Heavy equipment growled and screeched and construction workers hollered as they hustled about outside but there was no way they could be louder than the exaltations and exhuberations at the press conference/pep rally/prayer meeting that played out inside Worthing High School Wednesday morning.
Houston ISD had dodged a bullet. The Texas Education Agency preliminary rankings were out and the district's schools had improved enough that there would be no takeover of the district by the state. School board members would get to keep control (living to fight another day in every sense), campuses would not be closed and fans of Grenita Lathan were calling for her to get the superintendent's job permanently.
Worthing and three other schools (Mading and Wesley elementary schools and Woodson PK-8) that were long-term inhabitants of the IR (Improvement Required) list have Met Standard and the Texas Education Commission has backed off for the moment.
“We are providing students with enrichment opportunities and we're seeing real improvement driven by data-supported decision making and strong and dedicated staff," Interim Superintendent Lathan said. “We know that we have some work to do to build more trust and support from our communities, but the numbers show that HISD is shifting course and turning schools around.
"The challenges that HISD faces our serious but our story is one of perseverance, putting the students first," she said. "There's a lot of good things happening in HISD. My hope is that the greater community sees that we're headed in the right direction."
Amazingly enough this came after Lathan's administration in April had proposed — with some board support — handing over the operation of ten of its low-performing schools to the private Energized for STEM Academy. Outcry and a raucous board meeting ensued complete with arrests and expulsions of onlookers and the matter was quietly set aside (amid some calls for Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones' resignation) and never brought up for a vote again. Although that doesn't mean that at some future date trustees won't hand over control of some of its campuses to outside entities.
Wednesday, Skillern-Jones praised Lathan, pointing out that since her arrival at the district in 2015, ratings of HISD schools have improved. "What matters is the data. Whether you like her or not, she moved the needle."
The victory may be temporary — achieved in part because of Hurricane Harvey waivers granted by the state — but it gives the school district another year to get its act together to meet all of the state's standards. And even though the state didn't rate HISD this year in the new A-F ranking system, TEA told district leaders they would have received a B overall.
A total of 251 out of 275 campuses (91 percent) that were rated met the state's standards.Schools were evaluated on how well students did on standardized testing, the academic growth within the school and how it compared to similar campuses and how well students did in closing the so-called performance gaps based on their race, income level, and any disabilities or anything else that might affect their learning.
At Wednesday's meeting attended by a packed room filled with frequently cheering onlookers, there was back patting enough to go around in a power-heavy lineup of politicians or their office stand-ins, but several speakers also credited the students, acknowledging that that none of this would have happened if they hadn't done better on those state tests.
Trustee Wanda Adams told about walking the halls of Worthing in the years before the arrival of new principal Khalilah Campbell-Rhone, adding that this didn't go over well with some administrators and teachers. "But I was so serious about Worthing that I would walk the halls. I would come in and look at the classrooms and I would see what the students were learning. I would just pop up, access through the key, seeing a lot of things that were out of order in 2014." Things changed dramatically, she said, after the arrival of Campbell-Rhone.
Still when the 2017-18 school year ended , Wanda says she was troubled over what was going to happen in the district with the threat of TEA sanctions hanging over it.
"People know my faith. I have a strong faith," Adams said as she began to cry, discarding any notion of the separation of church and state. "He not only moves; he shows us. But let me tell you how God moves. When you step back and you let him work and you put his scripture to pass, he tells you to trust him. He told me to acknowledge him. I said I'm going to step back now and I'm going to see what you're going to do.
"Let me tell you what he did. Y'all ready? In District 9, ya''ll ready? How many schools you had that was in IR? Forty-two in 2015. District 9 had about ten of those schools. Last year they had about seven of those schools that were in IR. So remember when you give God something and when you trust him and you ask him and someone calls the Holy Spirit, he says I'm going to bring back to their remembering
"So in District 9 as of today, District 9 don't have any IRs." And the congregation roared.
Of course, not all was bliss. Seven schools were named to the IR list for the first time. These were Codwell, Marshall, Shearn and Shermann elementary schools, Sugar Grove middle School and two schools that have been closed: Kandy Stripe and Victory Prep South.
Of the 17 "not rated" campuses (because of waivers) 15 will carry over the IR status they had in the 2016-17 school year into 2018-19. This includes: Foerster and Highland Heights elementary schools; Attucks, Deady, Henry, Holland, HS Ahead Academy,and Williams middle schools; Kashmere, North Forest, Washington, Wheatley and Yates high schools and Reagan Education Center PK-8. The Arabic Immersion Magnet School and the TSU Charter Lab School did not have enough data to be rated, but according to the district "are calculated to have earned a 'Met Standard' with an overall score of 84."
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Harris County Commissioner and former state senator Rodney Ellis was there to talk about going to Worthing High School where he started his political career by running for student body president. "I was one of those latch-key kids and I made it. This school made it despite the odds being stacked against it by society often times.
"I am honored to be here for this pep rally today, but I want to tell you, it ain't over. We got to keep doing what's necessary to motivate these kids."
The state just isn't going to pay for everything Worthing needs, he said, calling on the community leaders to ante up their support in financial contributions. And priming the pump, he announced he was donating $10,000 to the school. And everyone cheered for that too.