Calendars mean dates and dates mean tests and tests mean enough time to sit and stress about the questions but never enough to actually finish. Like a few weeks ago, as Dequerion, a 13 year old at Forest Brook Middle School in northeast Houston with almond-shaped eyes and a low, sleepy voice, took one of the many exams he’ll be required to finish this school year. He is sitting there, staring at the question, working it through his mind, and suddenly his computer just logs him out. He about melted into the floor.
So now, with more exams on the horizon, Dequerion just sticks his head in the sand.
“It makes me worry like, ‘Oh man, this date is almost coming up.’ They make me scared so I try not to look at them,” he explained on a Wednesday in early October, just two and half weeks into what could be a long, stressful semester for Dequerion and everyone at Forest Brook.
The middle school is one of a dozen schools in the Houston Independent School District playing catch-up because of Hurricane Harvey. Every school in the district postponed the beginning of the year when the storm struck Texas days before the August 28 start date. The majority began September 11, but because of damage from floodwater, five were delayed a week longer and seven didn’t begin until after September 18. The students at Forest Brook returned to campus on September 25, nearly a month from the original start date.
That’s a month of settling in new students, establishing rules and procedures and, perhaps most importantly, instruction. The Texas Education Agency waived nine days for the district, but to meet the state’s minutes requirement, HISD got creative – five schools would add 25 minutes to each day and seven, including Forest Brook, would add 55 minutes to make up the lost time.
In the aggregate, the additional hour fulfills the state standard, but an hour of school disappears faster than water through your fingers. At Forest Brook, 55 minutes is the same as five extra minutes per class. It’s a few spare moments to offset a month.
As much as Dequerion may dread the tests, he and his school have little time to waste.
“They said it’s going to be hard because we’ve got tests coming up and they’ve got to teach us,” said Jade Smith, an eighth grader and classmate of Dequerion. “We don’t have time to be playing.”
Weeks before Forest Brook students started reporting to school, Jade sat stuck at home. Floodwaters crept within a few feet of her front door, but beyond three days without power, her family made it out OK. Now she just felt bored. Jade is “Starbucks energetic,” as one of her teachers described her, with a broad smile and braids that fall well below her shoulders. At Forest Brook, she can be heard talking from the other side of the hallway. She spent her summer outside of Houston and had been itching to return to school and see her friends.
She missed Forest Brook so much that she woke up early each morning to watch her sister, Jace, leave for North Forest High School, one of the largest secondary schools in District II, which spreads north from within the 610 Loop into northeast Houston and then wraps west all the way to Oak Forest. As Jace walked to school, the sisters chatted right until she entered North Forest.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know water could do that much damage,’” she said.
It painted a similar picture to the scene Rick Fernandez saw when he first visited Forest Brook for the first time four years ago, the last instance an outside force tested the resolve of the school. HISD had just tapped Fernandez to run Forest Brook as the district absorbed the North Forest Independent School District. North Forest struggled for decades with low test scores and allegations of financial mismanagement before the TEA tagged it for closure in 2011. Two years later, HISD absorbed North Forest’s 7,000 mostly black and Hispanic students, shipping some to new schools while bringing in entirely new staffs at others.
Forest Brook was the ladder. On that first visit, Fernandez discovered a school in disrepair. Windows were broken, bathrooms didn’t work and fire extinguishers had been sprayed in the hallways. The academics weren’t much better. About 75 to 80 percent of the students did not read at grade level, Fernandez said.
“We knew we had a lot of work ahead of us,” said Fernandez, now the assistant superintendent of secondary schools with the Tomball Independent School District.
Fernandez picked Gentry as his first hire and together they started implementing the small, but substantial changes to improve the school. Rampant tardiness plagued Forest Brook with about 30 to 40 percent of the students showing up late every day. Fernandez and Gentry started penalizing tardies with lunch detentions as “no kids wants to give up lunch because that’s social time,” Gentry said. The pair dissected how students traveled during passing periods. Before the school year, the staff scouted out the areas most likely to cause problems – large spaces or corners where kids sneak out of sight – and stationed teachers there. Forest Brook even changed the uniforms. Sixth graders wore green, seventh in white and eighth in black.
Still, the next school year, Forest Brook landed on the state’s dreaded Improvement Required List for failure to meet TEA standards. Once on, schools risk takeover by state administrators or even closure. In 2015, Fernandez left to take the principal job at North Forest High School and Gentry inherited the top position at Forest Brook. In her first year, she extended school days by an hour and added a “zero period” – a kind of mandated study hall for teachers and students. The school ran camps for students during spring break and two summer school sessions. Last year, Forest Brook added Saturday school with as many 120 kids in attendance.
Progress unfolded slowly, but morning tardies nearly disappeared, the classroom disruptions became less frequent and the test scores rose. Finally, in August of this year, Gentry learned the school had been removed from the state’s Improvement Required list.
