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Terry Grier

“Denied”: HISD and special education

There are problems here as well.

Superintendent Richard Carranza announced Thursday that the Houston Independent School District has decided to conduct a detailed review of the way that it serves students with disabilities.

The effort will include asking “independent, third-party experts to conduct a deep-dive analysis of our special education operation,” Carranza said.

The newly-hired superintendent announced the review in a statement, saying it would be the district’s “first order of business when the new year begins.”

“We will have a tough conversation about the importance of serving all children, regardless of any disability,” Carranza wrote. “Together, we will find solutions that serve our children because that is what Houston expects, and that is what Houston’s children deserve.”

The announcement came one day after the Houston Chronicle published a story detailing how Houston ISD has deliberately denied special education services to thousands of students with disabilities over the past decade.

Here’s that earlier story. It’s pretty damning.

Houston schools provide special education services to a lower percentage of students than schools in virtually any other big city in America. Only Dallas serves fewer than Houston’s 7.26 percent. The national average is 13 percent.

For months, as special education has come under increasing scrutiny in Texas, Houston Independent School District officials have described their percentage as a good thing, saying it is the product of robust early interventions that have helped students without labeling them.

But a Houston Chronicle investigation has found that HISD achieved its low special education rate by deliberately discouraging and delaying evaluations in pursuit of goals that have clearly denied critical services to thousands of children with disabilities.

Records show the largest school district in Texas enthusiastically embraced a controversial state policy that has driven special education enrollments to the lowest in the United States. In fact, after HISD officials reduced their enrollment rate from 10 percent to the Texas Education Agency’s 8.5 percent target, they set an even more restrictive standard: 8 percent.

To accomplish the objective, HISD officials slashed hundreds of positions from the special education department, dissuaded evaluators from diagnosing disabilities until second grade and created a list of “exclusionary factors” that disqualify students from getting services, among other tactics described in district documents, court records and dozens of interviews.

Read the whole thing. This is a travesty, and it needs to be fixed. Whatever it takes, this needs to be fixed.

We have a superintendent

Welcome to Houston.

The San Francisco public schools superintendent won over a divided Houston school board with what members described as his devotion to equity for all students, passion for the arts and willingness to collaborate.

The trustees, often split along ideological and racial lines, voted unanimously Wednesday to select Richard Carranza, an educator who has led the much smaller California district for four years, as the lone finalist for the superintendent’s job here.

The former teacher and principal, who spoke Spanish growing up in Arizona and learned English in school, said he looks forward to taking the helm of the Houston Independent School District after his contract negotiation and the state’s mandatory 21-day waiting period.

“We have come together as a team,” school board vice president Wanda Adams said. “We have agreed to disagree on issues. But at the end, we were able to cross the finish line.”

[…]

In a brief phone interview Wednesday, Carranza said he sees Houston schools as ripe for improvement. He touted his efforts in San Francisco to focus on students’ social and emotional needs, in addition to academics.

“We never lower the bar for children, but we raise the level of support,” said Carranza, who described himself as a “blue-collar superintendent,” the son of a sheet metal worker and a hairdresser who was influenced by teachers to attend college.

“The role of the superintendent is to be in the community,” he said. “People are going to see me and are going to understand I’m approachable.”

Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, and Carranza appears to have earned quite a bit of that. He’s got a good resume, the teachers’ union has expressed cautious optimism, and anyone who can get the Board to be unanimous on anything is a force to be reckoned with. To be sure, he’ll have his work cut out for him, but I look forward to seeing what he can do. The Press has more.

Alma Allen for HISD Superintendent?

It could happen.

Rep. Alma Allen

Rep. Alma Allen

State Rep. Alma Allen, a former school principal, has emerged as a high-profile contender for the HISD superintendent’s job during the early stages of the search.

The Houston Democrat, who retired from the Houston Independent School District in 2000 and served on the State Board of Education for much of the 1990s, confirmed to the Houston Chronicle on Friday that she was seeking the post to lead the nation’s seventh-largest school system.

“I want people to know,” said Allen, 76. “I want them to know they have someone in the city who is a native Houstonian who is qualified for this position. …This is something I would love to do. I would love for my career to end on this note.”

[…]

The school board has indicated it plans to look across the country for a superintendent to replace Terry Grier, who retired Feb. 29. However, the trustees have not yet crafted a profile of the ideal candidate. The search firm they hired first plans to provide them with feedback from community meetings held over the last two months.

Allen, who worked four decades in HISD as a teacher, principal and central-office administrator, said she has the support of several elected officials, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a former colleague in the state House. Turner’s spokeswoman did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

Allen said one of Turner’s staff members gave the school board’s search firm a letter of support for her at a meeting Wednesday night. State Rep. Gene Wu, who was at the meeting, said he did not read the letter but recalled the mayor’s staffer saying the mayor was sending a letter of support. Wu said he and state Rep. Hubert Vo, another Houston Democrat, both support Allen.

“We at least want her to be considered – someone who has had a lifelong tenure in education, someone who is intimately knowledgeable about our education system, someone who sits on the education committee in the Legislature,” Wu said. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have someone who is able to navigate the Legislature.”

There’s some other general praise for Rep. Allen, whose only known competitor for the job (if indeed she wants it) is interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. Neither Allen nor Huewitt has ever been a Superintendent before – they would have to pass a certification exam or get a waiver from the Texas Education Agency in order to take the HISD job – and Huewitt doesn’t have a background in education but rather in finance, which has caused some people to express concern about him.

Joe Greenberg, spokesman for a local group of business leaders, parents and community leaders called the Coalition for Great Houston Schools, urged the board to pursue a national search.

“The board’s highest priority should be to search for a candidate with a track record of tangible academic achievement in a large, diverse urban district,” he said.

I like Rep. Allen and admire the work she’s done in the Lege. She would surely know how to work with them to ensure that the needs of a large urban school district such as HISD were being met. That said, the Board hired a search firm for a reason, and I think we need to let them do their thing before we begin to zero in on anyone for the job. I’d also like to know what the various parent and activist groups think. By all means, put Rep. Allen in the running. Just don’t make it a two-person race from the get go.

Grier departs HISD

We await his successor.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Terry Grier steps aside as Houston’s school superintendent on Monday after a six-and-a-half year tenure marked by aggressive reform efforts, high staff turnover and mixed academic results.

His replacement will inherit a stubborn racial achievement gap and lagging student test scores. Based on state ratings last year, 20 percent of the Houston Independent School District’s campuses were low-performing. The new chief also will take over management of the $1.9 billion construction program, which has faced delays and higher-than-expected costs since voters approved the bond package under Grier’s watch in 2012.

Finding a superintendent with experience leading a similar-sized district will be tough – HISD is the nation’s seventh-largest, with 215,000 students. The depth of the candidate pool depends on the criteria the trustees set, said Henry Gmitro, president of the board’s new search firm (it severed ties with the first one). For example, Gmitro said, assistant superintendents from large, diverse districts may end up fitting the board’s profile.

Grier, a North Carolina native, came to Houston in 2009 from his post as superintendent leading San Diego schools, with 135,000 students.

Upon coming to HISD, Grier recalled last week, “I spent the first six months to a year drinking out of a fire hydrant. It’s a big, complex bureaucracy.”

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, recently picked an internal candidate after a monthslong national search led by Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates. HISD has hired the same firm for $77,000, including expenses.

