Chunks of Magnet Data MIA, HISD Parents Say

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According to documents passed out at today's Parent Visionaries Group meeting, Houston ISD's central office has increased its costs by about $9 million between the 2009-10 and the 2010-11 school years.

The leader of the HISD parents group suggested that since HISD appears to be in such dire financial straits, maybe if it's looking for some place to save money it might start by rolling things back there.

The parents met to plan their strategy on how to get their voices heard at the district's upcoming community meetings (starting January 25) about the future of the magnet program. Several expressed complete dissatisfaction with the recently released independent review done by Magnet Schools of America in either its original 78-page form or the expanded and revised 94-page version now online that grew by 16 pages.

Questions followed in rapid order around the room. The new document has been posted online, but doesn't make clear where the changes are throughout. Also, who made the changes, HISD or Magnet Schools of America? And if HISD made the changes, is it still an independent document? How do you make an assessment that scales excellence?

They said that any evaluation of the effect on students if 53 (Twain and MacGregor elementaries have been restored) magnet programs are shut down is missing, as well as any assessment of programs that are doing well.

"Where is the financial impact analysis? Where is the student impact analysis?" asked parent Peggy Sue Gay. "My goal is we get them to ditch it, literally shred it, forget it and start again."

Several parents also expressed their opposition to HISD's plans to expand its Apollo 20 program by adding 11 elementary schools to the nine middle and high schools that began expanded day programs this school year. (The elementaries: Blackshear, Davila, Frost, Grimes, Highland Heights, Isaacs, Kelso, Rinson, Scarborough, Tinsley and Walnut Bend.)

Superintendent Terry Grier said Thursday that the elementary schools in the project would not have extended hours or an extended school year like the higher level schools, but would get extra tutoring during the day and on Saturdays for those who had fallen behind.

Some of those in attendance at today's meeting pointed out that Saturday sessions are already the norm at many HISD schools and wondered what was special about the Apollo 20 version. They also questioned whether now was the right time to expand the program when there's been no assessment of how well Apollo 20 has worked so far, and given the possible cut in funds to the district of between $202 million and $348 million each year of the next biennium.

They also questioned where the saved money would be going -- would it be sent to pay for the added expenses of Apollo schools? Although Grier has repeatedly denied that any general funds were used for the present Apollo schools, the district is still trying to raise private donations to completely pay for the program. Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett said she was setting aside $7 million in general fund money just in case any was needed to cover the Apollo schools' first year.

Parents also expressed concerns that whatever they bring up at these simultaneously-conducted meetings will actually reach the ears of the administration.

Parent Amy Maldonado warned others not to be surprised when they voice their concerns and get "a somewhat dismissive response that you don't care about anybody else except your own kids."

Mary Nesbitt, head of the Parent Visionaries Group, said she still had faith in the community meetings process. "I have concerns, but those concerns aren't going to prevent us from speaking up. Our trustees will be present. I believe they will be listening. Whether they (administration) are hearing what parents are saying and the community are saying or not, they will bring back feedback (to Grier)."

Also up for discussion is a look at the district's low-enrollment schools -- not including those schools that were designed to be small. As Nesbitt carefully put it: "I think it's time for an honest conversation about how to repopulate under-enrolled schools that parents and communities have rejected."

The fear is that by changing over to a lottery system for magnet school admission, HISD will be able to place kids in empty seats, not necessarily for the students' best interests but so the district can shore up failing schools.

Grier has said repeatedly that he is trying to make the magnet system more equitable in HISD and that so-called magnets that are doing poor jobs of educating their students should no longer be able to carry that moniker, or have access to the extra funds that magnets bring.

A major source of contention is that the MSA proposal is calling for the demagnetization of some of the district's most highly respected schools such as Lamar and Bellaire high schools, saying they aren't true magnets in that their "theme" doesn't run through the whole building.

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