The Great Divide

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It was a standard high school parents meeting, beginning with a lengthy discussion of senior photos and student yearbooks. Adults, tired at the end of their long day, slumped on cafeteria chairs, listening dutifully to the well-meaning overexplanation of what was available. Typical, normal and comfortably boring.

Except that this was a meeting of Vanguard parents at Jesse Jones High School. What they were discussing -- and what lay ahead on the agenda -- was anything but status quo.

For one thing, there had been no yearbooks or senior photos the year before. The school hadn't been paying its bills. For another, yearbooks and pictures weren't coming back for everyone, just for the GT kids -- really smart children in the magnet Vanguard program who'd been designated gifted and talented.

For the final big item on the agenda this January 15 night, the Vanguard parents were there to discuss life after the ouster of Lawrence Allen, principal of Jones High.

While quietly jubilant at the departure of a principal most considered inept and many thought corrupt, they were faced at the same time with the realization that they had a real hurdle to overcome: how to attract more GT students to a dwindling program at a school that they themselves had proclaimed to be seriously flawed.

A few days later, they had a new, much more massive set of problems.

Superintendent Kaye Stripling stepped in and reinstated Allen for the rest of the year, saying she did not want to disrupt the students. Security was added. Another meeting was called, this time at the Chelsea Market branch of Main Street Theater, and the 35 Vanguard parents assembled there on January 19 clearly were not certain what they should do.

Suddenly their target, the man at whom they'd hurled accusations, the man against whom they'd triumphed, was back. After amassing two and a half years of evidence against Allen and presenting it to the Houston Independent School District administrators, these parents didn't bother to hide their sense of betrayal.

These parents of children in the only GT Vanguard program in all of HISD's high schools had brought their best and brightest to an inner-city school bordered by narrow streets and low-income houses -- a "ghetto," as several parents refer to it -- chasing the best education that taxpayer money could buy in a public school. They were willing to put up with less-than-palatial accommodations because they believed in the program and respected the teachers assigned to it.

What they weren't willing to put up with was raw sewage backing up in the courtyard and bathrooms, where toilet paper was always missing. They were outraged by classes without textbooks, not only in Vanguard but on the regular, or so-called comprehensive, side of the school as well. They complained of class scheduling conflicts and counselors hired for the Vanguard program with no background in working with GT students. They wanted to know where the uniform money had gone. They were bothered by video game machines in the school cafeteria.

They had been told during the regime of then-superintendent Rod Paige that the Vanguard program would be getting six and a half new positions. Instead, they say, the deck was reshuffled, and they got two teachers, both of them already on staff at Jones. "Where did those positions go?" Vanguard parent Susan Levy asked. They wanted to know why some Vanguard teachers were also teaching regular classes.

They were tired of hostility from some members of the regular side of the school: certain receptionists, teachers and administrators who made it clear they didn't like the Vanguard program, considering it elitist. They were increasingly frustrated by incorrect attendance records that had Vanguard parents repeatedly hauled in to court to explain why their children were absent from school, when they actually had been attending classes.

Most of all, they were upset about a novice principal who couldn't seem to fix anything and didn't want to respond to their complaints. They had lists and spreadsheets documenting 56 different problems, only four or five of them specific to the Vanguard program.

"The Vanguard program is a good program. It's just in a crappy school," one parent declared at the Main Street Theater meeting.

Actually, this year was supposed to be better. In the fall, Dr. James Simpson was brought in to be the Vanguard principal. Dr. George August, executive director of the South Central District office, was brought in as executive principal over both schools. Three principals in one school; surely the problems would disappear now. But they didn't. So parents took their complaints even higher. They went repeatedly to South Central District Superintendent Linda Whitley -- most recently in an epic four-and-a-half-hour meeting. When she didn't do anything, they went to Dr. Margaret Stroud, first deputy to Kaye Stripling.

Finally, the district took action and removed Allen. But activist Quanell X organized some members of the neighborhood into a protest for local TV news. Stripling reinstated Allen, although she said the community demonstration had nothing to do with her decision. The fact that Allen's mother, Alma Allen, is on the state board of education also had nothing to do with her decision, Stripling said.

