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Stuyvesant High School

HISD gives final approval to revised mascot/nickname policy

That’s that.

Four HISD campuses will have to adopt new mascots after the school board gave final approval Thursday to a policy banning certain nicknames, such as the Redskins.

The proposal from Superintendent Terry Grier drew some debate among students, alumni and community members, but the change puts the school district in line with others nationwide that have retired mascots tied to Native Americans.

Specifically, the new Houston Independent School District policy bans nicknames deemed offensive or culturally insensitive. District leaders said the affected mascots are the Lamar High Redskins, the Westbury High Rebels, the Hamilton Middle School Indians and the Welch Middle School Warriors.

The school principals will have the next several months to work with the community to adopt new mascots, said HISD spokeswoman Tiffany Davila-Dunne. The school board will not have to sign off on the new names.

See here, here, and here for the background. The HISD board had tentatively approved the new policy in December. The vote for final approval was unanimous.

Earlier in the week, the Chron ran a couple of op-eds about the upcoming policy change. This one, by Carnegie Vanguard senior Maya Fontenot and Lamar alumnus Kenyon Weaver, who has been advocating this change since his high school days, deals with the usual arguments against the change.

A common refrain is that this is all political correctness, sprung on an unsuspecting HISD by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who, after meeting with a group of Native Americans, wrote a letter to Superintendent Terry Grier articulating their sincere concerns about the “Redskins.”

It is true that Ellis and Grier spotlighted this issue, but it is one that festered long before. The fact is that nationwide since the 1970s, an estimated two-thirds of schools with Native American iconography have adopted new mascots in recognition that such use is hurtful and a result of, as Stanford University’s Lois Amsterdam put it in 1972, “childish misrepresentations in games, history books and motion pictures.” (Stanford stopped using the “Indian” mascot in 1972.)

Calling this effort “PC,” or politically correct, is, in fact, the true problem. Such a posture closes the mind and the heart.

This posture leads to conversations such as: “So, what’s the big deal? It’s a small population, few Native Americans actually attend HISD, and many don’t see the term as offensive if they’re turning it into a positive word. In fact it’s honoring indigenous people. Natives are just being oversensitive.” Objecting when a public educational institution reduces an entire race of people and their traditions into a caricature used in sports, we don’t think that’s overly sensitive.

The next argument that often comes: “Where do you draw the line? If you cannot have Native Americans as mascots – what’s next, banning the use of animals too?” Ending offensive symbolism and respecting human cultures and communities is not a slippery slope that results in nonsensical rules that cross over to the animal kingdom.

Chron editorial board member Evan Mintz followed up with a point that’s worth remembering from his high school experience.

About two decades ago, my own alma mater, St. John’s School, had a similar tussle over its mascot name: The Rebels. Apparently some people didn’t like a mascot that implied we sympathized with folks who thought it a tragedy that the North won the Civil War..

The school first tried a rhetorical switch. Instead of Rebels with Confederate flags and a Johnny Reb mascot, we became Rebels as in the James Dean movie, “Rebel Without A Cause,” with a greasy-headed delinquent in a leather jacket. It was a clever trick, but not clever enough. So in 2004, after much stress, we just became the Mavericks. All the synonymous definition of Rebel, without any of the historical baggage.

Now, 10 years later, no one really seems to care. That’s the lesson: Alumni will get over it. Teenagers will identify with whatever a cheerleader yells at them. And high schools only have an institutional memory of four years.

He also has some suggestions for the four affected schools:

Be interesting. You’re losing mascots that not only fail to unite a community, but could be found at any school across our nation. Pursue something that is a unique identifier for your school or be stuck with another bland moniker.

Lamar High School, down the street from the River Oaks Country Club, could embrace its oil-money neighborhood and become the Oil Barons or Wildcatters. How about the Lamar Oilers for some Houston nostalgia?

Westbury High School, with its automotive technology programs, could become the Sparkplugs, Hot Rods or Roadsters.

Hamilton Middle School, situated between Yale and Harvard at the northern end of Heights Boulevard, could be the Ivies or the Streetcars. The school could even look to its robotics program and become the Jaegers. Giant fighting robots? Now that’s something middle school students can cheer.

And Welch Middle School should simply bask in the stardom of its most famous graduate and become the Beyoncés. Flawless.

My alma mater has followed that path – its mascot is “Pegleg Pete”, in honor of our namesake – though many of our sports teams go their own way on nicknames. Students and alumni at Lamar et al might consider that option as well.

