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North Forest

HISD and the TEA

Still catching up on things.

Texas education officials are warning that Houston ISD could be placed under the jurisdiction of state-appointed managers as early as next year if 13 district schools don’t show improvement.

The warning was issued during a meeting [last] Monday between Texas Education Agency officials and Houston’s legislative delegation.

TEA officials told lawmakers that if even one of the district’s 13 schools that has struggled for at least the past three years receives failing accountability marks in 2017 and again in 2018, it could trigger state oversight of the entire district. Alternatively, the state agency could take over individual, chronically failing campuses.

Houston ISD is among 46 independent school districts that could face such sweeping changes thanks to a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2015 that targets schools that have been in “improvement required” status for five or more years, as of the 2018-2019 school year.

[…]

“Houston ISD is aware of major concerns the Texas Education Agency has expressed regarding several of our schools considered ‘chronically underperforming,'” the district said in a written statement Tuesday. “HISD shares the agency’s concerns and is working closely with TEA on the transformative work we must do at the local level to ensure every HISD student receives an excellent education.”

District officials said Wednesday that state officials told them only eight of their campuses, along with two charter schools it took over in 2016-17, must improve to avoid triggering the new law.

The discrepancy is due to conflicting interpretations of the law. Houston ISD believes its only at-risk campuses are those with six straight “improvement required” ratings as of 2018. The Texas Education Agency confirmed Wednesday that schools with five straight “improvement required” ratings as of 2018 put the district at risk.

Houston ISD officials also said Wednesday that they expect some schools to break their “improvement required” streak in 2017. They declined to specify how many. School districts have received preliminary school ratings for 2017, but they will not be publicly released until next week.

Several other large school districts — including the Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Waco ISDs — also have multiple struggling campuses that could fall into “improvement required” status again this year and in 2018, potentially prompting a state takeover.

Locally, the Aldine, Alief, Brazosport, Galveston, Spring Branch and Victoria ISDs all have at least one campus that could potentially trigger such major changes by 2018.

Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Children at Risk, said Houston ISD and other districts facing potential state takeover are not in nearly as dire straits academically or financially as other districts that the TEA has taken control of or forced to close. He said data supported the TEA’s closing of North Forest ISD in 2013 and of La Marque ISD in 2016.

“HISD on the other hand, and Dallas ISD — they clearly have many success stories, many good schools,” Sanborn said. “Dallas and Houston ISDs have a lot of high-performing, high-poverty schools, and if you look at Houston ISD’s record in the last five years they have seen a turnaround.

It’s hard to believe the state could do more to enhance that turnaround than what’s already being completed.”

For sure it’s hard to imagine the TEA being better equipped to handle a challenge like that. HISD was good enough to be the landing place for North Forest ISD students – by the way, have we ever seen any data about how those students have fared since the NFISD shutdown? – and I doubt anyone would argue that it’s substantially worse since 2013. I imagine there will be a lot of discussion about this, so I have hope that a sensible solution will be found. The Chron wants Mayor Turner to be involved, and while I think he should have a role as advocate, I’m not sure what more he can or should do, given that HISD is a completely separate governing body. But yes, he should speak out and forcefully advocate for not screwing around with what is overall a pretty successful school district, as should all invested stakeholders. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we should remember that poverty is the common factor among these schools, and while some schools and some students can overcome that, there is a lot more that the state and the federal government could do to help more schools and students overcome it as well. There’s blame that goes beyond HISD, is what I’m saying. Campos has more.

La Marque ISD to fight closure

Good luck.

The La Marque school board Monday voted to wage a legal battle to keep the state from dissolving the school district, the Texas Education Agency said.

La Marque officials could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman for the Education Agency said that the board voted to hire an attorney to contest the decision by Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to disband the school district.

“La Marque ISD has chosen a costly course of action,” the agency said in a statement. “The hundreds of thousands of dollars committed to this effort is funding that will not go into any LMISD classroom or toward educating one student.”

See here and here for the background. North Forest also fought against being shut down, but in the end they lost. I honestly don’t know if any ISD that has been targeted for closure by the TEA has managed to stave it off and retain its independence. My guess is that by the start of the 2017 school year, if not the 2016 school year, the students who today are in La Marque ISD will be in another district. And now we know which one: Texas City ISD:

“We respect the Commissioner’s decision and we are prepared to move forward with the annexation process in a way that benefits both communities and all students,” Texas City Superintendent Cynthia Lusignolo said in a statement posted on the school district web site.

Texas City ISD spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said that it was too early to know what kind of impact the absorption of La Marque schools would have on her neighboring district.

Tortorici said it was unlikely that students would be moved to new schools. “We want to assure both communities that it’s important for kids to go to school where they live,” she said.

Texas City ISD was the 565th ranked district out of 950 total last year. By comparison, La Marque was ranked #840. HISD was #683, in case you were wondering, but it’s a big district with a lot of good schools as well as some underperforming ones. La Marque has 2,528 students, compared to 6,133 for TCISD. That’s quite a bit different than HISD absorbing North Forest. I wish TCISD and the students of the soon-to-be-former La Marque ISD all the best with this transition.

What now for Terry Grier?

The HISD Superintendent is in the last year of his contract, and it’s not clear whether it will get extended or not.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Kashmere has made limited strides as one of the schools in Superintendent Terry Grier’s signature reform effort, called Apollo. Students passed their first AP exams and the graduation rate rose, yet the school still ranks among the district’s worst academically, and it will have its fourth principal in six years next fall.

The Apollo program exemplifies much of Grier’s six-year tenure leading the Houston Independent School District. He launched the project quickly, ousted staff and demanded a “no excuses” attitude, drawing praise and criticism from the community and the school board.

That hard-driving style and his relentless agitation for change have made Grier a polarizing figure to some as he fights to raise student achievement in the nation’s seventh-largest school system.

HISD has performed well compared to big-city peers, winning the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2013. Dropout rates also have fallen under Grier, and voters approved the largest school building program in Texas history. Yet academic progress, particularly in reading, is stagnant.

Test scores released last week showed HISD mostly lost ground with the Texas average while the gap between Anglo students and their black and Hispanic classmates widened. The Apollo experiment likewise yielded mixed results, with bigger gains in math than in reading.

Grier defended the district’s results in a recent interview. HISD has held steady, he said, despite enrollment increasing to more than 215,000 students, including more deemed at risk of dropping out. (The major spike occurred in 2013, when HISD took over the low-performing North Forest district.)

“Having said that, we still need to be getting better, faster,” he said.

But the upcoming school year could be Grier’s last. The board has not extended his contract beyond June 30, 2016. For his part, Grier, 65, said his future in Houston, a city he and his wife have come to love, depends largely on his relationship with the board at the time. Four of nine trustees are up for re-election in November.

There’s a lot more to the story, which covers things Grier has done and the progress or lack of same that HISD has made in various areas. It’s worth your time to read. What it doesn’t cover that I think would have been worth including is what the potential changes on the Board of Trustees were and how they might affect Grier’s status. As noted, four Trustees are up for re-election: Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Manuel Rodriguez, Paula Harris, and Juliet Stipeche. Skillern-Jones and Stipeche, both of whom are often critical of Grier, seem likely to get by with at most token opposition. Rodriguez and Harris are both Grier allies, and both are rumored to not be running for re-election. I am not aware of a challenger for Rodriguez’s seat yet – his 2011 opponent, Ramiro Fonseca, who lost in a very close race, has not made any statement about this year that I have heard as yet – while former City Council member Jolanda Jones is running for Harris’ seat. I’m going to guess she will be more of a critic than Harris has been. Losing these two Board members would make things a lot less comfortable for Grier.

Where the education reform bills stand

As we know, the attempt to take a first stab at school finance reform did not make it to the House floor. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some action on school-related issues. This Chron story from the weekend recapped a couple of the major bills that did make it through.

Jimmie Don Aycock

Lawmakers likely could have killed House Bill 2804, the A-F and accountability legislation, by delaying debate until midnight Thursday, the deadline for passing House bills out of that chamber. Instead, out of respect for [Rep. Jimmie Don] Aycock, the bill’s opponents chose to allow a vote even though they knew it would win approval.

On Friday, Aycock said he would be proud if the bill is the last piece of legislation he helps shepherd to passage.

“I was pleased and surprised that some people who opposed the bill, had every right to oppose the bill, chose not to kill it on the clock,” said Aycock, who is mulling whether to retire from politics. He was elected in 2007 and quickly rose to become chairman, but at nearly 70, says he wants to return to his central Texas ranch life.

[…]

Originally, House Bill 2804 sought solely to revamp the way schools are held accountable by placing less emphasis on state standardized test performance in grading campuses.

Sensing he didn’t have the political support to pass the bill as it was, however, Aycock amended it to mandate schools be given A-F grades, a proposal popular with many Republicans. Educators and many Democrats oppose the A-F scale, saying it stigmatizes low-performing schools.

Aycock says having an A-F system won’t be an issue if the grades are determined fairly: “It’s not the horrible deal that everybody thinks it will be if you have an accountability system on which to base it. If you have the present accountability model, then it’s just totally unacceptable.”

Schools are graded now either as “met standard” or “improvement required,” based largely on student performance measures. Under House Bill 2804, 35 percent of a school’s grade would be determined by measures like completion and dropout rates, and by how many students take AP and international baccalaureate classes. Ten percent would be based on how well the school engages with its community, and 55 percent on state test scores with a particular emphasis on closing the gap between the top- and bottom-performing students.

[…]

House Bill 1842, which would force districts to improve failing schools or face tough consequences, passed the House the day before with little of the discussion Aycock’s other legislation generated. Aycock called the bill “one of the most far-reaching bills of the session,” and said while he carried it, Dutton was the architect.

“I think House Bill 1842 is the best bill on public education that helps students more than any bill that I’ve seen in this Legislature, and I’ve been here 30 years,” [Rep. Harold] Dutton said Friday. “We have never pressured districts to do something about (low-performing schools). This does that. This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can.’ ”

The legislation would require any school that has received a failing grade for two straight years to create an improvement plan to take effect by the third year. If the school has not improved by the end of the fifth year, the commissioner of education would have to order the school’s closure or assign an emergency board of managers to oversee the school district.

