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magnet schools

HISD’s budget deficit is a little smaller

A bit of good news.

Houston ISD administrators do not expect to cut magnet programs or re-open the magnet application process ahead of the 2018-19 school year, an announcement likely to ease fears among parents who send their children to choice schools.

Houston ISD leaders said Monday they are lowering the district’s projected budget deficit from about $209 million to $115 million, which would dramatically reduce the level of potential staff and program cuts.

The two announcements reflect the shifting nature of Houston ISD’s plans for major changes throughout the district, which have provoked anxiety among many parents and staff members. District leaders are proposing changes to the district’s magnet and funding systems — with the goal of providing more resources and programs to students in lower-income neighborhoods while facing a significant budget deficit largely brought on by the state’s school finance law.

Administrators are considering whether to phase out some magnet programs that have relatively little student interest or no consistent programming throughout a feeder pattern. District leaders want to better align magnets so students follow the same program from elementary through high school.

Administrators do not expect to cut many magnet programs, but any changes would not be made until 2019-20. Chief School Support Officer Mark Smith said the district did not want to rush any reductions that would force parents to immediately seek new options for their children.

See here for the background. What drove the sunnier budget estimate? Here’s the explanation.

When HISD first began budgeting for the 2018-2019 school year, it was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Using a worst-case scenario, the district’s financial team projected a $208 million deficit based on four dynamic factors: the Local Optional Homestead Exemption (LOHE) lawsuit, a recapture payment to the state, a potential property tax value decreaseand an anticipated student enrollment decline. Taking direction from HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, district administrators crafted a revised budget outlook for the 2018-19 school year.

The district’s legal team feels strongly that the state will prevail in the LOHE lawsuit. For HISD, this means a reduction in its recapture payment because the TEA will recognize half of the 20 percent local homestead exemption given to homeowners. A decision in the lawsuit could come after a hearing this spring. A win would reduce HISD’s recapture payment by $51 million.

Under the Texas Education Code, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has the authority to adjust property values. Based on the damage sustained from Hurricane Harvey and the lasting impact of the storm on our students and staff, we anticipate the commissioner will adjust property values, which in turn, would reduce our recapture payment. Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and other state leaders have publicly stated their support for this action. Click here to review a September 2017 press release from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick that confirms his support for schools districts in Region IV impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which includes HISD. In addition, Commissioner Morath surveyed school districts after the hurricane to gather projections on their property tax collections post-Harvey. HISD estimates a $42 million adjustment for property value loss associated with Hurricane Harvey.

It was prudent to budget under the worst-case assumption, and it makes sense to adjust on the reasonable expectation that he reality is better. HISD still has a big hole to fill, and changes to the magnet programs will be difficult and disruptive, though long overdue. I confess that I haven’t been following all this very closely – sorry, all the election stuff has taken over my brain – but I will get back into it as the process begins.

HISD faces major changes

This is a very big story, but a key component to it is not discussed here.

Houston ISD officials said Saturday the district will need to cut about $200 million from its 2018-19 budget to bring spending in line with an increasingly gloomy financial outlook.

In an equally momentous move, Houston ISD officials also proposed far-reaching changes to how the district operates its magnet and school choice systems, some of the boldest moves to date by second-year Superintendent Richard Carranza.

Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, Houston Independent School District officials revealed at a board meeting Saturday that the district is facing a double whammy: A multimillion-dollar, state-mandated “recapture” payment requiring districts with high property values to “share the wealth,” and an expected drop in enrollment and tax revenue because of the devastating storm, which severely damaged schools and delayed the start of classes by two weeks.

The proposed cuts come at an inopportune time, with the district battling to stave off a potential state takeover because of 10 chronically under-performing schools.

Although the measures outlined Saturday are preliminary and could change significantly before HISD’s board votes on them, officials acknowledged that the district is entering an uncertain time.

“It’s a sea change for HISD,” said Rene Barajas, the district’s chief financial officer. “But at the end of the day, from a budgetary perspective, we’re still going to get the job done. It’s just going to be harder.”

There’s a lot more and there’s too much to adequately summarize, so go read the rest. We know about the recapture payments, which even though they have been reduced due to Harvey are still significant. We know HISD has been talking about revamping its magnet programs for some time, and there’s a cost-savings component to that as well. We know that property values and enrollment have been affected by Harvey, and we know how daily attendance determines the amount of money the district gets from the state. So none of this is a surprise, though having to deal with all of it at once is a big shock.

What’s missing from this article is any mention of what the state could and should do to help ameliorate this blow. I think everyone agrees that if a school building is destroyed by a catastrophic weather event, it should be rebuilt via a combination of funding sources, mostly private insurance and emergency allocations from the state. Why shouldn’t that also apply to the secondary effects of that same catastrophe? It’s not HISD’s fault that its revenues, both from taxes and from state appropriations, will be down. There needs to be a mechanism to at least soften, if not remove, this burden. Bear in mind that one reason why the drop in property values is such a hit is because the state has shoved more and more of the responsibility for school finance on local districts. If Harvey had happened even a decade ago, the appraisal loss would still be felt, but not by as much. That’s not HISD’s doing, it’s the Legislature’s and the Governor’s and the Lieutenant Governor’s, all with the approval of the Supreme Court.

But what can be done can be undone. With little to no pain on its part, the Lege could tap into the Rainy Day Fund to get HISD past the worst of this, or it could recognize that the nearly one billion it appropriated last session for “border security” is little more than macho posturing, an endless boondoggle for a handful of sheriffs, and an sharp increase in traffic citations, and redirect some of that money to HISD and any other district in similar straits. There are other things the Lege could do, but all of it starts with the basic principle that the Lege should do something to help out here. When are we going to talk about that?

Idiots protest at school


The kindergarten and pre-K students experienced an early civics lesson Monday morning when they entered Houston Independent School District’s new Arabic Immersion Magnet School for the first day of class.

At least a dozen protestors, some wearing red, white and blue, stood along the fenced perimeter of the campus, just north of the Heights neighborhood, and waved American and Israeli flags. They alleged the public school – one of the first of its kind in the United States, where students will learn in Arabic and English – was promoting radical Islam and rejecting assimilation into American culture.

The demonstration rattled parents on what was already a nerve-wracking day, but with four police officers monitoring the campus, the protestors dwindled after about two hours without incident. HISD leaders continued their inaugural festivities as planned.

“Houston is the energy capital of the world,” Superintendent Terry Grier said during a media tour of the newly renovated campus at 28th St. and Shepherd.

“We need to have graduates who can communicate with people all over the world.”

Grier, who made his first public appearance since having knee surgery three weeks ago, has pushed an expansion of dual-language programs in the nation’s seventh-largest school district. HISD opened a Mandarin immersion school in 2012 without controversy, and now has more than 50 Spanish dual-language campuses. Grier has said he wants to open a Hindi school, and discussions about a French program have taken place.

No citizens protested at the HISD board meeting in November when trustees unanimously approved the Arabic school, but about a dozen critics addressed the board in May and have taken to the Internet to complain.

I got nothing. Go read Jef Rouner, he speaks for me. And if you have the inclination and read this in time, there will be a “demonstration of love and welcome at the school this morning. See that link for what it’s about, and here for more.