Still, the district recognized "a level of inexperience here," according to HISD spokeswoman Heather Browne. So Allen wouldn't be back in there by himself. A task force would go with him and examine procedures at the school, to help Allen sort things out and assess whether he and Jones were really a good fit.

Unfortunately, the makeup of the new task force didn't win the administration too many points. Vanguard Parents Organization president Becky Udden said she was told it would be headed up by South District Superintendent Warner Ervin and Hilbert Bludau, assistant superintendent of school operational support.

Well, Ervin's wife, Melba, works for Allen as a counselor on the comprehensive side of Jones High School. Parents said she was moved there after they complained a few years back about the job she was doing in the Vanguard program. But Stripling said later that Ervin was not one of the task force leaders and there shouldn't be concern. "What we sent Warner in to look at doesn't really have anything to do with the area in which his wife works, so there really shouldn't be a conflict there," Stripling said. "Mr. Ervin has a district to run, so he's not going to be heavily involved in this."

Bludau was on the HISD task force that investigated the fatal stabbing of a student in Deady Middle School in 1999. He addressed Jones teachers about the new task force by first saying that he'd known and respected the Allen family for a long time.

It seemed to some parents, at least, that the deck was stacked and Lawrence Allen was proof of the boast he made to several of them: "You can't touch me." Or as one parent put it: "They've made him invincible now."

HISD removed Allen as principal "for the betterment of the whole school," South Central District Superintendent Linda Whitley told Jones faculty.

Sitting on a couch in his office for an interview shortly after his return, the well-dressed Allen was not the picture of a chastised administrator grateful for a second chance. Task force members were meeting just outside his office; he was asked if he needed to reschedule the interview to be on hand for the session. But Allen was the epitome of the man on top of things. "No," he said, "I have a representative there."

He was clear and articulate. He not infrequently referred to himself in the third person as "Mr. Allen."

His portrayal of what has gone on differed in several aspects from what Vanguard parents report -- and in some cases, from what HISD administrators say. In fact, some of his statements seemed at odds with his own actions.

He talked of the importance of reaching out to all students through his appearances at sporting events and in school. Yet Vanguard parents say he attends football and basketball games, but not soccer games. In the interview, Allen said he would attend his first soccer game the next day. He denied he's "never" attended the meetings of Vanguard parents or the comprehensive side's Parent Teacher Student Association.

He frequently said he had not heard of the problems Vanguard parents insist they raised repeatedly with him. Allen said none of the Vanguard parents talked to him this year. He doesn't talk with them, he said. Asked to clarify that statement, he said:

"I have not talked to one parent, one Vanguard parent, about any issue since August 2001. I am the principal over the comprehensive program."

In a separate interview, Dr. Simpson said he knows Vanguard parents have e-mailed or called Allen with their concerns this school year because many of them copy their e-mails to him. He was at a loss to explain Allen's statements.

Allen said he had not heard of problems with the Vanguard students' attendance records, and wasn't aware of any animosity by the comprehensive side toward Vanguard students. At the January 15 meeting, Joyce Woods announced that George August, executive director of the south central office, had removed her as the Vanguard counselor. Asked about it, Allen said: "I wouldn't know what assignment Mrs. Woods has. She serves another populace with the school."

Yet HISD spokeswoman Browne and Simpson both said that Woods, whose salary had been paid for with Vanguard funds, had been transferred to the comprehensive side and was working for Allen. They said she was removed from Vanguard at Simpson's request because she refused to take direction from Simpson, telling him Allen was her boss.

Allen was brought in as principal of Jones two and a half years ago to improve student performance. He'd gone to high school there and served as a Jones assistant principal for three years. He left in '97 for two years as an assistant principal at Yates High School before returning. He'd started his career at Lanier Middle School, where his son is in the Vanguard program, before moving to Dick Dowling.

Allen's first year as Jones's principal was a honeymoon. He was scouting the staff for strengths and weaknesses, but saved changes for the second year, he said.