Schools that have received consistently failing grades, such as Kashmere and Jones High Schools in the Houston Independent School District, would have one less year to implement a turnaround plan.

“Kashmere is what started me down this road,” Dutton said.

Kashmere earned the state’s “academically acceptable” rating in 2007 and 2008, but it has failed to meet standards every other year over the last decade. Its enrollment has fallen to about 500 students, most of whom come from poor families. Last school year, more than a quarter were in special education and 2 percent were designated as gifted, state data show.

“We’re just going to wait and see what the state does,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said about Aycock’s legislation. “If the state gives us the option of trying to manage it, we would implement some of the same strategies we have found to be successful in North Forest.”

I don’t care for the A-F grading system. I tend to agree with the critics that say it will stigmatize some schools. Not just the schools that get a D where they might have gotten a “meets standards”, but perhaps also the ones that get a B instead of an “academically recognized”. Who wants to send their kids to a B school if an A school is available? As for HB 1842, I don’t have any problem with the concept, but I’d like to know there’s some empirical evidence to suggest something like this can work, and has worked before. We haven’t done much to track the progress of students that were taken from failing school districts that the state shut down, so there’s not much of a track record here. What happens if we try this and it doesn’t work? What comes next?

The Observer updates us on some other education bills.

“Parent Empowerment”

Under a measure passed in 2011, parents can petition the state to turn schools with five consecutive years of poor state ratings into charter schools, to have the staff replaced, or even to close the school. It’s a tactic known as a “parent trigger,” and Taylor’s Senate Bill 14 would reduce that period to three years.

“This is about parent empowerment,” Taylor said when he introduced his bill in March. “[Five years] is too long to have young children stuck in a school and to have people defending that failing school district.”

California adopted the nation’s first parent trigger law, and its use there has prompted controversy. Critics say the few instances when the law has been invoked led to community conflict, teacher attrition, and dubious results. Nevertheless, reform advocates hope to spread and strengthen such laws across the country.

SB 14 easily passed the Senate in April but has less support in the House. The measure will also be heard in the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday.

Virtual Schools

Texas law allows public school students in grades 3-12 to take up to three online courses, paid for by the student’s school district at up to $400 per course. Senate Bill 894, by Taylor, would lift the three-course cap and extend online courses to students in kindergarten through second grade.

Texas needs to remove existing barriers and provide greater opportunity for students to access online courses, Taylor said as he introduced his bill in March.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, a nonprofit education advocacy organization, has called SB 894 a “virtual voucher” that would drain funds from public schools and direct them to for-profit virtual school providers.

Research has shown that student performance lags in corporate-run virtual schools compared to their traditional brick-and-mortar counterparts. “There is little high-quality research to call for expanding [virtual schools],” according to a 2014 report from the National Education Policy Center.

SB 894 was voted out of committee in April but has yet to be brought up on the Senate floor for a vote.

Vouchers

After numerous defeats by a coalition of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats during past sessions, the fight for school vouchers returned to the Capitol this session.

Senate Bill 4, by Taylor, would create scholarships to enable mostly low- and middle-income students to attend private and religious schools. Under the measure, private businesses would receive a tax credit for funding the scholarships.

Students from families with an income of not greater than 250 percent of the national free and reduced-price lunch guideline would qualify—for a family of five that means an annual income of about $130,000. Patrick proposed a very similar measure in 2013.

Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) memorably used a hearing on this measure to denigrate public education.

The bill passed the Senate, but several representatives told the Observer vouchers will be easily defeated in the House. SB 4 is currently stuck in the House Ways and Means Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Dan Bonnen (R-Angleton). Bonnen has emerged as a fierce foe to Patrick this session, and it is not clear if he will even bring the bill up for a vote.

Here’s Raise Your Hand Texas testifying against the “parent trigger” bill. I can’t say I’ll be sad to see any of these die.

And finally, there’s still the budget, which as always has an effect on schools. Here’s some information of interest for anyone who lives in HISD from local activist Sue Deigaard:

HB1759, that would have made structural modifications to school finance and added $800 million more to the $2.2 the House added in their budget for public education, was pulled from the floor on Thursday. Basically, there were so many amendments it was unlikely there was time left to get it to a vote and the time spent on a HB1759 vote would have preempted other bills from being discussed. It also sounds like the vote in the Senate for HB1759 would have been especially steep even if it had been approved by the House.

So, HISD will go into “recapture.” That means that per Ch 41 of the Texas education code, because HISD is a “property rich, student poor” district, instead of HISD receiving money from the state we will have to send local tax revenue TO the state to redistribute to other districts. We are projected to lose as much as $200 million over the coming biennium. Here’s the fun part…the electorate in HISD gets to decide whether or not to send that money back to the state. Yet, not really. First, the HISD board will have to vote on whether or not to even have such an election. If they don’t hold an election, the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. If they do hold an election and voters do not approve to give money to the state (which is the likely outcome), then the state comes and chooses properties within HISD and annexes them on paper to other school districts. The “ask” now is for the budget conferees, which include a few members of the HISD legislative delegation, to approve the House pub ed allocation that increases basic allotment for pub ed by $2.2 billion instead of the Senate version that increases it by $1.2 billion. Also, at least as I understand it, that “increase” still does not restore the per pupil allocation that was cut back in 2011, and like last session mostly just funds enrollment growth. As logic would dictate, adding the extra $1 billion in the House version over the Senate version infuses the system with more money so HISD has to send less back to the state through recapture. Basically….House budget = better for HISD.

Unfortunately, the Senate won this skirmish.

The budget conference committee — made up of five senators and five House members — approved a $1.5 billion boost to public education beyond enrollment growth, according to the LBB. The figure matches what the Senate had requested. The House had pushed for a $2.2 billion increase, and had briefly considered an additional $800 million on top of that tied to reforms in the state’s convoluted school finance system.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was the lone “no” vote on the committee’s decisions to set the level of public education funding, in large part because he felt the amount was too little compared to how much the state was putting toward tax cuts and border security, he said.

“Conservatives spend money like they’re printing money,” Turner said, except on education.

Budget conferees included Rep. Sarah Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman. When HISD has to raise taxes or cut programs to cover this loss, you can thank them for it.

State moves to close La Marque ISD

I hadn’t realized this was in the works.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams has ordered the closure of Galveston County’s La Marque ISD in July unless the school district successfully appeals.

Williams notified leaders of the 2,500-student district this week that he intended to take the rare step of revoking its accreditation after consecutive years of poor academic and financial performance.

The Texas Education Agency has not announced what would happen to the students, but most likely a neighboring school district or districts would be asked to take over, said spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

“It is my sincere desire that the agency, the district, and the community work together in a cooperative and productive manner to address the needs of the district’s students,” Commissioner Williams wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to La Marque Independent School District Superintendent Terri Watkins and school board president Nakisha Paul.

[…]

La Marque ISD received warning from the state last year that it was on probation. At the time, Paul said she was hopeful about the district’s future.

“I don’t think we’re in the same boat as North Forest. I refuse to think we’re in the same boat,” Paul told the Houston Chronicle in March 2014. “We are trying very hard to get it right. The community is still fighting for this district.”

Last year, four of La Marque’s six schools failed to meet the state’s academic standards. The passing rate on state exams was 54 percent, 23 points below the state average.

The district overall earned the lowest academic rating in 2014, 2013 and 2011 (the state did not issue ratings in 2012).It earned a substandard financial rating for the 2011-12 year.

Enrollment has dropped by about 25 percent over five years. Most of the children are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families.

Doesn’t sound good. The main thing that concerns me about this is the lack of an announcement about what would become of the current students. At least with North Forest ISD there was an obvious place for them to go, and so far so good with that. I don’t know what the neighboring districts are or how good a fit they might be.

There’s also still a chance that La Marque ISD may get a reprieve. They are fighting to stay open, as you might imagine.

At the special town hall meeting Sunday, board president Nakisha Paul said La Marque inherited issues accumulated under years of former leadership, and that the district’s once-strong foundation was gone. The new board and superintendent had plans to rebuild La Marque, she said, and champion its legacy. Watkins, who was named superintendent 16 months ago, said the district needs more time.

“This is the start of the process, not the end of the process,” Watkins said. “Research shows that a steady, systemic turnaround is the best way forward.”

Already, the district has shown improvement, she said, and the board worked through the weekend to prepare an appeal updating their progress on major goals.

The district’s financial balance increased to $5.6 million as of January, up from just $47,000 in 2013, she said.

Programs have been added to help students assigned to disciplinary alternative education programs, including a partnership with the La Marque police and another with the Gulf Coast Center Mental Health Authority to provide counseling, behavioral support and family training.

The district has hired new principals, deans and an assistant for elementary and secondary campuses to realign administration and pursue higher graduation and attendance rates. It came into compliance on several special education issues and posted test score gains in multiple subjects.

Of interest is that they have the support of State Rep. Wayne Faircloth. Having political allies didn’t help North Forest, but Faircloth is a Republican, so it’s a little different. There are two other small ISDs on the chopping block as well. I’ll be very interested to see how this plays out.

Re-redistricting HISD

Well, this would be different.

HISD Redistricting Plan

The Houston school board would grow from nine elected trustees to 17 under a bill filed by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who said she wants to give residents of the former North Forest school district increased representation.

The Houston Independent School District took over the northeast Houston district in 2013 under orders from the Texas Education Agency. The seven-member elected North Forest school board dissolved, and HISD absorbed the schools and students.

In September, the HISD board approved a redistricting plan to even out the population of the nine trustee districts in light of the new North Forest residents. But that move wasn’t enough, according to Thompson.

“Following the closure of North Forest ISD and the realignment of about 53,000 residents, many of my constituents feel that each school board district is so large that they have little or no say on any of the board’s decision-making process,” Thompson, D-Houston, said in a statement. “This bill will provide an opportunity for the North Forest community to have a stronger voice on the HISD school board.”

The nine HISD districts range in size from about 146,500 residents to nearly 156,300.

Under Thompson’s bill, which would apply only to HISD, the 17 trustees would represent about 77,200 people each.