“We’re not limiting ourselves to just people in Houston or Texas,” board president Manuel Rodriguez Jr. told a dozen or so community members last week during a meeting at Chavez High. “We are looking national, even international. We’re going to try to pick the best person that will fit the city of Houston. We understand diversity. We understand the city. We understand the politics of the city.”

Rodriguez, one of nine trustees, also has said he wants a superintendent who can speak Spanish. More than 60 percent of HISD’s students are Hispanic, 25 percent are black, 8 percent are Anglo and 4 percent are Asian.

[…]

Before Grier, the last time the HISD board hired an outsider as superintendent was 1991.

Trustees, in a rare unanimous vote this month, noted that they sought stability in naming the district’s chief financial officer, Ken Huewitt, as interim superintendent. Grier had promoted Huewitt to serve as his No. 2 over the summer. Grier said in an interview last week that he thinks Huewitt would be a good candidate for the permanent job.

At the recent Chavez High School meeting, when a search consultant asked if the next superintendent should be an educator, nearly all hands were raised.

While some superintendents have nontraditional backgrounds – coming from the business world or the military – the common path is moving through the education ranks.

I suppose I’m agnostic on the questions of whether the next Superintendent is an insider or outsider, or if he or she is an educator or not. HISD has its share of challenges, but it’s also got a lot of good schools and dedicated employees, and recent state-caused issues aside, it’s generally in decent financial shape. The next Super will have to do a lot of learning on the job no matter who it is. I wish I could say there’s a clear formula for picking the right person, but there isn’t, and we won’t know if we’ve got someone who can truly do the job for several months as he or she adjusts and figures it out. I guess the main thing is to find someone who has the potential to do a great job, then give that person all the support we can to help him or her achieve that potential. And hope for the best.

HISD names an interim Superintendent

It’s who we expected.

Ken Huewitt

The Houston school board’s search for a new superintendent took a step back Wednesday as trustees severed ties with the firm they selected two months ago and agreed to start fresh with another.

The district likely will be out some money, at least for expenses incurred by the Iowa-based consultants, but board President Manuel Rodriguez Jr. said he hopes the process stays on track to have a new leader on the high-profile job by July. With Superintendent Terry Grier stepping down Feb. 29, trustees chose Deputy Superintendent Ken Huewitt to serve as interim superintendent.

After hiring Ray and Associates on a split vote in December, trustees on Wednesday unanimously and without discussion chose Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, another well-known group that had applied for the job. According to media reports, the Illinois-based firm has faced criticism in recent months after conducting superintendent searches in Nashville, Tenn., and Minneapolis that failed to result in hires.

“We have expectations of being successful. There’s no concerns right now,” Rodriguez said after the board meeting.

Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates also is conducting a superintendent search for the Humble Independent School District, which has roughly 41,000 students, about one-fifth as many as Houston ISD. Klein ISD, on the hunt as well, turned local for consultants, hiring Houston attorney David Thompson and former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses.

[…]

After splitting on several major votes in recent months, trustees united Wednesday on the search firm items and on unanimously naming Huewitt as interim superintendent.

Several trustees urged Huewitt, HISD’s chief financial officer, to focus on academics as well as finances. About one-fifth of HISD’s schools are rated low-performing.

“I think this city and I think this board want to make sure we have some stability during this interim time,” trustee Greg Meyers said. “But we also want to make sure we continue to move the needle.”

See here for some background. Most of the rest of the story was about the Board firing its original search firm for finding a new Super and hiring another. No one had anything specific or interesting to say about it, so there’s not much for me to add. As for interim Superintendent Huewitt, I wish him the best of luck. These are tough times, and I presume anyone sitting in that chair will be hesitant to do anything that an incoming Super would not care for. Anything he can do to make things a little better for that next Super will be much appreciated. The HISD News Blog has more about Superintendent Huewitt.

What do you want in a new HISD Superintendent?

Take the survey and let them know.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The Houston school board has started seeking community input on the desired traits for a new superintendent, with the goal of hiring a new leader by July.

A survey posted on the district’s website lists 33 qualities and asks parents, students, teachers, staff and others to pick the 10 they deem most important.

A few choices focus on resume material: Should the applicant have earned a doctorate, worked in a similar district, and/or have non-traditional experience in the military or in business? Some ask about personality traits: Should the applicant inspire trust, be a strong communicator and/or be able to delegate authority while maintaining accountability.

The online form also allows for open comments.

The survey, provided by the search firm Ray and Associates, does not appear  to be specific to Houston, the nation’s seventh-largest district. An Internet search reveals the Iowa-based firm used the same list of 33 qualities for a search in the much-smaller Joliet school system. Other districts using the firm also referenced a 33-quality survey on their websites, but the list of traits no longer were live online.

Unclear how long that survey will be up, but the HISD Superintendent Search page says the process could begin in March – current Superintendent Terry Grier’s last day is February 29 – so assume a month or so. There will be a series of community meetings to solicit input, but they have not been scheduled yet. We may get an interim super appointed at today’s Board meeting. What qualities do you want in the next Super? Take the survey and let your voice be heard.

HISD Trustee runoff overview

There are other races on the ballot this Saturday.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the board president, faces pastor Larry Williams in the District 2 race to represent north Houston.

In southeast Houston’s District 3, Jose Leal, a former HISD administrator, is challenging Manuel Rodriguez Jr., the board’s first vice president.

The contests have the potential to shake up a board that will see at least two new faces in January. District 4 trustee Paula Harris did not seek re-election, and District 8 trustee Juliet Stipeche lost in the November general election to Diana Davila, a former board member.

Political consultant Marc Campos said he doubts Skillern-Jones and Rodriguez are at serious risk, even though the other incumbent on the November ballot was ousted and they both failed to garner more than 50 percent of the vote to win outright.

“I think Stipeche was just out-campaigned,” Campos said. “It wasn’t so much, ‘Throw out the bums.’ ”

[…]

Jose Leal

Leal, a political novice, mostly funded his own campaign with no major endorsements. For the runoff, he has secured the backing of the Houston Federation of Teachers union and the Texas Organizing Project, an advocacy group for the poor.

The union hopes a victory by Leal will ensure enough votes on the board to overhaul the Houston Independent School District’s bonus program and teacher evaluation system. Both hold teachers accountable for students’ test scores using a statistical formula.

Leal said he, like the union, opposes the formula.

“You have people that are not teachers, and they’re writing an equation that does not make sense to the people that are teaching,” he said.

However, Leal said, he thinks test scores can be useful. For example, he said, when he was a school counselor, he would review the results and schedule teachers who were strongest in certain subjects to work with struggling students.

Leal, 57, started in HISD as a janitor and retired in 2011 as a dean at Johnston Middle School. He now works as an assistant principal for the Houston Can Academies charter school.

Here’s the interview I did with Rhonda Skillern-Jones; she’s the only one of the four I talked to, though I did interview Rodriguez in 2011. Jose Leal’s webpage is here and Larry Williams’ is here. I tend to agree with Campos that both incumbents are good bets to win, though Leal has picked up some support and may give Rodriguez a run for his money. Skillern-Jones ran unopposed for the then-open seat in District II (this is a point of contention in this race; Williams had previously run against the prior Trustee, Carol Mims Galloway) so this is her first real race. If you live in one of these districts, what if anything are you seeing in the runoffs?

Let’s find a super Super

The search is on for a Terry Grier successor.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The search for a new HISD superintendent should start in earnest this week.

The school board plans to vote Thursday to authorize spending up to $70,000 on the search and to hire Iowa-based Ray and Associates to lead the process. The firm, based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, specializes in school searches and has been in business since 1975.

