A Split Decision

Last week, Superintendent Kaye Stripling got word to Jones High School Principal Lawrence Allen that he could keep his job, but she was pulling the prestigious magnet Vanguard program for gifted and talented students away from him and putting it on another campus.

Her decision was greeted with cautious optimism by Vanguard parents and howls of protest from a Jones community leader, who threatened that Stripling would be ousted from her job and that the community would organize to stop any bond election dead in its tracks. Allen did not return phone calls from the Houston Press.

Stripling was philosophical about the hit she knew was coming.

"I'm going to take flak no matter what I do, but the worst thing I can do is to do nothing," she said. "I just decided to do what was best for the kids."

In Stripling's mind, that meant moving the Houston Independent School District's sole high school Vanguard program to the former Carnegie Elementary on Scott Street. She says the school is in good shape; it's closing only because HISD is creating a new K-8 program at nearby Woodson Middle School. During the summer, science lab equipment will be brought in and bathrooms reconfigured for the older students. Costs will be minimal, she said.

The action came three months after a chaotic January at Jones (see "The Great Divide," by Margaret Downing, March 7), when Allen was removed as principal and then reinstated days later. The school had divided between the Vanguard program — parents of those students thought Allen was inept and possibly corrupt — and the regular, or comprehensive, side and the local community, which saw Allen as a shining role model for African-American youth and as someone who was keeping their kids in school.

A district task force was sent in to study the school, which had been beset by problems. Those included raw sewage backing up, class-scheduling conflicts, attendance record mistakes and missing textbooks. Critics said Allen was unable to fix the problems, and they complained of hostility from some teachers who didn't like the Vanguard program, considering it elitist.

Last Friday, Deputy Superintendent Margaret Stroud, working on behalf of Stripling, offered James Simpson the principal position at the new school. He has been principal of the Vanguard program at Jones and is popular among parents and students. Simpson accepted the new position and plans to work through the summer to prepare for the fall opening. He believes he can rebuild the program, which has suffered declining enrollment.

Vanguard parents, who'd been campaigning for a stand-alone school on another site, were happy about the plans but had questions. "I think that it has a lot of potential," said Susan Levy. She wanted to know whether Carnegie is a temporary or permanent site and what will happen with extracurriculars next year, "but my bottom line is, this is what needs to happen."

"It's not going to happen," vowed Craig Beverly, the newly self-appointed leader of Jones alumni, himself a 1979 graduate of the Vanguard program. Beverly said he was going to sue the district to keep HISD from relocating the program. He said he is gathering a group of people to make sure any bond election is unsuccessful. He said everything that happened was the result of complaints from just a few of the Vanguard parents.

"You can appease 25 parents and piss off a whole community if you want to, but there are consequences," Beverly said.

"I've already talked to the folks at [the League of United Latin American Citizens]. They want Stripling out. They want a Hispanic in. I'd rather have a Hispanic in that's going to work with me than Stripling, who's going to bow down to the pressure of the Anti-Defamation League."

Beverly said the last time he met with Stripling, she said that the ADL had called her. "There are some Jewish parents and faculty members who've gone to the Anti-Defamation League and tried to make this a religious thing because Lawrence Allen is a member of the Nation of Islam." He said what happened at Jones was not a religious dispute.

But something was clearly going wrong at Jones, and things did not get better after Allen's return, even though Simpson was finally given control of his own budget at that time. Some parents said they couldn't continue to send their children there, as charges and countercharges flew.

"We've seen a decline in the enrollment in our high school Vanguard program, and we have numbers at our elementary and middle schools that say we should really have a very robust program, and we don't," Stripling said. "And quite frankly, historically, there have been issues with this Vanguard program since day one almost."

Stripling pointed out that the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the DeBakey High School for Health Professions are stand-alone rather than school-within-a-school programs. "I just think it's time we created a Vanguard high school. I think the time came long ago.

"I think it'll allow Jones to develop as a comprehensive high school on its own merits, which I think it can and should do."

Stripling said Allen deserves a chance to see if he can make it as Jones principal with better support from the district. The problems identified by the task force will be placed in Allen's hands for resolution. "We're going to provide some procedures and also some support to help in any way we can to get Jones right for the kids of the Jones community," Stripling said.

Primary focus will be on improving the poor conditions of the campus facilities, as well as determining a program to put in at Jones in the wake of the departure of Vanguard, Stripling said. "It'll be something like a magnet program, but I don't want to call it a magnet program. Some kind of program that the kids at Jones would be interested in participating in."

She also said there would be continued emphasis on academics at Jones, where standardized test scores have been on the rise for the past few years on the comprehensive side of the school.

Students who remain at Jones will have a better chance of making the top 10 percent of their class, an important number that guarantees them admission to Texas public universities. Vanguard students had tended to take up most of the top spots with the extra weight given to the more difficult courses.

"Jones will have its own ranking, and for the first time we'll maybe have some Jones kids able to enter the University of Texas and Texas A&M," Stripling said.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing