The Closing Of UH's Pre-School Is Getting Nasty

When last Hair Balls looked into the sudden closure of the Human Development Lab, UH's venerable and acclaimed (if ominously named) pre-school, the situation was just starting to simmer.

By now the stew over on Wheeler is on full boil. A Save HDLS web site has been created, and parents have protested on the UH campus. The university's general counsel is bedeviled with gales upon gales of open records requests, and vicious emails are flying back and forth between outraged parents and the honchos of UH's College of Education, which, for the last few years, has run the Lab School. Right into the ground, many parents say...

First, parents and staff are upset about the official reasons given for the school's closure. In speaking to parents, UH Provost John Antel cited "safety concerns" and a failure to adhere to "best practices" and claimed that the school was $100,000 in the red each year for the past five years. Antel also cited a disconnect between the Lab School's constructivist educational philosophy and the behaviorism that is the teaching mode du jour in the College of Education. 

Parents are vehemently disputing all but the last of those reasons. When pressed at meetings with parents, Antel refused to specify the exact nature of both the safety concerns and the best practices, and Hair Balls was furnished with a financial statement that contradicted Antel's $100,000 a year claim.
Even more outrage has greeted the way the College of Education has gone about closing the Lab School. Parents feel misled and left in the lurch.

Back in December, College of Education Dean Robert Wimpleberg and Associate Dean (and ardent behaviorist) Jacqueline Hawkins sent Lab school parents a letter basically stating that the school was staying the course and looking for ways to improve.

Despite that reassuring missive, rumors started flying mid-semester that Hawkins was concocting a plan to close the school. Those plans were made public on May 11. The school is to be shuttered on July 31, leaving parents -- some with special needs children -- to scramble for the last full month of the summer and the eternity to follow.

Lab School parent Dr. Liz Chiao, an HIV researcher at the Baylor College of Medicine, curses their timing. "They should have let us know in December that they were closing, because then we could have looked at other schools," she says. "Instead, we got this crazy letter that said 'We want to bring this school up to the best standards blah-blah-blah.' Just bizarre."

Heidi Hofer, a UH assistant professor of optometry, is the mother of an autistic daughter who is attending the Lab School. The closure is hitting her much harder than most parents. "These problems are exacerbated for me because my child has bona-fide special needs and no alternative program will accept a child for a period of only one month," she wrote in a letter to UH President Renu Khator. "What am I suppose to do with my child during this time period, bring her to the lab with me?" Hofer also is deeply concerned with the psychological impact of not one but two new schools will have on her transition-averse daughter, and there are several other Lab School parents the same boat.

Last week Dean Wimpleberg sent Lab School parents an email notifying them a meeting was being organized to help them find alternative schools for their children.

Chiao fired back saying that these efforts, while appreciated, were much too late. What's more, she wrote, the school demonstrated a callous disregard for both the kids and their parents. "A decision that affects this many families and children, especially those children with special needs, should not have been executed as a standard business procedure, with the consequences for families as an afterthought," wrote Chiao.

Dr. Audra Timmins, a Baylor College of Medicine Ob/Gyn, agreed in a subsequent email. "The way this was handled would be akin to telling a woman after a radical mastectomy what her options for breast cancer treatment were," she wrote.

Wimpleberg had also furnished the parents with a list of alternatives the parents could pursue, which inspired a blast of sarcastic fury from Lab School parent Lori "The Wine Woman" Gray: 

"I must just say 'WOW!' What wonderful help you have been in our time of crisis that you created for us. It was 3 weeks ago that you told us the school would be closing and you are just now getting around to 'scheduling' a meeting with Collaboratives for Children for us...???.... Are you serious when we are T-minus 8 weeks? Also, thanks for the list of 'daycare' centers we can contact. Looked similiar to the phone book."

Such vitriol over the closure is to be expected, not least because the school was so well-loved. "It's a model pre-school," Chiao tells Hair Balls. She adds that it was one of the few pre-schools in Houston in which the teachers were treated with the respect due true professionals.  "That's the loss to the community," she says. "This is what pre-schools should look like -- they shouldn't be these places where teachers are paid $8 an hour."

That respect fostered an environment all-too-hard to find in the world of pre-k's, she says. "The teachers get paid, they get benefits, there's very little turnover. One of my son's teachers had been there 18 years. The teachers got a lot of continuing education, and they were just really gifted with kids. Yes, they were paid well, but it was clear that they were there because of the kids."

In the end, Chiao thinks the closure is not just an indictment of the University of Houston, but the city as a whole. "To me this is such a Houston thing," she says. "They just raze everything and build new here. There's no thought for tradition. Here's a 50-odd-year-old program, but you know what, it hasn't been meeting our needs for the past six months so let's just get rid of it. And they did it without any -- ANY -- conversation about alternatives."

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax