It’s the smallest comprehensive high school in its district in one of the most poverty-ridden areas of Houston. Its scores and attendance levels haven’t met state standards for seven years and the state has sent in one of its experts to take up residence.
Yes, that’s right, that’s Kashmere High School, and everybody knows about it. And the only surprise, as school district trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones puts it, is that “I think people are definitely shocked that it hasn’t closed before now.”
But it hasn’t. And what everybody knows as fact is actually only a part of the picture. Step on campus and find orderly hallways and engaged students. Spot the principal fast-walking the halls armed with a walkie-talkie, an active alumni council, a brokering agency bringing social services to the campus, and you get a strong sense that after too many years, the Rams are finally headed the right way.
And what a lot there is to overcome. In the last ten years, if you toss in the interims and actings, Kashmere has had ten different principals. Want to know how poor the area is? Kashmere is a school that goes beyond free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch. The same deal is offered for dinner right at the end of classes, 3:43 in the afternoon. As the saying goes, we’re not talking poverty; we’re talking hyperpoverty.
This year Kashmere got the dreaded IR designation — improvement required — for the seventh time. It reportedly missed the mark by only two students, maybe a point here or there, but after seven years the Texas Education Agency was not inclined to give it another chance. Looked at another way, though, as Skillern-Jones does, “Kashmere in the last two years under Principal Nancy Blackwell has made more progress than eight previous years.”
Somehow, even though it was part of the Apollo turnaround program that threw millions of dollars at certain schools in the Houston Independent School District, Kashmere actually managed to be neglected. How else do you explain the low reading and writing scores? The football uniforms not replaced in years? How else do you explain the district’s putting in a novice principal at one of the toughest situations in town as HISD did with Blackwell’s predecessor? How else do you explain the constant use of subs to fill out classes? And all the neighborhood students who either dropped out completely or employed school choice to transfer to another school?
“At job fairs you’ll notice that not necessarily will teachers line up to come to Kashmere. They’ll line up to go to magnet schools. They’ll line up to go to the Bellaires, the Lamars,” Blackwell says. “But those schools have their issues too.”
Ninth and tenth grades were tough, varsity football player Dashawn Gamble, now a senior, says. “We had a lot of teachers who got up and left because Kashmere was a little rough back then; they couldn’t take it or something.” There was constant fighting in the halls.
“We didn’t have stable teachers; we always had substitutes,” says fellow senior Brya Curtis, captain of her school’s cheerleading squad. A teacher would hand out assignments one day and be gone the next.
Shutter Kashmere and the nearest schools — none of them especially near — are Wheatley, Sam Houston and North Forest. All have their own sets of challenges, and Sam Houston is already overcrowded. Most of Kashmere’s students are walkers; how they’d get to something farther away is anyone’s guess. The kids we talked with didn’t want to entertain the notion; Wheatley is their rival and anyone who transfers to it “a traitor.” They think they’re getting a good education now and, for the most part, feel the school’s personnel care about them.
The band has grown from seven to 41 members in a year — not quite at the level of the historic Thunder Soul corps, but they’re marching in parades again and not just providing a drum line. More than 235 students are in JROTC, and dual credit courses are available in several subjects through a partnership with Houston Community College. The campus is being remodeled; laborers even found a trove of books in a back room they didn’t know were there during the renovation, although whether that’s good news or pathetic is a toss-up.
Kashmere has added counselors. There’s a lot more classroom observation. College and career readiness are pushed. Students don’t have to leave school for mental health and health services; help is on hand at the campus. A high-level math instructor is teaching the kids and developing other math teachers as well. The district is spending extra money; the state is saying this is important.
All to the good because if this is, in fact, Kashmere’s last last chance, the school that will be 60 years old in 2017 is running out of time.
“The first time I walked through the halls, it looked like it had been abandoned,” says Nancy Blackwell, now in her second year at Kashmere. Contrast that with TEA conservator Doris Delaney’s first-time memories. Delaney attended Kashmere and graduated in 1975. It was bustling with 1,500 kids and that didn’t even include ninth grade. By the 1980s the school housed 1,800 students. Now Kashmere has 608 kids in a school that will have a capacity of 1,400 once all renovations are done. Fourteen percent are Hispanic; the rest are African-American, with about five whites.
