HISD and TEA in which TEA made it clear that it considered the number of HISD waivers egregious and that something needed to be done.
The affected schools include:
Anderson, Ashford, Askew, Bastian, Burbank, Bush, Crockett, Daily, Emerson, Halpin ECC, Highland Heights, Kelso, Love, Lyons, Memorial, Northline, The Rice School, Roberts, Shadowbriar, Sinclair, Smith, Stevens, Tinsley, Twain, Walnut Bend, West University and Young.