HISD passes its budget

They restored a lot of funding, but it’s the changes to magnet school funding that everyone is talking about.


Bouncing back from recent cash-strapped years, the Houston school board Thursday approved a bigger budget that gives raises to all employees, provides more money to campuses and may require a tax rate increase.

The board, over complaints from passionate parents, also voted 5-4 to overhaul the system for funding the district’s beloved magnet schools. Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to standardize the haphazard funding for the specialty programs will slash some schools’ budgets and boost others over the next three years.

The board will not set the tax rate until October, but the district’s financial chief, Ken Huewitt, said he estimates needing a 1-cent or 2-cent hike, depending on the final tally of property values. The increase is tied to the district’s voter-approved 2012 bond program.

Any rate increase would come on top of the 3 cents the board added last year to fund operating expenses, which put the rate at $1.1867 per $100 of assessed value. With property values rising across the city, many taxpayers would feel an even bigger hit if the rate goes up as expected.


Grier’s plan to standardize magnet school funding drew the most controversy, bringing roughly 60 parents, students and community members to the board meeting to speak in opposition. The proposal funds programs with the same theme – such as fine arts or engineering – by the same amount per pupil, instead of the current arbitrary system.

Critics say the new formula does not take into account what the programs need to thrive and could cripple some of the district’s best schools.

“It is 40 years of inequity, and it is time we do something,” Skillern-Jones said, speaking for the narrow board majority, which also included Wanda Adams, Paula Harris, Greg Meyers and Manuel Rodriguez Jr.

Opposing the measure were Anna Eastman, Mike Lunceford, Harvin Moore and Juliet Stipeche.

See here and here for the background. I still don’t know what to think about the magnet funding changes because I’m still not clear on what the formula is and what it’s supposed to achieve. I’m not necessarily opposed to this change, and I recognize that any essentially zero-sum alteration will have winners and losers, I just don’t feel like HISD had communicated this well enough to objectively evaluate it. At this point all I can say is that I hope the schools that lost money aren’t adversely affected, and that if there are negative effects that the Board revisits the issue as soon as possible. Hair Balls and School Zone have more.

HISD prepares its budget

Teacher pay raises and magnet school funding changes are the main points of interest.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Thanks to rising property values, all Houston ISD employees would receive raises and schools would get more money for supplies, field trips or tutors next year under a budget proposal drawing complaints for its long-term cuts to some popular magnet programs.

For property owners, next year also is expected to bring the first round of a tax rate increase tied to the construction bond package passed by voters in 2012, according to HISD’s financial chief, Ken Huewitt.

The school board is set to vote Thursday on the district’s $1.7 billion operating budget for the upcoming school year. Trustees will not adopt the tax rate until October, but Huewitt projects it will rise by 1 or 2 cents. The amount depends on the district’s final property values, which aren’t certified until August.

Huewitt said he likely could keep the rate hike to a penny if the board doesn’t add more money to schools’ budgets. However, some trustees have said schools need additional funds particularly after state budget cuts in 2011 led to job losses.

Any tax rate increase would come on top of the 3-cent hike the board approved last year to help fund low-performing schools and raises.

The current tax rate is $1.1867 per $100 of assessed value. The owner of a $200,000 home pays $1,720 in taxes, with the district’s tax breaks.

“I think it’s a very good budget,” Huewitt said. “All along we’ve been talking about what our priorities are. If we really believe an effective teacher in every classroom is important, we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is.”

Under Superintendent Terry Grier’s budget proposal, teacher salaries would increase by at least $1,100 with some rising by double that amount, Huewitt said. Other staff would get a 3 percent raise.


Generating the most controversy is Grier’s plan to standardize funding for magnet programs and other specialty schools, which have themes like fine arts or serve gifted students. Some schools would gain tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars over three years. Others would lose the same amount.

Softening cuts to the specialty schools, Grier has proposed upping the budgets for all campuses by $55 per student.

Some school board members have said they want to double that extra money for all schools and hope to amend the budget proposal Thursday.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get more money to our schools – which would be great because they desperately need support staff and librarians and counselors,” said school board president Juliet Stipeche.

See here and here for the background, and these two K12 Zone posts for more on the revised magnet funding formulae, which remain subject to further change. It’s nice that there’s more money being put into the budget for magnet school programs, but I still don’t understand, and I suspect a lot of other people don’t understand, what the bottom line is. It would be very helpful if HISD could explain, in sufficiently small words, what the district’s vision for its magnet school program is and what the factors are that affect how a given school is funded for it. Maybe it will be a little clearer after the budget is adopted, but the overall lack of communication on this has made the process a lot harder than it needs to be.

HISD magnet funding vote delayed till next week

You still have time to talk to your trustee about this.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Superintendent Terry Grier’s administration has proposed standardizing how the programs are funded – a plan that would result in some schools losing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and others gaining as much.

School board president Juliet Stipeche said Monday that she used her authority to postpone a decision on the proposal, which has received mixed reviews from her fellow trustees and parents.

The board likely will vote on the issue June 19 when it is scheduled to approve the district’s overall operating budget.

“Given we’re in the last throes of the budget, I didn’t feel comfortable going forward with this until we had the clearest understanding of our final figures,” Stipeche said.


Grier’s plan sets specific dollar amounts that all programs with the same theme would receive, on a per-pupil basis. For example, an elementary school with a fine arts magnet would receive $350 per student while one with a science, technology, engineering and math program would get $125 per pupil.

“The proposed funding formula is designed to improve equity across programs and increase transparency in our magnet and speciality school funding process,” Mark Smith, the Houston Independent School District’s chief student support officer, wrote in a letter to parents last week.

The plan affects 126 schools. A little more than a half would gain money.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, while I think I get where Grier is coming from on this, the proposed changes have not been communicated well to the affected schools. I know I still don’t understand the formula that HISD came up with to equalize funding. It also occurred to me in writing this post that we’re still waiting on a final decision from HISD about whether some schools will lose all magnet funding for not meeting certain standards, a decision that was postponed in November. I’m not sure how or if this vote is related to that, and I’m not sure where last year’s actions now stand. It would be nice to get some clarity from HISD on these things. Hair Balls has more.

What is the deal with Vanguard funding?

It started with an urgent action email sent to Travis Elementary School parents:

As you may have heard, the Houston ISD Board’s proposed budget for the 2014-15 school year would eliminate HISD Vanguard Magnet funding. These drastic cuts would threaten the viability of the Vanguard program at Travis. (see the April 24 Budget and PUA Workshop: In addition to the loss of Vanguard funding, the budget as proposed would eliminate the beloved and valuable HISD-owned Camp Olympia. This is a perennial tradition for 5th graders to spend 3-4 days camping and having hands-on nature and science experiences.

The Vanguard Magnet funding is used by Travis to fund various staff positions and under the proposed budget this funding would be eliminated, thus threatening the unique programs that directly support the Vanguard curriculum and reach every student at Travis. The proposed 2014-15 HISD budget will be presented during the HISD Board meeting THIS Thursday night, May 8th at 5pm and may be presented for a final vote at the June HISD Board meeting.