He instituted standardized dress "to remove competition in clothing." He felt the Vanguard program needed a mission, so he brought in respected teacher Mary Kay Porter to be Vanguard coordinator. It was his idea to add Dr. Simpson, Allen said.

He denied disliking Vanguard and insisted he does not want to see the program leave Jones. He denied that he has any bad feelings toward Vanguard parents.

Allen said it was not true that students didn't have textbooks. He's heard the one about the advanced physics class with no books. Well, there's no state-approved advanced-placement physics book, so he couldn't order one from the HISD warehouse, he said. But the regular physics course book was available and in the classroom, he said.

The class-scheduling problems last year were not the result of counselors not doing their jobs, he said. Allen insisted that parents just didn't understand that some of the advanced courses are offered only one time because only a very small number of students want to take them. Yet parent Jeanne Liang, who has since moved her son to Westside High School, said she was able to reconfigure the lineup so that more Vanguard students could get their courses.

Yes, some Vanguard parents got very upset about the video game machines in the cafeteria. Brought in for a fund-raising community carnival that didn't generate that much money, the machines -- Street Fighter and Pac-Man -- were moved inside the cafeteria after the vendor failed to return for them, Allen said. Students began playing during lunchtime. "It was not a distraction," Allen said. "One parent objected to the Street Fighter game. I expedited the removal [of both machines]. It took about a month, not the six months they've been talking about."

Cash receipts from the video game income show deposits made in November 2000 and March 2001 -- a four-month span. Those deposits totaled $318 and went into the student council fund, which only added to the questions.

"There is no student council," said Becky Udden. "So that was an interesting choice of where to put that money. There hasn't been one for a couple of years."

Questions also have been raised about the money paid to the school for student uniforms. Allen laughed about this. "There is not a big pot of gold someplace that has been consumed." As Allen explained: The money goes to a central activity account used to fund such things as bus rides to sporting events and student newspapers. Uniform sales don't bring in much money, he said, because some uniforms are handed down, and others are free to poor students. Some students don't buy uniforms; they're allowed to wear standardized colors instead.

According to Heather Browne, HISD did investigate Allen on the allegations of misallocation of funds and found them invalid.

There were no purchase orders or contracts for uniforms the last two school years at Jones. Instead, Jones was using a "direct pay" method, which means that vendors submit invoices for reimbursement when they sell something to the school, said Ann Ebrahimi, manager of HISD's Records & Document Imaging Services. She said most of the HISD high schools use purchase orders to buy uniforms.

The truth is, Allen said, that the Vanguard program is producing a memory book, not a yearbook. (No, said Simpson, it's a yearbook.) Allen said the comprehensive program is also producing a memory book, one that will feature seniors.

Allen confirmed the school had not been paying its yearbook bills. When he arrived in '99, there were unpaid yearbook bills from the three years before, he said. He figured that a school the size of Jones could expect to sell no more than 300 yearbooks a year, so it would have to charge $70 a book to cover costs. Since he knew few kids could afford that, he decided to stop the yearbooks, he said, and instead concentrate on settling the school's accounts.

The Jones principal said he welcomed the team coming in as an opportunity to get a professional assessment. Asked how he felt he would fare with them, he bristled, saying the question had negative implications.

"Mr. Allen is here to do a job. This team is not here to assess Mr. Allen. This team is here to assess Jones High School and its programs and how it may go forward," Allen stated emphatically.

That was not the message that HISD's Heather Browne was dispensing: "If the district is not satisfied…then certainly the option is there at the end of the school year to remove him permanently."

While many people involved insist the tension at Jones is not racial, others say that yes, indeed, this is part of the problem.

"If you can snatch Lawrence Allen away from us, a lot of our kids will say, hey, the white man can do anything he wants to do," said Craig Beverly. He is president of the Jones Alumni Association, which he reactivated after his son came home from school and told him Allen had been given the boot.

Several Vanguard parents say they were told their complaints about Allen's performance were just "white Vanguard parents stirring up trouble." Allen denied saying that.

