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To Relieve Crowding, Houston Turns to Private School

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About 150 Houston public school students started classes last week at a local private school as part of an effort to relieve overcrowding in the nation's sixth-largest school system.

The Houston school board approved the one-year contract with the Varnett School in September. The district is currently seeking proposals from other area private schools, a spokeswoman said last week.

Superintendent Rod Paige proposed over the summer the idea of sending some students in the 210,000-student district to private schools at district expense. The idea came in response to the defeat in May of a $390 million bond issue. ("Houston Looks at Private Schools To Ease Overcrowding," Aug. 7, 1996.)

The bond would have paid for 15 new schools and renovations at 84 existing ones.

Varnett was chosen because it complied with the city's requirements: that a cooperating private school had to be an accredited, nonsectarian school in the southwest Houston area that had been in operation for a number of years, said its founder, Annette Cluff. The contract includes a clause for an optional second year, she said.

The public school system pays $3,575--90 percent of its per-pupil expenditure--in tuition for each student at Varnett. Ms. Cluff called the yearly figure "comparable" to the school's basic monthly tuition charge of $330.

The influx of students more than doubled the school's usual enrollment of 125 students. "The transition has gone very well, surprisingly," Ms. Cluff said.

Lottery Selection

The school has hired four new teachers to accommodate the incoming students, who ride city school buses to and from school.

"Our biggest hurdle now is assessing the academic level of the students," Ms. Cluff said.

Teachers and school administrators are using standardized tests and one-on-one activities to place the students at appropriate academic levels.

Students selected to attend the Varnett School were chosen through a lottery, Ms. Cluff said.

The district distributed optional application forms to students in overcrowded classes. Students who applied were then chosen at random from each class, according to the number of available spots in each grade level at Varnett, Ms. Cluff said.

Students with disabilities or those who had attended a private school in the previous year were ineligible, she added.

Under contract provisions, Varnett is required to provide "periodic reports" on the students' academic progress throughout the year.

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