See here and here for the background. Rep. Thompson’s bill is HB289. I will let this post serve as my biennial plea to everyone that writes anything about the Legislature to please always include bill numbers in those stories. This one was easy enough to find – it’s the pre-filing season, so Rep. Thompson had only one page of bills to her name, and the caption was recognizable – but that isn’t always the case. Please don’t make me curse your ancestry this spring. Include bill numbers. It’s the right thing to do.

Anyway. I doubt this will go anywhere, and I’m not sure how I’d feel about it if it did. I get the complaint, I’m just not sure this is the right answer. But we’ll see. Rep. Thompson can be very persuasive, so I wouldn’t count this out.

HISD should not be on the hook for North Forest’s liabilities

Come on!

Fourteen months after the Texas Education Agency ordered Houston ISD to take over the long-troubled North Forest school district, some unexpected disputes over funding have surfaced.

The Houston school board has authorized its attorneys to challenge a Texas Workforce Commission ruling that the district owes more than $3.7 million in unemployment benefits to former employees of the North Forest Independent School District.

In addition, HISD has not yet received enough state money to rebuild North Forest High School and an early childhood center in the area, though district officials say they expect to have sufficient funds in coming years to complete at least the high school project.

[…]

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams ordered the 6,700-student North Forest school district to be closed and annexed to HISD on July 1, 2013, after years of academic struggles and financial problems.

David Thompson, an attorney who represents HISD, said the district should not be responsible for reimbursing the state for unemployment benefits because the North Forest employees never worked for HISD. The Texas Education Agency did not require HISD to hire any North Forest staff.

The unemployment claims totaled $3.7 million as of June 30, according to HISD.

“We think we’re right on the law,” Thompson said, adding that he expects the district to file a lawsuit against the Texas Workforce Commission to appeal having to reimburse the commission for the claims. “Three million dollars pays for a lot of teachers, a lot of supplies.”

The HISD school board voted Thursday to authorize next steps to appeal the commission’s ruling.

HISD officials said they did not know how many North Forest employees filed unemployment claims, but it’s likely hundreds. North Forest ISD employed about 850 people before it closed.

Look, HISD did not volunteer for the duty of annexing North Forest. It was imposed on them by the state. I’m not arguing the merit of that decision – I happen to think it was a good call – but let’s be honest, this is a challenge for HISD. To add to that challenge by imposing North Forest’s unpaid bills on HISD is unconscionable, and that’s before we take into account the Lege’s draconian cuts to public education in 2011 and the state’s extremely flush coffers at this time. Seriously, why are we even arguing about this? The state should make good on these unemployment claims already.

HISD approves its redistricting plan

As we know, HISD now includes all of the former North Forest ISD, and with that new territory came the need to reapportion its Trustee districts. They completed that task last week with a minimum of fuss.

HISD Redistricting Plan

The Houston school board Thursday unanimously approved a redistricting plan that changes all nine trustee districts to accommodate thousands of new voters from the former North Forest school system.

Trustee Greg Meyers, who represents District 6 on the city’s far west side, previously had expressed concerns about the plan, particularly over losing the precinct around Valley West and Milne elementary schools to District 9. Trustees ultimately agreed on a slight change, deciding to keep Valley West Elementary in District 6; the move affects only the campus, not the voters in precinct 525, who now will be represented by trustee Wanda Adams in District 9.

“Throughout this redistricting process, every board member lost and gained,” Meyers said Friday. “This was the best situation that could have occurred.”

The HISD board was required to redraw trustee districts after the state ordered the annexation of North Forest ISD, which added about 53,000 voters in northeast Houston. The plan evens out the number of voters across the nine districts and maintains a majority-minority population in seven of the nine districts.

See here for the background. The post above includes a list of schools that are now in different Trustee districts. You can check here to verify who your Trustee is, though it may not yet be updated to reflect the changes. For the most part, not too much changed, and there will be no special elections to deal with this. Check and see if you were affected, but the odds are that most people will never notice this.

HISD redistricting underway

As we know, the Houston Independent School District now includes all of the former North Forest ISD. The addition of all that new territory, and especially all those new voters, means that the existing HISD Trustee districts will have to be redrawn. HISD is going through that process now.

HISD Redistricting Plan

The Houston Independent School District will launch a series of four community meetings next week to hear feedback about a draft plan to redraw trustee districts.

The first meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 1, at Shadydale Elementary School, 5905 Tidwell 77028.

With the annexation of North Forest ISD in 2013, 56,000 more people were added to HISD, necessitating the redrawing of all nine trustees’ areas to comply with federal election law mandating that population be distributed evenly throughout the entire school district.

Trustees voted at their last regular meeting to send a draft plan to the community. Three additional meetings will be held in July:

  • Pin Oak Middle School (4601 Glenmont, Bellaire 77401) 6:30 p.m., July 8
  • Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center (4400 W. 18th St. 77092) 6:30 p.m. July 10
  • Austin High School (1700 Dumble St. 77023) 6:30 p.m. July 15

The board will receive feedback from the meetings and is expected to vote on a final redistricting plan at its August meeting.

For more on the redistricting plan, including materials reviewed by the board and the proposed map, click here.

Sorry I didn’t post in time for the first meeting, but there are three others. A draft map is here, and the associated presentation with all the before-and-afters including population mixes is here; both are PDF file download links. Greg has had a look and doesn’t think there will be too much fuss as not to much is changing at a high level. You never know with redistricting, of course, so don’t be surprised if someone expresses unhappiness about this. The one question I don’t see answered is if implementing this plan will require all Trustees to run for re-election in 2015, as members of the Texas Senate and SBOE, both of which have four-year terms, are required to do after the standard decennial redistricting. That wasn’t the case for HISD in 2011, however, so perhaps it will be just the Trustees elected in 2011 on the ballot as usual. Anyone know the answer for sure?

Falkenberg on Abbott’s education plan

Lisa Falkenberg has a balanced take on Greg Abbott’s education plan.

Progress has been tragically slow for the students of North Forest. And their saga makes great fodder for those beating the drum to create something called an “achievement school district” in Texas. It would have the power to take over low-performing schools with the intent of turning them around, or turn them over to a charter operator.

Julie Linn, executive director of the well-financed Texans for Education Reform, was quoted in The Dallas Morning News telling lawmakers that an entire generation of students had been lost at the North Forest district during the chronic underachievement. True.

“If an achievement school district had existed,” Linn told lawmakers, “it would not have allowed 20 years of failure at North Forest ISD.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. Many of the failures were the result of the state’s own missteps. Conservators hired unqualified principals and poor-performing superintendents who squandered funds and donations. A parade of monitors and boards of managers had little effect.

But when I called North Forest’s new principal, Pamela Farinas, she supported the concept of achievement districts.

“I think it would have made a big difference,” Farinas said, explaining that every time the state took over North Forest it was the whole state, a “massive entity with a whole bunch of compliance paperwork.”

A small, specialized district knowledgeable about struggling schools would have more power and agility, she said. But she made clear she’s “150 percent” against turning to charters, which are often unwilling or unable to serve the neediest students.

“They’re exiting kids as quickly as they accept them and everybody seems to be brushing that under the carpet,” said Farinas, who worked briefly at a charter school.

[…]

On its face, the idea of a takeover district is attractive, especially with education horrors like the former North Forest still fresh on our minds.

We have to do something. But we can’t just do anything. I think I’m inclined to agree with David Anthony, the former Cypress-Fairbanks superintendent who now leads an influential education advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas.

He says the group has traveled the country looking at turnaround strategies. Anthony is not yet sold on the idea of achievement districts. The data just isn’t there.

Even in Tennessee, where homegrown superstar YES Prep Public Schools founder Chris Barbic went in 2011 to lead the effort to boost the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent, students the first year made modest gains in science and math but fell behind in reading.

The answer, Anthony says, “has to be a long-term, sustainable transformation. It can’t just be the new fad du jour.”

Anthony’s chief concern about Abbott’s proposal is the same as mine: “Why are we investing in a strategy we’re not quite sure about yet?”

See here for more. I consider myself neither an advocate nor opponent of charter schools. The good ones are very good, but there are a lot of not so good ones, and overall the numbers suggest that charters as a whole don’t do any better than traditional public schools. It’s also never been clear to me that the charter model, which depends in large part on a high degree of commitment from students, parents, and (generally less-paid) teachers is scalable to the magnitude needed for this kind of problem. How will charter schools do when they have no choice at all about who they get to educate? That’s a pretty big question.

There’s another reason to be wary of this, and that reason is money. Part of that is about school funding, which is still well below 2009 levels thanks to the massive and as it turns out needless budget cuts of 2011. If we really want to try something that’s never been done before in our schools, why don’t we try funding them at truly adequate and equitable levels first? As Attorney General, Greg Abbott is in a unique position to do something about that by settling the ongoing school finance litigation. His continued refusal to do that, and his constant avoidance of any talk about school finance is quite revealing. But beyond that, there’s also the presence of yet another well-financed interest group on the scene that’s pushing for this change, Texans for Education Reform. Like black holes do with space-time, groups like that warp the discussion and suck in all the light in their vicinity. Who will benefit from Abbott’s plan? It’s a sure bet that the funders behind Texans for Education Reform are at the top of that list. That’s as good a reason as any to be deeply skeptical of this.

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.

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.

A new day in North Forest

I’m really really rooting for this to work out well.

[Maria] Cortez used to teach at Burbank Elementary in the Houston Independent School District but agreed to follow her principal to a tough new assignment – and to transfer her daughter, too.

[Thurgood Marshall Elementary] was part of North Forest ISD in northeast Houston until the state shuttered the long-troubled district and ordered HISD to assume control this summer.

“We know about North Forest’s history, but I trust him,” she said of her principal, Hilarion Martinez. “I took the chance.”

Cortez was one of 11 staff members who followed Martinez from Burbank, which earned the state’s second-lowest grade before he became principal in 2011. For last school year, Burbank met the state’s standards and earned all possible honors in reading and math performance, and in overall progress.

Martinez said he is bringing his same philosophy to Marshall: hiring top-notch teachers, supporting them and instilling a no-excuses attitude. For starters, on Monday morning, he surprised his staff with cupcakes and cards that read, “Our Teachers are the icing on the cake! … Thank you for the positive impact you will have on our students, in our school, and our North Forest community.”

None of the old North Forest teachers returned to Marshall, which HISD converted from a pre-kindergarten campus to a full elementary school. The new staff mostly came from HISD, while a recruiting trip to California resulted in some hires.

