Sounding a bit like a past-the-honeymoon-stage couple whose partners are starting to feel misunderstood and underappreciated, Superintendent Terry Grier and the Houston ISD trustees got through Thursday's board workshop with a patina of camaraderie, occasionally interrupted by hints of tension.
As Grier and Chief School Officer for High Schools David Simmons were making their way through an 18-page plan for how the district will save its failing and underperforming schools, trustees began asking questions and Grier told them to stop.
He asked them to wait till they'd finished their Power Point presentation; then they could ask all the questions they wanted, predicting that most of the questions they might have would already be answered. Trustee Larry Marshall made a joke of it, saying if he waited to ask his questions till the end, he might forget what some of them were.
Trustee Manuel Rodriguez, living dangerously, announced he'd skipped ahead and had a question on page 12 (at the time the room was supposed to be on page 4). Simmons spoke faster and faster as he whipped his way through the pages in what had to be record time.
Jones, Kashmere, Lee and Sharpstown Highs as well as HP Carter and the Contemporary Learning Center are all in danger of being taken over by the state because of low graduation rates and years in the academic dungeon. As Grier put it, these Title 1 schools "are unacceptable in bold letters" and his plans for them include replacing the principals (except at Jones; she's been here less than two years), jettisoning at least some teachers and lengthening the school day and year.
The proposal is to ask for Title I grants for three years, costing between $1.25 million to $1.75 million for all the schools per year except for the Carter Center which would be $50,000 to $1 million a year. There were also two Tier II contract charter schools on the worst list -- CEP/Southwest and New Aspirations -- but nobody could figure out why they were there because graduation stats go back to the students' home schools, not the alternative school they attend. Presumably several calls to the Texas Education Agency had not cleared that up.
While Grier and his administrators proceeded through the "turnaround," "transformation," "restart" and "closure" models that they said were the only options left to these schools, trustees persisted in asking questions and making declarations. Rodriguez said in no way would "this board member abdicate responsibility to these students," by turning a school over to an outside source to run (the "restart approach.") (Although Hair Balls found it difficult to square this position with Rodriguez's support of Community Education Partners (in which hundreds of HISD kids have been handed over to an outside source). Moore said he didn't think the district should shut the door on partnering with anyone or learning from any other entity if it benefited the students.
Marshall was the only one to say he didn't think closure was such a bad way to go -- if a school was really that bad, why not? "Let the state come out and run it," he said with a laugh.
Trustees Diana Davila, Anna Eastman and Rodriguez expressed some weariness and exasperation in hearing plans from Grier that don't acknowledge that several of the district's schools already do things right.
After Grier outlined the parts of his plan "HISD Transformation Tenets for Unacceptable Schools" that include such things as "quality teachers, quality leadership," "access to critical data points," "extend the school calendar/day/schedule," re-teaching students when they don't get it the first time, "intensive tutoring" and fostering a "culture of high expectations" Eastman was the first to speak up.
"We have people who already have been doing this in our schools. I would really like to see you highlighting that... encompassing things that already exist." When Grier responded that it's not enough to put a good principal at a school but that that administrator needs to be supported with program funding, Eastman waded in again, pointing out that at Davis High School "those people have done that work on their own."
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"I want to echo Anna," Rodriguez said. "If we talk about our own successes instead of the Yeses [Yes Prep] and the Kipps."
Davila, who has consistently talked about successful schools in the area she represents, urged Grier to go over to McReynolds Middle School, a school that used to be on the level of Kashmere and turned itself around. "The principal went over there and took on the challenge. Let's go see what he did out there. He didn't get extra money."
"There are young shiny stars within our district," Davila said.
The second group of priority schools, those deemed "unacceptable" by TEA, includes three high schools (Sterling, Westbury and Worthing) and six middle schools (Attucks, Dowling, Fondren, Ryan, E.O.Smith and WALIPP). The high schools are not graduating enough kids and every one of the middle schools can't get enough kids passing the science portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The district still has to find out if the kids are leaving elementary school unprepared for the next years' science courses, or if it's all going awry at the middle school level.