About 10 days later, Harvey hit Houston.
Dequerion plays football and runs track, just like his older brother who does the same at North Forest. But he’s small and slight for an eighth grader, with a gentle demeanor. He didn’t want to test that at another school.
“Some of the schools around here, I really don’t want to go,” he said. “Every time you go to a new school, somebody always trying to mess with you and then you have to fight. You have to show them who you really is.”
Gentry understands Forest Brook’s role in the lives of her students. More than three quarters of the student body is considered “economically disadvantaged” and rely on the school for meals. Harvey exacerbated that. About 80 students haven’t returned to the school this year, Gentry said, because many live in the two heavily flooded neighborhoods near Forest Brook. Of the ones that showed up, many are still living in hotels or shelters. Some are riding school buses all the way from the southeast side of the city.
“A lot of parents came in with absolutely nothing except their child,” Gentry said.
At an open house at the start of the school year, Jay Andrews, an eighth grade English teacher, approached a parent about a boy who kept falling asleep during class. Normally the child performed well with Andrews, but the parent explained that since the storm, the family has been housing friends flooded out of their homes. The boy couldn’t even sleep in his own room.
The flooding hit teachers, too. Demetria Shavers, a special education teacher, has been living with a family member since her house flooded. Gentry first learned about it when she saw Shavers being rescued on the news.
Even if students were not directly hit by the flooding, they see its tentacles everywhere. Dequerion’s cousins were flooded out of their homes and many of the first-floor apartments at Jade’s grandmother’s complex were ruined. Jade spent each Saturday between Harvey and school following her grandmother to food pantries where they’d pick up supplies for neighbors.
Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the HISD trustee for District II, pointed out that the additional time actually helped some parents. With days running until 4:15 p.m., Forest Brook could provide dinner to more children as part of HISD’s commitment to give free meals to all students this school year.
The rationale behind the 55 minutes, though, stems from TEA standards. In 2016, the Texas house passed a bill that changed the required instruction per year from 180 days to 75,600 minutes. When the state asked HISD to recoup the lost time from Harvey, the district said it had few options.
“There were basically three things we could do,” explained Mark Smith, HISD’s Chief Student Support Officer, at a September 14 board meeting. “We could add to the instructional day to make up the minutes, we could take away some of the holidays built into the calendar or we could add additional days at the end of the calendar.”
HISD superintendent Richard Carranza said the district wanted to keep holiday breaks intact to retain some sense of normalcy, although avoiding angering parents counting on their holidays feels like a more probable reason. Officials also wanted to make up the missed time in the first half of the year to return to the regular schedule as quickly as possible and to accommodate high school students who typically take classes in one-semester intervals.
Plus, keeping additional time within the first semester also saves the district money. Some board members had pushed to add a half hour each day for the entire school year to ease burdens on young students (five of the seven schools adding 55 minutes are elementary schools). The board, though, voted down that proposal after Smith pointed out that because the district is paying teachers and administrators for additional time, extending days for the whole calendar year would cost HISD an additional $800,000.
“We want some semblance of stability and at some point [parents] want to know their schedule is their schedule,” said Carranza at the September 14 board meeting. “The more stability we have this year and the more time for families to be together, the better.”
Most of the concerns raised at the September 14 meeting focused on how longer days might stress the children at elementary schools. The first, and only, board member to question how the extended time could alter academics was Skillern-Jones, who ultimately voted in favor of the proposal. While officials seemed to agree that the additional time was “the best solution to an imperfect situation,” as Carranza said, even Grenita Lathan, HISD’s Chief Academic Officer, admitted “We still have some concerns from an academic standpoint.”
Gentry has those worries, but there is an air of optimism from her and her staff. As Andrews, the English teacher, observed, Forest Brook is equipped for this situation. The school has essentially been playing catch-up for the last four years.
For instance: Every six weeks, student grades are reviewed to determine areas in need and then placed in a special tutoring session after first period. HISD has also staffed the school with members of its Intervention Assistance Team to help individual students with academic or behavior issues. And about 160 students participate in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that mixes academic help with enrichment programs like photography or chess.
“The process really don’t stop,” Andrews said. “It might speed up a little bit, but you’ve got to meet those deadlines to have these kids prepared.”
But what is five minutes? Just enough to tie your shoes and hang up your bag if you ask some experts.
“Unfortunately, I know enough about schools to know there’s a lot of wasted time in class,” said Pedro Noguera, a distinguished professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
Noguera served as a consultant to North Forest ISD in its final years before HISD swallowed it. His research focuses on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions. The trends he observes in his work are not earth shattering; poor and minority kids perform worse in school than their white, wealthy counterparts.
Those same gaps will likely appear in how students respond to Harvey.
