Amber Hall was unhappy. Although she had attended Catholic school since prekindergarten and was among the top sophomores at St. Pius X High School, she felt fatigued and depressed. Catholic school had given her a solid education, and she knew her parents intended for her to finish at St. Pius, where her own mother had graduated two decades before. But Amber told her mom she wanted to attend public school.
"Absolutely not," Martha Hall said.
Her mother had heard too many horror stories about public schools -- tales of metal detectors, gangs and drugs. Students at St. Pius warned Amber that unruly public school kids would try to start fights with her. Hall also worried that classes would be too easy for her honors student daughter. She asked, Don't you want to graduate with your friends?
Amber said she wouldn't mind if she didn't. Her parents still said no. Finally Amber's pediatrician asked her mother, "Well, if you had a job you hated and you had to go every single day, what would you do?'
"I'd look for another job," Hall said.
"Exactly," he replied.
Mother and daughter visited HISD's Scarborough High School in northwest Houston. The building, old and flat-roofed, looked like an uninspired box. Amber noticed soda vending machines encased behind bars. But to Hall's surprise, no metal detectors greeted them, and students were friendly.
"We went at lunch," Hall recalls. "I don't know, I expected police. But everyone was well behaved. They were sitting outside like any other school you went to."
The principal, Sharon Anson, told Hall that at public schools, some kids attend because the state says they have to, but many kids come to learn. That made sense to Hall. Maybe Scarborough would be the right change of pace.
"St. Pius is a very demanding school, and we just felt like she could take some of the pressure off by switching schools," Hall says. "Actually, we're finding out that AP [advanced placement] classes are very demanding also."
Now, a renascent Amber plays on the junior varsity volleyball team for Scarborough, something that never would have happened at St. Pius. "I had never played it before. They wouldn't even think of letting me play on the team." Students are nicer, she says. And the academics aren't bad either. In fact, Amber finds her classes challenging.
"Actually, it seems as though the public school system, when you're at this age, has a lot more to offer," Amber's mother says.
Amber's not alone. Sixteen kids left private schools for the 958-student Scarborough in 1999. This year, 14 more switched over. Westside High School, in its first year of operation with 1,772 students, counts 340 who had been outside the district last year; 85 of those are ex-private school kids. And Lovett Elementary welcomed 26 defectors this year, topping off its enrollment at 690 students.
Such migrations are surprising in the face of continued white flight from the district. Decades ago, HISD was primarily Anglo. But as white families moved to the suburbs, the district transformed into a majority of minorities. Today, HISD is more than half Hispanic, a third African-American, 3 percent Asian-American and just 10 percent white.
If anything, there's a movement nationally to enable more kids to attend private academies. Relentless criticism of public education has fueled the clamor for tax-funded private school vouchers and other alternatives like charter schools. In the last five years, 157 charter schools have sprouted in Texas, making it the fourth-largest program in the nation. At HISD, which serves over 210,000 children, some 1,500 students left the district over the summer, though their reasons are unknown. Even HISD itself, for the first time this school year, paid for two failing sixth-graders to attend a private, for-profit school to improve their performance.
But the widespread perception that urban HISD remains inferior ignores the choice of some families to transfer from private schools -- families that either can afford private tuition or move to suburban districts.
An array of curriculum and activities attracts some families, says Richard Hooker, chair of the Educational Leadership and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Houston.
"There's no question that when you get into these large comprehensive high schools that you get a really wide variety of sports and clubs and the breadth of curriculum opportunities.Smaller faculty and smaller groups of kids make it cost-prohibitive; [private schools] can't afford it."
Such transfers are still rare, he says, though some kids are moving against the flow of children leaving the district. (The extent of the defections back to public school is unknown, since HISD could not provide districtwide statistics.) HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says the reason for the reverse migration is simple: HISD schools have improved dramatically.
He points to Texas Education Agency ratings on the district, which show that in the last seven years, the number of "exemplary" and "recognized" schools in HISD has increased substantially, while the number of "low-performing" schools has dropped.
"Parents feel much more comfortable now in sending their children to neighborhood schools because they know they are going to get a good quality education in a safe setting," he says.