The Vanguard program has 187 kids. While it is portrayed by many, including Allen, as predominately white, the program is actually minority-majority, with 40 percent white, 30 percent African-American and more than 20 percent Hispanic. Allen is black, so are Simpson and August -- the latter two are well liked by Vanguard parents, who uniformly speak highly of both of them. Vanguard parents have said publicly they wish Simpson would be principal of the entire school.

According to Tanya Akpabio, the parent of a junior who left the Vanguard program a few weeks ago, it is Allen who has turned the dispute into a racial situation, "and it's not that at all." It may appear that way, she said, because a lot of the Vanguard students are white and their parents are concerned about their education, "and you're not having the same kind of concern from the other side."

Overall, Jones, with a total enrollment of 1,277, is predominantly Hispanic and black (a Vanguard parent complaint is that there is no one in the front office who can communicate with Spanish-speaking parents).

"You don't apply to this school in the first place if you are racist," said parent Levy. "That to us is like a nonissue."

By its essence, a magnet school sets itself off in separate, smaller classes for special kids, which can create a feeling of the haves and the have-nots. At Jones, this split is magnified with separate principals (all other HISD schools have a magnet coordinator, not another principal) and two separate parent-teacher groups: the intensely involved Vanguard parents and the comprehensive side's PTSA, which has had almost no one attending its meetings.

While Vanguard students' TAAS scores are more than welcome when school accreditation is considered, their generally high grade points compete with other Jones students for class ranking spots and guaranteed admission to Texas colleges.

Beverly, himself a Vanguard graduate, wants Allen in charge of the entire school once again, not just the comprehensive side. "No. 1, he's from this community. I played Pee Wee ball with Lawrence.

"The consensus is: Lawrence knows the right thing to do. Now whether he's done it or not, or whether somebody [needs] to read him the riot act, to tell him what to do, that's my job…to come in and right this ship. It's our community, it's our school, it's our Vanguard program. It's our responsibility."

Beverly said he wasn't active before at Jones because everything was going well for his family there. "That doesn't mean that I'm insensitive about what the VPO was going through. I just didn't know about it."

Vanguard parents deserve a better facility and a better curriculum, he said. Conditions at Jones have been bad for years, Beverly said. His son doesn't shower there because of the mold and mildew, and he didn't shower there back in 1979. He said he thinks the VPO kids are used to better facilities, while his community has become desensitized to the problems.

Comprehensive parents want most of all for their kids to graduate from high school, he said. "Some of these kids at Jones High School have done Texas Department of Corrections time, and some of them are there as a condition of their parole. So for us, Lawrence is a guy who knows these kids, he grew up with these type of kids. He can keep a lid on.

"He's like the Bill Cosby show to us. He's a living example of a guy who stays drug-free, disciplined, educated and this is what you can aspire to be when you are 38. He's a walking, living example of what you can make out of yourself coming out of this community."

Beverly said HISD wanted Allen to solve problems in two and a half years that have been 20 years in the making, and it just isn't going to happen.

He was willing to concede that Allen might need some adjusting. "There may be a problem with arrogance with Lawrence. His mother's on the state board of education. He may have thought that that was a shield."

Beverly said he's changed his stance somewhat. "Initially, I'd gone way left. I felt like the white folks had come into our neighborhood and done some things. But we were absentee. They had every right to do what's in the best interests of their kids. And we were not around. But at the same time, I don't want them to gain anything at the expense of our kids."

Tanya Akpabio and her former husband, J.R. Wilson, pulled their son, Chad Akpabio-Wilson, from the Vanguard program after winter break. The decision was difficult and made with regret, said Wilson. It also has caused difficulties for Chad.

Ranked 13th in his class at Jones, Chad transferred to Lamar, a school twice its size. Enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program there, he's making good grades, but with more kids, his class rank drops. He's an accomplished athlete in soccer and track -- his soccer club teams have made it to state more than once. But now he's reduced to reading about fellow competitors in the newspaper, his father says, while he waits on a petition for a waiver from the University Interscholastic League that would allow him to participate in athletics at Lamar. Chad's dream is to go to Stanford, study astrophysics, play soccer and run track, Wilson said. So far Wilson hasn't been able to get the UIL petition past the South Central District office.