Observing a milestone

Thirty-five years ago today, the course of my life was completely changed.

I didn’t know that at the time, of course. Oh, I knew that my life at the time had changed, but I had no way of knowing how profound and permanent that change would be.

March 6, 1978 was my first day at William A. Morris Intermediate School, also known as IS 61. I was in the sixth grade. Before that, I had been a student at Sacred Heart Elementary School, a first-through-eighth school that had educated two prior generations of Kuffners (and employed two of them as teachers, one of whom had been my second grade teacher). All three of my siblings were at Sacred Heart. I had always assumed I would graduate from Sacred Heart. Transferring to a different school – a public school, no less – was never in the picture.

But a funny thing happened that year. I’d always been one of the top students in my class, and that was still the case. What was different was that I was bored, because the curriculum didn’t challenge me. In the sixth grade, we were still doing basic arithmetic, which I’d had down cold for years. We didn’t do any hands-on science. I don’t recall us reading any books of interest. There wasn’t anything to hold my attention.

Sacred Heart had only two classes per grade. There was one teacher for each class. I was lucky to get Sister Rita Flynn as my sixth grade teacher, because she was well-known as the better teacher of the two. The other teacher, Sister Dolores, was the kind of nun that gave nuns a bad name – in retrospect, she was basically a sociopath, who had no business in a classroom. Sister Rita was calm and low-key, and unlike Sister Dolores was not known for using corporal punishment. More importantly, however, she noticed that I was bored out of my mind.

I don’t remember how far along we were in the school year before Sister Rita started talking to my parents about better educational alternatives for me. I do remember that early on, she told me to just work through the math textbook on my own. In a couple of weeks, I had moved several chapters ahead of the class, but it was still arithmetic, and it still wasn’t teaching me anything I didn’t already know. I just know that at some point after Christmas, I was being told that it was time for me to go to a different school, one that would actually challenge me.

You’d think I’d have been happy about that, but I wasn’t. As bored as I was, Sacred Heart was what I knew, and I didn’t want to leave what I knew for something I didn’t know. It was scary, and I don’t do change that well under the best of circumstances. But Sister Rita was insistent, and her urgency on the matter convinced my parents to overrule my objections. And so, on March 6, 1978, I walked for the first time into IS 61 to get acclimated as a new student, in what we would call their gifted and talented program, though they had some other label for it.

To say the least, it was a revelation. In math, they were doing pre-algebra. The English class had just finished “Great Expectations” – I was thankfully exempted from the notoriously difficult test that ensued. We had science labs. I was put into a French class. And I was introduced to Larry Laurenzano, who decided that my impending orthodontic work pointed away from playing a brass instrument, which is how I was given a saxophone and a beginner’s guide to it. Suffice to say, I was challenged. And it was awesome.

What changed for me then wasn’t just my academic coursework, but my trajectory as a student. In the eighth grade, I did was most of my peers in the G&T program did, and took the entrance exam for Stuyvesant High School. I got into Stuy, and later on as a National Merit scholar I drew the interest of Trinity University, which was recruiting National Merit scholars. From Trinity, I came to Houston as a grad student in math at Rice. I’ve been here ever since.

I truly don’t know where I’d be today if my life had not taken that particular turn. I feel pretty confident that I would have gone to one of the Catholic high schools had I graduated from Sacred Heart. Maybe Monsignor Farrell, maybe one of the premier Catholic schools in Manhattan, Regis or Xavier. I did actually look at those schools while at IS 61, but never gave either of them serious thought once I discovered that neither of them had an instrumental music program – I wasn’t going to go any school that forced me to discontinue playing the saxophone. Had I gone to Farrell or Regis or Xavier, I feel equally confident that I’d have wound up at the University of Notre Dame. I mean, I’d have been a lifelong Catholic school student who was also a lifelong fan of Fighting Irish sports. Hard to imagine a path that wouldn’t have led to South Bend. I did apply to, and get into, Notre Dame as a Stuyvesant student, and gave it a serious look. What eventually soured me on it was that nobody told me about a scholarship offered by the local alumni association that I might have won until after the application deadline – I’d have never heard about it at all except for the fact that my dad happened to mention that I’d gotten into ND to a colleague of his who was an alum and who asked if I’d applied for this scholarship, which of course I hadn’t. Trinity’s incredibly personal and focused recruitment effort – they had the chair of the music department writing to me about their symphonic band, even though I was never going to be a music major – really stood out by comparison, and it helped tip the scales in their favor. Had I gone to Notre Dame, I have no earthly idea where I’d be today, or what I’d be doing. I find it hard to conceive of a scenario that would have led to me winding up in Houston, whether in the fall of 1988 or any other time.

