For more than an hour, the principal of Phillis Wheatley High School had been showing off the improvements he and his staff have been making at one of Houston's worst-performing public high schools. Like a town sheriff, Horace Williams strolled Wheatley's halls, a two-way radio in his back pocket and a cell phone clipped to his waistband. Every wandering soul he saw was met with a firm handshake and a direct gaze. An undercurrent of suspicion ran through his greetings. What he was really saying was this: Who are you, and why are you wandering my halls? Why aren't you in a classroom, making something of yourself and this school?
When Williams was named Wheatley's principal nearly three years ago, discipline at the school had broken down. The halls were dirty and marred with graffiti, the lockers were battered and broken, the students were walking in and out of the classrooms and drug dealers were coming onto campus from nearby apartment complexes. That's changed. The lockers have been replaced, the floors are polished and the walls are freshly painted. Four armed guards help keep the dope dealers out. And any student who haunts the halls during class hours can count on confronting Williams or one of his assistant principals.
Inside the classrooms, Williams has added dozens of Compaq computers loaded with Plato, a software program that's helped improve test scores in other Houston schools. The science labs have been recently upgraded. Wheatley offers daycare for young mothers and fathers, and GED programs to reduce the dropout rate. The teachers are using "Guerrilla Tactics," a curriculum that sneaks math lessons into English and history classes. Youngsters who have been "placed" in high school simply because of their age are identified and given remedial work. Wheatley offers after-school and Saturday tutorials for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test, or TAAS.
But many of these are, of course, surface improvements. Upgrading the school's physical plant and adding new academic offerings have been one thing; improving Wheatley's dismal TAAS scores and high dropout rate has been another. Two years ago, when the state lowered HISD's accreditation rating due to the district's high dropout rate and low math scores, Wheatley was out front as an example of a problem school. Its dropout rate was the highest in the district, and its math scores among the lowest. And last fall, in their analysis of the district's TAAS data, auditors for state comptroller John Sharp found Wheatley's TAAS results near the bottom of the HISD barrel in all categories.
Still, HISD has other low-performing high schools, schools such as Jones, Sharpstown, Waltrip, Westbury and even Yates, Wheatley's long-time rival as the city's oldest historically black high school. These schools are also afflicted with the problems that beset Wheatley. So after touring his campus and after answering many questions, Williams had a question of his own. Why the special interest in Wheatley? Why do people keep talking about its problems? Why is it that Wheatley, and not some other school, has been singled out for attention?
He watched suspiciously through oval, wire-rimmed glasses, waiting for an answer. If Horace Williams had grown up in the Fifth Ward in Houston instead of the small town of Kilgore, and if he were, say, 50 years old instead of 36, and if he had attended Wheatley during its glory days in the early '60s, when it was still a racially segregated institution, he might not be asking this question. One of his classmates would have been state Representative Harold Dutton, whose district includes the Fifth Ward, and who, like many other Wheatley alumni now in positions of leadership, fails to see Wheatley as just another school with problems.
These Wheatley graduates want their alma mater to be not just a place that's acceptable, but a school they can be proud of. And they expect the first African-American superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Rod Paige, to realize this. After all, just recently Paige pledged that within three years all HISD schools would perform at or above acceptable levels on the state's accountability system. And where better to start that reform than at Wheatley?
The only question is, how will Paige do what he's promised, especially at a school where solutions have come and gone on a steady and regular basis? Perhaps the district will turn Wheatley over to the Edison Project, a for-profit company that promises to turn schools around. But that approach likely wouldn't sit well with Wheatley's alumni, who constitute a disproportionately large percentage of Houston's middle-aged black leadership. No, what the school needs, says Harold Dutton, is a principal who's a graduate of Wheatley, someone who can be counted on to understand that there's a Wheatley mystique that must be recovered -- even if today nearly half of the school's students are Hispanic, and the tradition that's so meaningful to Dutton doesn't necessarily speak to them or their parents.
So why Wheatley? It is as simple and complex as the one-word answer Williams gives when he's asked about the most difficult part of being Wheatley's principal: politics.