When longtime school counselor Karol McNary arrived at Kashmere 17 years ago, she thought it was a beautiful campus, even though others had warned her that she was “going to the ghetto.” But she says, “When I first stepped on the Kashmere campus, Kashmere was an exemplary school. It was beautiful, very clean. The students were very respectful; they were academically driven. We had a lot of strong, seasoned teachers who cared about the kids and held them to high standards.” But then the principal retired, and with the new principal, “we started falling off. Our scores started dropping and they decided to reconstitute the school.”
Grenita Lathan, recently named HISD’s chief adademic officer, says the district went to Blackwell for her extensive experience, especially because the district knows that Kashmere is inheriting many unresolved problems from its feeder middle and elementary schools. “We were looking for that instructional principal. Especially a school that is low performing, where a majority of the students are not reading on grade level, it’s important to have someone who has that elementary and middle school experience.”
Blackwell had worked in the Aldine ISD and was used to dealing with students with limited resources. “I’ve always been at Title I schools.” Besides emphasizing the need to reach the students, giving them structure as well as understanding, she wanted the teachers to be better supported in their jobs through continued training. Not everyone thought this was a good idea. “We had a changeover in staff. We lost 11 out of 40. Seven needed to be elsewhere,” says Blackwell. “Two of them just flat out walked. Told me, ‘I’m not planning; I’m not doing it.’”
The No. 1 problem is literacy, as it is in most schools. “They can’t read. They aren’t fluent readers,” Blackwell says. The compensating “strategies” that schools teach to lower kids’ chances of picking the wrong answers don’t work as well with the new tests, she says, and as a result: “We’re seeing some children who were successful at fourth and fifth grade, but not now.”
Compounding this all is the economic reality. “The poverty issue is extreme here,” Blackwell says. “So you’ve really got to have a mission to make a difference with the children who are the most needy. They maybe don’t have everybody at home working homework with them or spending time on those pre-reading skills. When we call our parents, nine out of ten come in, but all parents don’t always know what to do. Kids are being raised by grandparents, and grandparents get frustrated. Children go home and there’s no electricity, no food.” Some are homeless.
Some of the students are parents themselves, which hurts attendance. With the help of Skillern-Jones, Blackwell hopes to get another portable building that could provide day care for a couple of high schools in the area. “If the girls know their children are right here, that should improve their attendance so that in turn they can graduate from high school. And the young men who are responsible also,” says Blackwell.
“The problem is not just the kid is not paying attention or the kid is late. That’s a symptom of some bigger problems,” says Ken Williams, president of the Kashmere Alumni Association. “They have to take care of siblings, sick parent, sick grandmother. A lot of that is added responsibility and stress.”
Head counselor McNary knows this all too well. “It takes a special kind of person to work at Kashmere because you have to really have a love for children and you have to love them where they are, and they all come from different places. I tell that to teachers all the time; you have to love them before you can teach them. And they have to know that they can trust you,” McNary says.
Suspensions are a last resort; they try to work things out with counseling. A group of students we talked with say there’s fewer fights. Asked why, Gamble says to general laughter, “Nobody would want to get in trouble. They know the consequences over the past two years. Ms. Blackwell came and showed them the consequences.”
There are some remnants of earlier years, of the lasting stigma that Kashmere carries, the kids say. “Most teachers, they came from a stable school, more established, where they didn’t have problems, so by them coming to Kashmere, by the things that they heard, they think like they have to be strict,” says senior Isaac Johnson. “But they don’t have to be that way.”
Paradoxically enough, it was Kashmere’s questionable reputation that drew sophomore Trize Gipson to it. Gipson, who wasn’t even from HISD, had also been accepted to the much-respected DeBakey High School for Health Professions. Her father told her Kashmere had a bad reputation. “I heard about the things they say about it. I told my dad I wanted to come here and give it a try. My dad said because of my test scores, I could probably help it.” She plays a number of sports and this year joined the JROTC.
Johnson had similar reasons. “I have all AP classes and I can help boost test scores.” Besides, the football and other teams were doing well when he started — a situation that hasn’t gone so well the last two years. (The students say kids from other schools started calling them “Trashmere.”) In addition, both of his parents went to Kashmere, an alumni pull that should not be underestimated.
Williams agrees that they try to get students to go to Kashmere and often talk to the best academic ones about what their presence will mean for the school. He, like many others, resents the fact that the magnet school system often plucks off the top students, leaving a neighborhood school behind with a harder fight to maintain or improve test scores. Both he and the principal mentioned the 30 percent of students who are special ed at Kashmere.