Superintendent searches typically cost between $40,000 and $100,000, according to a 2006 report from the Council of the Great City Schools.

[…]

The board is expected to name an interim superintendent as the search should extend beyond [Superintendent Terry] Grier’s [February 28] exit date.

The Board had previously interviewed four companies to do the search. Whatever you think of Terry Grier – and I personally think he did some good things, and swung and missed at a few other things – this is a Really Big Deal for HISD and its students, and for the greater Houston area overall. We can’t afford to get it wrong – we need a strong leader who can help HISD fulfill its potential. A super Super, as it were. There’s a new parent organization that is looking to get people involved in this process, since the Board can’t know what we the parents and stakeholders of HISD want if we don’t tell them. See this info sheet for details, and please contact info@houstonsuper.org if you want to get involved. They’re our schools, and this will be our Superintendent. Let’s get it right.

Chron overview of HISD Trustee races

Little late in the game for this sort of thing, but better late than never.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

With Superintendent Terry Grier leaving in March, the HISD board faces a big decision in choosing his replacement.

Voters can help to determine who makes that decision, with four of nine trustee seats on the Nov. 3 ballot.

At least one trustee will be new, as Paula Harris is not seeking re-election. Yet some familiar faces – a former trustee, a past city councilwoman and three repeat candidates – are vying to help govern the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

Grier, by announcing in September that he would resign six months later, removed his future in the district as the top campaign issue. However, his rapid rollout of programs and high staff turnover loom on the trail with candidates calling for more stability in the Houston Independent School District.

HISD’s reliance on student test scores to award bonuses and to evaluate teachers also could be at risk. Several candidates said they oppose the statistical measure used in both, and the board’s decision last week to continue the $10 million bonus program was narrowly split – a 5-4 vote.

At a recent forum sponsored by the research and advocacy group Children at Risk, chief executive Bob Sanborn noted that HISD won the top prize for urban school districts under Grier and asked whether the candidates would rehire him if they could. None of the candidates in attendance said they would do so.

You can see the interviews I did with several of the candidates here. I asked all of them if they would vote to give Grier a new contract or not – all these interviews were done before Grier announced his intent to step down – and with the exception of Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who declined to discuss the matter, they all said No. If I’d have known that Grier was not coming back, I would have asked what qualities they were looking for in a new Superintendent. That’s the question, and the challenge, for the next Board.

No decision on interim Superintendent

The HISD Board of Trustees is still deciding how to proceed in the wake of Superintendent Terry Grier’s resignation.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Trustee Anna Eastman said after [Tuesday’s board] meeting that she continues to have a lot of questions about how the job-order contracts have been administered. Among other things the audit showed that the district’s Construction and Facilities Service Department wasn’t asking for detailed information about costs before writing big checks to contractors and that it was cutting up the same project into different pieces so that it could come in under the $500,000 state-mandated threshold and grant contracts without having to ask permission from that pesky school board.

“Someone’s got to be held accountable for it. There’s been too many ‘oops.’” Eastman said. “I have concerns about people with less authority in the organization taking all the responsibility. I think leadership has to take responsibility for anyone in the organization thinking that was ok or that was the right thing to do.”

As for the interim question:

“The board cannot name an interim unless we officially reassign the superintendent to other duties which he has to agree upon,” said Eastman. “It would have to be a negotiated agreement, or we would agree on a quicker termination of his contract and I don’t think the board is interested in that or the superintendent.”

Eastman said she thinks the board should concentrate on finding a new superintendent and wait till after Grier’s March 1 departure to appoint an interim. “I’d like to see a person [new superintendent] in place before the next school year. Dr. Grier started in September so basically the organization that was in place was his predecessor’s organization.” Eastman also said it was important for any new board members to be part of the process, as well as the community.

Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones thinks the board should work quickly in moving along the process for a new superintendent, but not so fast that they don’t get input from all aspects of the community to make sure that person is a good match for HISD and its demands.

As for the interim spot, Skillern-Jones said, “I don’t think it’s unanimous around the board that we not appoint one now. We have a superintendent who is out on leave. He has an acting deputy superintendent which is in place [Don Huewitt] I have some trouble with that situation as it exists. We suspect that the superintendent may be out on medical leave for a long period of time. And I have some concern about where responsibility rests in that situation.

“Does it rest with the superintendent who is physically absent or does it rest with the deputy superintendent and who gets to decide where that responsibility rests is the board? So until we have a clear cut picture of who’s responsible, who’s actually at the helm, and who we hold accountable then I’m uncomfortable with that as a situation. So I think that should be temporary. It may not be popular opinion. We’re looking at six months out of a nine-month school year. A lot of things can happen. Who do we hold accountable and in what way? “

See here and here for the background. Both Eastman and Skillern-Jones make good points, and I’m not sure myself what the best course of action is. I think it’s all right to keep Huewitt in place to run things, but the chain of command – and of accountability – needs to be established and agreed upon by all. It would also be nice to have a new Superintendent in place well before the start of the 2016 school year, for the reasons Eastman identified. Frankly, the sooner the Board can get the job search going, the better.

HISD will begin process of renaming schools with Confederate ties

Good.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

[HISD] trustees plan to start the process with a vote to revise the district’s policy to state explicitly that names should be non-discriminatory. The revised policy also details how the board can initiate renaming schools.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said this week that after the policy gains approval, she will propose renaming at least six schools named after Confederate leaders or loyalists.

In June, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, called on the Houston Independent School District to rename six campuses following the shooting deaths of nine black churchgoers by an alleged white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. Ellis mentioned campuses including Davis, Lee and Reagan high schools and Dowling, Jackson and Johnston middle schools.

Alumni have expressed mixed reactions.

Renaming is expected to come with a cost – for new logos, school uniforms, marquees. The estimated price tag was $250,000 in 2013 when HISD changed the Confederate-linked Rebels mascot and three others deemed offensive to Native Americans.

[…]

“I’m pleased to see the HISD board move in this direction,” Ellis said in a statement Wednesday. “As an extremely diverse school district in the most diverse city in the nation, the names of our community schools should not lionize men who dedicated themselves to maintaining the ability of one human to own another.”

See here and here for the background. That story was published Thursday morning, before the board meeting, at which Superintendent Terry Grier announced his imminent departure. I didn’t see any followup story, so I’m presuming this went ahead; if not, I’m sure it will be picked up at the next meeting. I’ve said before that I support this. Having a school named after you is a privilege, not a right. I have no idea why anyone would think it controversial to reserve that privilege for people who didn’t take up arms against the United States, but maybe that’s just the Yankee in me talking. I’ve never known a school named for Benedict Arnold, so I don’t know why there should be a school named for Jefferson Davis. The fact that there is such a school here in Houston, and that the board of trustees is seeking to change it isn’t an insult to anyone. The insult is that it was named for Jefferson Davis in the first place.

What next for HISD?

The board ponders its options for Superintendent while they prepare to search for a successor to Dr. Terry Grier.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

The Houston Independent School District board is set to meet Tuesday morning to discuss the district’s next steps after Superintendent Terry Grier’s surprise announcement Thursday that he was stepping down effective March 1.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Friday that trustees would consider when to appoint an interim superintendent. She said the interim likely would not start until Grier’s exit but could start to transition into the role.

The interim, she said, could come from inside or outside the Houston Independent School District.

“We’re not ruling anyone out,” she said. “I think the goal should be to find someone who can continue the work that we’re doing while bringing a sense of calm and stability, and creating an environment that is inviting to a new superintendent.”

