Fifth-grader Bianca Cardenas sniffed the air, searching for the musty smell she'd always associated with school, as she walked into Thurgood Marshall Elementary. She inhaled the stinging aroma, a mix of fresh paint and cleaning supplies, while her seven-year-old sister Ceanna gaped at the gleaming mural of storybook characters splashed on the wall across from the main office. The campus, built by North Forest Independent School District in 2000, had been completely renovated since Houston Independent School District took it over 56 days earlier in a merger ordered by the Texas Education Agency.
Standing against the wall of the gymnasium, Bianca and her mother and sister watched as HISD Superintendent Terry Grier strode past them, immediately surrounded by cameras and reporters there to capture the moment. North Forest was declared legally dead on July 1, but the district's true end came on the morning of August 26 when Grier walked into the school, owning the place, a campus shined up to be the crown jewel of the North Forest acquisition.
North Forest was a long-troubled district with a litany of problems and classes filled by mostly poor, minority students. Officially, HISD never wanted North Forest but was just there to do the right thing, though opponents of the merger argue that HISD, a district with its own troubles, had everything to gain from taking over the school district.
When TEA first announced North Forest would be closed in 2011, the remarks by members of the HISD school board were polite and innocuous. After the state education agency made the final call that North Forest would be annexed by HISD in 2013, HISD trustees discussed how they might go about taking control of the small district. It seemed as if all nine of them were choosing their words carefully, making it clear they were only following state orders.
HISD officials couldn't openly go after North Forest or reject it, said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, but Grier and company were ready once they got it. "There was no correct public statement. If you don't want them, you're a racist, and if you do, you're greedy. It was the administration and the school board, though. They saw an advantage for HISD, and that advantage was economic," Fallon said.
In the final days of North Forest's existence, Michael Feinberg, creator of the Knowledge Is Power Program, also known as KIPP, proposed setting up a board composed of charter schools to run the district. There was also talk of inviting a university to help run North Forest, or perhaps splitting the school district among neighboring districts, including HISD, Humble and Aldine.
Under Feinberg's plan, the new board would take possession of North Forest and work with different charter schools to try out various educational ideas, but he never got much traction with TEA, he said. "It seemed the state had a priority in getting rid of a dysfunctional school system at all costs," Feinberg said. "The state was in Nightmare on Elm Street X, and they didn't want to see Freddy Krueger come back to life again."
TEA officials seemed to have made up their minds long before they closed the district, Feinberg said. The TEA solution was one that state officials had been locked onto since 2011 — slipping North Forest's 7,000 academically underperforming African-American and Hispanic students into the ocean of more than 200,000 students spread out over 283 campuses in HISD.
After years of struggling, North Forest was swallowed up by HISD, the largest district in the state and the seventh-largest in the nation. The formal mission is to ensure that North Forest students get a better education, presumably one that will be reflected in higher test scores, but HISD administrators will have the option of applying for exemptions for the next couple of years, TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. Low scores from North Forest won't affect HISD's academic rating with the state. Whether it succeeds or fails in turning around North Forest schools, this is a win-win for HISD. The school district is so large that 7,000 students being dropped in barely creates a ripple in overall results, Culbertson said.
TEA Commissioner Michael Williams said the merger was the best thing for the students of North Forest. This despite the fact that HISD has had its share of challenges — critics would call them scandals — in the past few years. The accusations of cheating on standardized tests, falsification of attendance rates, a contractor system allegedly riddled with corruption — including the allegation that school board member Larry Marshall, who has been embroiled in a civil lawsuit since 2010 for an alleged bribery and kickback scheme, set his friends up with contracts and accepted bribes — the uncompleted 2007 bond program that was found to be behind schedule and over budget in 2010, all contributed to a long list that doesn't get brought up in TEA documents discussing why HISD was the perfect solution to the agency's North Forest problem.