Dutton and other black politicians such as Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, state Representative Al Edwards and former HISD board member Wylie Henry remember when Wheatley was arguably the finest black public high school in the South, when it brimmed not just with great athletes, but with extracurricular activities, when its students excelled in speech and debate and drama and music, when students showed up at seven in the morning for an extra college-level algebra class taught by an inspiring teacher. In spite of the limitations imposed by segregation and poverty, Wheatley produced leaders, and Dutton and many other black leaders like him simply cannot accept the decline of the school that prepared them so well.
When it was completed in 1949, the new Phillis Wheatley High School was touted by the Houston Chronicle as being "the finest Negro high school in the South." It was also the most expensive high school in Houston, costing $2.5 million. For architects, the Houston School Board had picked the up-and-coming firm of MacKie & Kamrath. Houston architects Karl Kamrath and F.J. MacKie Jr. had designed the federal housing in Allen Parkway Village, but they're better known for the homes they built in River Oaks. Wheatley reflected their modernist, Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced approach: Situated on a 14-acre campus at 4900 Market Street in the southern section of the Fifth Ward, the new school had a 1,500-seat auditorium, a swimming pool, a gymnasium and a complete industrial arts facility. When it opened in May, Barbara Jordan, "a student who excels in speech activities," according to a news report, gave an appreciation address.
Enrolling 1,700 students, the new school relieved the overcrowding at the old Phillis Wheatley on Lyons Avenue, which had become so overpopulated that students were attending in shifts. When the new building was ready, an itinerant faith healer who was holding meetings on Jensen Drive caused concern for a few days by spreading a rumor that the old school was going to blow up. It didn't; instead, it was eventually converted into a career center and E.O. Smith Middle School, named for Wheatley's first principal, a tough-minded teacher who worked on the docks during his summers off and organized a local of the longshoremen's union in 1913.
The late 1940s were exciting times for Houston's newly emerging black middle class. In a desperate attempt to stave off the integration of the University of Texas law school, the state legislature had created Texas Southern University, and many of its first graduates, among them Barbara Jordan, were drawn from the Fifth Ward and Wheatley. Houston's school board lavished attention on the new high school, at least in part to shore up the argument that segregated facilities could be equal.
Despite the obvious fallacies in that argument, segregation had built a strong sense of community among black Houstonians. Though it was known as the "bloody Fifth" for well-publicized acts of violence, the Fifth Ward in the '40s wasn't nearly as blighted with poverty as it is today. Segregation meant that it was home to all segments of the black community -- black professionals and business leaders could count on African-Americans to use their services and shop in their stores and patronize their clubs and businesses. Integration meant more freedom and equality, but it also meant that blacks began shopping in traditionally white areas, while the black middle class and their successful children moved, just as the whites did, to the suburbs. As the '50s became the '60s and the '70s, Wheatley students who had once greeted their teachers in the streets and shops of the Fifth Ward were less and less likely to see them in their neighborhood. Today, not a single Wheatley teacher lives in the neighborhoods from which the school draws its students.
Talk to African-Americans who grew up in the Fifth Ward during segregation, and they inevitably evoke a nostalgia for their high school. Wylie Henry, class of '63 and director of the Fifth Ward Multi-Service Center, is one of those. His father graduated in Wheatley's first class in 1929, and his brother, Forest Henry, was named principal of Wheatley in 1985, when Wylie Henry sat on the school board.
"Wheatley was like a second home," says Henry. "Through the clubs and organizations we learned the social graces. My first formal dinner was a High Y event at the Third Ward Satellite Club."
One of the biggest events came at Thanksgiving, when black Houstonians filled Jeppeson Stadium to watch Wheatley and its cross-town archrival Yates High School play football. Wheatley was not a consistent football power, but it dominated black high school basketball in Texas, and its trophy cases are still loaded with awards from the annual state tournament at Prairie View A&M.