But the answer is not that easy. Students leave private schools for many reasons. Some families cite comparable academics, better facilities, more variety in electives and extracurricular activities, and diversity as reasons to attend HISD. Some students switch to public school because they view it as easier. Other families face discipline problems for their kids or financial difficulties. (Private school tuition typically runs from $4,000 to $9,000 a year, not including books and uniforms.)
Scarborough Principal Anson doesn't know why students like Amber are coming to her school. "I really don't know. To be honest, I wish I did; maybe we'd market it," she says. "I think we have a reputation for integrity, ethics and high standards. And parents want that for their children -- it doesn't matter if it's public or private."
Holland Safley arrived somewhat nervously on the first day of his junior classes this fall. He had never been on a campus as sprawling as the new red-bricked Westside High School. It's situated on Briar Forest near State Highway 6, among recently constructed homes going for $200,000 to $1 million. The $50 million school boasts two theaters in addition to an auditorium, computer labs with Internet access, a broadcast studio, a band hall and an orchestra hall. There are 11 individual music practice rooms, a ceramics studio and four athletics fields. The eating area resembles a college food court more than a high school cafeteria.
At Strake Jesuit, Holland and his water polo teammates had to practice at a neighborhood pool because the school lacked one. At Westside, he and his sister Kara practice at the campus natatorium.
Westside Principal Scott Van Beck believes his school's facilities have swayed many parents to give HISD a try.
"No matter how much Kinkaid, Strake Jesuit and St. Agnes want to provide outside facilities, they can't match the economic power of the Houston Independent School District in terms of a wide range of programs and services," he says. "They get a $50 million building with state-of-the-art technology."
Of course, only students at the two newest high schools -- Westside and Chavez High School in southeast Houston -- have ultramodern campuses; private school defectors haven't shown up in sizable numbers at older schools. However, HISD does offer 110 magnet programs for students with specific interests like business, health professions, engineering or the performing arts, as well as gifted and talented programs. When it comes to variety, private schools just can't compete.
One reason Holland ditched Strake was its inflexible schedule, practically cemented for him. He craved business and computer courses instead of the required theology classes. Though he hasn't enrolled in Westside's integrated technology magnet program, he's already taking advantage of an advanced computer science class.
His mother, Karita Safley, teaches second grade at private Grace School, where two of her three children attended elementary and middle school. While she feels the small school provided a comfortable environment for her children then, public school is better for them now.
"For high school, I couldn't really justify the pay for private tuition, because the public had just as much to offer or more than the private schools," she says.
Amy Meyer also says Westside offers her more, namely a chance to play volleyball again. Amy left HISD her first year of high school to attend St. Agnes Academy. Though she had been volleyball captain at HISD's Revere Middle School, she didn't make St. Agnes's highly competitive squad. The sophomore now practices every morning as part of Westside's varsity team.
"HISD does not have the world's best athletics, but if you're not the world's best athlete, that's good for you," says her mother, Betsy Meyer.
Amy also finds that public school better fits independent-minded students like herself. Sometimes private school holds your hand too much. "I felt very protected at St. Agnes," she says. "I just like the freedom at Westside."
One former student of St. John's School, who left for Bellaire High School, says that aspect of public education helped him develop independence.
"St. John's is going to cram study skills and a good education down your throat, where they check up on you personally and individually to make sure you're doing what you need to do," says the student, who requested anonymity. "At Bellaire, you kind of had to know what you wanted and watch out for yourself or you can go under.But in the long run, I think that's a very good thing."
On St. Pius's manicured campus, there was always something else to buy: a calculator, T-shirt or raffle ticket. Students flaunted their 2000-model cars. "The money, really, you have to have a lot of it to get anywhere at that school. And we don't," Amber says, explaining that private schools expect students to constantly raise funds. "At Pius, it was like you were categorized by your money."
Although the predominantly white St. Pius had students of different ethnicities, it seemed categorized by color, she says. At Scarborough "everyone mixes, it doesn't matter what color."
The former St. John's student says he felt like an outcast at the private academy. Almost everyone played a sport, but athletics did not interest him. He had a few friends, but for the most part other students didn't talk to him, and he didn't talk to them.
"Although I was getting a great education the whole time at St. John's and it was a good school, I wasn't happy socially there," he says. "It seemed like it was all the same type of person at St. John's. You have your white upper-middle-class to upper-class people that lived in the same neighborhood and had known each other their whole lives."
