HISD Employs Shazam-You're-a-Magnet Strategy In Effort To Save Schools

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Under a proposal unveiled today by Superintendent Terry Grier and his staff, Jones High School, for years now one of the most academically troubled schools in the Houston school district, will be turned into a science, technology, engineering and math magnet with a special focus on "green energy."

Fondren Middle School, another school that hasn't prospered in recent years, will try to become an IB (International Baccalaureate) magnet school. Two elementaries -- Garden Oaks and Whidby -- will become school-wide Montessori facilities with all traditional classes "transitioned" out over time, while the Montessori classes at Dodson Elementary will move six miles away to Whidby and Dodson will morph into a health and sciences magnet.

Most, but not all, of this is contingent upon the district successfully pursuing $12 million in federal grant dollars. According to Grier, the last time HISD went after money like this was in 1985; he re-introduced the idea since his arrival here.

If the federal money is not granted, the Montessori program changes won't go into effect, but the "persistently low performing" Jones and the "academically unacceptable" Fondren plans will proceed using state dollars so that the district can show it is taking drastic corrective action to avoid these so-called "turn-around" schools being taken over by the state, Grier said.

The federal dollars come with stipulations, not all of which sit well with all the board members, particularly Larry Marshall. To qualify, a school must wholly commit to being a certain type of magnet, rather than allowing for say, a few Montessori classes or having a school within a school.

As Marshall said, this wholesale approach is the most difficult one to engineer successfully. Grier himself said this is not the way he'd prefer to do it, but this is the way the feds want it to go.

There was also some question raised about how a school such as Fondren, with its low test scores and failure to meet state standards, can suddenly transform itself into a magnet for the highest level of academics demanded by an IB program.

Students from the neighborhoods will be given preference to get into the new magnets (which according to federal guidelines cannot be selective in their entrance requirements) but if they choose to go elsewhere, "superzones" would be created that would enable them to be zoned to nearby schools.

The timetable on the federal application is very tight. Grier's staff began working with the idea in December, hired a grant writer experienced in this kind of federal application, shared it with the school board in early January and began going to community meetings in the schools in mid-February. The district won't find out until late summer whether it has the federal funds for the 2010-11 school year.

The proposal has caused a real split at Garden Oaks Elementary between Montessori supporters and parents who want the school to continue to offer traditional classes. The latter are saying that they are finding this out so late in the year that there is little time for them to get their children transferred to other schools if that becomes necessary. And besides which, they want their home school to stay the same.

"Montessori is not for every child," said parent Erica Zamarripa, who like others in attendance could listen to the workshop deliberations but could not address the board. She said parents were first told it was a done deal, but now there seems to be some "backing away" from that.

In fact, in response to the public outcry from some Garden Oaks parents, Grier had his staff explore options such as instead establishing a Montessori school at the former Holden Elementary, now being used for administrative offices. It will take money to retrofit the facility and more importantly, Grier's staff is afraid that if the Montessori students who make up part of Garden Oaks leave, then Garden Oaks will not be able to make up the enrollment and will become another small school in the district.

The district wants to open more Montessori schools because there's demonstrated demand for them in the private sector, Grier said.

Trustee Paula Harris, while acknowledging that not everyone will welcome the proposed changes, said there's a positive side to the district's efforts: "We're actually trying to do something to get students back into our program."

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