When Texas held its first integrated state basketball playoffs in 1968, a Wheatley team coached by Collin Briggs beat a largely white Thomas Jefferson High School team from Dallas 85-80 in overtime, capping a perfect 36-0 record. That same year, the school held its 23rd annual arts festival, in which students put up an art exhibit, the school orchestra played works by Shostakovich, Bach and Mendelssohn, the drama club enacted excerpts from Jean Anouilh's Antigone and the choir sang parts of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana Fantasy. In the mid '60s the school was packed, graduating as many as 600 seniors a year.
It seemed a time of promise. But for Wheatley, it was also the beginning of the end of an era. The basketball triumphs would continue periodically, but Wheatley, and the Fifth Ward with it, were about to change dramatically.
Although Houston eventually integrated peacefully, its conservative white school board made the change reluctantly, proposing to integrate grade by grade, a 12-year-long process. The slow pace frustrated black leaders, and in May 1965, William Lawson, then a youth minister, called Wheatley students to meet at Finnigan Park behind the school to discuss a school boycott. Five days later, only 10 percent of Wheatley's students showed up for school. In 1970, a federal judge finally ordered the district to speed up integration. At first the district began busing black and Hispanic children to predominantly white schools, but when it was pointed out that the practice was unfair, magnet schools were created to integrate the district. When Booker T. Washington was given the pre-engineering magnet program, white kids were willing to be bused to attend. Magnet programs were proposed for Wheatley as well, but none ended up being assigned to the school.
What the Wheatley students had demonstrated for, they eventually got. The results, though, were not what they expected. Who could have anticipated that tearing down racial barriers in the schools would have devastating effects on the special institutions that blacks had worked so hard to build?
"The consequence," says Wylie Henry, "is that we desegregated, but we never integrated."
The first loss was faculty. In the move to integrate, the school lost as much as half of its experienced teachers to other schools. Then the magnet programs drew the most ambitious students off to other schools. If some of Wheatley's greatest alumni from the Fifth Ward were in HISD today, chances are they would have no incentive to attend Wheatley. Ruth Simmons, who went on to become the first black president of Smith College, was a theater enthusiast, and would probably attend the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, as would such great jazz musicians as Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet. Barbara Jordan would undoubtedly be drawn to the prelaw program at the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. And Mickey Leland, who pretty much goofed off in high school? You wonder if he would have become the leader he became if he had not been exposed to the mix of students he passed through Wheatley with in the early '60s.
Something else changed in the '70s, says Henry: discipline. Corporal punishment was a quick casualty. Black parents didn't want white teachers hitting their children, and white parents felt the same about black teachers. Wheatley's new white teachers lacked experience teaching inner city black children, and, of course, they didn't live in the community with the children they taught.
"A lot came in and tried to be kids' friends," says Henry, "instead of their teachers."
Admittedly, the changes in discipline were not unique to Wheatley. The school was not immune to the trends sweeping the country. All over the nation young people were challenging authority, experimenting with drugs and sexuality. Divorce was becoming common. And educators were swept up trying to find ways to adjust to the changes. What made it worse for Wheatley, though, was that as the black middle class benefited from the economic gains of desegregation, it moved away, leaving behind the poor, the drug- and alcohol-addicted and the elderly who were raising their grandchildren in a neighborhood that had lost many of its leaders. The Fifth Ward was bleeding, and so was its school.
To bring new students into Wheatley, HISD changed the school's attendance zone, adding the adjacent Denver Harbor neighborhood to the east. That neighborhood had been settled by Italians and Greeks and Poles but was rapidly becoming Hispanic. Denver Harbor is separated from the Fifth Ward by north-south Southern Pacific railroad tracks that David Benson, assistant to County Commissioner El Franco Lee, calls "a semi-permeable membrane." Blacks will cross the tracks to shop in the Fiesta supermarket and the lively stores on the Denver Harbor side, but Hispanics rarely stray into the Fifth Ward. On one side of the tracks at Market Street, you see a taqueria; on the other side, you see young men play basketball in the street using a backboard nailed to a light pole. The separation is even reflected in the way HISD has zoned Denver Harbor. Its residents are expected to send their children to Wheatley, but they vote for a school board trustee in a different area.