After applying to Bellaire's foreign-language magnet program, he found the student body is diverse, and not just ethnically, he says.
For the same reason that student left private school, many families flee HISD, where more than half of the students are Hispanic and over 70 percent are economically disadvantaged.
"It depends on what's the issue with the family," says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "For some, it's the facility. Some it's safety. Unfortunately with some, it's prejudice. We have some parents who will be very vocal that they don't want their Anglo child going to school in a predominantly minority school or school district -- without even looking at the schools."
At Scarborough, which is 49 percent Latino, 26 percent Anglo and 23 percent African-American, several parents named diversity as the primary reason for transferring to public schools.
Jorge and Maricela Enriquez pulled their youngest son, Karl, out of a public grade school because of discipline problems. But when it came to high school, Karl wanted to go public, just like his two older brothers, who had attended Lamar High School.
"We came to the conclusion that maybe private school education was too sheltered," Jorge Enriquez says. He concedes there's some risk but says, "I think in the long run, it will benefit my son.He will learn about tolerance. And he will learn the reality."
Karl's father says he wasn't impressed by the academics and teachers at St. Ambrose or Scarborough, but he hopes Scarborough will improve during the year.
Martha and Brent Hall, though, have been pleasantly surprised by Scarborough's advanced placement classes, where Amber is struggling in English. Her mother says private school taught only literature, but Scarborough includes grammar, which should help her on the SAT. "I think they're going to be to her advantage."
"They're having to work when they get here," says Scarborough Principal Anson. "The myth that private school means a better education doesn't exist here, and the kids know that."
Amy Meyer, who left St. Agnes, found her private school classmates had a distorted view of public education. "People get this stereotype that because you come from a public school, you're going to be a bad kid. But I was in honors classes at St. Agnes and making straight A's and ahead of a lot of the kids from private schools. If you're willing to work in a public school, you're going to get a good education."
In fact, three girls from Amy's Revere Middle School class went on to St. Agnes. All three made the honor roll, a credit to their public education, her mother says.
"It's a hard thing to talk about to private school parents when people have spent all that money to send their kids to Village School [a private school] in order to get a better education," Betsy Meyer says. "It's not something they want to hear."
While some leave private schools because they find HISD's academics comparable, others, like Holland, leave because they view public schools as less competitive. Strake was just too serious for him.
"I don't want to say anything negative about Strake," says his mother, Karita Safley. "The academics are so solid and very strong, but it's not for every kid. He does seem more motivated at Westside, and he feels better about himself."
Though he has been at Westside for only a month, Holland reports that the teachers there seem more devoted to making their lessons stimulating to students; they hold more discussions and group work sessions. The classes also don't move as fast as Strake's; other students interviewed noticed the slower pace as well.
Holland's main concern, though, is getting in the top 10 percent of his class in order to be guaranteed admission to the University of Texas. His friends in public school had 4.5 GPAs. Though he felt he was just as bright, at Strake he had a mere 2.5. Since Strake is a preparatory school where nearly every student goes on to college, Holland feared he'd languish in the bottom half of his class and blow his chances at UT.
"There's a lot of kids that don't even want to be in school at a public school, so I thought that'd help bring the percentage down," he explains.
Strake Principal Richard Nevle says he understands Holland's dilemma. "Our kids always tell us that it's really hard here and our GPAs would be higher at another school. That's true," he says. Private colleges often look to see where a student is graduating from, he says. "They will accommodate. And in that sense, being here is an advantage."
"But I don't think big public universities do that," Karita Safley says.
Holland also believes his transcript will look better at Westside. Strake tests its students to determine which ones enroll in its limited advanced classes, such as geometry for freshmen. Although Holland had taken French I and Algebra I in middle school, he was forced to repeat them at Strake when he did not test at the top of his class. At public school, though, he would have automatically continued on to French II and geometry.
"I'm not saying I'm bad at taking tests," he says. "I'm saying it held me back for the curriculum. Because now at Westside I'm going to Algebra II [as a junior], but I want to take calculus [senior year], so I have to make up pre-cal. Stuff like that is getting in the way."
Holland is also making up two freshman classes -- world history and world geography -- because the public school curriculum differs from Strake's.
Students interviewed for this story happily noticed one aspect of public school: less homework. Most HISD high schools have block scheduling, where students alternate classes every other day, or take four nine-week semesters with just four classes per semester. In that system, students take home half as many assignments as in the traditional seven 45-minute periods.
