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The new North Forest High School

I’m really rooting for them to succeed. It’s not going to be easy.

While most schools measure progress by test scores and scholarship dollars, North Forest High School students point to the lack of bathroom fires as a sign that their campus is improving.

They also boast that they now have access to soap, toilet paper and paper towels, which were rarities when the campus was under the North Forest Independent School District, which was so saddled with academic woes and financial mismanagement that the state ordered that it be absorbed by the Houston school district.

Other notable changes since last summer when HISD took over, according to students, are that the school is cleaner and smells better, and teens no longer congregate in the halls after lunch for a time they called “mall,” as in ditching classes so they could socialize like they would at the mall.

“It was like a party,” 17-year-old Jarvis Dillard recalled. “More people were probably outside class than inside.”

The way students and administrators tell it, the campus had spiraled out of control during North Forest ISD’s decline. While the community didn’t initially welcome the takeover ordered last year by the Texas Education Agency after a lengthy battle, students say they are thankful it finally happened.

HISD spent more than $1.6 million renovating the dilapidated northeast Harris County campus, including removing metal detectors that gave the school the atmosphere of a prison and apparently failed to keep weapons out. Students said the instances of fights and weapons have declined this year.

“Everything has become way better,” said Ana Medina, 18, a senior.

[...]

Pamela Farinas wasn’t sure what to expect when she was tapped for the job of principal, moving from HISD’s Gregory-Lincoln Education Center.

“It was everything I thought and nothing I thought in the same breath,” said Farinas, a graduate of Houston’s Yates High School. “It kind of depends on the day, which part of the onion you peel back … There are days when we are shocked at what we find.”

The work to be done is immense and the obstacles extreme, she said. In almost every other category, the campus had nowhere to go but up.

Test scores are well below state averages and attendance had sunk to 87 percent in 2012, 9 percentage points below the state average. Just 56 percent of high school students graduated in four years in 2012, compared to the state average of 88 percent.

More than 100 students are on probation or parole. Roughly 30 girls are pregnant or already mothers. A large percentage of students have at least one parent in jail. A significant number of students have substance abuse problems, including an addiction to synthetic marijuana called Kush. (Support groups for addiction, anger management and defiance were created this school year to help students cope and build better social skills.)

The schools reputation precedes it, with organizations denying them field trips because of students’ past behavior. An out-of-state college told the principal they don’t recruit from North Forest and suggested the campus consider changing its name.

It’s a sentiment shared by some of North Forest High’s new teachers, but not the community, and that’s a battle the principal does not consider worth fighting at the moment.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Farinas said.

A large part of the work this year has been making students understand that they are required to work hard and follow rules. It’s also been a challenge to get some parents to support that mission, she said.

“That has been our clash. It’s kind of a re-education: This is what school really is supposed to be like,” Farinas said.

As we know, the condition of most North Forest schools was appalling, and those that remain open have a lot of challenges to overcome. HISD has its own challenges and its own problems, but it’s hard to see how the transition from North Forest ISD to HISD can be anything other than a big step in the right direction. As I’ve said before, I hope HISD tracks the progress of the former North Forest ISD students to see how they fare in the new regime. But at least we can feel sure that the overall student experience has improved, and no matter what else happens that’s an accomplishment.

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