Including Cortez, 11 employees enrolled their own children at Marshall.

“It says a lot when the teachers want to bring their kids here,” Martinez said, noting that he expected enrollment to top 800, with children returning from nearby schools in Aldine and Sheldon.

See here for the previous update. HISD spent a lot of money getting these schools into good physical shape. Getting the academics up to standard is the bigger challenge. After all that has gone on here, I wish for nothing but absolute success for the teachers, parents, staff, principals, and especially the students of the former North Forest schools.

The new accountability standards

Here’s the TEA press release about the school accountability ratings for 2013, which came out on Thursday.

The Texas Education Agency today released the 2013 state accountability system ratings for more than 1,200 school districts and charters, and more than 8,500 campuses. The ratings reveal that almost 93 percent of school districts and charters across Texas have achieved the rating of Met Standard.

Districts, campuses and charters receive one of three ratings under the new accountability system: Met Standard;  Met Alternative Standard;  or Improvement Required. School district ratings (including charter operators) by category in 2013 are as follows:

RATING DISTRICT CHARTER TOTAL PERCENT
Met Standard/Alternative 975 161 1,136 92.5%
Met Standard 975 126 1,101 89.7%
Met Alternative Standard N/A 35 35 2.9%
Improvement Required 50 30 80 6.5%
Not Rated 1 11 12 1.0%
TOTAL 1,026 202 1,228 100.0%

“A transition to a new accountability system comes with a great deal of uncertainty,” said Commissioner of Education Michael Williams. “The 2013 ratings confirm that the vast majority of districts and campuses are meeting the state’s standards and providing a quality education for our students.”

The 2013 ratings are based on a revised system that uses various indicators to provide greater detail on the performance of a district or charter and each individual campus throughout the state. The performance index framework includes four areas:

  • Student Achievement – Represents a snapshot of performance across all subjects, on both general and alternative assessments, at an established performance standard.
    (All Students)
  • Student Progress – Provides an opportunity for diverse campuses to show improvements made independent of overall achievement levels. Growth is evaluated by subject and student group.
    (All Students; Student Groups by Race/Ethnicity; English Language Learners; Special Education)
  • Closing Performance Gaps – Emphasizes improving academic achievement of the economically disadvantaged student group and the lowest performing race/ethnicity student groups at each campus or district.
    (All Economically Disadvantaged Students; Student Groups by Race/Ethnicity)
  • Postsecondary Readiness – Includes measures of high school completion, and beginning in 2014, State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR®) performance at the postsecondary readiness standard.
    (All Students; Student Groups by Race/Ethnicity; English Language Learners; Special Education)

Districts and campuses with students in Grade 9 or above must meet targets on all four indexes. Districts and campuses with students in Grade 8 or lower must meet targets on the first three indexes (excluding Postsecondary Readiness).

Under the 2013 state accountability system, campus ratings (including charter campuses) by category and school type are as follows:

RATING ELEM MIDDLE HS MULTI TOTAL PERCENT
Met Standard/Alternative 4,062 1,511 1,338 295 7,206 84.2%
Met Standard 4,062 1,504 1,156 264 6,986 81.7%
Met Alternative Standard N/A 7 182 31 220 2.6%
Improvement Required 477 133 129 39 778 9.1%
Not Rated 73 62 280 156 571 6.7%
TOTAL 4,612 1,706 1,747 490 8,555 100.0%

For eligible campuses that achieve the rating of Met Standard, distinction designations in the following areas have also been assigned: Top 25 Percent Student Progress; Academic Achievement in Reading/English language arts; and Academic Achievement in Mathematics.

Approximately 3,600 campuses that achieved the Met Standard rating earned some type of distinction. More than 750 campuses earned distinctions in all three potential areas. These distinction designations are based on campus performance in relation to a comparison group of campuses. Distinctions earned (by campus type) in 2013 are as follows:

DISTINCTION(S) EARNED ELEM MIDDLE HS MULTI TOTAL
Top 25% Progress & Read/ELA & Math* 385 182 152 40 759
Top 25 % Progress 326 94 117 16 553
Top 25% Progress & Reading/ELA 186 88 34 11 319
Top 25% Progress & Math 209 93 48 10 360
Reading/ELA 547 183 63 28 821
Reading/ELA & Mathematics 164 81 147 32 424
Mathematics 133 122 84 24 363

* Denotes campus received Met Standard rating plus all three possible distinctions under the 2013 state accountability system.

“Under the new accountability system, these designations recognize outstanding work at the campus level that would not be acknowledged in previous years,” said Commissioner Williams. “Despite the many positive numbers, I am confident school leaders across our state share my concern for the number of campuses where improvement is still required, especially at the elementary level. If we can target our efforts in those grade levels today, the state will see improvements for all students in the years ahead.”

Commissioner Williams noted that while the four components of the new accountability system are in place, future adjustments will be made based on district and stakeholder feedback. In addition, House Bill 5 (passed by the 83rd Texas Legislature) requires stronger measures of postsecondary readiness to be added to the system

To view the 2013 state accountability ratings for districts, charters and campuses, visit the Texas Education Agency web site at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/account/2013/index.html.

That last link will take you to the accountability system overview page, which has all the explanations and summaries of the numbers. All district and individual campus ratings can be found here. HISD schools begin on page 80. As the Chron reported, HISD has some work to do.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

More than 20 percent of campuses in the Houston Independent School District failed to meet the state’s tougher academic standards this year, according to data released Thursday.

Across Texas, 10 percent of schools fell short in the new rating system, which for the first time holds them accountable for results on the state’s more challenging standardized exams that launched last year.

Most districts in the Houston region fared well. Every campus in Cypress-Fairbanks, the second-largest local district, met the standards. In Fort Bend ISD, which ranks next in size, one school fell short.

Aldine ISD struggled, with 27 percent of its schools missing the mark.

[…]

In HISD, the largest district in Texas, 58 of the 268 rated campuses – or 21.6 percent – received the “improvement required” label.

Unlike last year, HISD fared worse than the Dallas school district, which has similar demographics and ranks second in size. About 15 percent of the Dallas campuses missed the standards.

Superintendent Terry Grier said he was pleased that most schools did well on a measure that looks at test scores across all subjects and grade levels.

“At the same time,” Grier said in a statement, “these ratings clearly highlight areas where we must focus our resources to ensure every student in every neighborhood is prepared to succeed in college and in the workforce.”

Half of the 20 schools in Grier’s signature reform program, Apollo, earned the “met standard” rating. The multimillion-dollar effort, which started three years ago, includes specially hired tutors and increased class time.

All of the schools in North Forest ISD missed the standards, except for one run by a charter school.

HISD’s press release on the accountability standards is here. One point to note:

HISD campus results for each of the four indexes were:

Student achievement: 251 out of 268 rated schools (94 percent) met standard
Student progress: 235 out of 263 rated schools (89 percent) met standard
Closing performance gaps: 232 out of 265 rated schools (88 percent) met standard
Postsecondary readiness: 42 out of 46 rated schools (91 percent) met standard

That sounds a little better than “21.6 percent of HISD campuses failed to meet the standard”. Not meeting any one of the four standards gets you the “improvement required” label. What that suggests is that most of the HISD schools that were classified as “improvement required” met at least one of the three or four indexes. A look through the HISD schools on the master list confirms this – only Wheatley High School and Hartsfield Elementary School struck out completely. That may make bringing them up to standard a little easier. On the other hand, four of the eight non-charter North Forest schools (see page 126) rated Needs Improvement in each index. HISD definitely has its work cut out for it there. Everyone is still figuring out what the new system means, and it will get tougher over time, but HISD has budgeted money to improve the schools that failed to satisfy one or more index. We’ll see how much progress they make next year.

HISD inspects North Forest schools

It’s not pretty.

The HISD leaders tried not to scowl as they walked into classrooms with broken glass, flooded floors, outdated chalkboards, graffiti on walls, gum on desks and the smell of mildew.

The head of food service swept cockroaches from the high school kitchen and pledged that the exterminator would return for a second visit.

“It’s about expectations. Why would you allow this for kids?” Orlando Riddick, the district’s high school chief, asked as he toured North Forest High School Tuesday.

It was the second day of a 55-day clean-up mission that the Houston Independent School District must assume since the state ordered it to take over problem-plagued North Forest ISD. Dozens of maintenance workers and high-level staff descended on the campuses this week, and their concerns quickly stretched beyond cosmetic issues to safety problems.

[…]

At Fonwood Elementary, one of North Forest’s older schools, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier pointed out exposed wires and broken playground equipment, and noted that one area inside had failed an air-quality test.

Grier said he hopes to find funds to replace the 54-year-old building, but for now it will get a mild makeover before classes resume in August. Crews this week ripped out mildewed carpeting, prepared to install doors that meet disability rules and ordered new water fountains. The old ones are too tall for children and are bolted to the walls, presumably to keep them from falling or being stolen.

“I just keep repeating, ‘I can’t believe kids were here,’ ” said the new principal, Kimberly Agnew Borders, who lives in North Forest and still attends church in the northeast Houston area.

There are more photos here, and some of them are quite appalling. I understand that people were fighting to keep North Forest in part because it’s part of their history, but seeing the condition of these schools really makes you wonder. I don’t know how things will shake out with test scores and all, but it’s hard not to believe that the students’ school experiences will be better now. Note, by the way, that HISD still has to get student records from North Forest, since they hadn’t been made available to them before July 1. We can’t even begin to talk about comparing student performance until HISD has those records in hand. It’s more than just construction and rehab work that needs to happen before September. Anyway, I’d love to see what the After pictures look like once the physical work is done. K12 Zone has more.

Clock strikes midnight for North Forest

This was a tough blow for NFISD.

North Forest school officials lost one of their final court battles Wednesday, making the district’s state-ordered merger into HISD five days from now increasingly likely.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner rejected the last-ditch claims by North Forest that the school system’s takeover by the Houston Independent School District would violate the rights of minority voters under federal law.

North Forest has two more long shots to halt the shut down of the school district, with motions in state appellate court and the Texas Supreme Court.