Jorge Enriquez has noticed that too, and he's not pleased; he has even brought it to the attention of Principal Anson. Karl told him that with 90-minute classes, teachers don't teach the whole period, leaving time to tackle some homework. "Homework is for practice," Enriquez says. "Practice makes perfect to becoming proficient."
But Karl doesn't mind so much. Neither does Kara Safley. What once took several hours now takes about one. But that leaves time to pursue other interests.
"The homework at Grace was pretty much busywork, so I'm learning the same, pretty much," she says.
How can the HISD that these families rave about be the same one where middle school students scored low in reading and math on the Stanford Achievement Test last year? Where bus driver shortages have resulted in teachers driving school buses for extra pay? Where $1.2 billion is needed to repair aging buildings and to alleviate overcrowded classrooms?
Parents say that while not all HISD schools make the grade, some, like Bellaire and Lamar, sustain good reputations, and those are the schools they are leaving the private world for. Such a range of quality, though, begs the question of whether any schools get advantages at budget time. Administrators insist they all must cope with the same lean budgets, though they confess that a good reputation attracts top teachers. Over 2,000 teachers applied for the 140 staff positions at Westside. Involved parents also make a big difference, parents who have the time or money to chip in.
Every school district has bad and good schools, says Betsy Meyer. Prior to Westside's opening, when students were zoned to Lee High School, many of her west Houston neighbors either went private, moved two miles to the Katy district or moved two miles in another direction to Spring Branch ISD.
Lee High School was already a 35-minute drive away, and its less-than-stellar reputation scared some families. Amy chose St. Agnes to avoid Lee and its rumors of drugs, guns and pregnant teens. But Meyer recommends Westside, and feels lucky to live within walking distance of it.
"It'd be sad if this was only happening at Westside, because it benefits the richer people of the west side that don't have to pay for private school. That may not come as a perk to the rest of the city."
To Rosemary Covalt, it certainly doesn't come as a perk to other neighborhoods, especially those in the East End. A longtime community activist, HISD critic and now staff representative with the Houston Federation of Teachers, Covalt worked in the East End, but now lives on the west side. Just in the cosmetic appearance of schools, she sees an unequal distribution of wealth.
"You have facilities that are state-of-the-art and facilities that are third-world," she says. She jokingly refers to Westside as an airport, then points out poorly maintained Bruce Elementary in Denver Harbor. Its sign has fallen over, a chunk of uprooted concrete at its base.
"One of the ways HISD [attracts private school kids] is to build facilities with state-of-the-art technology. But you just can't [build only] in the upper-level communities," Covalt says. "If you really want to win people back, do it with the people who need it the most, the inner-city and East End kids who need that shot in the arm."
Though Chavez High School just opened this year in southeast Houston to serve a Hispanic neighborhood, Covalt raises concerns about its proximity to petrochemical plants, an issue that has a local environmental group accusing HISD of environmental racism. HISD says the school's air and soil are safe. Like Westside, Chavez touts impressive amenities: air-conditioned gyms, computer labs, swimming pools and its own magnet program -- at Chavez, environmental science.
About 20 students have returned from private school to attend Chavez. Covalt says most private school defections occur in west Houston. In other parts of the city, that doesn't happen, because those children don't have a choice, she says.
Her observation gels with the few numbers that HISD provided. While HISD press secretary Abbott could not supply districtwide figures for the number of students who have left private schools for HISD, or an ethnic breakdown of those pupils, he fed out numbers piecemeal from individual schools. Most of those schools were in HISD's west district, schools like Revere Middle School, with 30 private school defectors this year, and Barbara Bush Elementary, with 36.
Covalt's boss, Gayle Fallon, says she rarely hears of kids switching from private to public, but rather of the traffic between charter schools and regular public schools. She sits on the board of a charter school in the East End, and says the concerns of those parents differ from those of west Houston parents.
"When you ask the parents why their children are there, they say the children are zoned to Jackson [Middle School]. And we get the same answer: It's gangs. It's safety rather than education."