Ken Huewitt, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief financial officer, sat in for Grier at the school board meeting Thursday night. Grier promoted Huewitt in July to serve as his deputy, saying he would handle day-to-day operations in Grier’s absence. Grier underwent a knee replacement in August and has a second surgery set for November.

“Dr. Grier is still the superintendent, and he will be the superintendent until such time that his resignation is effective,” Skillern-Jones said. “He has been courteous enough to give us six months’ preparation. During this time, we can prepare for the transition. We can find the person, and they can be prepared to take the helm when Dr. Grier steps down.”

The school board and Grier still have to discuss a possible exit package. It’s possible they could negotiate different terms based on any unused leave time or other factors.

Skillern-Jones and other trustees said a permanent superintendent would not be hired until next year, based on the timeline and board elections taking place in November. The newly elected trustees – four seats are on the ballot – will take office in January.

[…]

Trustee Juliet Stipeche, who has been one of Grier’s strongest critics, said she thinks the timing of his announcement was based on his tenuous relationship with the board and possible newly elected trustees. Several candidates had called for Grier’s ouster.

“The writing was on the wall that he didn’t have the support for an extension,” Stipeche, who chairs the board’s audit committee, said Friday. “And I believe that people whose opinion he trusts and relies upon strongly encouraged him to leave at this point, so the district could get a new leader who can be devoted to trying to solve many of the problems that currently exist.”

Stipeche described Grier’s tenure as “painful.”

“He is a it’s-my-way or no-other-way (leader),” she said. “He’s not a consensus builder. He’s a firebrand.”

In an interim superintendent, Stipeche said, she would like someone experienced who can oversee financial problems with the district’s $1.9 billion construction bond program. Grier’s administration has estimated a $211 million shortfall, though Huewitt has said he has a plan to borrow funds to fill most of the gap.

See here for the background. Ken Huewitt seems like the obvious choice for interim Superintendent, but I’m sure the board will want to consider all its options. One of those options might be to ask Grier to serve in a different role until he officially departs.

Will Terry Grier get to serve out the rest of his superintendency or will he be moved to another position while an interim superintendent runs the Houston ISD?

That’s one of the things that’s going to be discussed next Tuesday when the school board meets at 7:30 a.m. Trustee Juliet Stipeche said this afternoon that there are some questions about whether Grier, who faces another round of knee surgery in November (and who’s having apparently a tough recovery from the first surgery) would be available to run the district during the time he is out following surgery.

On Thursday Grier abruptly resigned but pledged to keep working until March 1, 2016, three months before his contract was set to expire.

“You can’t have two acting superintendents,” Stipeche said. “So the question is, can Dr. Grier assume a different role?”

Good question. I have no idea. Should make for a fascinating discussion.

Beyond that, the interesting decision is for the successor. The first thing the board needs to do is decide what exactly they want in a new super. I wish all this had happened before I went and did HISD candidate interviews, because that would have been a great question to ask, but that’s the way it goes. Be sure to ask your Trustee and/or the candidates running for Trustee in your district what they want to see in the next Superintendent.

Grier to step down as HISD Superintendent

This was sudden.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier announced Thursday that he is stepping down effective on March 1.

Grier became superintendent of Houston in 2009, leading the nation’s seventh largest school district to win the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2013.

“Time flies when you’re having fun. This is, like, year seven,” Grier said during his surprise resignation announcement at the district’s central office. “As I reflect back and look at where we were and where we are today, I couldn’t be more proud.”

Grier praised the school board and his staff. He said he was proud of several of his initiatives, including distributing laptops to all high school students, offering more dual-language programs and helping low-income teenagers get into top tier colleges.

“Someone said to me, ‘Well, why now? What’s going on?'” Grier said. “You can’t be school superintendent in Houston forever, even though you might want to. You just simply can’t.”

[…]

Grier has been a polarizing figure from the outset, partly because of his aggressive school reform efforts and high staff turnover rates. While he outlasted the tenure of most big city superintendents, recent board meetings have become increasingly tense. Just this week, an audit questioned how the district handled several construction contracts.

The 65-year-old’s $300,000-a-year contract was set to expire on June 30, 2016. The school board had not made a move to extend it.

Here’s the full Chron story. I said this was sudden, but it wasn’t exactly unexpected. There has been speculation about Grier’s future since he entered the last year of his contract. I’ve finished doing HISD candidate interviews – they will run next week – and it seems likely to me that Grier might not have had five votes on the board to get another extension. He’s losing one ally in Paula Harris, and may lose another in Manuel Rodriguez. A graceful exit may have looked like a good option to him.

As for Grier’s legacy, I’d say he had a lot of ideas to improve HISD, some of which worked better than others, and he went about his job with a lot of energy and passion. The results were not what he might have liked, and in the end that will color any judgment of him. A lot of things he pushed for – changes in the magnet school programs, closing some low-population schools, teacher evaluations, to name three – were very controversial. Still, there were good things accomplished, and his successor will inherit a district that’s in decent shape overall. It will be very interesting to see what qualities the Board looks for in that successor. I figure they’ll get started looking shortly, and there ought to be no shortage of interested applicants. In the meantime, I wish Dr. Grier and his wife all the best as he enters the next chapter in his life, and I thank him for his service to HISD. I am sure we have not heard the last of Terry Grier. The Press has more.

HISD bond concerns

It’s always something.

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

A key Houston ISD school board member called Sunday for audits of the district’s 2012 bond program amid estimates of a $211 million shortfall and concerns about breaking promises to voters.

Juliet Stipeche, chair of HISD’s audit committee, submitted her request for internal and external audits after a Davis High School teacher expressed outrage on Facebook that the district’s $1.9 billion bond program may be so short on funds that her campus will only be renovated, rather than rebuilt as promised. Meanwhile, the teacher wrote, rats fall from a hole in her classroom ceiling, the restrooms smell like a prison and fires have started, apparently because of shoddy wiring.

Board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones responded on Facebook that she would ask Superintendent Terry Grier’s administration to “halt the (bond) work until we can develop a plan to deliver exactly what we promised and what the taxpayers voted for.”

Grier replied in an email to trustees that he was open to an audit, but he said the financial problems boil down to unusually high inflation in the construction market, a concern he expressed months ago. He also revealed Sunday that his staff was working with financial advisers to try to add another $200 million into the bond program to cover most of the projected shortfall.

The district’s 2012 bond referendum – with the largest price tag in Texas school history – called for rebuilding and renovating 40 schools, renovating middle school restrooms and upgrading technology, athletic facilities and security.

“My recommendation, if our plan to add dollars to the bond does not work out, is to prioritize the projects and build what we promised,” Grier wrote board members Sunday. “When the money runs out, we stop construction – even if some projects are delayed until a future bond.”

There’s a discussion in the story about higher-than-expected inflation of construction costs, which is not too surprising given the (up till recently) red hot real estate market in town. There’s also some finger-pointing about who knew what when and who informed whom about it, which I’m just going to glide past. The main thing is keeping promises to the schools and their communities that were made in the referendum. I am confident it can be done, and we need to make sure that it does get done.

UPDATE: And then there’s this:

Houston ISD overpaid contractors and may have violated state law by exceeding construction contract limits without required school board approval, according to a newly released audit.

The auditors found that the district appeared to skirt a $500,000 contracting cap multiple times by improperly submitting separate work orders tied to the same project. The auditors also noted that the district failed to catch inaccurate and inappropriate charges and at times asked the school board to sign off on work after it had been done.