State Education Commissioner Michael Williams has expressed complete confidence that his order to shut down North Forest after decades of academic struggles and financial problems would stick. He issued a statement this week saying he had no doubt the merger with HISD would happen Monday after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling about voting rights eliminated a remaining hurdle.

In his order, Hittner noted the “well-documented educational struggles” in North Forest and said that granting a temporary restraining order to halt the annexation was not in the best interest of students.

“In short,” he wrote, “the affected children, the educators, and the state would be severely harmed by the issuance of a TRO.”

Williams’ reference to the SCOTUS ruling on the Voting Rights Act drew a rebuke from Clay Robison of the TSTA, but he’s right that Justice Department engagement in the North Forest closure was a potential obstacle, and now it’s not any more. Chris Tritico, the attorney representing the NFISD school board members, said in this story that their litigation can continue even after the district and its Board of Trustees is dissolved, since they sued as private citizens as well. However, on Friday the State Supreme Court declined to hear their case, and Tritico conceded defeat. On Monday, the annexation officially begins. Hair Balls has more.

RIP, Section 5

By now you are well aware that SCOTUS has dealt a blow to the Voting Rights Act. They actually left Section 5, which is what requires certain parts of the country (including Texas) to get preclearance on voting-related changes, intact, but instead ruled that Section 4, which defined who was under the purview of Section 5, was unconstitutional. While Congress could update the VRA to fix this, I think we all know that ain’t gonna happen with the House under GOP control and the Republicans going full-bore on a white voter strategy. As such, the practical effect is that Section 5 is dead, or at least in a long-term coma.

There’s a ton of coverage out there – Greg has a good link roundup – and there’s not much I can say about the overall implications of this that someone else hasn’t said already. I want to focus on the Texas effects, and for that we turn to Texas Redistricting, who covers two of the three things I want to focus on.

Redistricting

The Texas Legislature completed the process this weekend of adopting the 2012 interim maps as permanent maps (with just the most minor of changes to the state house map). Those bills now are on Gov. Perry’s desk, awaiting signature.

On the other hand, right now, there is no longer any preclearance bar, and the maps passed by the Texas Legislature back in 2011 are technically legally operative (Plan C185, Plan S148, Plan H283).

Governor Perry now has to decide what to do next.

In some Republican quarters, there conceivably could be a call for return to those maps.

At the same time, if the state’s goal is to minimize the risk of litigation and the possibility of yet another delayed primary, moving forward with the interim maps is the state’s best hope of doing so – short of a full settlement with minority groups.

That’s because the interim maps incorporated changes based, in part, on what the San Antonio court found were non-section 5 problems with the maps (e.g., fracturing of non-Anglo communities in Dallas and Tarrant counties addressed through the creation of CD-33).

But internal party politics can be unpredictable, and it remains to be seen how things play out.

Regardless, whatever the maps end up being, they will head back to the San Antonio court which, over the next few weeks (months) will decide what additional changes need to be made to the maps to fully address constitutional and section 2 claims, including claims of intentional discrimination.

If the court cannot complete the process by early September (or end of September at the very latest), it may need to put another set of interim maps in place to allow the 2014 election cycle to go forward with minimal disruption.

Voter ID

The situation on the voter ID front is a bit less convoluted.

Texas’ voter ID law now can be legally implemented.

To be sure, the Department of Public Safety and election officials will have to take steps to be implement the law, but it is very possible those steps can be completed in time for the law to be in place for municipal and constitutional amendment elections in November 2013. If not, the law will almost certainly be fully operative by the 2014 Texas primary in March.

Don’t count on the litigation to be over, however. It is possible that groups opposing the law could bring a suit to enjoin enforcement of the law on section 2 or constitutional grounds. To get an injunction, though, they would have to meet the high standard for injunctive relief (irreparable harm, substantial likelihood of success on the merits, etc.)

I’d say it’s a lead pipe cinch that a lawsuit to block or overturn Texas’ voter ID law will be filed. It was far more restrictive than many other such laws, some of which were struck down in the courts on non-Section 5 grounds last year. The preclearance lawsuit also established that there was discriminatory intent in the law, which ought to help the eventual plaintiffs’ case. AG Greg Abbott has already announced that the law will go into effect “immediately”, so I’d say it’s just a matter of time before that lawsuit gets filed. For sure, the first goal will be to get an injunction against enforcing the law before this November’s election. In the meantime, DPS will provide free voter ID cards for people who don’t have drivers’ licenses, assuming they can get to a DPS office and can scrounge up a copy of their birth certificate or concealed handgun license. While you ponder that, go sign the petition in favor of making voting a right and not just a privilege that can be taken away by legislative or judicial whim.

As for redistricting, this goes back to my original puzzlement about Abbott pushing for the interim maps to be legislatively ratified. Everyone was betting all along that Section 5 was doomed, so why give up the maximalist strategy for the maps? From a timing perspective, this could hardly be worse for the Texas GOP. They went through all this trouble to get these maps passed, are they possibly going to say “oh, never mind” and go back to pushing for what they passed in 2011? I kind of doubt that they will – as Texas Redistricting noted, the interim maps were a stab at addressing Section 2 problems, not Section 5 issues – but you have to wonder what might have happened if this decision had been in the first batch, before all the bills were voted on. And as always, you never know what Rick Perry will do.

The third point I wanted to touch on was addressed by K12 Zone.

One of the few remaining hurdles the state faces in shutting down the North Forest school district appears to have been removed with the U.S. Supreme Court striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday.

Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who specializes in voting rights, said the court’s 5-4 ruling means that the Texas Education Agency no longer needs to get pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department to dissolve North Forest and annex it into the Houston Independent School District on Monday.

“Now they can move forward with annexation unless or until a judge enjoins it,” said Dunn, who was in the Washington, D.C., courtroom when the ruling was issued Tuesday.

There is still litigation ongoing, plus a new motion filed with the State Supreme Court to hold things off. But the Justice Department involvement in the annexation was a wild card that is now off the table. The odds of North Forest going away on Monday just got a little better. PDiddie, Daily Kos, Wonkblog, Texpatriate, Political Animal, the Observer, and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: One more great link roundup from Slactivist.

HISD moving forward with North Forest annexation

Despite some legal uncertainty, they pretty much have to keep moving forward.

The Houston Independent School District moved forward Wednesday with its takeover of the beleaguered North Forest school system even as state education officials prepare for a Thursday hearing that could delay the annexation.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced principal assignments as well as changes in the use of some campuses. Parents were notified of the changes by mail earlier in the week.

The Texas Education Agency, citing decades of academic failures and financial mismanagement, in May ordered that North Forest ISD close and be annexed to HISD by July 1. Two weeks ago, a visiting judge in Austin, Jon Wisser, issued a temporary restraining order against the state agency at the request of North Forest supporters.

The supporters will go before Wisser again Thursday to request a temporary injunction. The restraining order is set to expire Friday.

“Until a judge orders otherwise, we have an obligation to continue proceeding as though (TEA) Commissioner Williams’ order for HISD to annex North Forest on July 1 will remain in effect,” said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer.

[…]

However, a federal issue dealing with voting rights must be resolved before the takeover is finalized. The Houston ISD board will need to redraw voting districts. The board will discuss how to incorporate North Forest voters into its single-member districts at its meeting Thursday, Spencer said.

HISD has scheduled community meetings June 25 and June 27 to share information and receive feedback from North Forest parents about the transition.

The meetings will be at 6:30 p.m. at the Eden Event Center, 7540 N. Wayside.

See here and here for the latest news. I have not yet seen an account of the HISD board meeting, so I don’t know what they decided to do about redistricting. On Friday afternoon, a district judge in Austin dismissed that lawsuit filed by North Forest against the TEA, for which visiting Judge Visser had granted a temporary restraining order, so that’s one more obstacle cleared. North Forest will appeal the dismissal, and there’s still the matter of the Justice Department, but it’s getting close to impossible to imagine an outcome in which the annexation does not move forward as planned at this point.

TEA insists North Forest closure moving ahead

TEA Commissioner Michael Williams says don’t listen to the noise, North Forest ISD will be assimilated into HISD as planned on July 1.

Williams said the Texas Education Agency, which he oversees, has followed state law and has the necessary approval to proceed with shutting down North Forest ISD, which has a long history of academic and financial problems. His order calls for neighboring HISD to assume control of the 7,000-student North Forest district on July 1.

“This is going to happen,” Williams said.

The top lawyers for the TEA and HISD had a conference call with Justice Department staff on Wednesday.

According to a memo from HISD general counsel Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, she is proposing that the HISD board approve a redistricting item at its June 13 meeting.

She said the initial recommendation is for North Forest to be assigned to District II, represented by Rhonda Skillern-Jones, with some residents possibly assigned to District VIII, represented by Juliet Stipeche. Neither seat is on the ballot in November, so the Justice Department doesn’t have to issue a ruling in the near future, Hutchins-Taylor wrote.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said North Forest officials are not fully cooperating, withholding basic information like test data and students’ addresses, needed to help plan bus routes.

See here for the background. Yesterday, North Forest’s proponents got a boost when a judge granted a temporary restraining order temporarily halting the takeover.

The order by Judge Jon Wisser means the Texas Education Agency cannot proceed with shutting down the long-troubled North Forest school district at least until a court hearing on June 13.

North Forest supporters saw the temporary restraining order as a victory in their fight against closure, but a TEA spokeswoman said the judge’s order was routine and agency officials were “absolutely confident” the takeover will take place.

“There have been illegal actions by the (TEA) Commissioner and his appointees throughout this process,” North Forest attorney Chris Tritico said in a statement. “The law does not permit the government to manipulate the law to accomplish its own ends. Today is a major step in ensuring the continuation of the North Forest school district.”

I think in the end North Forest is going to lose the fight and the closure will go ahead, but I’m not quite ready to believe it will happen on schedule. We’ll see how big a bump in the road this is.

Justice Department engaged in North Forest closure

A possible ray of hope for supporters of North Forest ISD, which is still hoping to survive past July 1 when the TEA’s order for it to be subsumed into HISD takes effect.

The chief of the Justice Department’s voting section wrote a letter to the Texas Education Agency saying federal officials need to know how HISD plans to redraw its school board boundaries to encompass North Forest. The Justice Department must sign off on the annexation to ensure fair treatment of minority voters under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said state officials believe HISD must send a letter to the Justice Department explaining its plans for redistricting.