Even the tale of Lee and Westside plays into Covalt's assertions that Hispanic students are getting shortchanged. Most of the kids who left largely Latino Lee for Westside this year were Anglo. Now with 1,000 fewer students, Lee has half as many Anglos and African-Americans, at about 10 percent each, while Latino students increased from 61 to 77 percent. Asian-Americans stayed at 6 percent. Lee Principal Steve Amstutz and Westside Principal Van Beck say that Lee's racial shift is not the result of white flight, just distance. It just happens that most Anglos live west of Gessner, the dotted line of division.
An open enrollment policy allows students zoned to either school to attend the one they prefer, but because busing is not provided, most of the Latino students at Lee can't get to state-of-the-art Westside.
Van Beck refutes any notion that Westside serves only middle-class white kids. "This school has got a reputation in HISD as "Whitey High.' But it is in fact 40 percent Anglo, 30 percent Latino, 20 percent African-American, and 10 percent Asian and other minorities. And every year that Anglo percentage is going to go down."
When people see a new school and Kickerillo custom home builders around the corner, they assume all white kids go there, he says. "All sorts of kids come to Westside."
Abbott says HISD has addressed funding inequality with a decentralization program this year so that principals can plan their own budgets. "The new funding system also includes a weighted per-pupil formula similar to the state's, which eliminates the inequality because the dollars will be based on the needs of the children -- more money for the harder-to-educate children," he says.
Covalt calls the program foolish because principals aren't necessarily good administrators. "They're in academics primarily. That's why scores are going to go down, because they are so busy doing other things they don't stick to academics."
Private school educators say they're not worried about defectors. Enrollment is up. St. Agnes spokesperson Bonni Hayes chuckled at the notion that students left her school for a wide range of activities elsewhere. She rattled off a list of sports and clubs, adding that if a student didn't like what she saw, she could start her own group. Diversity? They've got that too, she says. About 10 percent of the St. Agnes student body is on financial aid, 22 percent is non-Catholic and 22.8 percent is nonwhite.
"One of the pictures that we use is a picture of the principal surrounded by three students, one black, white and Muslim in traditional Muslim dress," she says. "And I've always liked that picture because it communicates a message that you don't have to be Catholic to come to St. Agnes."
Principal Nevle says students leave for all sorts of reasons, whether they tire of traveling, want to attend school with their girlfriend, or are recruited by sport teams, a practice that is technically barred. Attrition for lower-class Strake students, including those who were kicked out, is 5 percent this year.
"I kind of see myself as a sheepdog. Every now and then, one of the lambs wanders off; it's my job to see the wolves don't get to it before he goes -- and if it's okay with him and his family," Nevle says. "Sometimes I say, "If you give us a few more weeks, we can turn it around. And we can do a great deal for you, and you can do a great deal for us.' In other instances, there are so many things that starting fresh is probably what he needs."
In a time of virtually unparalleled economic prosperity, it seems that more families than ever have the means to send Junior to private school. And with school vouchers a point of contention between the presidential candidates, the question remains, Has public education failed?
That debate leaves some parents waffling. This year Sandra Corbett pulled her youngest daughter out of private school for HISD's Lovett Elementary in the Meyerland area. Years before, she did the opposite, taking her eldest daughter out of Herod Elementary because of racism.
Children told her daughter Saudiia that they didn't want to play with her because she was black. And Corbett felt ignored at PTO meetings when she brought up race issues. When Saudiia started to fall behind in her gifted and talented program, her mother says, the school did not work more closely with her. Instead, she says, it demoted her to regular classes, where she made straight A's without studying.
For middle school, Saudiia attended Imani, a private school for African-Americans. But then she chose HISD's High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Corbett has been pleased with the atmosphere and academics, but still hesitated to withdraw eight-year-old Yara from Imani.
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"What I like about Imani is that they leave no child behind," Corbett says. "Every child moves ahead. HISD, they leave you behind and just assume that your child's not doing the work. That's why I'm always struggling between private and public."
Finally, Corbett, a single mom, pulled Yara from Imani to save money for Saudiia's approaching college education. So far, Yara hates Lovett, which Corbett describes as not as nurturing.
But she wants to expose Yara to other ethnic groups and has heard that Lovett's academics are solid. Still, she's waiting to see if Yara will experience the same negative situations as her sister or if she'll blossom in public school.
"Making kids feel like they belong and they're special, that's what gets lost in public schools," she says. "That's what I'm waiting to see from Lovett."