Despite his son's departure, Wilson still volunteers at Jones and attends parent meetings there. His wife was less understanding.

As a junior, Chad was to take the PSAT, whose scores are used to determine National Merit Scholarships. Chad has trouble taking tests within strict time limits, his parents said. Given a special designation provided for by law, Chad is supposed to be allowed extra time on standardized tests. Akpabio said she was assured by counselor Woods that she had taken care of the paperwork with the College Board to ensure that Chad got the extra time he is entitled to during the testing.

On test day Chad was not allowed any extra time whatsoever, Akpabio said. "It's not even acknowledged that this is something he's entitled to…They basically just blew him off." Then she found out that Woods had never presented the application to the College Board.

"Enough was enough…He's a junior. It's a critical time. I just could not afford any more costly mistakes."

Akpabio and Wilson believe the Vanguard program can work, and it can work at Jones with a good administrator. "Administratively, Allen is just lousy. He doesn't take care of anything," Akpabio said.

Wilson, now a history teaching fellow at the University of Houston, was the head soccer coach at Jones last year, even though he wasn't on the school's staff. Allen said in his Houston Press interview that any stipend "for the soccer coach, this went through the athletic department, not Mr. Allen." Told this, Wilson said he was surprised because he had several conversations with Allen, who assured him repeatedly that he would be paid, although this never happened until after the task force arrived this year.

Actually, Wilson said Allen has good points. When Chad cut off his dreadlocks after wearing them for 14 years and was embarrassed about how he looked in school, Allen encouraged him, Wilson said.

"The kids like Mr. Allen. When the news came down about him leaving, the kids said, 'Well, who's going to sit in the dunking booth?' 'Who's going to come to the football games and the basketball games?' That's their world. They don't see the other glitches."

Other Vanguard students echoed Wilson's comments. Seniors Katherine Gray, Kristen Sparks, Ari Gonzalez, Jarrett Mostiller and Asenat Trevino all said they like Allen, although they said he keeps to his side of the school and doesn't have much to do with them, in class or at special Vanguard functions. Opinion was divided as to whether he's a good principal. Sparks said one teacher had told her that Allen "had the skills to be a wonderful principal, but they didn't give him long enough to get ready for it." All agreed with Sparks's suggestion that maybe Allen might improve if he went to summer school to learn to be a better administrator.

In fact, several of the kids said the problem isn't so much with Allen, but with the administrators under him, administrators who just need to be fired. For instance, Gray said, she tried to get a theater group going this year. There was no theater teacher at the start of the year, so she enlisted an English as a Second Language teacher from the comprehensive side. They went to the administration -- not Allen, she said -- and were told the school would have to charge them rent because they didn't have a theater teacher as a sponsor, Gray said.

They also said that some teachers have hostile preconceptions about Vanguard students, who stick out, they said, because they "talk white" no matter what their ethnicity.

All have been impressed with Allen's sense of style. Gray said Allen, for his appearance at the first swim meet, swept into the room wearing a three-piece suit and a fedora. Sometimes he stands on the roof of the school, surveying everything going on, they said.

"All my conversations with him, he's been understanding," Gray said. "I don't know what to think about Mr. Allen."

With his ready smile, Allen might do better in marketing, said Wilson, the parent. "We are not all cut out to be managers."

At a recent PTSA meeting, Allen stood up and said something to the effect that "God had sent him to Jones to go through what he's going through for the good of the school," Wilson said, adding that he resented those comments. "I don't think the messianic complex is appropriate at a PTSA meeting."

In some instances, he said, the issue has become "protecting Mr. Allen" rather than airing problems that need discussion.

HISD has prided itself on its decentralization efforts, which are ongoing. In theory, it is more than justified: Micromanaging from a central office in a district this large doesn't work.