“State law and district policies were at the very least ignored, but more likely knowingly circumvented,” HISD trustee Anna Eastman, a member of the board’s audit committee, said Wednesday. “I’m not satisfied with the administrative response of ignorance and, ‘We’ll do it differently next time.’ Someone needs to be held accountable for this.”

In a written response, HISD’s construction and facilities department said the district would seek repayments from the contractors that appear to have been overpaid. One example cited shows the district is due $16,179, but auditors did not calculate the total amount due for other questionable invoices.

The construction department said that the approval process was skewed because the district was trying to complete projects over the summer. In one 2014 case, the department said, it attempted to comply with requirements “in a manner consistent with the time constraints of the project.”

Clearly, there’s more work to be done here.

Idiots protest at school

Jeez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD Board President backs changing Confederate school names

Fine by me.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Amid a growing move to shed symbols of the old, slave-owning South, the Houston school board president said Thursday that she supports renaming six campuses named after Confederate loyalists.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones said she plans to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees at an upcoming meeting. Superintendent Terry Grier added that he is “strongly considering” recommending that the board change the names.

The nation’s seventh-largest school district would join a mounting list of agencies and businesses taking steps to shun reminders of the Confederacy following the June 17 shooting deaths of nine black church worshippers by an alleged white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, sent a letter to the Houston Independent School District Wednesday urging the renaming of six campuses named after Confederate army officers or others tied to the Confederacy: Dowling, Jackson and Johnston middle schools and Davis, Lee and Reagan high schools.

“Remembering our past is important, especially if you want to avoid making the same mistakes,” Ellis wrote. “But we can teach our students about the evils of the past without endorsing the actions of those who fought to uphold them. When we honor hate at our schools, we teach hate to our children.”

Ellis previously urged HISD to eradicate certain mascots. In 2013, the school board, at Grier’s recommendation, agreed to abandon the Rebels mascot, a symbol tied to the Confederacy, and three others considered offensive to Native Americans.

“Just as we engaged in the important work around changing the inappropriate mascots,” Skillern-Jones said, “we should also engage in that equally important work around making sure that our schools are named after individuals that wholeheartedly represent what our district stands for and the diversity in the district.”

Here are the op-ed and letter that Sen. Ellis wrote. This conversation isn’t just happening in Houston, as cities like Austin and San Antonio have Robert E. Lee schools as well. Lee is a legitimately important historical figure with ties to Texas that predate the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean he – or any other figure – deserves to have schools named after him. As with the school mascots that got renamed last year, I see no reason not to take this seriously. And as with the mascots, I expect there will be some heated dissent, from current and former students of these schools as well as other folks with various motives, and if the decision is made to make a change then a year or two from now hardly anyone will remember any of it.

You may ask, why now? These schools have been around with these names for a long time. As with the mascots and with the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage, the time is right. The horrible mass shooting in South Carolina and the stated reasons for it by the shooter have opened the door for this conversation, and many people who would not have been amenable to it for whatever the reason a month or a year or a decade ago now are. Why not now?

And if we start this conversation about Confederate generals, what then?

I wonder if they are going to include slave owners from the past. How about those that supported segregation or opposed civil rights and voting rights. How about some of the folks that help found the state of Texas and nearly succeeded in making Native-Americans an extinct people. These same folks also made Texas a slave-owning state. How does one define hate? I wonder where they will draw the line. I am glad Board President Skillern-Jones and Sen. Ellis are the deciders and not me. Go for it!

I’m sure plenty of people will be making “slippery slope” arguments now that this can of worms has been opened. I get that, but you know what? I do not and will not accept such arguments as a reason to end the conversation. Nothing in the Constitution says that once a school – or park, or bridge, or street, or courthouse, or whatever – has been named for someone, it must remain named for that person forevermore. Let’s have this conversation, in full and in public. I welcome it, and I welcome the awkwardness that a lot of people, including myself, will feel about it. You want to move past the symbolism of a handful of governors lowering the Confederate flag in their states? This would be a fine place to start. Let’s get it all out there. What are we afraid of?

HISD’s test scores

Not so good. Needs to be better.

Houston ISD high school students continue to struggle with reading and writing, passing state exams at significantly lower rates than the state average, new results show.

The district’s scores in algebra, biology and U.S. history also dipped a couple of points from last year, at a slightly sharper rate than did others across Texas.

HISD’s high school results are similar to the previously released elementary and middle school scores, which mostly declined or remained flat.

Superintendent Terry Grier, in a statement issued Friday, applauded a more promising measure: an increase in the percentage of students who answered more questions correctly this year than last on the high school exams – meeting the tougher bar that the state plans to enforce in coming years.

That uptick, Grier said, “shows that our teachers and administrators are committed to making sure students are on track to graduate.”

[…]

On the English I [STAAR] test, which covers reading and writing, HISD’s passing rate was 58 percent this year, compared with the state’s 71 percent. HISD had a three-point drop from 2014, while students statewide declined by one point.

HISD’s passing rate on the algebra test, which some eighth-graders take, was 79 percent, down from 82 percent last year. The state rate dropped one point to 85 percent.

The passing rates include only students taking the exams for the first time in spring 2015 and spring 2014. Students who failed can retake the tests.

HISD scored between one and five points lower than Dallas ISD in algebra, biology and U.S. history this year. The districts’ passing rates were the same for English I, and HISD fared better by one point in English II.

Dallas ISD is the state’s second-largest district behind HISD. Both serve significant concentrations of low-income students and those still learning English, who traditionally lag academically.

Across Texas, scores have been relatively flat since the 2012 rollout of the STAAR, which was designed to be tougher than the old testing regime.

It’s a tough problem, and it won’t get any easier with the forthcoming toughening of standards in the STAAR test. I’m sure this subject will be discussed at length in Terry Grier’s final contract year. Really, though, we need to deal with this at the state level. We can toughen standards, we can change the grading system for schools and school districts, we can come up with all kinds of plans for how to deal with failing schools and school districts, but when are we going to give them the tools and resources they need to not fail in the first place?

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.

HISD mostly declines to rezone its schools

Lots of noise, not nearly as much action.

HISD School Map

A divided Houston school board on Thursday rejected most of the rezoning proposals designed to reduce class sizes after dozens of parents expressed concerns about families having to send their children to different campuses.

Only two of the six proposals passed, with parents and board members in those areas generally supportive of the changes.

In the booming Energy Corridor, the attendance zone for the popular Bush Elementary School will shrink, and Shadowbriar Elementary in the area will become a specialty school designed to relieve overcrowding for nearby campuses.

In southwest Houston, the Tinsley Elementary boundaries will decrease, with homes rezoned to Anderson Elementary.

Current students and incoming kindergarten students will be grandfathered and can stay.

[…]

Superintendent Terry Grier said the proposals were an attempt to cut the number of waivers that the district receives from the Texas Education Agency to exceed the state’s cap of 22 students per class in elementary schools. The district requested about 1,500 waivers this fall, more than double the number five years ago.

Hair Balls details who was and wasn’t shuffled around.

Schools that won’t see their lines redrawn include Rice, Roberts, Twain and West U elementaries in one group. Another group that won’t be reconfigured includes Smith, Crockett, Love, Memorial Sinclair, Steven, Harvard and Travis elementaries – mostly on arguments from Sinclair supporters who said they’d built something special and didn’t want to see it diminished and trustees who agreed with that.