The Hispanics were not necessarily happy about being assigned to Wheatley; many of the students preferred to attend Austin and Furr high schools, where they had become ethnic majorities. With new regulations allowing a student to attend any school in Houston in which he or she can find a place, many parents are wondering if the district will ever do anything to make Wheatley a school that's not just acceptable, but that will actually attract students. Andy Ortiz, president of the Denver Harbor civic club and a former candidate for the school board, points out that instead of attending Wheatley, his children were drawn to the magnet programs at Furr. While roughly 1,800 children are zoned to go to Wheatley, fewer than 1,000 actually attend the school.
The breakdown in Wheatley's discipline and community pride in the school were evident as early as 1972. Counselors complained of low student morale. Two Wheatley basketball players, one of them a star, were charged with committing arson at the school. During the summer, Wheatley was burgled 14 times. The head of the Wheatley Alumni Association, Artice Vaughan, demanded that William Moore, the school's principal since 1958 and a member of its faculty since 1927, resign. Clearly, the old methods and the old leaders were no longer effective. Moore retired that year, but his successors did not fare much better. A cycle began repeating itself. Every few years a new principal would come into Wheatley hoping to improve the school, and with sad regularity, he would be forced out by low student achievement.
By 1978, there were rumors that the district wanted to close the school. Its basketball team had won a state championship for the fifth time in ten years, but some of the team members were accused of theft from two businesses during the trip to Austin for the playoffs. The students' reading scores were in the bottom 11 percent on national tests. District administrator Faye Bryant proposed that Wheatley teachers and administrators be offered a special pay incentive. Students would be offered an 11-month school schedule, and each student would work under a three-tiered contract system in which they would pledge attendance and performance in exchange for job training and college scholarships. The best would contract to be "Barbara Jordan Public Service Scholars" and would take courses in prelaw and government. But the special teacher pay incentives drew fire from teachers' organizations, and nothing came of the plan.
Instead, other solutions were tried. After the departure of principal A.C. Herald in 1978, Superintendent Billy Reagan opened a search for a new top man. The Wheatley Alumni & Ex-Students Association wrote Reagan that it would welcome the opportunity to review the final candidates for the job, and it called for action.
"Our concerns are whether your choice will be qualified to handle the specific problems that have caused Wheatley to deteriorate to its current level," the letter from the association read. "Will your choice be administratively strong enough to sweep out 'the trash' and rebuild with quality educators of the type now being assigned to schools in the north and southwest areas? Will your choice be receptive to the particular needs of the black and brown makeup of the community? Will your choice restore discipline to the school and instill pride in the hearts of the students?"
Reagan's choice for the job was Charles Herbert, who is now area superintendent for the northeast district over Wheatley. Herbert was well liked in the Fifth Ward. But he didn't stay that long. In 1983, Reagan transferred Herbert to Sterling High School and replaced him with Forest Henry. Several Fifth Ward ministers and the president of the Wheatley PTA protested loudly, saying their objection was not so much to Henry, but to losing a principal they liked. They charged that Reagan was under political pressure to give Henry the job because he was the brother of Wylie Henry, who was then sitting on the school board. Another brother, Al Henry, had been an aide to former mayor Louie Welch, who was then president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce. Despite the protests, Henry got the job.
He got it in the worst of times. As the crack epidemic ravaged poor black neighborhoods in the mid-'80s, teachers and students grew increasingly concerned about security threats from nearby apartment complexes. In 1985, three youths wandered onto campus and shot an English teacher who was conducting rehearsals with the drill team in the school cafeteria. The following year, a Hispanic student was shot in the face by another Hispanic student who had transferred in from Dallas. The boy who was shot had looked at his assailant the wrong way.
In 1987, a hopeful newspaper columnist reported that Henry was turning the school around. Enrollment was up, security was better and more counselors were on the campus. Even test scores were improved.
That improvement, though, was somewhat illusory; the scores were still in the lowest 5 percent of the state's schools. The difficulty of turning Wheatley around led Joan Raymond, who had been named superintendent in 1986, to consider closing the high school. But that wasn't politically possible; there were just too many Wheatley alumni who wouldn't let their old school die. So Raymond once again searched for a solution in the form of a principal. If a Wheatley alumnus such as Forest Henry couldn't fix the school, she thought, maybe an outsider could. So in 1988 she recruited a young principal named Eddie Orum from an experimental Austin school and turned Wheatley over to him.