The TEA’s Delaney works in the background (she wouldn’t even let us take her photograph) as she observes classes, listens to students and collects data not only on Kashmere but its feeder schools as well. She lauds what Blackwell’s team is doing, but sometimes, she says, it takes an outside eye to spot problems.
Delaney was part of the failed attempt to save North Forest ISD before it was taken over by HISD. Any success she has, she says, depends a lot on how open school employees are to receiving what she has to say. In places where it hasn’t worked, she says, she’s been told directly, “‘Conservators come and go and we’re still here.’ Some people don’t take it seriously.”
“Everything has been tried at Kashmere,” says Adeeb Barqawi, the school’s former physics teacher by way of Teach for America and now the president and founder of Pro Unitas, which he describes as a broker providing services to the school. Funded by grants, including one from the Houston Endowment, Pro Unitas costs HISD nothing, Barqawi says.
Barqawi maintains that many of Kashmere’s ills come from good intentions. Yes, let’s get those kids hooked up to social services for food, clothes and health, but if we require them to leave school to access those services, it often doesn’t happen. That’s why Pro Unitas brings the case managers and psychologists to the school.
Yes, teachers need to be concerned about all the needs their students have, but their primary mission is to teach, he says. Principals need to care, but if they are negotiating with all the agencies that they might want to come into their schools, that’s less time applied to their primary mission, he says.
“Apollo failed at Kashmere I think because it did not take into account it’s not the answer by itself. It’s a piece of the puzzle. I think if it would have had something like Pro Unitas working with it, it would have had success,” Barqawi says. The other mistake Apollo made, Barqawi says, is that it was a one-size-fits-all approach imposed on all schools that didn’t take into account the individual needs of different campuses. “And every year the staff was new.”
“In medicine, we’re so good at getting people back to life from emergency situations, but when it comes to chronic low back pain, we suck,” Barqawi says. “It’s the same thing with education. We have become so good at symptom-based solutions and quick fixes. But how do we sustain it?”
It’s wonderful to have a great principal, he says. But what’s going to happen after that principal leaves?
A case in point might well be Bertie Simmons of Furr High. There’s probably no more legendary story in HISD than that of Principal Simmons, whose first day on the job in 2000 came complete with bloodshed when one student threw another through a plate glass window. Three years later she returned to campus from a principals’ meeting to find warring gangs engaged in a full-scale riot. She brokered a peace deal with gang members for the rest of the academic year and, as a reward, flew with them up to New York City to prove 9/11 had happened.
Since then, peace has mostly reigned on campus (well, there was the unfortunate arrival of the M13 gang members, brought over from Honduras six years ago, but they were handled and are long gone). But what happens when Simmons leaves? What happens when Blackwell leaves? Is there a strong succession plan in place? Or do schools need a secure system in place — Barqawi certainly thinks so — that doesn’t require what he calls “a superstar hero principal” to make it go?
Blackwell had retired from Aldine because her husband was sick and her mother was in really bad shape. She wasn’t sure she could give the time required to her job there. “Couple years later I was doing a little work for Aldine. I was getting a little tired of being the granny-mobile. I mean, I love my grandchildren; don’t get me wrong. But I was getting grandma-ed to death and I wasn’t ready. You can feel yourself losing your edge.” So when HISD called, she answered.
“When I first saw the kids, they would walk aimlessly,” she says. “It’s actually better to hear some noise because it can be talking, it can be laughing, but what you want to see is kids moving in a direction that gets them toward their class.
“Then you look at the data from the previous years and then you match the data with who taught the subjects in the preceding years,” she says. Standardized test scores, completion and attendance rates and dropout rates are the core data she reviews. “There can be a core problem in the school or you can have someone whose instruction is not motivating kids. The biggest motivator of the kids is the teacher in the classroom, [for them] to come to school the next day. Especially that last-period teacher.”
“Say you taught calculus. Say you love calculus. That doesn’t mean the kids sitting in front of you love calculus,” Blackwell says. “What are you doing to hook those kids?”
It wasn’t the gangs that were the biggest hurdle to turning Furr around, Simmons, now 82 and still running the school, says. “What I found more difficult was to work through the teachers. Because they kept saying the parents don’t care; they’re lazy. They weren’t teaching. They yelled at [the students]. They didn’t teach them. I’d walk into a classroom and the kids were listening to music while the teacher was reading a newspaper.”