A third group including Hartsfield, Bastian, Kelso and Young elementaries will stay as they are. It’ll be status quo for Kennedy, Burbank, Lyons and Northline elementaries. Lyons in particular was pointed out as a school that has done well and shouldn’t be disturbed.

The schools that will see their boundary lines change include the Anderson, Tinsley and Halpin group as well as the Shadowbriar, Ashford, Bush, Askew, Daily, Emerson and Walnut Bend group. In the second case, there were several parents supporting the change as well as those who criticized it.

This was brought up in January and then put on hold in March, as it proved to be as challenging and contentious as any other form of redistricting is. The main reason why parents argued for the status quo is that they were willing to trade a few fuller classes for not messing with something that was working, as it was generally highly-rated schools that were overpopulated. Ultimately, what we need is for more neighborhood schools to be doing as well as their most-crowded peers. Lot easier said than done, I know.

HISD postpones redrawing school boundaries

This stuff is hard, y’all.

HISD School Map

The school board [had planned] to vote Thursday on the district’s biggest rezoning plan in recent years, involving more than two dozen campuses.

The proposal mostly would redraw attendance boundaries to shift homes from more crowded schools to campuses with space. The major impact may not be immediate, however. As a nod to surprised parents, the district plans to allow current students and those entering kindergarten this fall to stay at their old schools if they choose.

Superintendent Terry Grier and his staff said in January that the rezoning plan was driven by concerns from the Texas Education Agency that HISD had too many elementary school classes over the state’s cap of 22 students.

Grier told the school board Monday, however, that he spoke recently with Education Commissioner Michael Williams and does not expect the state to crack down on the district. This fall, HISD requested size waivers for 1,499 classes – far more than the 80 sought by Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district.

Still, Grier said, he thought most board members wanted fewer waivers, and rezoning is a common way for districts to even out enrollment.

“It’s frustrating to my staff to do what you asked us to do and then get called out publicly and go to meetings and get pounded on,” Grier told the board.

Parents, particularly on the city’s west side, have packed recent meetings about the rezoning.

In response, Grier’s administration has revised the plan. The biggest change involves removing fewer homes from the Bush Elementary zone and turning Shadowbriar Elementary, about 4 miles away, into a magnet school that would take overflow from Bush, Ashford, Askew and Daily.

The hope is that Shadowbriar’s specialty program – the theme has not been picked – would reduce crowding by drawing students voluntarily from nearby campuses.

The plan also calls for reducing crowding or expected enrollment growth at Lyons, Smith, Tinsley and Young Elementary schools. Their attendance boundaries would shrink, with students rezoned to other schools.

See here for the background. The Board ultimately tabled the proposal and will ask for a more comprehensive plan, one that will presumably draw fewer complaints from parents who are no longer in the zone they wanted to be in. I notice on the Chron’s interactive map that the two popular schools in my neighborhood, Travis and Harvard Elementary Schools, are both affected by this plan, but only in a minor way in that no current students would be zoned out. People looking to move into the Heights in the future, however, would be wise to stay on top of this.

January campaign finance reports – HISD trustees

Four HISD Trustees are up for re-election this year. There are nine Trustees in all, and they serve four-year terms, so in a normal year either four or five are up for re-election. As things stand right now, all four incumbents would be running for re-election, which would be the first time there would be no open seat since at least 2001; Harris County Clerk election records only include HISD results as far back as that. Here’s a brief look at those incumbents, along with their January finance reports and a summary of their campaign balances.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, District 2

Skillern-Jones is serving her first term as HISD Trustee. She was the only candidate in 2011 to succeed Carol Mims Galloway. After serving as Board Secretary last year, she was elected to be Board President this year. Prior to the redrawing of Trustee district boundaries last year, hers was one of two districts to absorb schools and students from the former North Forest ISD. She officially announced her intent to run for another term a few weeks ago via email and Facebook. As far as I know, she was the first Trustee to make such an announcement, and is the only one whose plans are known so far.

Manuel Rodriguez, District 3

As noted, there are four Trustees that would be on the ballot this year if they all do run. Of the four, I’d gladly vote for three of them if I lived in their district. The fourth is Manuel Rodriguez, who disgraced himself in 2011 by sending an anti-gay mailer as an attack against his opponent, Ramiro Fonseca. (Fact I did not realize until I scanned through old election results in researching this post: Fonseca also opposed Rodriguez in 2003, when the seat was last open. He finished third in the field of four.) Rodriguez eventually offered a lame apology for his actions, which caused the Houston Chronicle to retract their endorsement of him, after winning an excruciatingly close vote. There was a bit of a hubbub initially, then everyone moved on to other things. I hope everyone remembers this, and that the voters hold Manuel Rodriguez responsible for his despicable behavior if he does choose to run this year.

Paula Harris, District 4

Paula Harris is serving her second term on the HISD board, having won an open seat race in 2007. A prominent supporter of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier, she served as Board President in 2011, during some of the more turbulent times of the Grier era. She was also the focal point of some conflict of interest allegations at that time, which eventually led to a revamp of the Board’s ethics policies. Despite that, she won re-election in 2011 easily over token opposition, and has had a much quieter second term. Harris is an engineer who has published a children’s book encouraging kids to explore engineering, and has been a booster of STEM education on the board.

Juliet Stipeche, District 8

Juliet Stipeche, who served as Board president last year, is finishing her first full term in office. She won a special election in 2010 to fill a seat left vacant by the resignation of then-Trustee Diana Davila. She was one of the driving forces behind that ethics policy revamp, which occurred in 2012, before the last bond referendum. She has also been one of the more active critics of Superintendent Grier, though as noted things have been quieter on that front of late. Her district also contains some former North Forest ISD territory. In my opinion, she’s one of the Board’s best members.

So that’s my brief overview of the incumbents who are up for re-election. As noted, so far there are no open seats. I am also not aware of any declared opponents as yet. Here are the January finance reports for these four:

Skillern-Jones
Rodriguez
Harris
Stipeche

Name Raised Spent Loans On Hand ==================================================== Skillern-Jones 18,215 12,119 0 9,345 Rodriguez 0 0 0 340 Harris 0 1,500 12,000 0 Stipeche 5,500 7,162 0 15,618

The HISD Board does not have a Council-like blackout period, so incumbents and candidates were able to raise money during 2014. Rhonda Skillern-Jones was the busiest of the four, but I wouldn’t read too much into any of this. We’re very early in the cycle, and the one thing I feel confident saying is that we don’t know what kind of Trustee races we’re going to get yet.

HISD Board approves one cent tax rate increase

Still a low tax rate, just slightly higher now.

As architects prepare designs for dozens of new campuses, the Houston school board on Thursday approved a 1-cent tax rate increase to help pay down debt from the largest school district construction bond in Texas history.

The board voted 7-1 to raise the tax rate, the second increase in two years tied to the district’s $1.9 billion bond issue approved by voters two years ago. The 3-cent rate hike last year went toward day-to-day operational expenses as well as building debt.

The owners of an average-priced home whose property values rose significantly could see their bills grow by $250 over last year, while the increase will be closer to $15 for those with stagnant values.

Leaders of the Houston Independent School District had told voters in 2012 to expect a rate increase of 4.85 cents, phased in over several years, to fund the construction debt. HISD’s chief financial officer, Ken Huewitt, now says the full rate hike may not be necessary thanks to fast-rising property values, but district officials will have to review the data annually.

“Obviously, we’re ahead of the game right now,” Huewitt said. “I have to think we’ll stay ahead of the game.”