Like Henry before him, Orum locked down the school to improve security. Then he took one of his teachers out of class part-time to write grant proposals. In 1990, Orum made the board a sweeping proposal for extra resources called "Wheatley's on the Move!" His diagnosis of the needs of his students was drastic. Some of them had never been to a shopping mall, he said. They were as isolated as Third World children and as impoverished in every sense. Orum wanted money to take children to the theater and to weekend camps. He needed daycare for the children of his adolescent parents.
And while state and district educators continually mask the real dropout rate of students through a statistical game, Orum was candid. The state and the district figure their dropout rates by comparing those who drop out to the school population as a whole. In their calculations, the overall state dropout rate is less than 2 percent, while the rate of African-Americans and Hispanics is under 5 percent, numbers so low as to create the illusion that the problem is under control.
But Orum determined his dropout rate by comparing the number of seniors graduating in the 1989-90 school year -- 120 -- to the number who had entered as freshmen -- 490. That calculated out to a dropout rate of 75 percent, which was worth worrying about. The numbers for those who complete high school throughout HISD are better, but they're nothing to be complacent about. Last year, for example, HISD had 19,466 ninth-graders, but only 8,506 seniors, for a completion rate of less than 50 percent. Some of these students may eventually go on to get GEDs, or they may have moved out rather than dropped out and finished school in other states or countries, but the numbers are still far from good: There's a huge falloff of students from the ninth to the tenth grade, when students who have been held back a grade or two turn 16 and can legally leave school.
By the time Orum came to Wheatley, Hispanics were on their way to becoming the majority ethnic group in HISD. By 1990, Hispanics comprised 43 percent of the district's students, compared to 40 percent African-American and 15 percent Anglo. Fifteen years earlier, the district had been 39 percent Anglo and just 19 percent Hispanic. Hispanic leaders were protesting that they lacked representation on the board and that their students' needs were ignored. The most vocal of the Hispanic leaders, W.R. Morris, was calling for Raymond's resignation.
When Orum took over at Wheatley, 40 percent of the school's student population was Hispanic. Orum had been the first black to attend an all-white high school in Nacogdoches, and he thought he had learned from that experience how a dominant group should welcome those from another group. Wheatley had changed, and it was time for people to recognize that fact.
"I was probably somewhat naive," says Orum today. "When I was selected as principal, alumni flew in from California to give their stamp of approval. I saw the history of the school and its heritage as unbelievable. My attitude was that you didn't have to relate it to race. Everyone thought [the history] was African-American. I saw it as Wheatley history."
Orum recruited student leaders from both ethnic groups and turned decisions over to them. He was particularly proud, he says, of the way his student leaders reduced conflicts between Hispanic and black kids who would gather in the morning at the railroad tracks that divided their neighborhoods and throw rocks at each other.
Orum says he talked to Hispanic students who said they didn't have a problem with going to Wheatley, that they had always gone to school with African-Americans. But black acceptance of the Hispanic kids was a little harder to come by.
"We started out with Hispanic and black student leaders with the idea of building a new culture," says Orum. "It was important to make everyone feel that Wheatley was their school. I think that some may have felt I was losing some of Wheatley's heritage by bringing in a Mexican-American perspective. But I thought it could be a model of the city."
His philosophy was that you have to believe in students and trust them. He helped the two sides identify cultural and racial conflicts and intellectualize them by talking about them. He used multicultural classes and bilingual signs in the halls and classrooms. He formed a student advisory panel to help him moderate student conflicts. "They will test you," he says, "but students want to belong and want to be heard. You have to put them in control."
Once again, reporters were writing optimistic stories about Wheatley. Maybe, the reports said, the district had found someone who could turn the school around. Orum had recruited drama and band teachers and tried to rebuild the school's lagging extracurricular activities. He says he tried to get a magnet program in management training and thought he had it nailed down with major corporate funding, but "it was bogged down administratively over who was going to get credit." Orum wasn't going to last long either.