If you follow that link and open the April 24 Budget and PUA Workshop PDF file, you’ll see the proposed zeroing out of Vanguard funding on page 14. It’s part of a budget priorities exercise, where various choices are presented with their respective costs or savings, and my reaction when I saw it was that it looked more like a theoretical scenario than a for-serious proposal. I have to think that a truly serious proposal to do this might have been reported on before now, and might have generated a bit of pushback from the various trustees whose schools would take the brunt of that change. This Chron story from April 24 adds some context to the discussion:

Under the proposal, HISD would eliminate extra magnet funding to Vanguard campuses, such as Carnegie Vanguard High School, but would continue to provide busing for those students, officials said. The amount of extra money those schools receive varies by campus.

Vanguard schools would continue to receive the roughly $400 extra that the state provides for each child who qualifies as gifted and talented. District-funded allotments for other magnets would be standardized, including $350 extra for each Montessori student and $50 extra per student at other magnets.

The proposed magnet funding-formula overhaul also gives $1,000 per student at DeBakey High School and $50 per student to International Baccalaureate schools.

“We don’t want people sitting here thinking we’re trying to destroy Vanguard,” Grier added.

Mission not accomplished there, if the email from Travis is any indication. In any event, after this K12 Zone post from May 8 that included the line “cuts to Vanguard funding are on the table” at the end, there weren’t any stories in the Chronicle that I could find, but there were a cople of subsequent K12Zone posts that explained what did happen. The first post reported that the cuts were targeted and limited.

The budget proposal also includes new, standard funding formulas for the district’s specialty magnet programs. The changes are not expected to save the district money but will make the funding more equitable, Grier said.

Grier’s proposal last month would have eliminated funding for the district’s Vanguard magnet programs for gifted students, raising concerns from parents. The new plan would fund those programs at $410 a student. Schools also get another $406 per gifted student based on state funding rules.

A subsequent post went into more detail.

Under HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s latest proposal for magnet funding, roughly two-thirds of programs would see more money while the others would receive less. The changes vary widely.

The gains and losses wouldn’t take effect immediately. Grier’s plan calls for the schools to receive 25 percent of their increase or decrease next school year and the rest in 2015-16.

T.H. Rogers, a combined elementary and middle school with a Vanguard magnet program for gifted students, would take the biggest hit, losing more than $953,000, according to data provided by HISD on Thursday evening. The big loss appears to come because the school had been receiving a special pot of money outside of the normal magnet funding stream for years. (For those in the know, this is called the unique per-unit allocation). The Rice School would lose more than $436,000.

Lanier Middle School, also a Vanguard magnet, would see the biggest bump, an increase of nearly $348,000. Lanier parents and others at Vanguard schools lobbied the school board after Grier’s proposal last month called for eliminating funding for the Vanguard magnet programs.

By all accounts, the current magnet funding system is haphazard. Grier’s proposal calls for funding magnet programs based on their theme, such as fine arts or Vanguard, on a per-pupil basis. That, of course, means that programs with more students get more money. Each program also would get a base amount of $52,820, typically to employ a coordinator over the magnet program.


Grier’s April proposal called for a cost savings of about $3 million for the magnet programs. He and the district’s financial chief, Kenneth Huewitt, said the new plan keeps funding about the same, with local property tax values higher than earlier estimates.

Both posts have tables that give all the relevant numbers, so go click over and see for yourself what the details are. I know a lot of parents responded to emails and Facebook posts about this threatened cut. A petition against such a cute collected nearly 500 signatures in a few days. I could be wrong, but I’ve come to the conclusion based on the overall lack of communication about this that it was never a serious proposal to gut Vanguard funding. Reading these K12 Zone posts, I get where Grier is coming from, but the lack of explanation about how the original and final figures were determined leaves me perplexed. It would be nice to get some kind of official word about this, if only so that we’re better prepared for this kind of discussion in the future. Hair Balls has more.

New accountability standards, more schools on the failing list

Not a good headline.

The number of officially faltering public schools in Texas almost doubled last year, in part because of higher accountability standards imposed by state education policy.

The Texas Education Agency released Thursday a list of 892 schools that fell short of minimum standards and which have been placed on the Public Education Grant list. Students at schools on the list are allowed to transfer to other schools if their parents wish, and the schools accepting them get additional funds to educate them.

Districts are required to notify parents of children who attend a school on the list that they can request a transfer, including transfers to another district. However, districts are not required to accept such transfer requests.

The Houston Independent School District had 53 schools on the list, nearly triple the number from last year when 18 schools were deemed struggling. District officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.


For a school to be placed on the list, more than 50 percent of its students have failed to meet the minimum threshold on accountability tests in two of the last three years, or it has been rated “academically unacceptable” in 2011 or “improvement required” last year. (No accountability ratings were given in 2012.) Those are the lowest categories in the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test that was implemented in 2013.

In 2012, the list included 456 schools. Schools can remain on the list for three years, meaning some whose students performed above the minimum performance threshold last year could still be on it.

DeEtta Culberson, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency told the Associated Press that, “historically, when changes are made to the accountability system, the number of schools that are included in the list tends to rise.”

I suppose that’s to be expected, and I certainly hope the schools on that list can work their way off of it this year. You can see the list here. I don’t remember the names of the former North Forest ISD schools, so I don’t know how many of them are present. The schools I did notice included a couple in my neighborhood – Helms Elementary and Hogg Middle – both of which were also on the probation list for magnet schools; there were a few others on both lists as well. I presume this list came out too late in the day to get a reaction from anyone for publication, but I’m sure that HISD’s leadership will focus its attention on that list. As I said, I hope it’s substantially smaller next year.

Magnet reprieve

This was unexpected.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier has reversed course and decided to give 20 struggling magnet programs another year before eliminating all their extra funding.

The sudden switch from the plan he unveiled last month comes after some parents and school officials expressed surprise their programs were on the chopping block.

Under Grier’s new plan, the campuses will keep half their magnet funding next school year. They will lose the full amount, which ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to more than $200,000, in fall 2015.

Making changes to HISD’s beloved magnet schools – which offer special courses in areas like fine arts and technology – has proved difficult for Grier and his predecessor, Abelardo Saavedra. Principals and parents covet the “magnet” label, even though some programs are lagging in quality.

Phasing out the funding over two years should give principals more time to review their budgets, perhaps allowing some to continue their programs in a limited form.

Still, students who transfer into those schools no longer will be guaranteed busing.

“We want to be reasonable,” Grier said in an interview about his new plan. “We never had the intent to hurt or destroy magnets, and I think this is the right thing to do.”

See here for the background. This is a phase-out, not a reversal, so the schools and students will have time to adjust to the change in status of their schools. This was indeed the right thing to do, to soften the blow and allow for a transition period. Several principals of the affected schools have appealed the ruling on their magnet status. I’m not exactly sure how that will work. The schools that were “on probation” will maintain their level of funding while they work to achieve the improvements that are required of them.


Some unhappy changes are about to occur at Houston schools.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

HISD officials unveiled a plan Thursday to cut funding and end bus rides next year for transfer students at 20 struggling magnet schools, tackling a politically tough topic that has confounded the district for years.

The campuses will be the first to feel the consequences of the school board’s policy, passed in May, to end the specialty programs that draw few students from outside the neighborhood or post low test scores. Until now the board has put off eliminating any of its 115 magnet programs – roughly 40 percent of its schools – amid protests from parents.

The campuses on the hit list will lose a combined $2.3 million in extra funding next year.