HISD’s new tax rate for 2014 is $1.1967 per $100 of taxable value, keeping the rate the lowest of all school districts in Harris County.

No surprise here, this has been on the table since the 2012 bond referendum was announced. Far as I’m concerned, as long as they do a better job of managing and completing those construction projects than they did with the 2007 referendum, it’s all good. K-12 Zone and Hair Balls have more.

HISD’s volunteer reading army

HISD’s number one priority is, or at least needs to be, improving reading performance. I really hope this will help.

Leaders of the Houston Independent School District turned to the community on Thursday, launching the district’s largest volunteer recruitment effort in recent years – all to help solve HISD’s intractable literacy problem.

The nation’s seventh-largest school system put out a call for 1,500 volunteers – business professionals, retirees and others – to work weekly with first-graders across the district who are struggling to read.

The volunteer effort is part of Superintendent Terry Grier’s latest literacy plan, which sets a goal that all students will read on grade level by third grade. Last school year, only one-third of HISD’s third-graders hit the state’s recommended level on the reading test; about two-thirds met the easier minimum standards.

“This is a big, big issue, and together we’re going to be able to do this,” Grier said at a news conference at Garcia Elementary, addressing the business and nonprofit executives helping to fund and coordinate the volunteer effort.

Relying on volunteers to read with or tutor students is not a new concept – HISD already has a smaller program targeting male volunteers. Studies have shown such programs can be beneficial, although the quality varies.

“It sounds so wonderful – a way for people to be involved in education – but education is complicated and, especially, teaching reading is complicated,” said Jo Worthy, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

We learned from the Apollo program that focused tutoring can improve math performance, but reading has proven to be a tougher nut to crack. Given that there doesn’t seem to be one silver bullet to solve this problem, I’m fine with taking a multi-pronged approach and seeing what works best. There are other efforts going on as well, so hopefully we will see some results. If you want to get involved, the first thing to do is to go to the HISD Volunteers in Public Schools page and sign up to help. I think we’re going to need as many hands on deck as we can get.

HISD passes its budget

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

BagOfMoney

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

HISD prepares its budget

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

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

HISD magnet funding vote delayed till next week

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

Terry Grier

Terry Grier

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

What is the deal with Vanguard funding?

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

As you may have heard, the Houston ISD Board’s proposed budget for the 2014-15 school year would eliminate HISD Vanguard Magnet funding. These drastic cuts would threaten the viability of the Vanguard program at Travis. (see the April 24 Budget and PUA Workshop: www.houstonisd.org/page/32539). In addition to the loss of Vanguard funding, the budget as proposed would eliminate the beloved and valuable HISD-owned Camp Olympia. This is a perennial tradition for 5th graders to spend 3-4 days camping and having hands-on nature and science experiences.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A subsequent post went into more detail.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

HISD does have a role to play in the Bush Foundation literacy effort

I learned this from a Terry Grier op-ed in the Chron.

That’s why last week’s release of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation’s “Houston’s Literacy Crisis: A Blueprint for Community Action,” was such a welcome event.

The foundation’s plan to unite educators, government and community programs – plus human and financial capital – in a mission of wiping out illiteracy is just the kind of comprehensive approach required. We are proud to be partners in this effort.

While HISD remains committed to decentralization – and many of our schools are showing success in their respective reading programs – Literacy By 3 will be a district-driven initiative with unwavering, uniform standards and accountability. Starting this summer, a literacy leader will be trained for each HISD campus. We will employ phonics-based instruction, strict district measurements of reading levels and growth, and we will combine those with real-world projects.

At the same time, our movement toward a digital transformation of classrooms will allow teachers greater ability to personalize learning – and reading is a highly personal, developmental skill. Not one rigid method or time frame fits all, especially when you’re dealing with the challenges of multiple languages and poverty.

What is a uniformly proven asset, though, is exposure to libraries, books in the home and to people who read. That’s where you come in. We hope to create an awareness campaign that enlists thousands of volunteers who will show youngsters that reading is not only a basic survival skill, but a rewarding part of life. We will recruit community members to read with students one-on-one, to share their own favorite books and reading lists, to conduct and contribute to book drives to help enrich schools and homes.

See here and here for the background. At least now I know that there is some kind of official interaction between HISD and the Barbara Bush Foundation on this. I still haven’t found a copy of their report, but at least I know that much.

HISD unveils new mascots

Here they are.

The cafeteria at Hamilton Middle School showcases a painting of a Native American in a feathered headdress. Students wear collared shirts with a similar symbol. They were, until Tuesday, the Hamilton Indians.

Now, with a new school district policy banning mascots deemed culturally offensive, the Houston Heights campus has adopted the Huskies as their symbol, as have the Westbury High School Rebels. The Lamar High Redskins become the Texans, and the Welch Middle School Warriors are now the Wolf Pack.

The mascot changes – including painting over old logos, buying new uniforms and replacing marquees – could cost the district an estimated $250,000, officials said.

Superintendent Terry Grier, who won school board approval for the stricter mascot policy in December, said the expense was worth it.

“For us here at HISD, while this day marks the end of an era and sends a message about nurturing our cultural diversity, we do understand the importance of tradition and history,” Grier said while unveiling the new mascots in the Hamilton school cafeteria.

Grier said he was troubled by the Lamar Redskins name shortly after arriving in Houston in 2009, but he didn’t push for a change until last year when state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Native American students and parents upped the pressure.

[…]

An HISD handout about the mascot changes said new uniforms for football and volleyball in the fall would cost about $50,000, while the four schools expected to spend more than $38,000 to replace logos on their campuses. Uniforms for all other sports could drive the total cost up to about $250,000 according to district spokeswoman Sheleah Reed.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I figure uniforms have to be replaced periodically anyway so the cost doesn’t bother me. Besides, this was simply The Right Thing To Do. I’m glad HISD got it done. Hair Balls has more.

Makeup days

Sorry, kids.

Houston area schools are facing possible cuts in state funding, and a bruising in the court of public opinion, by making up days missed earlier this year because of icy roads.

With little fat built into the spring school calendar and several days of mandatory state testing, Houston schools have little choice but to make up the two days missed because of January ice scares on Good Friday, Memorial Day or at the end of the school year.

“There hadn’t been a bad weather day for so long, no one was paying attention,” said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “Our winters are usually not the problem. It’s usually those fall hurricanes.”

The Houston Independent School District has opted to make up the two missed days on April 18 and May 26. By holding classes on Good Friday, HISD can take advantage of a little-known exception that permits Texas schools to receive state funding for absent students with a written notice that they are observing a religious holiday.

Districts making up class on April 17 could also grant excused absences for a travel day ahead of a religious holiday, according to state law.

Typically, schools are funded at a daily rate of roughly $35 per student in attendance each day, meaning low attendance on a single day could cost HISD and other districts millions of dollars, according to Texas Education Agency data.

Some folks are upset that HISD picked Good Friday and Memorial Day as the makeup days as opposed to shaving a day off of Spring Break or adding a day at the end of the year, but from a budgetary perspective these choices made the most sense. If you’re unhappy about this, I recommend you direct your displeasure at the Legislature and Rick Perry for their devastating cuts to public education in 2011 and their refusal to fully restore those cuts in 2013. I would also point out that one candidate for Governor this fall promises to fully fund public education, while the other continues to defend those budget cuts in court. You want to do something about this, that would be your best opportunity.

Dodson to be closed, Jones to be revamped

In the end, only one school was closed by HISD, but a lot of people are still upset about the whole thing.