So yes, I can honestly say that thirty-five years ago today, my life changed for good, and for the good. And I can say that the person who is most responsible for putting my life on that different path is Sister Rita Flynn. Sister Rita was close to retirement in 1978 – I think she hung up her spurs a few years after I passed through her classroom, and I think she passed away a few years after that. I don’t remember when I last saw her. I know I told her at least once that the transfer had been good for me, and that I was glad she pushed me into it, but I doubt she ever knew just how profound an effect she had. I can’t tell her now, so I’ll tell you. I’m eternally grateful for what she did for me. I can’t imagine my life turning out any differently, and I’m so glad for that. Sister Rita, wherever you are today, thank you. Thank you very much. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for you.

HISD board approves its bond package

In the end, it wasn’t a close vote.

The school board voted 8-1 to seek a $1.9 billion bond issue that would rebuild or renovate most of the district’s aging high schools, remodel several elementary and middle schools, and upgrade campus technology. The plan calls for phasing in a tax rate increase expected to cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $70 a year in 2017.

Trustee Greg Meyes was lone no vote.

Trustees now must work to rally voters after some on the board have joined other elected officials in casting doubt on HISD Superintendent Terry Grier’s proposal over the last two months.

[…]

During the meeting, a last-minute change was disclosed in the expected impact on the property tax rate. HISD’s chief financial officer, Melinda Garrett, who earlier estimated that the bond package would cause a 7-cent increase, said Thursday that the amount could decrease to 5 cents if property values increase.

Grier has said the bond program has the potential to transform Houston, remodeling some of the oldest high schools in some of the poorest neighborhoods and rebuilding some of the most prestigious magnet schools.

Given that a majority of the trustees were publicly uncommitted to vote for the package as recently as the day before the vote, the final tally is a fairly strong statement and a bit of vindication for Terry Grier. The revelation that the resulting tax increase might be smaller than initially projected is good news as well. The total size of the package may seem intimidating and will likely be attacked in and of itself (as if the usual suspects would be less critical of a smaller number), but the flip side to that is that it has something to offer for a lot of people.

The drawn-out questioning could make it more difficult to win voter approval on Nov. 6, said Rice University political science professor Bob Stein, who has polled voters about the bond proposal on behalf of HISD.

“I think it has undermined voters’ confidence in adoption of the bond,” Stein said.

A poll conducted before Grier rolled out his plan in late June found that 48 percent supported a $1.8 billion bond issue and 28 percent opposed it. At that time, Stein said he thought HISD had a good chance of passing a package.

Now, with the city and Houston Community College planning bond referendums, he has this message for HISD officials: “They have to work very hard. They have to put on a big campaign.”

I agree that everyone needs to pull together on this, but I’m less sure that the process so far has damaged the bonds’ prospects for passage. Whatever concerns they may have had before, they must have been sufficiently addressed to get everyone but the same naysayer as 2007 to vote Yes, and that to me is what matters. Frankly, from what I recall of the 2007 referendum, this one has not been nearly as contentious. Sure, it’s still early – it’s not clear yet if Rep. Sylvester Turner will go full bore against it, and bring others with him if he does, and there was that Chron op-ed from the day of the board vote expressing their concerns – but so far it seems pretty muted. I think overall HISD is in a better position starting out than they were five years ago. Sure, don’t take anything for granted, and they should work hard not just on their own issue but with the other entities pushing theirs, but I feel pretty good about where things stand.

Finally, on a personal note, I really don’t think you can overstate how much top quality facilities can mean. I went to one of the best high schools in the country, but at the time I was a student it was a dilapidated 80-year-old building that was overcrowded and underequipped for its population. By the time I went back for my 10-year reunion, they had moved into a fantastic state-of-the-art building that completely blew me away when I visited. It wasn’t just the jealousy I felt at how vastly better the students’ daily lives must be in a place like that, it was the realization of how much more I could have gotten from my high school experience if I had had all of what this lovely, enticing building had to offer. I understand that just because we build it doesn’t mean anyone will choose to attend these new schools that will result from the bond package. What goes on inside the buildings matters, and there’s still a lot of room to do better there. But nobody wants to send their kids to run-down schools that clearly can’t meet their kids’ needs and may be unsafe to boot. You can have a great school without a great facility, but you’re needlessly handicapping yourself by doing so. This is a big step in the right direction and we’d be fools not to take it. This email from Trustee Paula Harris has a ton of details, and Stace has more.