David Thompson, an attorney for HISD, said the district can relay some options to the Justice Department but he thinks it would be premature for the school board to take official action until the annexation is official.

“It’s a little bit of the chicken or the egg,” said Ratcliffe of the TEA.

The State Office of Administrative Hearings ruled last week that the annexation could proceed, but the TEA also needs clearance from the Justice Department.

[…]

Chris Tritico, an attorney representing North Forest in its effort to block the closure, said he was optimistic the Justice Department ultimately would deny the annexation. He noted that all seven of the North Forest school board members are black, while HISD’s nine-member board includes four Anglos. But like those in North Forest, the majority of students in HISD are black and Hispanic.

The Forward Times has a copy of the letter from the Justice Department. Hard to know what to make of this, and as with everything else it may be affected by the forthcoming SCOTUS ruling on the Voting Rights Act. The NFISD Board of Trustees has refused an order from the TEA to terminate its teachers in anticipation of the IHSD takeover, so one way or another there’s still a lot of action to take place.

North Forest still fighting as the deadlines approach

Never give up, never surrender.

North Forest ISD has spent more than $595,000 appealing the state’s order to shut down, newly obtained records show, and the school district is continuing the court fight as its July closure date nears.

Despite the district’s ongoing appeal before an Austin court, the Texas Education Agency has ordered North Forest officials to start making serious plans to close – including taking action by May 1 to terminate the contracts of all employees for next school year.

The TEA’s appointee to oversee the closure, Doris Delaney, wrote a letter to North Forest ISD leaders this month ordering them to turn over personnel records to HISD – though they can withhold teachers’ job evaluations. She also instructed Superintendent Edna Forte to back up the district’s electronic files and took away the school board’s authority over spending.

“Effective immediately,” Delaney wrote in the April 13 letter, “the Board of Trustees and the superintendent are directed to obtain the consent of the conservator before making or approving any agreement, contract, purchase or payment.”

Delaney, given authority by TEA Commissioner Michael Williams, also told North Forest to grant HISD officials access to inspect the district’s campuses and buses.

[Superintendent Terry] Grier and several dozen HISD employees walked through the nine North Forest schools two weekends ago. He said the newer schools were in good shape but several need maintenance work. He’s particularly worried about the condition of one school, indicating that students may have to move campuses next year, but declined to specify.

Chris Tritico, the attorney hired by the North Forest school board, is holding out hope that the courts will side with him and allow the 7,000-student North Forest district to continue to exist.

[…]

HISD officials said they soon expect to get the North Forest personnel files. They also are seeking student records, but North Forest has raised questions about the release, arguing it may violate the federal educational privacy law.

“We don’t know exactly what we’re going to get,” HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said. “That information’s pretty critical as we try to figure out summer school and what kind of services students are going to need.”

In addition to the continued appeals and likely legal action to follow, the North Forest ISD Board of Trustees has dug in its heels, too.

The North Forest school board on Monday defied a state order to fire all its teachers for the next school year, leaving Texas Education Agency officials pondering their next move as the district is supposed to be taken over by Houston ISD come July 1.

Doris Delaney, a TEA appointee at the school board meeting, told the trustees that they had to take action to fire the teachers under state law, but the board refused, voting against the agenda items or simply not seconding the motions.

Trustees explained that they considered the state’s order “awful” and “immoral,” and community members at the packed meeting agreed, calling out, “Don’t do it. Stand up to them,” said Sue Davis, a spokeswoman for the North Forest Independent School District.

State law requires teachers in any district to be notified before the school year ends if their contracts will not renewed the following school year.

What a mess. HISD is not required to hire any of the North Forest teachers, and Superintendent Grier has said that he can’t guarantee jobs for them or any of the 900 existing North Forest employees. I have no idea what effect the board’s intransigence will mean – the TEA said it was “researching” its options.

Meanwhile, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the most prominent backer of NFISD, continues to rally support for the charter school proposal that would keep North Forest alive. The latest administrative appeal for NFISD will be decided by May 29, but given the things that are supposed to happen or begin happening by today to get the merger into HISD started, it’s hard to imagine a different outcome. Given that one reason for NFISD’s problems historically has been low or negative cash balances, the amount they’ve spent on the appeals probably isn’t helping with that. The strongest argument for NFISD is that they’re as good as neighboring schools in other districts; against that, you have the longstanding mismanagement by the NFISD Board of Trustees. I don’t see how NFISD can prevail at this point, but deadlines or no deadlines I don’t think this will be settled anytime soon.

On a related note, Jay Aiyer takes to the op-ed pages to encourage HISD to think outside the box when it takes over North Forest.

HISD should consider an approach that brings the community directly into the educational policy process through a new kind of charter school model.

[…]

A new approach, developed by the Austin Independent School District and known as the community driven “in-district” charter model changes this. It brings teachers, parents and community leaders together to lead the conversion of several campuses in the Austin school district to create in-district community charter schools. This approach takes the success of charters and places it in the traditional “ISD” context. In sharp contrast to traditional charter conversions – existing teachers, campus union leaders, parents, school staff, community members and principals all share responsibility for the development and execution of each school’s instructional programs. While traditional models of reform impose change from the top down, this approach seeks immediate community buy-in on the front end, and allows them to direct reform.

At the core of this approach is the concept of self-directed schools – schools that are run by teachers, parents, principals and community leaders. What differentiates this from other charter concepts is the combination of substantial community and parental involvement with the great professional teacher autonomy and leadership opportunities that exist in traditional charters. The in-district community charter school concept combines the independence of the best charter schools and embeds it in the public school context.

Houston Independent School District has been at the forefront of many innovative approaches to school reform – Apollo20, magnet school choice, Early Colleges/HILZ, etc. While each has been successful in its own way, all of them have been top-down reform initiatives. The community-charter approach would allow the community to choose any of these or other reforms it wants to turn around community schools. They could even choose to partner with KIPP, YES Prep or other traditional charters.

There is certainly evidence that the community wants to maintain some form of self-governance, and that they support the charter schools’ proposal. It would be worthwhile to explore this option and see how well it fits. The more the community is engaged, the better off everyone is likely to be.

TEA drops the hammer on North Forest again

Pretty much as expected.

North Forest ISD announced Monday that the Texas Education Agency had upheld the decision to close the school district and annex it to Houston ISD this summer.

The ruling, however, does not end the school district’s fight to remain open. North Forest attorney Chris Tritico pledged to once again appeal the closure order, taking his case to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, an Austin court.

“We at North Forest ISD are disappointed by the TEA’s decision to merge North Forest with HISD,” Tritico said in a statement.

He reiterated that the North Forest school board plans to fight for an alternative plan to let a nonprofit management board and some high-performing charter schools run the 7,000-student northeast Houston district.

Tritico refers to the charter school option for NFISD, which has the support of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee but which other elected officials have met with skepticism. The main problem with the charter plan besides the lack of enthusiasm from the electeds was that the plan was insufficiently developed for TEA Commissioner Michael Williams. According to Hair Balls, this was still the case as of Monday. I suppose they’ll have more time to fill in the blanks as NFISD pursues other avenues of appeal.

Whatever does happen, the main focus has to be on improving educational outcomes for NFISD’s 7,000 students. If nothing else, we need to track these students’ progress going forward. As this Chron story from Monday morning before the TEA’s ruling notes, this would be a new thing.

In 2010, the Texas Education Agency abolished the Kendleton Independent School District and its single campus for failing to meet academic benchmarks for four straight years. In northeast Houston, North Forest ISD is headed toward the same fate. On Monday, the TEA is expected to announce whether it is upholding Education Commissioner Michael Williams’ order to close the problem-plagued district and annex it to Houston ISD as of this summer.

The experiences of Kendleton and of Wilmer-Hutchins ISD, a long-troubled district forced into Dallas ISD in 2006, offer some insight into what North Forest may expect if closed: crushed community pride, followed by general acceptance over time.

How students have fared academically isn’t easily known. The TEA hasn’t tracked the former Kendleton and Wilmer-Hutchins students in their new schools.

I don’t know why the progress of these students was not tracked, but it is unconscionable to me that this is the case. We know who these NFISD students are. There’s no reason they can’t be easily identified once they are merged into HISD, and there’s no reason why some reports can’t be generated to monitor their achievements as HISD students. Hell, I don’t see why this can’t be done retroactively for Kendleton and Wilmer-Hutchins students, too. We absolutely need to know if shutting down these problematic ISDs is worthwhile, because if it turns out that it’s not then we need to figure out a better way forward, and soon. If it turns out that it is a good idea, then maybe we need to see if there are some other ISDs that should get the same treatment. Either way, we need to know, and there’s no excuse for not knowing.

HISD and KIPP debate North Forest’s future

HISD SUperintendent Terry Grier and KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg meet with the Chronicle to discuss their vision for North Forest ISD.

Under either scenario, students could face longer school hours to help them catch up academically, and some employees may have to change positions or lose their jobs if they don’t perform well.

Grier said the Houston Independent School District would save money thanks to efficiencies in its bus and food service departments. He also noted that HISD’s tax rate is lower, by about 28 cents, so North Forest property owners would see their bills fall.

Under Feinberg’s proposal, a nonprofit board called PHILO would oversee the North Forest district. It would include a mix of charter schools and traditional public schools. The elected North Forest school board would continue to collect taxes and could perform other duties if the TEA chose.

Feinberg said the novelty of the idea – a twist on efforts in New Orleans and Tennessee – likely would attract outside funding from foundations.

[…]

Grier said his staff has been discussing details about annexing North Forest since the former state education commissioner, Robert Scott, first ordered the move in October 2011. Scott then gave North Forest a one-year reprieve.

“We could merge that district into our district tomorrow morning,” Grier said during a meeting with Feinberg before the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board. “It’s ready to go. And we can implement it smoothly.”

Grier, however, declined to release many details of the district’s plan. He said North Forest High School would remain open, and HISD would start some magnet programs in North Forest. He would not say how many, if any, North Forest schools would be closed.

[…]

The PHILO group would keep open the 10 North Forest campuses in the coming school year, with new charter schools coming on board in 2014. The group has not detailed what changes it would make to help existing North Forest campuses to improve. The number and type of charter schools would be determined by where parents and students applied.