“If these were middle-class kids whose families are already providing a lot of enrichment at home, then the effect of a month’s loss would be a lot less than for the kids who are more dependent on school to provide academic support and enrichment,” Noguera said. “So 55 minutes tagged on at the end of the day, I don’t think is even close to being adequate.”
“I think that’s almost laughable,” he added.
Since the 1960s, education researchers have confirmed what should be obvious – more time spent learning results in more actual learning. A 2011 study conducted by a Harvard economist determined one of the highest predictors of academic success is when a school devotes 300 or more hours to instructional time than the conventional district.
Although, not all time is created equal. Researchers have generally distinguished between allotted time and academic time, the latter meaning time students spend working on tasks. A study of 30 high-poverty, high-achieving schools with expanded time by the National Center on Time and Learning found that one of the key components of success was the rate at which learning and working occurred in a classroom. In low-performing schools, that’s typically not the case. In California, a group of UCLA researchers found that the most inefficient schools were those with the most high-poverty students.
Additionally, Forest Brook’s loss of time follows one of the biggest hurdles for low-income kids – summer vacation. Poor students lose two months of math and reading skills every summer, according to the National Summer Learning Association, a non-profit that advocates for summer education programs. The learning loss from summer during elementary school accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading between low-income and middle-class kids by high school.
“There already is this sense that you’d lose some of the things they learned over the summer,” said Keffrelyn D. Brown, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas College of Education. “And then they’re starting later and every day that you miss school, presumably there is something less that you get with your academics.”
School always came easy to Jade. She started taking pre-Advanced Placement classes in seventh grade and even while she struggled in math, she still progressed. She’s energetic in the classroom, but never disruptive. When Andrews has her in English third period, he mostly lets “Jade be Jade,” he said, as long as she gets the work done.
This year has felt different to Jade, though. Class time is scheduled to the second.
“All my teachers, they’ve got everything planned,” Jade said. “’You’re done at this time. You’ve got to do this at that time.’”
Eighth grade English is like a high-intensity workout – all reps with no breaks. Students enter and begin seven minutes of daily reading comprehension followed by 15 to 20 mini lessons from the teachers. That’s followed by 25 minutes of practice on their own, 10 minutes of independent reading and then a five minute exit exercise.
That leaves about 13 minutes to deal with bathroom breaks, unruly students or any other possible distraction.
About two weeks into the school year, the English teachers convened in a classroom during a planning period on a Friday morning. The Astros had just beat the Red Sox in their first game of the playoffs and the staff wore jerseys to celebrate the team. The teachers looked like pre-teens at a Friday night sleepover – tired, but giddy at the end of a work week. Mostly, they said, students seemed happy just to be back in school. Classes were motivated, if not a little emotionally drained. The school started sharing circles this semester as a means to assess the students’ mental well-being. The students shocked the teachers with their openness to what was happening in their lives – from the hurricane and otherwise.
Class work, though, could still be a slog. When asked if the extra five minutes felt like enough time, the teachers simply laughed and shook their heads.
As in there is none.
“Really, we don’t have time. We missed a month of school,” Andrews said. “We really don’t have time for foolishness.”
Adding to the headache of the school year are the basic infrastructure problems caused by a major flood. The storm wiped out the school’s six copy machines. Gentry spent the first few weeks driving back and forth to nearby schools, fetching copies for her staff of 60. The flood also ruined Forest Brook’s registrar, destroying student records including copies of birth certificates and social security cards. There is a backroom on the first floor with stacks of boxes containing the moldy records of the school’s special education students.
Thanksgiving break can’t arrive soon enough, Gentry joked.
Before then, the students will finish the district universal screeners for math and reading, the handful of tests and check ups Forest Brook runs internally and then its first major hurdle – the district snapshot assessments in early November which track student progress based on HISD curriculum.
“I can’t bend. This is our first year out of [Improvement Required]. I cannot bend,” Gentry said. “The expectations are still high. The district is still expecting us to perform and I expressed that to teachers. Although we went through that disaster, now we’ve got to come in and we’ve got to move forward.”
That means more hurdles for Dequerion and Jade. On a Tuesday in late October, the pair sat in the lobby of Forest Brook, surrounded by the controlled chaos of a middle school dismissal. The last few days marked another stressful period for Dequerion. His science teacher had been prepping him for an exam the last week, but he learned the good news that day. He passed with an 80. “I was like, ‘Thank you Jesus,’” he said with a sly smile.
Jade is eyeing two tests on the horizon, math on Wednesday and science on Friday. Neither seems to particularly bothersome, although that might just be her personality. She plays on the school’s volleyball team that hasn’t won a match this year, but after each game, on the way home, she responds the same way.
“When we lose, you’re going to catch me being the main one on that bus hype,” she said, her eyes wide with emphasis. “I be yelling, ‘It don’t matter, we going to come back.’”