In addition, the hundreds of students who transfer to the schools and now get district transportation will have to arrange other rides.

Superintendent Terry Grier described the decision bluntly.

“If you don’t meet standard, you should not be a magnet school,” he said.

The HISD Board of Trustees approved the change to the magnet school policy back in May, and while Board President Anna Eastman disputed Grier’s assertion that no Board vote was needed to affirm these cuts, there was no opposition from any Board member or education-related group noted in the story. With HISD still struggling with the deep budget cuts in public education from 2011 and the property tax rate about to go up to fund pay raises and the Apollo program, I’m sure this savings will offer some relief.

Here’s the list of schools affected by this:

* The 20 campuses that will lose their extra magnet funding and busing next year are Burbank, Elrod, Law, Pleasantville, Wesley and West University elementary schools; Attucks, Deady, Dowling, Henry, Holland, Jackson and Key middle schools; and Jones, Lee, Madison, Sharpstown, Westbury, Wheatley and Worthing High schools.

* Those on probation are Crespo, Garden Villas, Helms, MacGregor, Pugh, Ross and Wainwright elementaries; Hogg and Long middle schools; and Kashmere, Scarborough, Sterling and Washington high schools.

Helms and Hogg are in my neighborhood. Helms has a dual-language program that some friends of mine have their kids in. Hogg has been aggressively pursuing upgrades to its IB and STEM programs in part to make the school more attractive to Heights-area parents. I hope they can close whatever gaps they face. The school on these lists that surprised me was West U Elementary. According to Harvin Moore, who responded to an email query I sent, West U Elementary has only about 40 magnet kids, in a school of 1100 students. I guess they draw plenty from their neighborhood. Which is ideally what it should be – every neighborhood should have a school that resident want their kids to attend. We’ll see how this plays out. Hair Balls, which takes a negative view of this action by HISD, has more.

HISD revises magnet school policy

This has been in the works for a long time.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The [HISD Board of Trustees] voted unanimously on a revised policy governing its beloved magnet school program, saying the schools would be held more accountable for academic performance and their ability to attract students.

While some of the 113 magnet programs are nationally recognized and draw waiting lists, others have languished over the years.

“Woo! We finally passed a magnet policy,” board president Anna Eastman said immediately after the vote.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier took his excitement to Twitter.

“HISD approves Magnet Policy after four years of discussion!” he wrote.

The policy does not address individual schools – a politically tougher topic. Grier and the board have said no changes will take place for the coming school year.

Yeah, it’s when the board gets around to deciding the fate of individual schools that stuff will start to get real. Be that as it may, I think this is sensible. HISD has a lot of great magnet schools, but that doesn’t mean they’re all worth keeping, or at least worth keeping as is. It’s perfectly reasonable for them all to have to demonstrate their value. This preview story has some more details.

The policy that the school board is set to approve Thursday is general, but makes a point that magnet programs should have “fair and equitable” resources and should be held accountable for academic performance. The proposal also calls for magnet schools to strive for at least 20 percent of their students to come from outside the neighborhood, but Eastman suggested this week that the provision should be loosened.

“We have to use common sense,” Grier said in response. “We’re not interested in hurting schools that are attracting kids.”

Data obtained from HISD show that 50 of 113 magnet programs don’t meet the 20 percent standard.

The programs drawing the fewest students from outside the neighborhood – fewer than 15 – are Worthing, Scarborough, Kashmere and Lee high schools, Long Academy and Ryan Middle. Combined, those schools are receiving more than $558,000 in special magnet funding this year, the data show.

The school board already has agreed to close Ryan and reopen it next year as a magnet school focused on health careers, modeled after the prestigious DeBakey High School for Health Professions.

In all, HISD gave about $17 million extra to its magnet schools this year, and the district spends another $10 million on transportation. The funding for programming varies widely. Six magnet programs got no extra money this year while three – Carnegie Vanguard High School, Parker Elementary and Garden Villas Elementary – received more than $400,000 each.

Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who helped revise the magnet policy, said she hopes it will spur better programs with more relevant themes. Once the board approves the new policy, Grier’s staff plans to write more detailed standards such as specific academic benchmarks.

There’s certainly room to massage the 20 percent standard – at the very least, if things are working well at a school otherwise, there should be some discretion to leave things be. Ultimately, the goal should be to keep what’s good and fix or get rid of what isn’t. The details are obviously important, but let’s not get so bogged down in them that we lose sight of that.

Guest post: A response to Sen. Patrick on school choice

Note: The following is a guest post, by Aboubacar Ndiaye. It was sent to me unsolicited. I liked it and agreed to print it, so here it is.

Aboubacar Ndiaye

In an editorial published last Wednesday in the Houston Chronicle, State Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) again argued for what he sees as education reform. In the article, he proposed increasing the use of online learning, course credit testing, and vocational training programs. He also pushed for removing the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. Glaringly absent was any mention of the voucher initiatives he has introduced in the State Legislature.

Numerous policy experts and other commentators have shown definitively that vouchers do little to improve the lot of the children they are said to help (i.e. smart kids forced to go to failing public schools). According to a report from Raise Your Hand Texas, an education policy group, voucher programs in other states and in the District of Columbia have shown no discernible increase in performance for voucher students at private schools. They also found that vouchers actually benefited wealthier households by effectively giving them state-funded private school discounts.

In the past, proponents of public education like myself have been backed into a rhetorical corner. Because of the state’s radical (and unconstitutional) underfunding of public schools, we have had to focus on fighting for money to support basic education programs. That focus, unfortunately, has left us open to the charge that we are “defending failure.” Though it is hard to talk about remodeling a house while it’s on fire, we make a mistake by not proposing and supporting broad-based reform of education in Texas.

As a product of HISD schools and as a former Math tutor in HISD schools, I’ve seen first hand the impact that underfunding has had on public education. Whether it is crowded classrooms or insufficient learning materials, the educational well-being of Texas students is drastically below what it should be. But as we argue for more money from the State and from local property taxpayers, we must, in the same breath, argue for sensible reforms at failing schools in the State.

For example, while Sen. Patrick’s online education proposal seeks to replace classroom time with online teaching, web-based and interactive learning and tutoring sources added onto a full school schedule has been proven to have great educational benefits. A New York Times investigative feature in December 2011 showed the pitfalls of over-reliance on online education sources, but supplemental resources can help low-income students who may not be able to afford private tutoring otherwise.

Along with adding online learning, we should argue for giving principals, teachers, and parents at underperforming schools more flexibility in the management of their own campuses. That means letting them make decisions about school day and school year length, funding extra teachers and teacher aides to reduce class sizes, and to let them experiment with different curriculum strategies like Double Dose Math Courses and Cooperative Teaching. Individual schools districts and the Texas Education Agency would still have to sign off on proposed changes, but that process should be swift and transparent.

Another element of school reform, one that is garnering bipartisan support in the wake of the STAAR debacle, is reducing the emphasis on high-stakes testing. Over-dependence on testing as an accountability measure has had a terrible impact on the way kids are taught in the state. At the school where I worked, I remember constant benchmark testing, weekend test practice, lessons on test-taking strategies, all of which impeded our ability to actually teach content and reasoning skills.