During a rowdy meeting where police had to quiet shouting protestors, the Houston school board narrowly agreed Thursday to close Dodson Elementary but accepted a compromise plan that would turn the long-struggling Jones High into a specialty vocational school.

Many in the crowd focused their anger on Superintendent Terry Grier, calling for his firing, during the most raucous board meeting in years.

[…]

Grier’s initial closure proposal, unveiled four weeks ago, would have shut down five small schools. But [Juliet] Stipeche, using her power as board president, scaled the potential closure list to two schools after community members packed a series of public meetings to complain and a couple dozen people marched outside Grier’s condominium one weekend.

Grier had said closing Jones High and Dodson Elementary were his priorities, saying the district needed to use the facilities to house students from other schools due to be rebuilt under the 2012 voter-approved bond issue.

The idea of closing schools so they could serve as temporary “swing space” for other students didn’t sit well with many.

In the end, the school board agreed on a 5-4 vote to close Dodson Elementary, which enrolls about 445 students this year. The building likely will be used to house students from the district’s Energy Institute High School while it is rebuilt.

[…]

Under the compromise plan for Jones, passed on a 6-3 vote, the school would become a specialty campus focused on career readiness. It would be modeled after other “Futures Academy” programs that the district has started in other high schools, allowing students to work toward industry certification or associate’s degrees.

Students zoned to Jones would get priority in admissions, but the specialty school would be open to students across the district. The Jones students who don’t want to attend will be rezoned to Worthing and Sterling high schools. All are under-enrolled, with Jones falling to about 440 students this year.

The new Jones would not have athletics, a point of contention for some. Students could play for their zoned schools.

While many said they supported the compromise plan for Jones, James Douglas, a longtime officer for the NAACP of Houston, said he did not. He joined others in expressing frustration that Stipeche, the board president, limited speakers to one minute each because more than 80 had signed up to speak on the closures alone.

“I would say HISD is broken and you need to come up with some mechanism not just to hear the community, but really to listen what they have to say,” Douglas told the board. “And you can’t listen to what anyone has to say in one minute.”

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background. I’m sure this isn’t the end of the story, though it’s unclear to me what comes next. The one thing I do know, which hasn’t been mentioned in the coverage so far, is that I truly hope HISD will keep track of the Dodson and Jones students that are directly affected by this to see how their performance fares going forward, just as I have hoped that they will closely monitor the former North Forest students. Whatever the demographic case may be, if closing a school or significantly changing it turns out to have a negative effect on the existing students, it should make districts very reluctant to do that. Dodson is hardly the first school HISD has closed during Terry Grier’s tenure, and I have no idea if any of those students were tracked post-closure. It would be nice to know more about the data we already have, if in fact we do have it. Regardless, given the strong feedback this has generated, the least HISD can do is keep us informed about the consequences – good, bad, or indifferent – of their actions. Hair Balls has more.

Last stand against school closures

Last chance, too.

Community activists called Tuesday for HISD to spare two schools from closure in a last-ditch effort that included filing a federal civil-rights complaint alleging racial discrimination.

Charles X. White, president of the city’s South Park Super Neighborhood group, said he had asked federal authorities to investigate HISD’s proposal to close schools in mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Houston school board is set to vote Thursday on Superintendent Terry Grier’s scaled-back proposal to close Jones High School in the South Park neighborhood and Dodson Elementary near downtown. He first proposed closing five small schools.

[…]

Grier has said the Jones and Dodson buildings are needed to house students from other campuses being rebuilt under the district’s 2012 vote-approved bond issue.

After the new schools are built, Grier said, Jones could be reopened as a vocational school or one for gifted students. Dodson could be turned into a middle school with a specialized program.

Trustee Paula Harris, whose district includes Jones, said at a board meeting Monday that she supported reopening Jones with a new theme but called for it to happen next year – not years after using the space during rebuilding.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. A spokesperson for the Office of Civil Rights confirmed there was a complaint filed with them, but I’m sure we won’t hear anything further on that until some action is taken. A Chron op-ed from earlier in the week lays out a pretty good case against the district taking steps to close Jones and Dodson at this time:

In her Sunday op-ed “Low-performing schools drag down kids and districts” (Page B9), trustee Anna Eastman said HISD should close struggling schools and re-open them as charter/magnet schools. More specialty schools do not necessarily mean more access for children most in need. When HISD closed Third Ward’s Ryan Middle School last year and re-opened it as a magnet school, only 11 percent of the enrollment included neighborhood children.

Moreover, contrary to common expectations, research on 60 school districts shows that student performance actually declines following school closures. HISD has closed 19 schools since 2010, sending many students from exemplary to lower-performing schools. We know of no parent who would want that.

Grier defended the closure proposal with a November 2013 HISD report implying these schools have seen long-term enrollment declines. However, this ignores the district’s own research showing that enrollment changed less than 3 percent over the past 10 years at each elementary school targeted for closure – schools that met state standards every year.

Enrollment declines at Jones are due in part to HISD’s removal of its Vanguard “gifted” program and a revolving door of leadership. And when the expensive and controversial Apollo program was imposed on Jones – with its fixation on excessive test prep – families fled. Parents don’t want the school to close; they want HISD to clean up its mess and invest in quality programming.

As community opposition has grown, officials now say Jones and Dodson are needed as “swing space” – temporary buildings for schools during a rebuild. HISD policy does not authorize school closures for this purpose.

Here’s the Anna Eastman op-ed they reference. At this point, while HISD may have a good demographic argument for pursuing these closures, they seem to be weak on procedure and on community engagement about them. I’d like to see more done to address those issues before any further action is taken. There will be a rally by anti-closure forces outside the Hattie Mae White building tomorrow at 1:30 – see beneath the fold for details.

(more…)

Three of five schools escape closure

For now, at least. The other two are still on the block.

Juliet Stipeche

Juliet Stipeche

Three small schools will be spared from closure at the urging of Houston school board president Juliet Stipeche, but Jones High and Dodson Elementary remain on the potential chopping block.

Facing mounting community pressure against Superintendent Terry Grier’s closure proposal, Stipeche eliminated Fleming Middle School, Port Houston Elementary and N.Q. Henderson Elementary from the closure list.

The board is set to decide the fate of Jones and Dodson next Thursday. Grier has said the two buildings are needed to house students whose campuses are being rebuilt under the 2012 voter-approved bond program.

“I respect our board president’s request to remove these schools from consideration,” Grier said in a statement. “I also appreciate her input, the input of all trustees and the community-at-large in this process.”

[…]

Stipeche said she thought N.Q. Henderson Elementary and Fleming Middle School, both in northeast Houston, deserved more time to try to improve and recruit more students.

“They serve communities in transition,” she said. “They should have the opportunity to work on increasing their enrollment.”

“Port Houston is an interesting set of circumstances because it’s an exemplary school in a small building,” she added.

Board member Mike Lunceford said the trustees need to review their policy on closures to perhaps distinguish between schools like Port Houston that are small because the neighborhood has few students, and those like Jones High where students are choosing to enroll elsewhere.

“We need to sit down as a board and decide what to do,” he said. “Are we going to continue supporting small schools? If the board’s not going to vote, we need to not put the communities through all of this.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I think Stipeche and Lunceford’s logic here is sound. For some neighborhoods it may make more sense, and be more cost-effective, to maintain a smaller school than to have to provide transportation elsewhere for all the affected students. Reviewing the policy to draw distinctions between schools in less-populated areas and schools that aren’t drawing in as many students as they could is a good idea, too. Hair Balls and Stace have more.