See here for more on the charter schools’ proposal. North Forest is making one last appeal to avoid closure, but I suspect that’s just going through the motions. The TEA will hand down its decision on their final appeal on April 1, so we’ll know soon enough though litigation may follow. As far as the actual proposals from HISD and PHILO go, all I can say is that they’re both a little light on the details. Grier touts his Apollo initiative, which is based in part on KIPP, as their model to follow. One could argue that if you’re going to go that way, you may as well go all the way. I’m not sure I consider Feinberg’s statement about the possibility of outside funding under his plan to be a positive, since that would also imply outside agendas that may or may not be desirable. Regardless, assuming nothing strange happens these are the choices, and the TEA will decide which way it wants North Forest to go.

North Forest still fighting closure

I don’t know how successful they’ll be, nor do I know if I should wish them luck.

Texas Education Agency officials on Friday made their final case for closing North Forest ISD, while district leaders countered that the school system has improved but is being held to an unfair standard.

The TEA’s chief deputy commissioner, Lizzette Reynolds, will issue a final ruling April 1 on whether to annex the 7,000-student North Forest Independent School District into neighboring Houston ISD.

Chris Tritico, an attorney for North Forest, said he would be surprised if the district won the appeal hearing because a high-ranking TEA official is charged with making the decision, and the agency’s commissioner ordered that North Forest must close at the end of this school year after failing to fix its long history of academic and financial problems.

Tritico said after the four-hour hearing Friday that he will take the case to the courts if the district loses the appeal to the TEA.

Allegations of non-impartiality aside, it’s hard to see how NFISD prevails. Be that as it may, Hair Balls goes into more detail about the charter takeover proposal, and the reason why the problems with NFISD have been so intractable.

For anyone who has followed North Forest, including former administrators who returned to the district to try to save it, all progress stops with the school board. Even this most recent innovative proposal to partner with charters, which allegedly includes an almost-signed memorandum of agreement, was approved at a recent board meeting where no such agreement was posted for discussion.

The charter school agreement keeps the school board alive in some vague fashion. Annexation into HISD, of course, does not.

Almost all signs of progress accomplished by state-appointed superintendent Adrain Johnson and a board of monitors, including 6th- and 9th-grade transition campuses that were highly favored by local teacher groups, were abolished within a couple of months of the board’s reinstatement and Johnson’s abrupt firing.

Rumors of unpaid bills, bad debt and poor financial ratings that won’t allow the district to issue bonds continue to dog North Forest, despite claims that the district’s finances produced a clean audit report this year and $4.5 million in spare cash.

We should have a ruling on the appeal from the TEA by the end of March. KUHF has more.

Not so fast on the North Forest charter plan

Not everyone is convinced that the plan to allow a consortium of charter schools to take over North Forest ISD is a good idea.

In interviews Monday, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson and Sens. Rodney Ellis and John Whitmire, all Democrats, voiced reservations about the last-ditch attempt to prevent the annexation of North Forest to Houston ISD.

“I’ve got issues with some of HISD’s performance, but it is such a step up from North Forest in terms of administration, accountability, and they’ve got the resources,” said Whitmire, who represented the northeast Houston district for years until recent redistricting. “There’s a real opportunity for HISD to show what they can do for North Forest. The charters are just speculating at this point.”

The charter schools involved are KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony.

Ellis said he feared the charter schools would try to kick out students who misbehave or perform poorly. Thompson, whose granddaughter attends school in North Forest ISD, said she was unwilling to support an undefined plan.

[…]

[KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg] said the elected North Forest school board would collect taxes, but a nonprofit created by KIPP would essentially run the district starting in 2013, with control over major decisions such as hiring, firing and spending.

By 2014, he said, the nonprofit would turn North Forest into a “portfolio district.” School operators – including KIPP, YES, Harmony and others that are interested – would apply to start and run campuses in North Forest ISD. Families would choose where to send their children.

Those who did not want the new options would remain in traditional public schools run by the nonprofit, called PHILO, Feinberg said.

A director or chief executive officer responsible for managing the school district would be appointed by the PHILO board. Feinberg said the board includes himself, [former HISD Superintendent and Education Secretary Rod] Paige; Jodie Jiles, a past chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership; Shawn Hurwitz, a founding KIPP board member; a KIPP mother who now works for the charter network; and two KIPP alumni – an accountant whose family lives in North Forest and the head of the KIPP alumni association.

See here for the background. The idea has been endorsed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sen. Dan Patrick, as odd a couple as you could find, but I’m a little worried that this may become more of a partisan issue than anything else. If there’s ever a situation where the details mattered, this is it, and so far all we have is a broad outline. I said before that I think this is a worthwhile idea to pursue, but now that we have seen what concerns people, let’s see how Feinberg et al respond to those concerns. So far, TEA Commissioner Michael Williams has maintained that they are moving forward with the HISD takeover, but he’s willing to consider the charter proposal. Let’s see a fully detailed plan, and then we can see if it’s a better idea than what is already on the table.

Charters apply to take over North Forest ISD

Fine by me.

In a potentially groundbreaking move, three of Houston’s top-performing charter schools are making a pitch to run the long-troubled North Forest school district.

The charter groups — KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony — are asking Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams to approve their plan, instead of having the Houston Independent School District take over North Forest ISD, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg confirmed Friday. The idea is still in the developmental stage, but the North Forest school board unanimously signed off on the concept Thursday night, said board president Charles Taylor Sr.

Williams ordered the annexation of North Forest into HISD last month after the former state education commissioner gave the district a one-year reprieve from closure. North Forest has long suffered academic and financial problems.

Under the plan, Feinberg said, the school board would collect taxes, but the charter schools and a nonprofit management group would run the district with power over spending, hiring and other decisions.

The partnership would be the first of its kind in Texas, marking unprecedented cooperation between the three popular charter schools. They typically start their own campuses from scratch, rather than try to turn around a struggling district.

“If I didn’t believe we could do it, we wouldn’t be trying to contribute as part of the solution,” Feinberg said. “At the same time, we recognize how difficult this work is and how very few examples we have of anywhere in the country of where it’s worked. But this is the work that ultimately needs to happen to convince our state leaders, our local leaders and society in general that not just all children can learn, but all children will learn.”

The Chron story adds a few more details.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, has thrown her support behind the plan. State lawmakers who represent North Forest could not be reached for comment, though Feinberg acknowledged some weren’t warm to the idea.

[…]

If the TEA approves the charter deal, the goal is for the new model to fully take effect in 2014, said Chris Tritico, an attorney for North Forest.

Many issues would have to be resolved: Would teachers have to reapply for their jobs? Who would run which campuses? What if students did not want to attend the longer school hours KIPP and YES traditionally require? Who would coordinate the food service, the busing, the program for students with disabilities?

HISD spokesman Jason Spencer said the district is moving forward with plans to annex North Forest “until we hear otherwise.”

Anna Eastman, the president of the HISD board, said she thinks the charter idea “merits consideration.”

“My only goal in this conversation is making sure the kids in North Forest end up on top,” she said. “A struggling, traditional ISD willing to relinquish management to three high-performing charters, with a good track record, could prove to be a model for other district and charter partnerships.”

One presumes that anything would be an improvement over the current status. KIPP, YES, and Harmony all have strong track records, so there’s plenty of reason to think they could do a good job. I think HISD would also do a good job of it, but they have a full plate already, and perhaps NFISD could benefit from more focused attention. If nothing else, this could help answer the question whether charters like these can produce the same kind of results as they have on their own with a student body that didn’t seek them out. The one thing I would insist on is that the teachers do not lose their collective bargaining ability. NFISD should still be a normal public school district under this plan. Assuming that is the case, I think this is a worthwhile thing to try, and if it goes through I will be eager to see what happens.

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.

North Forest ISD fighting closure

This was to be expected.

About 60 attended a meeting Saturday in response to TEA Commissioner of Education Michael Williams’ recommendation on Thursday to dissolve NFISD due to poor academic performance and low high school completion rates, among other issues.

Leaders of the 6,900-student northeast Houston district said they will fight the decision all the way to the U.S. Department of Justice. District leaders have until Feb. 17 to request a record review be reopened and ask the State Office of Administrative Hearings for an appeal.

If TEA Chief Deputy Lizzette Gonzalez-Reynolds approves Williams’ recommendation, the Department of Justice must pre-clear the merger with HISD.

“We’re going to have another conversation, and we’re anticipating we will get another opportunity to build on the good work we did this year,” said North Forest Superintendent Edna Forte.

She suggested that the district pursue partnerships with other education institutions, including charters schools, and seek out additional support through federal Race to the Top money or by the creation of a local endowment.

See here and here for the background. I can’t blame anyone for fighting, and I understand the concern about being subsumed into HISD, but it’s not really clear to me what’s being fought for here. NFISD has been troubled going back almost 30 years. They were given one last reprieve last year but still have no progress to show on the state accountability metrics. Closing a school district is controversial in part because no one really knows how effective that step is, but how much worse could the alternatives be? How likely is it that one more chance will yield a better outcome? On the flip side, how big a challenge is this for HISD, and what is the downside for them? Lots of questions, and I’m not sure how many of the answers are good. Lisa Falkenberg, who’s on a similar wavelength, has more.

TEA orders North Forest ISD shut down

This could be the end for North Forest ISD.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams recommended that the district of 6,900 students be annexed into the mammoth Houston ISD effective July 1. His statement came just two days after the district said it would seek a partnership with Texas A&M University to assume day-to-day operations of its 10 schools.

Last March, then-TEA Commissioner Robert Scott granted North Forest a one-year reprieve. Scott’s successor, Williams, said the reprieve is over.

[…]

The commissioner’s recommendation will now go to TEA Chief Deputy Lizzette Gonzalez-Reynolds, who was designated by the previous commissioner in 2012 as TEA’s final decision-maker in this matter. If Reynolds approves the closure, the U.S. Department of Justice must pre-clear the merger with Houston ISD, according to the TEA.

Meanwhile, North Forest leaders have 10 days to ask for the record review to be reopened. They could then appeal the ruling to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

Ideally, the legal appeals would be done by June 1 so that the annexation could be completed by July 1, she said.

