The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has been in the news a lot these days, and while the district has reported various academic successes and received many national awards, there have been some troubling community rumblings.
HISD Board President Anna Eastman appeared on the popular community talk show, Sunday Morning Live, this past Sunday, to discuss many of these community issues with host Marcus Davis. During the interview, she was asked about everything from the closing of Ryan Middle School to the civil lawsuit surrounding current HISD Trustee Larry Marshall.
The Houston Forward Times has been following many of these issues over the past several years, particularly those that impact the African American community, and there have been some eye-opening issues that have many members of the community seeking answers.
RYAN MIDDLE SCHOOL UPDATE
In a March 2013 article entitled, “An Educational Blackout - African American Families Being Forced to Chase after a Quality Education,” the Houston Forward Times reported on the decision by the HISD Board of Trustees to close Ryan MS and re-open the school as a magnet for students interested in the medical field.
Although community protests to prevent the closure of Ryan MS from happening were unsuccessful, the 263 Ryan MS students were subsequently zoned to nearby Cullen Middle School, and the school building that originally held Ryan MS was reopened as the Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan. Of the 182 6th and 7th grade students at Ryan MS last year, 119 (65%) are now attending Cullen. The other students chose alternatives elsewhere.
According to the district, the decision to “repurpose” Ryan and create this new magnet school was to “allow more students to compete for admission into the highly selective DeBakey High School for the Health Professions,” and design a magnet school to attract students from throughout the city to attend.
Based on information provided by the district, it appears many of the students who live in the Ryan feeder pattern weren’t the students they were seeking to attract. According to information provided by Andrew G. Houlihan, who served as the Chief School Officer-Major Projects and has recently moved to the role of Chief School Support Officer, only 11% of the students who were zoned to Ryan MS were accepted into the new school.
Only 70 students from District IV elementary schools, which served as the feeder pattern for Ryan MS, applied for the new school and only 28 were accepted. There were 19 students from private or charter elementary schools that were accepted.
The breakdown of students who were accepted versus applications that were received is as followed: Blackshear: 6/19; Lockhart: 10/14; Whidby: 5/22; Codwell: 3/9; Thompson: 1/1; Peck: 2/4; and MacGregor: 1/1.
According to the Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan demographics, as of August 2013, only 35% of the current student population is African American, with 47% being Hispanic; 9% being White; and 9% being Asian.
The decision to designate a magnet school is a board decision based on administrative recommendation, not the other way around. HISD Superintendent Terry Grier made the recommendation to the HISD Board of Trustees that Ryan MS be designated as a district magnet school versus a neighborhood magnet school.
One of the critical issues that many find troubling is that they were told that HISD justified their reasoning for closing Ryan MS, and making it a district magnet school, based on low enrollment and because of a grant that forced them to do so. HISD has applied for a federal grant that would include $2.4 million for the health science middle school spread over three years, but they have only applied for the grant that they haven’t even received approval.
According to an article written in the Houston Chronicle on April 12, 2013, it was stated that “if the district doesn’t win the grant, Grier said he would seek other funds, perhaps asking the board’s approval to dip into savings.”
There was not an entrance criterion for students to apply or enroll at the BCM Academy at Ryan, other than meeting promotion standards at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. All students were selected via a lottery that was conducted in May 2013.
LACK OF MARKETING FOR SELECT SCHOOLS
From 2002 to 2013, the student population of Ryan fell 70%, from 830 students to 263 students.
In a meeting with the new principal of the Baylor College of Medicine Academy @ Ryan, Jyoti Malhan, she stated that her success at getting the new students enrolled into her academy in a short period of time, was her recruitment experience and the marketing of the program by the district.
Lockhart Elementary and Turner Elementary were the feeder schools for Ryan and Cullen. HISD trustees voted to close Turner and consolidate it with Lockhart back in 2008. By combining Lockhart and Turner, the number of students who flowed into Ryan and Cullen significantly decreased, impacting schools like Jack Yates High School, which has relied on Ryan and Cullen as its feeder school pattern for years.
HISD is an open enrollment district, which means that parents can apply for schools outside their attendance zone for their students. Since HISD has become an open-enrollment district, there has been no aggressive marketing campaign coming from the district, particularly for schools located in predominately African American communities, that encourages families to consider their designated feeder pattern school or a low-enrollment school as an option.
