Longform

The Great Divide

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.

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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