See here for the background, here for the TEA news release, and here for the letter from Commissioner Williams to NFISD. I guess the Texas A&M experiment didn’t work out. Pre-clearance is an issue because North Forest ISD has a Board of Trustees that will cease to exist when NFISD goes away. I suppose it’s possible that HISD could be required to redo its trustee districts again, but I’m just guessing. Assuming the appeals are denied and there’s no further legal action, it will be a big task for HISD to absorb NFISD and its students. It’s not clear to me if the NFISD schools themselves will close, which would be a big logistical deal for HISD, or if they’ll just now operate under HISD supervision. Either way, HISD has its work cut out for it. This Trib story from last April examined the issue of school district closures, which are rare – NFISD would be the first one since 2006 – and for which there’s not a consensus that it’s actually beneficial to the students. That story also notes that a second district, Premont ISD in South Texas, was under the same threat of shutdown as NFISD. We’ll see when the TEA makes a decision about them. Hair Balls has more.

Precinct analysis: HISD and HCC

I was reasonably confident that the HISD bond referendum would be successful, mostly because there wasn’t any real opposition from officials or constituencies that would normally be expected to support it. It had a much smoother path than the 2007 referendum, which still managed to pass, so it wasn’t hard to see this one making it. I was still a little surprised at how easily it passed, but not that much. Here’s the breakdown by State Rep district:

Dist Yes No =================== 131 21,902 7,238 133 19,766 13,904 134 46,367 24,987 137 9,044 4,189 139 9,001 4,505 140 4,765 1,928 141 950 290 142 8,580 2,434 143 6,030 2,053 144 1,358 590 145 10,489 4,065 146 28,756 10,212 147 28,879 10,192 148 19,889 10,252 149 1,044 764

There are many school districts within Harris County, so there are a lot of State Rep districts that do not overlap HISD’s turf. Still, as you can see support was broad and across the board. One thing to note is that there were more Yes votes cast in just the six African-American State Rep districts (98,068) than there were No votes cast all together (97,604). You can see why the specter of people like Dave Wilson and his cohort opposing the referendum wasn’t a credible threat. There aren’t enough people like him within HISD’s boundaries to make a difference.

The HCC referendum naturally got much less attention, but it passed just as easily.

Dist Yes No =================== 131 24,797 8,582 133 18,409 14,514 134 41,702 27,900 137 13,029 5,695 139 7,984 5,016 140 4,631 1,972 141 7,724 2,695 142 9,550 2,813 143 5,715 2,119 144 1,280 611 145 9,837 4,393 146 27,998 10,756 147 27,070 10,895 148 17,825 11,498 149 17,911 7,302

HCC’s turf is HISD plus Alief and North Forest ISDs, which is why there are more votes in this election in HDs 137, 141, and 149 than the HISD referendum. Again, it passed easily everywhere, though with some slightly smaller margins than the HISD referendum. It also passed easily in Alief despite some early grumbling on the part of Alief ISD’s Board of Trustees. Anyway, not much to see here, just another easy day at the office for the people whose job it was to get these bonds passed.

North Forest gets a reprieve

For a year.

The long-troubled North Forest school district will remain intact for at least another year as Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott granted it a rare reprieve Friday from having to close in July.

Scott said he would give the northeast Houston district a year to improve. He said he had seen some academic progress but still had serious concerns about its financial stability.

North Forest officials, backed by several state lawmakers and a member of Congress, had appealed Scott’s earlier order to close the district. At the time, Scott said he was worried about the “long-term education of the students.”

“We do think that the district has made some improvements under this current superintendent, and there’s some legal issues that prompted this decision,” Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for Scott, said late Friday when the decision was announced.

Ratcliffe said the state faced a time crunch to get federal approval for the closure before this school year ended. The U.S. Department of Justice has to sign off to ensure voters’ rights would not be violated.

In addition, the Texas Education Agency, which Scott oversees, had not conducted the state-mandated investigation of the impact on the Houston Independent School District, which would have assumed control of North Forest and its roughly 7,500 students.

Hair Balls has a copy of the TEA’s ruling. I don’t have any strong feelings about this one way or another. The kids’ education is what matters most; everything else is subservient to that. NFISD proponents cite the work of new Superintendent Edna Forte and asked that she be given time to show that the improvements she has brought about are real. I sincerely hope she’s up to the task, but it must be noted that NFISD has a history of hiring and firing superintendents, so let’s just say the jury is still out. I hope this time around the story has a happy ending.

HISD to take over North Forest ISD

This is going to be a challenge, assuming it does go forward.

The North Forest Independent School District is nearing the end of its appeals to stay open, paving the way for Houston ISD to take over.

State education commissioner Robert Scott notified the North Forest administration in a letter released Friday that he was officially revoking the district’s accreditation after years of academic and financial woes.

Scott gave notice in July of his intent to close the district, but some in North Forest have remained optimistic that it wasn’t a done deal.

The district can appeal the ruling to Scott, but the commissioner had held strong that the 7,500 North Forest ISD students would be better served in neighboring HISD. The takeover is set to take place at the start of next school year, though HISD officials have said students can start enrolling in the district now.

The U.S. Justice Department still must approve the deal. But if prior rulings involving North Forest are an indication, the federal agency will sign off.

Here’s HISD’s official statement.

Scott has assigned Kay Karr, who is now serving as the Commissioner’s appointed conservator in North Forest, to oversee the district’s closure and annexation.

“It will be the role of the conservator to facilitate the annexation process in conjunction with the Houston ISD to ensure a smooth transition and transfer for the district and its students,” Scott wrote in his letter addressed to North Forest ISD officials.

HISD Board President Paula Harris and Superintendent Terry Grier said they are committed to working with North Forest leaders, parents, students, staff, and Ms. Karr to prepare for the upcoming school year.

“While HISD did not seek this annexation, we stand ready to welcome the entire North Forest community into the HISD family,” Harris said. “We believe all children have the ability to excel in the classroom. We will hold ourselves accountable for making sure that happens.”

Working in partnership with the North Forest community, HISD’s first priority will be to improve the level of academic rigor in North Forest’s neighborhood schools, Grier said.

“Strong neighborhood schools are the foundation of strong communities,” Grier said. “The work that is underway in HISD to place a great teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every school will benefit the children of North Forest, just as it has in HISD.”

You can see Commissioner Scott’s letter here. The magnitude of the challenge for HISD can be fairly succinctly summed up by Wikipedia:

NFISD is the poorest district in Harris County. During a period NFISD made $1,711 per student in property taxes. Despite having a higher tax rate than Deer Park Independent School District, that district made $7,021 per student in property taxes. As of 2003 the NFISD attendance zone had very little industry.

In 2006 the area within NFISD had the lowest property value per student ratio in Harris County. Its property value per student ratio was less than half of the average ratio in the State of Texas. Within the district, in 2006 the typical single family house was appraised to be worth $51,106. 42 of the 15,637 houses within the NFISD boundaries had an appraised value greater than $200,000.

You want a good example of why local property taxes are a poor way to fund public schools, there you have it. How can anyone claim that the kids in NFISD get the same opportunity as kids in other districts given the vast difference in tax revenues? Obviously, they get support from the state that evens things out a bit, but come on. There’s no way they’re getting what they need.

You can see a map of the NFISD territory here; you may need to zoom in a little. My initial thoughts are that this ought to be a good deal for the children and parents of NFISD, as they will now have all of HISD’s schools to choose from, and that I wonder how the addition of NFISD will affect HISD’s Trustee districts. I sense that we may have some mid-decade redistricting in our future. At least, I’m assuming that NFISD’s Board would be dissolved, and the new territory would be worked into HISD with the existing districts adjusted as needed. That may also mean special elections, but I’m just guessing here. Anyone know what precedents there may be?

UPDATE: North Forest isn’t going without a fight.

HCC redistricting

Turns out that the HCC Trustees have done some work on redistricting for themselves. Their meeting agenda for May 19 lists “Resolution Accepting Draft Plans for Redistricting of HCCS Board of Trustees Districts and Confirming Public Hearings” as the fourth item under the Consent Agenda. You can see a copy of the draft plans here. There are three drafts, all of which looks pretty similar to me. If you’re wondering what North Forest and Alief ISDs have to do with anything, the answer is that they were annexed into the HCC system, in 2009 for North Forest and 2008 for Alief. That has the effect of enlarging HCC’s territory, so those areas must be incorporated into the new map.

There will be three public meetings to solicit feedback on the redistricting plans. Details about these hearings are here. I would presume, though I cannot say for sure, that some variant on one of these maps will be adopted at the next Board meeting on June 16. That’s all I know – if I hear any more, I’ll let you know.

Endorsement eatch: For HCC annexations

Missed this from Wednesday.

In this fall’s elections, voters in the Spring Branch and North Forest Independent School Districts are being asked to approve annexation of their respective districts into the Houston Community College System.

We believe the larger region has a stake in these elections and strongly encourage voters in both areas to cast their ballots in favor of annexation. The annexation effort has been community-driven in both districts and was unanimously approved in both cases by the HCC Board of Trustees.

[…]

The benefits of inclusion in the community college system are a genuine bargain. The system’s tax rate of just over nine cents per $100 of assessed value is the lowest among area community colleges. Residents over age 65 receive an exemption of up to $100,000 in addition to the 10 percent homestead exemption.

In Spring Branch, the annexation effort has been targeted for defeat by antitax crusaders wishing to draw the line against additional taxes. That is a shortsighted crusade: Education that helps the Houston area train a skilled job force is precisely the wrong place to draw lines.

Shortsightedness about taxes has never been an obstacle for some folks. I hope the fact that the Chron has taken a position on this issue, which only affects a relatively small number of voters, means that they will offer endorsements in the Alief, Cy-Fair, and other area ISD elections. The same type of antitax crusaders are at work in those elections as well – as noted in my interview with Sarah Winkler, this is the case in Alief in part because of a successful HCC annexation election in a previous cycle – and that needs to be more widely known.

By the way, I was able to easily find this endorsement editorial because the Chron has, for the first time I can recall, maintained a list of all their endorsements on the index page for the opinion section. Like the trend towards getting endorsements done before the start of Early Voting, I hope it’s something they keep doing. Kudos to whoever made it happen.