Unfortunately, as has been demonstrated in HISD more than once, when you decentralize until an individual principal becomes king of his realm -- with little interference from central office -- sometimes you get some bad outcomes.

As complaints came in over the past couple of years about Allen's performance, Superintendent Kaye Stripling said she was kept informed, but was not directly involved. That changed as the issues heated up, she said.

She sent in the task force "to separate out hearsay and fact." She has to know what's really true before she can determine what to do next.

Some of the issues at Jones are bigger than the principal, Stripling said. Sometimes textbooks not being in a building has to do with state textbook delivery, she said. The district lost a number of books in the flooding from Tropical Storm Allison.

Stripling said it would be premature for her to predict whether the Vanguard program should remain at Jones. "We're looking at what are the necessary conditions that the program remains the top-notch program that I think it is still, because the kids continue to go there, continue to perform well."

She agreed that it's hard to understand why there's just one Vanguard program in all of HISD. "It's kind of ridiculous, isn't it? I think that we in the future…we've got to look at expanding our Vanguard program for high school…It doesn't make any sense to have all these Vanguard elementaries and Vanguard middle schools and then go down to one high school."

Dr. James Simpson sits in a cramped, colorful, makeshift office, a former media center for Jones. He has a B.A. in mathematics and a master's in administration, both from Sam Houston State University, and is a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M in education administration. He has taught advanced placement courses in calculus and has GT certification as a teacher and a principal. This rising star, who wishes one day to work in a superintendent's office, watches his step and chooses his words carefully.

Simpson arrived at a troubled Vanguard program that had dwindled from a high of 300 students to 187. "There was a lack of communication," he said. "There was a perception there was a lack of communication from administration to parents."

But even with Simpson's arrival and August's on-site presence, communication problems continued. Parents thought they'd heard that Simpson would be running his own ship, yet Allen still had control of the budget and its checks. They thought Simpson was going to be able to solve problems with the course selections, but counselor Woods didn't get course changes made that Simpson had approved, according to parent David Cosier. And that meant attendance record problems weren't clearing up either.

Jones did not have a college night, when university representatives visit a campus, which meant that the GT students didn't have one either. Simpson is trying to get that started.

He and Allen talk in passing. "There are times we will sit down and discuss things. I don't feel like Mr. Allen and I have a bad relationship; in fact, I think we get along quite well."

That's not the view of all of the parents. As one, who did not want to be named, put it, "Dr. Simpson is shoveling water. Everything he tried to do, Lawrence Allen tried to get in his way."

Becky Udden led the group taking its complaints to HISD administration. She confessed she doesn't know what will happen next.

"I've been so completely surprised at every turn by what does and does not happen that I no longer speculate. I'm waiting for some kind of indication as to whether they're really going to clean it up or whether it's just a whitewash. I really believe it could be either."

Another parent, who declined to have his name used, expressed great optimism after Allen was removed. "I'm supportive if it would be what it's supposed to be: a unique teaching environment to get the kids to think out of the box, a diverse program with a dedicated staff…We have a marvelous relationship with the faculty, and many of the parents are friends."

This is a parent whose home school is the highly regarded Bellaire, which itself attracts students from throughout HISD. Why not go there? Because the Jones Vanguard program offers his children class sizes of seven to 19 students, and teachers who don't teach in rote style. Students all know each other, he said.

A week later, the parent was crushed and far less hopeful.

Reba Wright is president of the PTSA on the comprehensive side of the school. She does not want to see Allen removed. "I like Mr. Allen. I want him to remain as principal of the school," she said. "We all just want to work together to make the school a better school."

Wright said she had heard of some problems in the last school year but didn't know about them personally. She said that was all the comment she wanted to make.

Jesse Jones High School sits in a rundown neighborhood of burglar-barred houses whose streets are named after World War II battle sites. The street on which the school sits, St. Lo, was the scene of a major clash between American forces and German defenders in July 1944, a month after the Allied invasion of Normandy. The French city, a focal point for conflict in many earlier wars, was almost destroyed in the WWII battle.