Lastly, we should not reflexively dismiss the idea of school choice. Sen. Patrick’s proposals seek mainly to undermine public education, but they call attention to a problem that too many of us either ignore or tolerate. Every day, thousands of kids in this state are going to failing, often unsafe, schools. Private school subsidies are not the answer, but more funding and transportation options are needed to support magnet and school choice options within the public system. School districts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin have done a great job increasing school choice options, but their magnet systems are not large enough to meet the demand from parents and students. We must also make sure that the magnet and school choice options are true improvements over the home school, and not the proliferation of “magnet in name only” programs at some HISD campuses.

Many of the proposals I have mentioned require buy-in from communities, parents, teachers, and government officials. None of these reforms are easily implemented or cheap for that matter, but they are necessary. If Texas continues on its current educational trajectory, it will create an undereducated low-skill and low-wage workforce that will force companies to either import its skilled labor from other states or move to those states. As the legislature debates restoring the lost funding from the past legislative session, it should also consider the sensible reforms above.

Aboubacar “Asn” Ndiaye was a Field Organizer on the Harris County Democratic Party’s 2012 Coordinated Campaign, and is currently an independent policy professional.

Aiming to attract magnets

HISD has applied for a $12 million federal grant to create as many as eight new magnet schools.

HISD’s application, which is due to the U.S. Department of Education on March 1, would create science, technology, engineering and math programs at Ryan Middle, M.C. Williams Middle, Kashmere High, Furr High and the South Early College High School in HISD and a yet-to-be-named middle school in North Forest, if the Texas Education Agency moves forward with a plan to merge the two districts.

This earlier story from before the vote has more details.

All the programs would focus on science, technology, engineering and math, subject areas that the U.S. Department of Education will favor in this year’s application process.

“It’s unprecedented,” Superintendent Terry Grier said of the focus on math and science. “This is something that’s really being pushed from the White House.”


Ryan Middle School, a campus that has historically struggled, could be converted into the HISD Middle School for Health Professions, a feeder into the prestigious DeBakey High School.

An early college high school would also open in the North Forest area, pending the merger, to allow students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously.

The stories mention six schools by name. A seventh would be a new magnet high school aimed at energy professions, something Superintendent Grier proposed a couple of weeks ago. A middle school arts magnet was also proposed.

Terry Grier

The arts middle school likely would move into a spruced-up version of the HSPVA campus in Montrose, he said. The $1.9 billion bond package HISD voters approved in November included about $80 million to relocate HSPVA to the downtown theater district. Construction of that new campus could take 18 months to two years.

No location has been identified for the new energy magnet school. HISD plans to meet with possible corporate and nonprofit partners to begin developing the curriculum and campus, Grier said. He expects it to be a campus of 500-800 students, much like DeBakey and HSPVA.

Industry leaders said they are excited to start talks with HISD.

“This high school would be highly beneficial to the energy industry, as we know there’s a great need for workers going forward,” said Joni Baird, a public affairs manager for Chevron. “We need to have our students prepared to be our future workforce.”

It’s not clear to me if the new arts magnet middle school is part of HISD’s grant application or if there’s some other school in the mix. If HISD doesn’t get the grant they’ll reconsider their options. There’s still a lot of work to be done to better organize HISD’s existing magnet schools, but this is a potentially very exciting development.

Magnet changes coming

The HISD Board of Trustees is getting ready to offer specific proposals to reform the magnet school program.

Trustees and Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier suggested magnet programs that draw few students from outside their neighborhoods were at risk. Programs with poor academic track records also could be eliminated.

A dozen of HISD’s 114 magnet programs have 25 or fewer students from outside the schools’ attendance zones. The campuses drawing the least students, according to district data, are Ryan, Long, Williams and Attucks middle schools and Worthing High School.

“How can you continue to be a magnet school if you don’t attract students to your school?” Grier asked. “You can’t.”


The proposal calls for all schools with the same theme – such as math and science – to have the same entrance standards. Principals now have the power to set their own criteria.

The admissions issue creates tension as some prefer tougher entrance standards while others want more students to have access to top programs.

Grier said he supports entrance criteria for specialty programs, such as DeBakey High School for Health Professions and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

But he said he found it “problematic” that Barbara Jordan High School, a magnet for various careers, recently raised its standards, excluding students it has traditionally served.

As always, the devil will be in the details. I agree with the premise that a program that isn’t drawing students should not get “magnet” designation – what’s the point if no one wants what they have? I’m not sure how I feel about the entrance standards issue. I feel like there should be some room for individual principals to make their own choices, but I don’t know how to codify that. I will have to see what the Board proposes and see what I think about it. The good news is that they’re leaving the Vanguard programs alone, according to an earlier version of the story. That is what caused by far the most angst when that magnet school audit came out earlier this year. What are your thoughts on this?

Back to magnet schools

It’s Magent Awareness Week in HISD, and the Board of Trustees will be reviewing a new magnet school policy along the way.

A proposed new policy, released by HISD last week, calls for the creation of a new funding model for magnet schools and an accountability system that would give under-performing programs three years to improve before losing their status.

“It is not going to lay dormant for the entire year,” [HISD Board President Paula] Harris said of the proposed policy. “We are moving forward on magnets.”

While the district has some nationally renowned magnet campuses such as Carnegie Vanguard High School and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, others draw few applicants and are rated “academically unacceptable” by the state.

The proposed policy keeps with the current practice regarding entrance requirements. Elementary schools would admit students based on available space, although the magnet programs for gifted students, called Vanguard, still would have admissions standards. Middle and high schools could continue to have entrance requirements – a sticking point for some who believe the programs should be more open.

Lupita Hinojosa, HISD’s assistant superintendent of school choice, estimated that 2,000 parents attended the magnet fair Saturday, a good turnout that she attributes to better marketing and increased confidence in the school-choices model.

“Parents were very apprehensive last year because of the review going on,” Hinojosa said. “We know our board has to make changes and improvements, but our schools are continuing with their focus on instruction. I’ve had parents that are bringing their 1- and 2-year-olds ready to put them on a wait list. Unfortunately, we don’t start that early.”

See here, here, here, here, and here for some background. School Zone has a copy of the draft proposal. I agree with the basic principles that I see here. There should be enough space to accommodate everyone who qualifies. Programs should be spread around the district so that everyone has at least one choice near them. No magnet school should ever be rated unacceptable. Magnet schools are a success story for HISD. They need to get this right.

More on magnet schools

Some further information about the proposed changes to HISD’s magnet school program made by Superintendent Terry Grier at Thursday’s public meeting.

Funding would drop at 69 schools and increase at 53 under Grier’s preliminary plan. In all, the district would slash spending for magnet schools, excluding busing, by more than $4 million next school year, according to a Houston Chronicle review of the data.

Grier emphasized that the numbers could change and the ultimate decision will rest with the school board. But the potential cuts have parents and students worried that their schools’ beloved offerings will all but disappear, especially with a looming state budget shortfall.

“I get the idea of working toward making sure that money is spent in a fair way,” said Sue Deigaard, who has two children at Twain Elementary, which could lose about $162,500. “But they can’t just go pulling money from kids because it makes sense on paper.”


Combined, the programs on the chopping block serve about 10,060 students. About 18 percent of those come from outside the neighborhood.

