Opinion: Our House Wants a Very, Very, Very Fine (School) House. Can HISD Afford It?

Superintendent Millard House III has some big plans for HISD.
Superintendent Millard House III has some big plans for HISD. Screenshot
For years during her turn as a Houston ISD school board member, Jolanda Jones regularly railed against “inequities” — the unequal offerings at the district’s schools – paying particular attention to the lack of libraries at many HISD schools, usually in poorer neighborhoods.

For a school district constantly falling behind in the number of kids reading on grade level, it seemed a no-brainer that staffed libraries had to be an essential part of the plan to get students back on track.

And yet, under a decentralized system that gave principals the right to decide what services to fit into their budgets, one superintendent after another weakly waved their hands, endorsing the idea but not the actuality of a library on every campus.

Jones, now a Democratic candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, had to be nodding her head in vigorous agreement with the announcement by newish Superintendent Millard House III last week that in his five-year strategic plan there will be a library, counselor and nurse in every school.

Among many other things, House also called for gifted and talented programs at all schools, fine arts everywhere and raises for teachers and other HISD employees with signing bonuses for new teachers. And for the special education program that always seems to be falling short: presumably much better support to meet its goals. (He also wants to restore public trust, a particularly hard sell after the latest federal indictments charging bribery, fraud, kickbacks and witness tampering involving five administration officials, a former school board member and a vendor who was granted inflated contracts for nine count-'em years.)

House hasn’t detailed where he’s getting the money for all this other than a mention of COVID-19 federal relief funds, but setting aside what happens after those temporary funds are gone and how this perpetually cash-strapped district with now declining enrollment is going to both initiate and sustain this effort there’s another question that arises:

Where are principals going to put the people and facilities a program like this calls for?

Anyone who has been in some of the poorer and older schools in the district knows there is often a space problem. Former closets are offices, cafeterias are auditoriums are where gym class is held. At one Sunnyside school, Read Houston Read volunteers had to work with students at desks set up lining the hallways outside classrooms because there were no rooms available in which to sit down together – a situation that probably wasn’t unique to that campus.

How do you carve out room for a library or a nurse’s office or a counselors’ office if you’ve never had one? Even if you’ve had a library, have its space and hours been “repurposed” for teacher meetings or administration assessment drop-ins?

Are fine arts teachers going to be relegated to carrying their instructional materials on a cart, going from classroom to classroom without a permanent home of their own? Where will the students’ art and their instruments reside?

Through the years there have been numerous complaints about HISD not having enough counselors, and in some cases, having counselors who didn’t know what they were doing. At schools with more involved parents, those moms and dads chipped in to help guide the college application process. At others, students were left to fend for themselves amid the intricacies of FAFSA, essays and teacher recommends.

And then there are the students at all levels with problems, not always of their own making, who need someone to talk with privately – something that can’t happen in the middle of a class.

But setting aside the money, setting aside the logistics of where these programs are going to operate from, the next question should be: how can the district ensure, for instance, that the programs are what they say they are? And will they be consistent from school to school or just lip service to a name?

For instance, any survey of Gifted and Talented programs in Texas reveals a wide array. In many schools it may be a designated section of students who at the middle and high school level take most of their enhanced core classes together, or at the elementary level are in a contained classroom with more challenging material. But there are also schools and districts in which the G/T tag is attached to nothing more than a special Friday afternoon “enrichment” program once a week. In fact, often the only thing that's "standard" about G/T services is that minority children are significantly underrepresented in its numbers.

In two weeks, Superintendent House says he will present more details of his plans to the HISD school board. It will be a long meeting, with a lot of questions, not all friendly. Clearly there will be pushback from some principals who'll see this as the slippery slope to the end of decentralized school governance, who'll say they know more than any just-arrived superintendent about what is needed at their particular school.

House may not get all that he wants. Few superintendents do. Superintendents come and go bringing initiatives and leaving behind some that work, many that don't. But what's encouraging is that House built his plan after listening to parents in a series of community meetings throughout the district.

What's more encouraging is that he proposes to do something to disrupt the status quo, to not let past practices be the final determiner of what the district can be. Yes, there's a price to pay for all this, but there's also a price to pay if HISD continues as it has. HISD shouldn't be a large district with a few spectacular schools to point to. It should aim for good schools throughout and more resources are needed to do that.

If we can reach the point where it doesn't matter what school a student attends in HISD, that he or she will get the same educational opportunities, the same best teachers, the same support — well that would really be something, wouldn't it? 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing