George McShan, who spent two years guiding the North Forest Independent School District toward stability, is not shocked to see the state seek its closure.
Last week, Commissioner Robert Scott ordered the beleaguered school district be shuttered by July 2012 after years of academic failure, financial mismanagement and the ratcheting up of state sanctions. The Houston Independent School District has indicated it will step in and take over North Forest if appeals fail.
Few outsiders have had a better view of the inner workings of North Forest than McShan, a longtime school trustee from the Valley whom the state appointed to lead a three-member board of managers when both the superintendent and school board were removed from North Forest under progressive state sanctions.
State law limited McShan's term to two years, and in the eight months since a new school board was elected, McShan says much of the progress made by outside intervention has unraveled, up to and including the ousting of Superintendent Adrain Johnson, who is currently on leave from the district.
"When I left, no one called me, no one contacted me. I offered to help with the transition, and no one communicated with me," McShan said. "It was like they decided to start all over again, and all those things that were put in place seemed to be undone. The focus just wasn't on educating students."
The North Forest school district, contacted by phone and e-mail, did not offer a response to McShan's comments. Interim Superintendent Edna Forte, however, has posted a statement on the school district's Web site.
"The North Forest Independent School District is in the process of appealing its 2011-2012 accreditation status," Forte wrote. "While we understand that the TEA must do what it thinks is best, the Board of Trustees and I, as Acting Superintendent, are confident that strategic plans already underway will result in what we all want -- an academically and financially stable district that will provide the best possible education for our students."
News reports have referred to North Forest as a historically black district, and possibly the largest historically black district in the state to ever close. That's not technically true, however, if the definition of historically black is a district that survived segregation. North Forest is predominantly African-American, but it was formed out of the former Northeast Houston Independent School District, which was a predominantly Anglo school district through much of the '70s.
Asked where the focus in North Forest was during the intervening months since he left, McShan said the focus was anywhere but the students. Trustees got caught up in the politics of just about everything but the academic performance of the students, McShan said.
That showed in state accountability ratings. According to the letter Commissioner Robert Scott sent on July 8, the district was rated Academically Unacceptable for a third year and North Forest High School Academically Unacceptable for a sixth year, a feat almost unmatched by any other high school in the state.
Some, like Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston), have blamed the Texas Education Agency for not doing enough, or more, to turn around North Forest. Spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said the agency had seen some gains in North Forest, and a stabilizing influence from the board managers, but simply not enough progress.
"We're to the point now where we've tried every option that we have. We've put millions of dollars in campus turnaround funds into the district. We've had conservators and monitors and a board of managers," Ratcliffe said. "Sanctions and interventions work more often than not. We saw some progress, just not enough."
McShan pointed to a number of advancements during his two years on the board: standardizing financial processes; replacing the high school principal; creating a ninth-grade campus; and trying to address the stubborn dropout rate issue. A third year, McShan said, would have cemented the progress in the district.
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Asked whether North Forest could have been saved, McShan said North Forest might have been saved but not with the current governance and culture.
"When you look at all the things that have transpired... If you're not willing to change for the greater good of what's best for students, I don't know if it's going to make any difference," said McShan of keeping the district open. "It's unfortunate what happened, but that's what happens when you look at where the district was going. It wasn't effective in making that transition, and that's just unfortunate."