Grier says the schools where he proposes ending magnet designation either aren’t attracting enough out-of-neighborhood students or lack sufficient space.

Key Middle School, for example, now receives $187,128 for a foreign language magnet program that serves 77 students, five of whom come from outside the attendance zone, according to HISD data.

Magnet schools were created in HISD and across the nation as desegregation tools, intended to attract diverse students from across the city to special programs.

T.H. Rogers, which has a program for gifted and special-needs students in elementary and middle school, would experience the largest loss, from nearly $3 million to about $650,000.

Grier said the school originally was funded at a high rate to expand its program for students with disabilities, and it continued to get the money despite a limited expansion. The school now spends much of its money on extra teachers – needed because they get two periods to plan without students, he said.

I’m leery of these changes, coming as they are on top of potentially devastating cuts to HISD’s funding by the Legislature. I suspect any changes to the program, in particular any changes that will take away from existing programs. The following email was forwarded to the Heights Kids group on Friday evening from the Hamilton Middle School PTO:

Hamilton Parents and Friends,

We learned last night that the HISD administration is recommending eliminating Hamilton’s Vanguard program in order to create a dual language magnet in its place. The Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the recommendation next Thursday, March 10th. We don’t have any information about how or when this change would be implemented.

The effects of such a change will not only be felt by current families and future families of Hamilton, but the entire Houston Heights and surrounding communities. The Hamilton we know today has been in the making for over 10 years. We see little sense in dismantling a successful program with committed students, families, principal, teachers and staff.

Let’s plan on keeping the Vanguard Program at Hamilton intact and growing. We, as parents and concerned citizens, must communicate with the Board and its president in such a manner that they understand that the Vanguard Program at Hamilton—a program designed for kids who are committed to work hard at school, strive for excellence, and take education very seriously — is important for the well being of the entire HISD school system and the ongoing efforts for improving education in the State of Texas.

THERE IS NO TIME TO WASTE! Next Thursday will be here before we know it. Please email Dr. Grier, Anna Eastman and other Trustees to let them know how valuable Hamilton’s Vanguard program is to you. Email addresses are listed below. Also, plan to attend a community meeting hosted by Anna Eastman Tuesday evening, March 8th at 6 p.m. in the school cafeteria.


Hamilton PTO

I suspect Grier and the board will be hearing a lot more like that. (And indeed they are – any decision on magnet school changes has been postponed till the next fiscal year.) As with the original proposal by MSA, I suspect what we see now is subject to further change. In addition, I expect the board will hear a lot about the schools that have been targeted for closure as a result of budget pressures – there are already petitions to save Love Elementary, the magnet program at Jeff Davis High School and Project GRAD out there. I’ve also seen a sample letter to write on behalf of Love Elementary, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. Again, if any of this affects you, now is the time to get involved and make your voice heard. There’s plenty of things you can do, and any of them will help.

UPDATE: Since I didn’t make it very clear in this post, please note that Superintendent Grier has decided to defer discussion of magnet school changes until the next fiscal year.

“We will continue fine-tuning the preliminary proposal that was unveiled last week and gathering input from all stakeholders with the goal of bringing the issue back before the board sometime around September,” Houston Independent School District spokesman Jason Spencer said in an e-mail Sunday.


Board president Paula Harris, who called the special meeting last week to fast-track a new policy on magnet schools and to get public input, said the decision to slow down now is a response to the wishes of the community and the board.

“People definitely wanted to see it,” Harris said of Grier’s magnet proposal. “Now they want some time to review it and meet about it. I get that. I heard that loud and clear.”

“It’s big changes to Houston,” she added. “You don’t want to rush it.”

So there’s still time to make sure your voice is heard. Make sure you make the most of it.


HISD’s budget and magnet meeting

A whole lot happened on Thursday evening with HISD.

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier proposed a major shake-up Thursday night to the district’s popular magnet program, calling for 25 schools to lose the special status and for funding increases or reductions in others.

“This stands to change the landscape of the entire Houston Independent School District,” Trustee Anna Eastman said at a meeting packed with more than 300 parents, students and teachers who showed up to lobby for their schools.

In a three-hour presentation, Grier’s administration also laid out several controversial cost-cutting moves, such as changing bus schedules, closing four small schools and ending the college-readiness program Project GRAD.

McDade, Grimes, Rhoads and Love elementary schools would have to close their doors this fall under the plan.

Grier’s proposal to end the magnet programs at 25 schools scales back the massive cuts recommended in January by consultants hired by the school board. The $269,000 audit by Magnet Schools of America proposed eliminating 55 of the 113 magnet programs.

Trustee Harvin Moore called Grier’s magnet plan “way better” than the audit but expressed concerns about proposed funding reductions to many of the Vanguard schools, which serve gifted children. Moore and a few other trustees asked that final decisions about the magnet schools not be rushed at a meeting set for next week.

“I don’t think one week is enough time for the board or the public, who we report to, to look at this,” Moore said, prompting applause from the audience.

I recommend you read Ericka Mellon’s liveblog of the proceedings for a more comprehensive blow-by-blow account of what happened. There’s a whole lot to digest, and it’s hard to say how much of it will get modified or dropped as a result of a changing budget picture – the operating assumption was that the state would cut public education by $5 billion for the biennium, not $10 billion, so the assumptions made in their budget are more likely to be too optimistic than too pessimistic – or pushback from parents and trustees. And as Hair Balls makes clear, to a large degree what the Board can do is constrained by what the Legislature may or may not do.

Throughout the recommendation, Moore reiterated to the audience that the budget cuts were being made because of a failure of the state to shore up money for HISD, not because of money mismanagement at the school district level.

“Whatever we come up with, we want to make sure we convey to the state what will happen if they don’t act,” he said. Melinda Garrett agreed. “We have to wait. If we don’t, everyone in Austin will think we just rolled over,” she said. The school board said they are lobbying in Austin for more funding.

Other ways to scrounge for HISD include increasing taxes and reducing the homestead exemption, which could create $23 million by cutting it five percent. But Moore warned that once homeowners and taxpayers agreed to take on the state’s financial responsibility, there would be no going back. Another way would be to temporarily cut the salaries of teachers, but such a measure is illegal in Texas.

“You can’t touch any teacher salaries, and that’s the bulk of the money in this district,” Garrett said.

All the more reason to get involved now, and make sure your voice is heard.

Beyond that, the main thing that concerns me is the proposed change to school start times, which would greatly affect our morning routine along with everybody else’s. Take a look at the liveblog and the documents it contains to see how you and your school may be affected, and give feedback to your trustee. The West U Examiner has a good writeup as well. What do you think about all this?

HISD meeting to discuss budget

Mark your calendars for this Thursday, March 3, at the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center, 4400 West 18th Street, at 6PM for an HISD board meeting that will include a discussion of the 2011-2012 budget as well as a “first reading” of the new magnet school policy. Here’s a map to the location where the meeting will be held. Here’s some more information about what will be on the agenda, sent to me via email:

The HISD administration presented the recommendations, which are intended to strengthen Houston’s portfolio of school choice options, to the Board last week. Proposals for the school board’s consideration address three general areas: student application, selection and admission process; magnet program funding; and measures of success and accountability. More details on the proposals can be found online at

Board trustees are also scheduled to discuss policies related to school closures, which may become necessary because of proposed drastic cuts to state education funding that would take effect in the 2011-2012 school year.

