HISD Magnet School Discussion Brings Out the Parents, the Passion

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The message was clear at Lamar High School last night: remove the magnet designation from high performing schools in the district and Houston ISD will not only be destroying dreams and futures, but it will lose a lot of money as its best and brightest go elsewhere.

Trustee Harvin Moore, whose district includes Lamar and who has a child in a magnet school program, didn't seem inclined to disagree.

"The board of education seemed rather frustrated by the contents of the report. I think it didn't stand up that well, frankly," he told the crowd that filled the auditorium. "Many of my colleagues are inclined to think there is very little in that report that we will support."

Similar meetings were held in each of HISD's trustee districts last night. At Lamar, HISD Human Resources Director Ann Best made a brief presentation of the Magnet Schools of America recommendations -- which call for removing the magnet designation from 53 of the district's 133 magnet schools and the millions of dollars in funding along with it -- stressing that in no way were the proposals board policy.

In fact, the evening seemed to be one of stepping away from the report, which cost the district $260,000. If so, that would make those in attendance very happy.

Best insisted that HISD will remain a district of choice and that it is not trying to dismantle the magnet school program, but as parent Peggy Sue Gay put it, do away with magnet transportation and you've killed the magnets.

Nina Garcia, a National Merit Semifinalist who is not zoned to Lee High School but attends there, argued that having a magnet program at the academically troubled school makes the school better for all students.

"We need diversity. We're improving our test scores. We lose our magnet program, we lose that good influence. We are an Apollo school. We'll never be able to get out of being an Apollo school," she said, referring to the pilot program now underway at nine of the district's middle and high schools.

Tom Behrman, president of the Lee alumni association, speaking right after Garcia, said of removing the magnet designation from Lee, "It's going to kill us. Why would she come to Lee High School if it didn't have its magnet program?

"Now they want to take away one of the things that's going to assure that our school comes back. We can recruit with a good magnet program and a good AP [Advanced Placement] program," he said.

Several parents questioned the timing of the magnet school review. Michele Young, whose son attends West University Elementary school, who just moved to Houston in the past year and chose HISD over suburban districts because of its magnet programs, said, "I think this is disingenuous, to say this isn't tied to budget cuts."

Others pointed out that with the total magnet program making up only 2 percent of the overall HISD budget, they didn't see how making cuts here was going to balance the district's books.

Moore insisted more than once that a review of the magnet program was needed and that after nothing was done with the results of a 2006 peer review of HISD magnet schools, trustees decided in 2009 to try again. It is just coincidence, he said, that the independent review was released as the district is desperately seeking to cut its costs.

Several repeated the concerns discussed by the HISD Parent Visionaries Group last week that the MSA study hadn't looked at how the changes would affect students or in any way evaluated the successes of the best magnet programs in HISD.

Parent Max Martino said the district should be talking about expanding the Vanguard program (according to MSA, since Vanguard programs designed for bright students aren't "themed," they don't qualify as magnets and should lose magnet funding) instead of expanding neighborhood schools. "Neighborhood schools aren't popular."

Moore responded that he's a supporter of strong neighborhood schools, but he doesn't want "to force people" to send their kids there, "to trap them in their neighborhood schools."

Parent Ann Lackwood said if Lamar loses its business magnet designation it will lose a lot of its diversity and funding. "We will become the country club just like we were 30 years ago...I didn't want my kids to go to school with kids who were just like them." Students across the district "will lose their right to go to a quality school," she said.

HISD has scheduled more magnet community meetings beginning February 1.

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