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TEA drops the hammer on North Forest again

Pretty much as expected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so fast on the North Forest charter plan

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Charters apply to take over North Forest ISD

Fine by me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chron story adds a few more details.

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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