School closures are among many options being considered for offsetting what HISD officials expect will be a $170 million shortfall. Administrators have already identified about $50 million in potential budget cuts that, for the most part, do not directly impact classrooms. One of the proposals on the table is to end the practice of giving extra funding to some unique schools. This leaves about $120 million in additional spending cuts that would likely result in teacher layoffs and the elimination of popular programs.

The Board is not scheduled to take any votes on Thursday, and residents are encouraged to speak on any topic listed on the agenda. Those wishing to speak must submit the speaker registration form by noon Thursday. That form can be found online at Forms are also available in the Board Services office at the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center. Completed forms may be faxed to 713-556-6115. For additional information on registering to speak, call 713-556-6121.

Let’s hope the proceedings are slightly less grim than they were in Austin yesterday. Be there if you can. Read on for a message sent out via email by Save Our Schools Houston to all concerned parents and other individuals.


HISD’s opening thoughts on dealing with budget cuts

It’s not going to be pretty, no matter how you slice it.

Fewer police officers would patrol school hallways, property taxes would rise, several campuses would close and about 300 central office jobs would be cut next year under HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s initial cost-cutting proposals.

Grier asked the Houston school board on Thursday to consider increasing the property tax rate by up to 4 cents and reducing a tax discount known as the optional homestead exemption.

“Of course you can balance the budget without them,” Grier said of the tax proposals. “But you can’t balance the budget without them without having draconian cuts at the school level.”

Houston Independent School District officials are preparing for a shortfall of $171 million based on deep cuts in state funding. The amount could change as the Legislature finalizes the state budget, and the board isn’t expected to vote on a final budget until June.

The largest tax increase option Grier presented to the board would increase the rate by 4 cents from $1.1567 per $100 of assessed value and lower the homestead exemption to 15 percent from 20 percent. The exemption reduces the taxable value of the property.
Under that scenario, the tax bill for the owner of an average-priced home, $195,680, would increase by $173.70.

As noted before, HISD could actually raise the tax rate more than that. For a variety of reasons that won’t happen, not the least of which in my mind is the thought that they may find themselves in a similar position two years from now and want to keep some options open. Plus, I think Harvin Moore has it right:

Trustee Harvin Moore said it was a weak negotiating tactic to make decisions while state lawmakers have yet to amend their bare-bones budget proposals.

“I do not think it’s a good move to say, ‘Well, OK, we’re willing to cut this much or to raise taxes this much,’ ” he said. “The state’s going to say, ‘Well, that worked well.’ ”

And then the legislators that passed the budget that forced HISD and other school districts to raise their taxes will spend the next 18 months bragging about how they balanced their budget without raising taxes. It’s a sucker’s game.

Hair Balls has more on what HISD is considering, which is clearly still in the “run it up the flagpole and see who salutes” stage. There’s also the related and as yet unresolved matter of magnet schools, on which the budget issues will have some unknown effect.

In the meantime, some Senators are working on a way to help school districts delay decisions about firing teachers, while the debate about how much is spent on education administration continues on.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston and the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, called the 58,575 people employed in nonteaching support positions by Texas public schools —”your math department supervisors, your curriculum experts” — a “soft target” for budget cutters. Those positions “must be seriously addressed,” he said. “That number is not based on reality.”

According to Patrick, the ratio of teachers to nonteachers, which includes those employed in administrative and support capacities, in districts has grown to nearly 1 to 1 today from 4 to 1 in the 1970s.

But while it may be more palatable to think of those cuts as trimming bureaucratic fat rather than as damaging the vital organs of a school, there may be less to cut than lawmakers imagine, said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research organization. In reality, Griffith said, administrative spending “is not as bad as some of the rhetoric you’re hearing.”

“You might look at a school district and say ‘well, they have 35 people in their office doing administrative work, that seems excessive’ until you find out that 15 to 20 of them are actually paid for in federal grants,” he said. When districts receive Title I and IDEA grants, that money can also cover administrative costs, so cutting those positions doesn’t mean those dollars will go to saving teachers.

Griffith said, there is no “magic number” that reflects the optimal number of teaching to nonteaching personnel for districts, because it’s difficult to make comparisons across campuses. “The best you can see is if people compare their district to similar districts,” he said, “but that means having 1,200 separate little studies” in Texas.


Ed Fuller, a special research associate at the University of Texas, said that data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the number of central office administrators has actually decreased in Texas since 2003. The number of administrators per school is just below the national average, he said, and there is evidence that districts with more administrators may actually increase the effectiveness of schools.

In an analysis that used campuses’ scores in the Texas Comptroller’s recent Financial Accountability for Texas study — which rated schools and districts based on student achievement relative to spending — he found that the more central office administrators per school, the higher the FAST rating.

This could be true, Fuller said, because it could mean that school principals are receiving more guidance and therefore staying in their jobs longer and improving their abilities more rapidly. “If you don’t have enough central office administrators,” he said, “then principals don’t get the support they need.” He said preliminary results from a survey of principals in Texas suggests that this is accurate.

There’s something I’ll bet you’ve never heard before – I sure hadn’t. The existence of a correlation is by itself meaningless, but it sure would be interesting to see what a rigorous study might reveal. One other point that I often hear but which wasn’t raised in this story is that a lot of the jobs that Patrick is complaining about exist because of mandates by the state. All this accountability stuff we’ve laid on schools and school districts in recent years represents real work – data crunching, report writing, and so forth – that has to be done by someone. You can’t have it both ways.

Still more on magnet schools

So what do we know about HISD’s magnet schools and that consultant’s report that recommended some hefty changes to them? Well, other than the consultants themselves, no one likes the report very much.

The message was clear at Lamar High School [Tuesday] night: remove the magnet designation from high performing schools in the district and Houston ISD will not only be destroying dreams and futures, but it will lose a lot of money as its best and brightest go elsewhere.

Trustee Harvin Moore, whose district includes Lamar and who has a child in a magnet school program, didn’t seem inclined to disagree.

“The board of education seemed rather frustrated by the contents of the report. I think it didn’t stand up that well, frankly,” he told the crowd that filled the auditorium. “Many of my colleagues are inclined to think there is very little in that report that we will support.”

Similar meetings were held in each of HISD’s trustee districts last night. At Lee, HISD Human Resources Director Ann Best made a brief presentation of the Magnet Schools of America recommendations — which call for removing the magnet designation from 53 of the district’s 133 magnet schools and the millions of dollars in funding along with it — stressing that in no way were the proposals board policy.

In fact, the evening seemed to be one of stepping away from the report, which cost the district $260,000. If so, that would make those in attendance very happy.

But HISD still believes that something must be done about the existing program.

[HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier and board members have said repeatedly they don’t want to dismantle the magnet program and have distanced themselves from some recommendations in the report.

But these officials also have noted discrepancies in the funding and academic performance among magnet campuses.

“It’s not going to be, ‘We get to keep ours because it’s excellent,’ ‘We get to keep ours because we have poor kids,’ ‘We get to keep ours because it’s the only one that does this or does that,’” said HISD board president Paula Harris, speaking to about 400 people at Sterling High School. “There actually have to be some parameters around it.”

