Houston Officials Develop 'Action Plan' for School AfterStudents Walk Out To Protest 'Benign
The Houston Independent School District has developed an emergency "action plan" for Stephen F. Austin High School following a walkout last month by hundreds of students at the school, which has been in turmoil since classes opened.
The demonstration on Oct. 20 by approximately 800 of the school's 2,881 students was sparked by weeks of confusion over scheduling and lack of textbooks, district officials said.
But community leaders and the president of the local teachers' union said the incident also reflected the overcrowding and high dropout rates that plague schools in Houston's rapidly growing Hispanic East Side.
"It's been coming for a long time," said Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "It's a problem of 20 years of benign neglect of the schools, and of a shifting population."
In addition to overcrowding at Austin, which was designed to hold 2,506 students, "the three middle schools [that feed Austin] are all bursting at the seams," Ms. Fallon added.
The student unrest at Austin spread to Stonewall Jackson Middle School on Oct. 30, when between 75 to 100 students left campus. The students, who knocked over trash cans in the neighborhood, tried to enter the Austin campus but were prevented by security guards, according to Rea Griffin, the district's director of media relations.
Eventually, the students commandeered a beer truck and began throwing beer cans, Ms. Griffin said. They were returned to the school, where they faced disciplinary action.
Since the walkout, Austin's principal, Otilia Urbina, has been reassigned to an administrative position writing grant proposals.
"There was not a good administrative match there at the school," Ms. Griffin said.
In Ms. Urbina's place, a 12-member task force of administrators, overseen by a district monitor, has been assigned to manage the school.
Ms. Urbina, a former elementary-school principal, was named principal of the troubled school in March, after working in health education at a local hospital.
Before her appointment, a similar district team ran the school, which is 93 percent Hispanic and whose stu8dents score below average on state basic-skills tests. The school's dropout rate is 18.8 percent, according to the district.
The protest was fueled by weeks of confusion during which students' schedules repeatedly were changed. Some students were assigned to classrooms that turned out to be restrooms or broom closets.
Students also complained they lacked textbooks and basic supplies.
"We had children in their senior year who were put into classes they'd already had," Ms. Fallon said. "We have lost five weeks of school in a school with a tremendously high dropout rate."
In response to the student protest, Joan Raymond, the district's superintendent, and other district officials met throughout the weekend to draft an "action plan" for the school.
The following Monday, 35 counselors were assigned to the school to meet with students who had scheduling problems. With the exception of one Spanish textbook, the necessary books for the school year also were delivered to the school that week, Ms. Griffin said.
In response to students' complaints about a lack of bilingual counselors, the district has asked the Texas Education Agency for permission to place certified bilingual teachers in counseling positions at Austin until certified bilingual counselors can be hired.
An "at-risk coordinator" also has begun to work with students in danger of dropping out.
Austin's honors, magnet, and English-as-a-second-language programs are scheduled to be "reviewed and expanded to meet student interest and ability," according to the district's plan. The extracurricular program also will be reviewed and "expanded wherever possible."
The school is slated to receive $4 million in improvements next year.
An Austin High School Reform Committee, consisting of students, staff, parents, and community members, is being created as a permanent forum for developing recommendations for school improvement.
Students who participated in the walkout, which was described as orderly and well-planned, will be excused for their absence, provided they make up missed schoolwork, the district has announced.
Ms. Fallon said teachers at the school generally supported the student protest because they share the same complaints.
In mid-September, 70 of Austin's teachers signed a petition to Ms. Urbina listing 106 areas that needed improvement, Ms. Fallon said.
The complaints included lack of paper, textbooks, and chalk; overcrowded classes of up to 60 students each; a computer class that was assigned to a room with no electrical outlets; and overcrowding in the cafeteria, which was designed to acommodate 750 students but frequently was used by up to 900, Ms. Fallon said.
"What we got back was, 'Give me time,"' said Ms. Fallon, who faulted the school system for assigning a former elementary principal to a complex high school like Austin.
The troubles at Austin were the subject of a recent meeting between the Houston Hispanic Forum--a nonprofit community agency--Ms. Raymond, parents, students, local politicians, and school-board members.
Dorothy Caram, president of the forum, described the meeting as calm, but said Hispanic parents are becoming increasingly aware of the educational problems.
The students' parents, she said, "are very concerned, because they want their students to come out of there with an education, and not just be given a degree."
Roman Martinez, a state representative from Houston's east side, agreed. "We have students who are telling us, 'We want to get a good education.' They say, 'You're not giving us the resources."'