Principal Bertie Simmons Gets Her School Fixed Up (a Little), Furr Forum Hosts Trustee Candidates

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A spiffed-up Furr High School played host to the District VIII school board candidates forum at mid-day today, as community members and some trustees got a chance to assess who might be a good choice to replace Diana Davila.

Some of the Furr High School kids were up until 4:30 this morning, painting the building, which not only gleamed, but in certain passageways would about knock you out with the fresh fumes.

"They spilled a little red paint, but that's okay," said a proud Principal Bertie Simmons.

A leak that had been reported in 2007 -- turned out to be a sewage line going into the main office -- got fixed after a reminder call to the district's central maintenance facility, Simmons said.

"I told them we had the school board coming," Simmons said laughing. "Maybe I'll invite the school board over more often."

Hair Balls spotted five school board members: Harvin Moore, Anna Eastman, Michael Rodriguez, Michael Lunceford and president Greg Meyers. We didn't see Paula Harris (who friends of Hair Balls say has taken some grief for not joining her fellow minority trustees in voting for an election this November) or Larry Marshall and Carol Mims Galloway (both of whom voted for an election along with Rodriguez, rather than an appointment.) The board has until August 24 to decide.

As for the candidates themselves, all were earnest, some more polished that others, some louder than others. There were several present and former teachers.

A quick look:

Judith A. Cruz: She's white with a Hispanic surname, mother of three. She's been a Teach for America educator at Lee and Liberty highs in HISD and also taught in Pearland and Washington, D.C. She concluded her address in Spanish. She's says she's been making the rounds, asking people who live in the district what they need and the answer is: more rigor in HISD courses. She argued for an end to "one size fits all" in school district operations. Asked if she'd run if she wasn't appointed: Yes

Dionicio Vidal "D.V. Sonny" Flores: As he pointed out, has been appointed to a lot of boards in Texas. The president and owner of PEC Corp., he's an engineer in the construction business. His number-one concern is the dropout rate. He said said "I have always felt some schools get better treatment than others, better teachers than others," adding, of course, that he wants that to end. He said probably wouldn't run if he's not appointed.

Nellie Garza-White: She endorsed Superintendent Terry Grier and his work to improve the district. She acknowledged that not all teachers get a fair shot at merit pay; often all the "good" students are in one set of classes and the "lagging" ones in another. She said "sometimes there's a disconnection between the board and the population in general." She would consider running in an election.

Dorothy Olmos: She's a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Harris County Commissioner, Precinct 2. She was an educator back in the '90s who says the number-one challenge the district faces is its dropout rate. She thinks teacher merit pay is a good incentive, but regrets the competition it fosters among teachers. She'd rather be appointed than elected; she said she knows how expensive elections are -- but she'd definitely run.

Adolfo Santos: A University of Houston-Downtown professor, he talked a lot about what research studies show. School districts in Texas are still using standardized tests "that are not appropriate for our time," he said. He also stressed that it wasn't just having a good teacher and principal -- while important -- that made all the difference in a student's success. He also said it depends on the parents, the community partners, the clergy, having adequate infrastructure and the engagement of the student himself. He said he wouldn't run if not appointed; he doesn't have the infrastructure in place to run a campaign.

Peter Schwethelm: One of the more entertaining speakers, who kept urging the district to drop its "one size fits all"training methods and to treat teachers like the professionals they are and quit the micromanaging.

He said the biggest challenge is classroom size and said the best thing would be if HISD doubled the number of its teachers; immediately conceding that it won't because of budget constraints. Although, he added, they could "cut a whole lot of positions in the central office." He says he's definitely running if not appointed.

He also wondered why when Milby High was in such bad shape on student math scores, it took a whole semester to get a replacement math coach for the teacher who was out on maternity leave and couldn't that be decided by the principal rather than have to go through the board for approval?

Schwethelm's bio doesn't say what he does but he referenced being a high school math teacher when he answered the series of questions posed to the panelists. "We unfairly demonize teachers," he said at one point, arguing that if he adds 18 points to a student's standardized math score, he shouldn't be penalized just because that student is still failing.

Juliet K. Stipeche: A lawyer and Rice graduate, she talked of growing up on the East Side and said the real focus in any decision should be the children of the district. She pointed out that not only is it important that HISD send its graduates on to college, but that it give them the skills to succeed. She's uncertain if she would run if trustees opt for an election.

Ann Ziker: Another Rice grad, she's the managing director of the Houston office of Education Pioneers, which brings grad students into education leadership positions. Her major concern is "ensuring the quality of teachers and school leaders is as high as it could be." And: "empowering parents." She endorsed the district's Apollo 20 program for its most-troubled schools. She said student test scores should be part of a teacher's evaluation. She would not run for election at this time; she's not sure in fact that she can manage the time commitments for a board seat.

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