Brainstorming aloud, Harris suggested such parameters could include preserving only those magnets with exceptional academics and a fifth or more of their students enrolled in the school’s magnet program, among other criteria.

May I suggest creating a task force with parents, teachers, principals, a couple of school board members, and an outside expert or two to come up with the next round of recommendations, instead of hiring more consultants to produce a report that wasn’t worth the time to read? I agree that there needs to be some criteria or benchmarks that magnets need to meet, and that we should strive to protect and hopefully try to replicate the successful ones. I still think there’s some merit to the idea of creating more magnet schools, perhaps by combining a few programs from various schools, but I have no empirical evidence for this, just my own opinion. It’s clear that everyone believes that the magnet programs are beneficial to HISD in many ways and should be supported, and I certainly agree with that. From reading these stories, though, it seems to me we also need to ensure that neighborhood schools are as good as they can be as well. Not everyone wants to specialize, and it’s probably better if fewer students are traveling across town to go to school. Having magnet programs that will attract students is great, but having schools that will attract them is better. See this op-ed by the HISD Parent Visionaries group for more.

More on the magnet schools report

I guess it’s just as well that I never made it all the way through that audit on HISD’s magnet schools, because it seems that neither Superintendent Terry Grier nor the Board of Trustees are all that wedded to it.

Grier and the trustees have yet to release a counterproposal, saying they first want to hear from parents. But in interviews and public meetings last week, they dropped hints about the ideas they do — and don’t — support. Grier also has acknowledged that some of the popular schools deemed too crowded to continue their magnet programs might not be too full after all, according to the principals.

This much is clear: The proposal from Magnet Schools of America, released a week ago, will not become HISD’s new master plan.

“From the very beginning, we said that we can either adopt some, all or none of it,” said outgoing school board president Greg Meyers. “Clearly, after seeing it, we’re not going to adopt all of it.”

But that’s not a guarantee the magnet schools will be spared budget cuts.

“I’m not trying to take away success,” said newly elected board president Paula Harris. “But could people lose money? I think the opportunity to lose money is definitely there.”

The report is here, in case you missed it. As long as HISD makes good use of the feedback it’s going to get at the public hearings and adopts practices that help control cost while making successful programs available to as many kids as possible, I’ll be happy. Many of these meetings will take place on Tuesday the 25th at 6:30 – see here for times and locations.

The audit on HISD’s magnet programs

The long-awaited audit has arrived.

Students in Houston ISD’s prestigious magnet schools could find themselves shopping for new campuses if district leaders act on a critical audit that suggests eliminating nearly half the programs.

The long-awaited audit, released on Friday, proposes that the district cut 55 of its 113 magnet programs, stripping the schools of extra dollars, the coveted label and free busing for students who live outside the neighborhood.

Many of the programs aren’t drawing enough students to continue, while others should adopt new themes and get a second chance, the audit says. At some of the most esteemed high schools, such as Bellaire, Lamar and Westside, the auditors suggest ending the magnet programs because of campus crowding. Students still could try to transfer into them but wouldn’t get busing.

The auditors also recommend removing the entrance criteria for most magnet schools in favor of a central lottery to ensure fairness. But auditions for fine-arts programs at middle and high schools should remain, the report says, and students still would have to test into gifted programs.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said parents shouldn’t panic about the suggestions in the report. District officials plan to solicit community feedback in coming weeks before Grier makes a final proposal to the school board for approval in March.

“I know this could be upsetting to folks,” Grier said. “That’s why we’re going to extreme lengths to go out and listen to people.”

More from the Press.

Board president Greg Meyers also seemed eager to emphasize no immediate changes are taking place.

“The Comprehensive Magnet Program Review provides a starting point for a community conversation about how we can strengthen HISD’s popular magnet program,” he said. “Some of our magnet schools consistently rank among the top campuses not only in Texas, but in the nation. We are committed to maintaining that level of excellence while also strengthening our schools that need help.”

The following was sent by Mary Buchanan Nesbit, who was quoted in the Chron story, to the HISD Parent Visionaries group on Facebook:

I am hopeful that you have had a chance to read through the MSA magnet review without going into cardiac arrest as I have heard from many of you. If not, I hope you will find time this weekend. Most trustees have scheduled their community meetings for next week. Typically, Greg Meyers, Harvin Moore, Paula Harris and Anna Eastman hold their community meetings on the Tuesday before the monthly BOE meeting which is next week. Mike Lunceford holds his meetings on Thursday. You may want to look for such an email or contact board services.

From the HISD website, “After conducting a comprehensive audit of the district’s magnet offerings—which included tours of every magnet campus—MSA representatives suggested that several bold improvements be made to help more parents find the best schools to meet their children’s unique needs and academic interests.”

Clearly, what HISD views as “bold improvements” and what many parents, teachers, and principals view as “bold improvements” are very different things. How does denying economically disadvantaged, minority students or any students for that matter access or transportation to high quality programs at Lamar, Westside and Bellaire benefit students and our city as a whole? How does changing the theme of an existing high performing magnet benefit the students who choose the school? How does creating a diversity cap or limit of 8% white students in a magnet program create greater access for all students? How does centralizing control of student assignment to individual campuses empower parents with real choices? Lastly, why is the expectation that every magnet school represent the racial make-up of the school district as opposed to the racial make-up of the city? If the goal of this magnet audit is to reduce diversity, limit access, reduce choice and create greater inequity for students, these recommendations knock it out of the park.

I’m still working my way through the report, which you can see here. I’ll be very interested to see what feedback the trustees get at the engagement sessions, about which you can learn more here. I’m wondering if it might be a good idea to get away from the practice of magnet programs at various schools and instead just have more magnet schools, which might allow HISD to serve as many students more efficiently. At the very least, we know that small specialized high schools – like HISD’s DeBakey and Law Enforcement – tend to have better performance in large urban school districts. Why not make more of them, and redirect magnet programs there? Also, as a PTA board member at Travis Elementary, I can attest to the issue of some magnet and Vanguard programs becoming increasingly unavailable as the schools draw more students from their own neighborhoods. That’s an issue that needs some attention. Anyway, read the report, attend the meetings, and let your voice be heard.

Reviewing magnet schools

This ought to be lively.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier is starting to tread in the most politically delicate territory he’s tackled since coming to Houston: the beloved magnet program.

Starting this week, the district is holding town hall meetings to gather input from parents on the specialized schools that got their name because of their initial ability to attract students from across the city.

The school board has hired an outside consultant to audit its 113 magnet schools, which could lead to ineffective programs being eliminated, successful ones being replicated, as well as changes in funding and in the student selection process.

Grier said Tuesday that some changes could happen as soon as next school year, or the school board could wait longer to act. It depends on the findings from Magnet Schools of America, which is slated to issue its preliminary report on Dec. 1.

“This is a long time coming,” Nancy Lomax, a veteran parent volunteer, said of the magnet review. “I understand it’s a difficult issue, and there will be a lot of screaming. But get out the earplugs — it needs to be done. It’s not fair to all the children if you aren’t evaluating how well you’re spending your tax dollars.”

I agree that this needs to be done. How can you know if something is working as intended unless you review it? As long as all the stakeholders are fully engaged, and as long as any substantial changes have sufficient support from those stakeholders before they are implemented, I say bring it on. Hair Balls has more.