While Blackwell encountered teachers who rejected her teacher training offers, Simmons discovered a culture so toxic that: “The professional development department would not come here because they said every time they had ever been here, they left crying and the teachers refused to do what they asked them to do.”
The parallels between Simmons and Blackwell are obvious: retired white women brought in to run troubled inner-city, minority-dominant schools, who arrive to find not all the teachers are happy to see them. The schools differ in size: Furr is a lot larger — 1,100 kids in the main school and 350 in dropout school, and its makeup is far more Hispanic than African-American (74 percent to 24 percent). And Kashmere hasn’t been beset by gang problems. But Kashmere had fights, low scores and students who didn’t believe a lot of the teachers cared about them, just as Furr did.
But how to find new, stable and competent teachers at the district’s neediest schools?
From memory Simmons quotes the famous Langston Hughes poem “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” (“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun...or does it explode?”), then quickly recites his poem “Dreams” and the lines “Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.”
So that’s what she asked teacher candidates: Can you mend broken-winged birds? “Which got me into a really deep discussion with them,” Simmons says. “Then I got to talk to them about the great needs these kids had. They had a lot of fear. They had no beliefs in themselves. Right now I have about 100 that are homeless. I began to identify people who could at least walk in the shoes of these kids.”
Out of HISD’s 283 schools, “Kashmere gets the light shined on them since they’re IR7. We’ve been talking to the state since they were IR1,” alumni president Williams says. His group and others have tried to apply pressure to the school board and HISD to do something more for Kashmere through the years. He lauds Skillern-Jones, whose mother, he says, went to Kashmere. “But she’s just one person.
“HISD, I guess they got people sitting in a room just reading up on this stuff. They come up with these ideas, and then when they come to apply them, they don’t always pan out,” Williams says. “In the meantime, you’ve wasted tax dollars and you’ve wasted students’ time. We found out with the Apollo program, that money pit.”
After the programs are gone and there’s no way the district can pick up the cost because of a budget shortfall, schools are left in worse shape as the principal begins cutting staff and programs, Williams says. At the same time, he strongly opposes closing Kashmere.
“If you shut a school down and send the students to other schools, are you just diluting them into other populations? Are they really getting better education? I’m not sure about that. Takes them off everybody’s radar. But are they really getting a better education?”
HISD shuts down schools. It shuts them down because of bad state rankings or dwindling student populations, or if trustees and the administration feel the schools are doing more harm than good by staying open. The TEA orders shutdowns and takes over districts. There have been other schools given fewer chances than Kashmere. It got a tremendous amount of help, but critics argue that the help wasn’t the right kind. Even though the principal and TEA’s own conservator say the school probably can’t be turned around in a year, pressure is immense to do just that.
“No one wants to be with the school that has the longest number of years with improvement required,” Delaney says. “So that in and of itself is going to help.” She still has family living in the community, so transforming the school is a personal mission for her as well.
Barqawi says he thinks closing Kashmere is off the board. He doesn’t see reconstitution as happening either. Maybe it’s a partnership with another entity, or working more closely with the city. Maybe, he says, the state sets aside Kashmere and its whole feeder group and operates it as a separate system, an alternative school.
Principal Blackwell often goes around town wearing a Kashmere shirt. She gets some of the same reception that she knows her kids receive sometimes. “I know how they feel because when I tell people I’m the principal here, they say, ‘Are you crazy?’ They say terrible things. These are children. There are no throwaway children.
“It’s hard to change what people think of Kashmere. The culture is changing. I just want you to know that my kids are probably better-behaved than any other school in the city,” she says. “The problem is we’ve been in the hole so long.”
Dashawn Gamble came to Kashmere for the sports and academics, he says. Asked if he’d stay if there were no sports, he says yes, because the school is like family. “When I had no cleats, [the coaches] paid for them. If I didn’t have enough money for my insurance, they paid it.”
This is a school, he says, where some kids walk long distances because they don’t have enough money for a bus ride. He and other students acknowledge the better facilities, the better opportunities kids at Lamar and Bellaire and other fine high schools have that they don’t.
But he and others are proud Rams and take their moments when they can. Asked how well a student from a more affluent school would do if transferred to Kashmere, he smiles broadly and replies:
“If kids from Lamar came here, they wouldn’t even last.”
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