In 1992, two Wheatley coaches were accused of sexual misconduct. One was convicted of engaging in lewd conduct with a female student; the other was accused of groping a male football player, but exonerated. Orum was caught between angry parents and alumni. In a show of support for their principal, 50 students walked out of class one day. But Orum supporter Joan Raymond had left in 1991, and the new superintendent, Frank Petruzielo, was already having problems with the board. Orum saw the handwriting on the wall and took a job in Austin, where he now works as an educational consultant.
Once Orum left, the school drifted under the leadership of his replacement, Harold Crawford, who lasted only 18 months. Crawford has been described by parents and teachers as a nice man but ineffectual. Orum's work came unraveled.
In February 1994, trustee and TSU education professor Rod Paige resigned from the school board and was named superintendent by his colleagues. One of his first problems was dealing with a swarm of angry parents led by Jo Ann Chase Jones, president of the Wheatley PTA. The parents complained that Wheatley was once again in dire straits, and the facts backed them up. There was no debate team, no drill club, no choirs and no Hispanic teachers. The swimming pool was empty. Students complained that the teachers had no confidence in their ability to learn. The only thing that seemed headed in the right direction was the basketball program, thanks to the reappointment of Wheatley's great basketball coach from the '70s, Jackie Carr. In the first full month of his superintendency, Paige removed Crawford and appointed an intervention team of two district administrators who worked for 14 weeks to once again secure Wheatley and prepare it for yet another principal.
The man chosen as Wheatley's latest savior was Horace Williams, whose history made him seem a likely candidate to deal with the school. He had spent six years teaching and two years as principal at the Harris County Youth Village, a residential high school for children assigned there by the courts. Surely, thought many parents, if Williams would understand anything, he would understand discipline.
Williams is an intense but guarded man; unlike Orum, he's not given to speeches. Some teachers and parents grouse that he's not a dynamic leader. Some say he's too hard on students, too arbitrary. Not everyone appreciates his approach to discipline, such as when he reacted to students starting food fights by limiting the cafeteria menu to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a while. Others claim he's inconsistent, and resentful of experienced teachers who have something to offer. But at least he's been willing to put himself on the line. In the three years he's been at Wheatley, not many others have been willing to do likewise. Though it was parental complaints that led to the latest round of changes at Wheatley, parental involvement at the school is low and the PTA all but moribund. There are still no Hispanic teachers at a school that is now 45 percent Hispanic, though there is a Hispanic assistant principal.
The low level of parental involvement is a source of some dismay. The Metropolitan Organization, a multiracial alliance of Houston institutions, began working with Wheatley last spring to bring parents back into the school. Last fall, TMO held a neighborhood recruiting walk to enlist parental support, but today it has only 20 to 30 regularly involved parents. The group would like to have 50 to 60, and that number, they say, could be one of the keys to not just turning Wheatley around, but keeping it turned around.
One of leading participants in TMO's push is Debra Tapscott Nickerson, a night nurse who devotes her days to mentoring girls. She claims to have seen 21 children through Wheatley who are on their way to college, and she can't stop now. There are younger ones who need her attention.
Then there's Charles Savage, a genial former Shell employee who took early retirement, went on the Million Man March and decided to give something back to his community. Savage is part of the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program, a mentoring program for boys. Savage has the run of Wheatley, often conferring with his boys and drawing them into an after-school class in computer repair; students who participate in his program learn to refrain from profanity and confrontational behavior, and earn points for attending class, listening quietly and working with others. The points can be converted into prizes such as stereo headphones, T-shirts and shoes. The program seems to be reaching a number of Wheatley's male students, as well as younger boys in the neighborhood. But there are not nearly enough Charles Savages to go around in a school of nearly 1,000. And there's no comparable program among the Hispanics in Denver Harbor.
It would appear that there are only some things that a school can provide, but what Wheatley kids seem to need is adults who are interested in them. Talk to Charles Savage's kids and you get an unsparing appraisal of who the good teachers are and who the bad ones are. A good one might be the homeroom teacher who comes into Savage's computer repair class at 5:30 in the evening and gets a hug from one of the boys who owes her an apology. The boys have no trouble defining a bad teacher: It's one who puts an assignment on the board, and tells you to shut up and get to work. A bad teacher is one who ignores them, who doesn't respond.