Friday random ten: Old school

Three weeks ago was my 25-year high school reunion. This weekend is Alumni Weekend at my university. I couldn’t attend either, but I could put together a school-and-nostalgia oriented Friday Random Ten.

1. Schoolhouse Rock Medley – Lager Rhythms
2. My Old School – Steely Dan
3. School’s Out – Alice Cooper
4. Bust The High School Students – Austin Lounge Lizards
5. Smoking In The Boys’ Room – Motley Crue
6. Bright College Days – Tom Lehrer
7. The Good Old Days – The Lodger
8. Didn’t Go To College – Austin Lounge Lizards
9. Old Friends – Simon and Garfunkel
10. Beer – Asylum Street Spankers

Ten songs about beer would have been a pretty good summation of my college career, but I thought I’d be a bit broader here, just for the heck of it. What are you nostalgic for this week?

RIP, Frank McCourt

Bestselling author and former high school teacher Frank McCourt has died at the age of 78.

Frank McCourt, the retired high school English teacher who became a best-selling memoirist, liked to say he had disproven F. Scott Fitzgerald’s adage about there being “no second acts in American lives.”

McCourt, who had been gravely ill with meningitis after recently being treated for melanoma, died Sunday afternoon at age 78. He is best known for the first of three memoirs, Angela’s Ashes, about surviving an Irish childhood of near-starvation. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1997 and was turned into a movie in 1999 starring Emily Watson as McCourt’s long-suffering mother, Angela.

As McCourt put it, “I refused to settle for a one-act existence: the 30 years I taught English in various New York City high schools.”

[…]

He was 66 before he published a book. What took so long?

“I was teaching, that’s what took me so long,” he wrote. “Not in college or university, where you have all the time in the world for writing and other diversions, but in four different New York City public high schools.”

He would cite novels about professors “so busy with adultery and academic infighting you wonder where they found time to squeeze in a little teaching.” But when you teach high school classes all day, he said, “you’re not inclined to go home to clear your head and fashion deathless prose. After a day of five classes, your head is filled with the clamor of the classroom.”

His books turned him into a celebrity, or as he put it, “the mick of the moment.” He was even paid to go on cruises.

“I watched him sign his name in thousands of books,” says Patricia Eisemann, former publicity director of Scribner, McCourt’s publisher. “But of all the people who came to the readings, he was happiest when he’d hear, ‘Hello Mr. McCourt,’ and he’d look up and find a former student. That’s when his ever present smile grew wider.” In 1999, at a book party for ‘Tis, he said was having the decade of his life — at 69.

That, he added, was a good thing: “If all of this had happened to me in my 30s, I’d be dead by now from all the whiskey and all the fornication. I’d be in a state of paralysis.”

I totally believe that, based on my remembrance of the man. He was an unconventional teacher – I don’t know that he had a set lesson plan when he taught creative writing at Stuyvesant High School. We spent a fair amount of time talking about children’s books – “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” was the first book he had us read. He also had us write and illustrate a children’s book, which was evaluated by a group of fourth-graders. I lack artistic talent and was never able to think up a good plot, so I did miserably on that assignment. Some days the class was free-form discussion, with him asking us questions or having us ask him questions. And when the weather turned warm, in May, he’d sometimes just take us outside to the park across the street and let us enjoy the day. It was like being allowed to have a little senioritis, except we were just juniors.

Rest in peace, Frank McCourt. I plan to raise a glass and tell a story in your memory.

UPDATE: My friend Julia shares her memories.

Frank McCourt “gravely ill”

Sad news.

Frank McCourt is gravely ill with meningitis and is unlikely to survive, the author’s brother said Thursday.

Malachy McCourt said that his 78-year-old brother, best known for the million-selling “Angela’s Ashes,” is in a New York hospice, “his faculties shutting down.”

“He is not expected to live,” said McCourt, himself an author and performer.

Frank McCourt was recently treated for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, but his brother says he had been doing well until about two weeks ago, when he contracted meningitis.

“He was out and about, being active, doing talks and so forth,” Malachy McCourt said.

As you may know, McCourt was my English teacher for my junior year at Stuyvesant High School. (I received word of this via the Stuyvesant HS Class of 1984 Facebook group.) I got to talk to him again a few years ago when he spoke at the annual Planned Parenthood luncheon, and he was basically the same guy I’d remembered, just a lot more famous. Gave a really enjoyable talk, too. He’s a talented writer, and he will be missed.