It remains to be seen what will be left standing of Jones or Allen after this current battle. All but one of the Vanguard students who talked with the Press said they liked the program at Jones, would not want to see it move and would encourage other kids to go there.

These kids rejected Bellaire and Lamar as too big, too impersonal, too preppy and too concentrated on rote learning. Part of the big attraction for the white students, they said, is that they are in a distinct minority at Jones and could learn about another culture.

Jones offers smaller classes in a smaller school. Jarrett Mostiller said he can go there without having to decide at age 14 on his future career by signing up at a subject-specific magnet.

All in all, though, Mostiller said he wishes he'd gone to Booker T. Washington instead. He said he could not recommend the regular side of Jones to any student either. "There's about three good teachers over there. There's always something breaking down. I feel like I'm watching the school decay. I hope this task force at least will get it going in the right direction."

As some Vanguard students leave or consider doing so next year, parents are split on recruiting new students. Without numbers, any chance at clout with HISD is lessened. Others say they cannot in good conscience recommend to anyone else that they send their children to this program. "Most of these kids got in somewhere else, too," Udden said. "It's not like this is their only choice." Although it's pretty tough to quit if you're in your junior or senior year.

Udden said that after Allen's return, her follow-up meeting with Kaye Stripling went well. Accompanied by two parents and with Deputy Superintendent Margaret Stroud in attendance, Udden said, there was a frank discussion that included the possibilities that Allen will remain principal, that he will leave or that the Vanguard program will be moved from Jones.

Udden said things have been going better since Simpson was placed in complete control of his program. He was able to get a counselor from Lamar to come and help the students.

This was necessary, Udden said, because there continued to be problems for Vanguard students from the Jones counseling office, even after the arrival of the task force -- problems that evidenced themselves in "foot dragging and truculence and refusing to meet with Dr. Simpson and do what needed to be done for the Vanguard students."

The general feeling among Vanguard students is weariness, waiting to see what will happen, Udden said. "The wait-and-see is fine, but every day there's little irritations, little interruptions."

Some of the Vanguard kids wanted to go on a field trip to Cinco Ranch for TAAS tutoring. When they tried to get on the bus, they were stopped by the counselor in charge, Udden said. Students were told, "That's what you get for trying to be a separate school," Udden said. All 12 of the Vanguard students involved, parent Susan Levy said, are African-American.

Every year the school gives out Jesse Jones college scholarships. The administration nominates 16 kids who are given forms to hand in by January. On February 25 at noon, one of the counselors brought in the Vanguard nominees' applications, saying there were mistakes on them and these students would have to retype the forms that day, Levy said. Well, there's only one typewriter in the building, it's in the counselors' office, and the kids were told they couldn't use that machine, Levy said.

So instead, kids were pulled from their classes in order to use the Vanguard program's computers, then cut and pasted the text onto the applications -- which didn't look great, Levy said, and which might hurt their scholarship chances.

Vanguard parents had been told they would have the opportunity to talk to the task force about these and other problems, and were eagerly awaiting their chance. But it turns out that the task force quietly completed its study in late February and handed over its recommendations to Stroud and Stripling.

The superintendent and her first assistant were still reviewing the report last week, Browne said. A decision was anticipated "maybe within the next three to four weeks."

Udden recently traveled to New York City to visit her sister. They decided to tour the World Trade Center site. The bus left them off right in front of the Stuyvesant School, a public high school. "My sister said, 'That's where the smartest students in New York City go.' Absolutely a beautiful, elegant monument to the best in education.

"Here, we are in the third-world prison -- that's our Vanguard school. I used to believe we could make it work on the Jones campus. But I don't think so. I don't think the program can work there given the current hostility."

J.R. Wilson sees it differently. "It's not so much the program in Jones as it is the management of that school. Whoever's at the helm has to be able to diffuse the resentments and the fears." With a student council, with more welcomed input from parents on both sides of the school, Jones could work for everyone, Wilson said.

"I'm putting my trust in Kaye Stripling and Margaret Stroud, in their leadership, to do the right thing."

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Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.