Response, says Horace Williams, is what children at Wheatley want. But that they need something else as well is evident from the continued poor showing in Wheatley's TAAS results. For the last two years, Wheatley's performance on the TAAS tests has been rated unacceptable by the TEA. Only about half of Wheatley's students passed the test's writing component over the last three years. Reading jumped from 29 percent passing in 1994 to 68 percent in 1995, then plunged to 49 percent in 1996. In math, Wheatley has stayed at a dismally low 24 percent passing over the past two years. Most alarming of all is the percentage of Wheatley students who failed to master all three of the TAAS tests. During the past three years, Wheatley scored the lowest of all conventional HISD high schools in this category, with only 14 percent passing all three exams in 1996.
The extent of the problem is made clear when it's realized that the TAAS test is designed to measure minimal skills in reading, writing and mathematics. The reading test, for example, requires a student to interpret the meaning of words such as adversities, subsequent and tingle in context; the math test requires students to solve problems using formulas, add fractions, read graphs and solve some very basic algebraic equations; the writing test requires students to identify fundamental problems in grammar, syntax and punctuation, and to write a short persuasive essay. For a school be acceptable by state standards, only 30 percent of students must be able to pass these tests. And even passing the tests doesn't assure mastery of a skill.
Williams has predicted that Wheatley's scores will be significantly better this year than last, and preliminary data indicates that scores were up this spring. But can he get the scores up and keep them up? What, exactly, does it mean to turn a school around? And what would it take to restore Wheatley to its former glory, to assure that future classes will perform well?
Hard questions, none with easy answers. At the end of a tour of his school, Williams returns to a glassed-in conference room just off the central office where students come with their problems and teachers come for their mail. He is plainly visible here, and students come to him.
One is Sharon Dixon, petite, bright-eyed, confident, the school's valedictorian, with a better than 4.0 grade point average. At first she was scared of coming to Wheatley, she says. But she learned it wasn't as bad as the rumors made it out to be. Dixon has a scholarship application for Williams to sign. He scans it, points out a typographical error and sends her on her way.
Another student comes by, this one with discouragement spelled out in his body language. His eyes are downcast. He's the complete opposite of Sharon Dixon. He has a note for Williams. The student is going to be out of school for a while for reasons that Williams can't divulge, but he wants his place in class back when he returns.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"This is a kid who wants to make sure I know where he is," Williams says, "and why he is going. They know whether you're sincere. They have good BS detectors."
Williams says that when he arrived at Wheatley, he found that teachers were buying clothes and shoes for students, so he set up a fund called Caring and Sharing. He had a ninth-grader, a model student who came to school without a jacket; Caring and Sharing bought him a jacket and found out he had been living alone in a house with no electricity after his mother had died. It's just one of the tales of hardship heard at Wheatley.
It's also one reason why talk of Wheatley's storied heritage can only go so far. When he first sat down to discuss Wheatley, Williams withdrew into a spacious room off the school's central hallway. Called the alumni room, it's furnished with Queen Anne chairs, polished dining tables and sideboards and upholstered sofas. This is where Wheatley's alumni meet to plan their class reunions, elaborate affairs often held in the summer that bring in Wheatley's scattered graduates so they can reminisce about the glory days. But once the reunion is over, they scatter. The president of the alumni association, Nellye Punch, says her organization hasn't done as much as it once did to help Wheatley's students. "We're getting old," she says.
One of the ministers involved in The Metropolitan Organization's efforts is fond of invoking the African phrase in vogue with the Clintons, "It takes a village to raise a child." It's a nice phrase, a meaningful phrase, but a phrase that requires more than pointing out a problem, making a demand and then heading to a home far from the child's village. Sitting in the comfort of the alumni room, enveloped in the essence of Wheatley, Williams says he couldn't remember the last time the alumni had used their special enclave. Maybe once, he recalls, last fall.