LACK OF STABILITY
One of the primary reasons that parents opt out of sending their children to schoolswith low-enrollment has been the lack of stability and the lack of equitable resources and programs within the district concerning principals.
In a story that aired on KTRK-TV Channel 13 last week, many parents and community leaders protested and expressed their frustrations with the district, with one of the main issues being the high turnover rate amongst principals in their communities.
A small group of parents, retired teachers and concerned residents representing underserved communities and other areas gathered outside HISD headquarters, demanding that the superintendent and board members address these issues.
Since 2010, turnover has been extremely high at historic and traditional African American schools such as Yates HS, Wheatley HS, Kashmere HS and many more. Even more startling is that most of the principal new hires for these schools are being hired either out of state or from another city.
The question becomes, if there are no qualified teachers, assistant principals or principals currently working in the district, that are being groomed and prepared to become principals, who is really educating the children and what type of leadership development is actually being done at HISD?
GRIER CONTRACT EXTENSION
The HISD Board of Education voted in December to extend Superintendent Terry Grier’s contract through June 2016. Trustees voted 6-2 in favor of the contract extension. Trustees Michael Lunceford and Juliet Stipeche voted against the measure. Trustee Anna Eastman was not present for the vote. Trustees Manuel Rodriguez Jr., Harvin Moore, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Greg Meyers, Larry Marshall, and Paula Harris voted in favor.
Two of the reasons that HISD Board Trustees indicated that they decided to extend his contract early was because 1) schools in HISD’s Apollo 20 school turnaround program had demonstrated academic gains that were on par with those achieved in the nation’s most successful charter schools and 2) Houston voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.89 billion bond proposal by a 69 percent margin in November, which was the largest bond proposal in Texas history.
Since the contract extension, African American contractors have complained about contract unfairness and the Houston Endowment refused to provide HISD with the remaining $3 million of the $6 million that they pledged to the Apollo reform program in 2011, amid concerns that detailed research about the success of the program is lacking. The Houston Endowment wrote a letter to top school district officials criticizing the recent progress report on the Apollo program for not including “meaningful” student performance data.
Hiring qualified principals and ensuring stability in the district is a direct responsibility of the superintendent. With the high level of turnover in the district, many wonder why the HISD Board of Trustees chose to give Superintendent Grier a contract extension, well before his contract was up for consideration.
When asked by Marcus Davis on Sunday Morning Live about the contract extension, HISD Board President Anna Eastman, who wasn’t present for renewal, stated “that’s not a decision I would have supported,” and that she “probably was the wrong person to ask.”
If a manager of a company has a track record of hiring people who keep getting fired or replaced for a variety of reasons, that manager would be reprimanded or given a warning, indicating that there is a problem. That hasn’t been the case with Superintendent Grier; at least not publicly.
AFRICAN AMERICAN CONTRACTING
In the June 2013 article, “A $1.89 Billion Architectural Heist? - Houston Black Architects Believe HISD Has Given Them the Cold Shoulder on Contracts Local Black Contracts,” the Houston Forward Times reported on the over $1.24 billion in projects that have been assigned to date, with approximately 2% having been awarded to Houston-based architecture firms owned solely by African-Americans as the prime consultant.
Now, since HISD has recently been given control of North Forest ISD, and they have been charged with building a new campus and sports facility to the tune of $80 million that was received from the state.
Traditionally, African American contractors, such as architects and professional service companies, have done business with NFISD and have been able to provide jobs and opportunities to other businesses in the area. Now that HISD is in control of the money and the decisions, many believe that they are seeking to handle the $80 million the same way they have handled the money from the 2012 bond.
In addition to the $80 million projects for North Forest, approximately $650 million is still unassigned for the remaining architectural projects relating to the 2012 Bond. Community advocates and business leaders are hoping that HISD does the right thing.
DEMAND FOR CHANGE
Many community advocates believe that citizens need to be informed and take action.
The HISD bond passed based on the record-turnout of African-American voters during the presidential re-election of Barack Obama in November, but citizens must decide if a shiny new building is more valuable than the education of the children in their communities.