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Houston Chief Pursues Tough Policy

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When Superintendent of Schools Joan Raymond talks about the heat in Houston, she leaves unclear whether the topic is temperatures or tempers.

"I knew it was going to be hot in Texas and in Houston but I had no idea it could be so hot here,'' said Ms. Raymond, who previously headed the Yonkers district north of New York City. The double entendre, she added, is intentional.

After a 21-month self-described "hot tenure'' fraught with controversy, the Houston school chief has unveiled a $573-million budget that contains the first local tax increase for the Houston Independent School District in four years, a salary increase for teachers and some support staff, and special tutoring sessions for elementary students who are failing in their studies.

'Get Tough' Policy

The programs are a continuation of Ms. Raymond's "Get Tough'' policy, intended to curb a failure rate that claims nearly half of Houston's secondary students and to demonstrate the district's commitment to earn renewed state accreditation.

As part of this effort, Ms. Raymond has since January introduced a number of programs that some might call drastic, others innovative, as she sought to deal with the district's achievement woes.

She initiated a "Leadership Institute,'' under which principals are selected for six-month programs of university and management study. She revised curricula and augmented teacher staff-development programs. And, starting next fall, she plans to move some 6th graders back to elementary schools in a pilot plan that may end the district's grades 6-8 middle-school configuration. (See Education Week, June 1, 1988.)

In addition, Ms. Raymond has mandated that 40,000 secondary students who have failing grades attend special tutoring sessions--called the Required Academic Proficiency program--during the week or on Saturdays. At her urging, more than 1,000 parents were subpoenaed before juvenile courts to determine why their children were either truant from regular classes or failing to attend the tutoring sessions.

And, under a plan she proposed in May, the weekday and Saturday RAP program would be extended next fall to low-achieving elementary students on a voluntary basis. Ms. Raymond's initial idea to make Saturday sessions mandatory was rejected by the school board.

"I'm trying to literally toughen up the district,'' Ms. Raymond explained last week. "Schools have been too permissive.''

"I'm not kidding about all this,'' she insisted. "We feed the children, we transport them to school, we have teachers waiting for them. They don't have a right to do that [not attend.] They don't have a right to fail.''

Varying Reactions

Not unexpectedly, the superintendent's improvement strategies are generating a mixed response.

The local teachers' and principals' organizations have balked at her ideas for Saturday tutorial programs. And teachers in particular are unhappy with her proposed salary package. The budget plan calls for a 5.7 percent local property-tax increase to generate funding for a $17-million pay increase.

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said because Ms. Raymond refuses to compute last year's one-time pay bonus into the salary base, the pay increase may average 3 percent for most teachers and some may see no increase.

But despite the disagreements, Ms. Fallon also said, "Houston has had a decade to build problems. I don't expect her to solve them overnight.''

Willie Gentry, president of the Houston Association of School Administrators, said that many of Ms. Raymond's problems stemmed from misunderstandings and that some school officials may fear change.

"She has many innovative programs,'' he said. "Sometimes, communication is not what it should be.''

But Judith Joe, president of the district's Council of Parent-Teacher Associations said she had heard few complaints from parents.

"I think a lot of parents are supportive of her programs,'' Ms. Joe said. "They see this as a changing district. They feel like at least giving her a chance to try it.''

"If the programs don't work,'' she added, "we'll find out.''

The Texas Education Agency apparently agrees that Houston is changing. It announced May 20 that it was reinstating the district's full accreditation, which had been downgraded last year to "accredited advised'' after state officials cited 23 problem areas.

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