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3 Houston Schools Fight to Keep Doors Open

By Catherine Gewertz — August 29, 2006 5 min read
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The Houston school district has embarked on a last-ditch campaign to keep open a handful of schools that have been unable to shake Texas’ stamp of failure for three or more years.

This school year could be the last for the three schools, which will be shuttered if they don’t improve enough by next spring.

LaVeta Clovis, left, a program manager for the Houston school district, meets with teachers after school on Aug. 23 to plan improvements at McReynolds Middle School, which could close next year if its students' scores don't increase.

Since school opened Aug. 14, the district has been raining help on John McReynolds Middle School and Sam Houston and Kashmere high schools. District leaders hope that mentoring, extra staff training, extended class time, and better use of data to guide teaching will boost the schools’ scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, and keep their doors open next school year.

Nationwide, relatively few schools are on the brink of the most serious consequences of their states’ accountability systems. The Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy group in Washington, estimates that during the 2005-06 school year, only 3 percent had missed their states’ targets under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for four or more years.

But those ranks could swell if academic performance fails to keep pace with states’ increasingly tough academic targets. So Houston’s undertaking could prove instructive for districts across the country in the next few years.

“It’s something to watch closely,” said Bethany M. Little, the director of federal advocacy and policy development for the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that presses for better secondary schools.

“People are getting to the end of their rope with certain high schools and demanding change,” she said. “The question is, what change is effective and what is just a disaster? These are some schools that are going to give us some answers.”

A Stronger Hand

The prescriptive measures being introduced at the McReynolds, Kashmere, and Sam Houston schools echo wider district and state trends. Houston—the nation’s seventh-largest school district, with 208,000 students—is taking a more centralized approach to managing its schools’ academic programs. Both the district and the state have recently issued clearer, tougher rules about what will happen to struggling schools.

Lisa McClinton, a content specialist for the Houston public schools, works with a 7th grader in a science class at McReynolds Middle School last week.

A Texas law enacted in May specifies escalating steps the commissioner of education must take to manage failing schools. Once a school has gotten the state’s lowest rating, “academically unacceptable,” for two straight years, the commissioner must order it reconstituted and assign a campus improvement team. After four years, it must be closed or placed under the management of a nonprofit organization or another district, said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson.

Kashmere and Sam Houston high schools are the only two campuses in Texas to receive the state’s lowest rating for four consecutive years, said Ms. Culbertson. McReynolds Middle School is one of only five to do so for three years. But Commissioner Shirley J. Neeley has opted not to step in yet. She supports Houston Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra’s plan for the three schools.

That plan is part of a larger Houston push to provide earlier, more decisive help for schools on the “academically unacceptable” list.

Under a new policy, which was approved by the school board Aug. 10 but is subject to final adoption Sept. 14, schools on the list will be subject to an increasingly “directive” series of interventions the longer they remain on the list. By the fourth year, they must be closed.

“We’re putting in place an aggressive plan to make sure we’re intervening early, because we don’t want to have schools in fourth-year ‘unacceptable’ ever again,” said Karen K. Soehnge, the chief academic officer.

The steps being put in place this year at the three schools exemplify the types of help the district contemplates offering to other struggling schools under its new policy.

Bonuses for Test Scores

All three have been placed under Ms. Soehnge’s direct supervision. The district has dispatched experts from its central office and from an arm of the state education agency to co-teach alongside less experienced colleagues. Veteran teachers are being brought in to give extra instruction to low-performing students in subjects that need improvement on the TAKS. They stand to earn a $100 bonus for each student who betters his or her score.

In subjects that tested below par on the TAKS, classes will be reduced to 20 students, and teachers will get monthly training in instructional methods. An individualized education plan must be made for every student. The district also has created new classroom tests to be given every six weeks, and will train teachers in how to use them to adjust instruction, Ms. Soehnge said.

In addition to the new intervention policy for struggling schools, the district is now mandating the use of its own curriculum, called CLEAR, at all schools. Before, its use had been “hit or miss,” said Ms. Soehnge. (Houston Marketing Its K-12 Curriculum Nationwide, Jan. 25, 2006.)

She said she was optimistic that this year’s measures would keep Sam Houston, Kashmere, and McReynolds open. She noted that the schools had made strong gains in most subjects, but remained on the “unacceptable” list because of failure in only one or two of more than 20 indicators.

Houston school board President Diana Dávila calls the new intervention policy a well-placed dose of “tough love.”

But Kevin H. Hoffman, the only one of nine board members to vote against the new policy, said it is tough on the wrong people. He blamed district leaders for doing too little for too long while schools got into trouble, then choosing “punitive” solutions. Kashmere and Sam Houston high schools were reconstituted last year, meaning that they underwent massive staffing changes.

The Right Steps?

At Kashmere, Mr. Hoffman said, the entire mathematics department staff was replaced, but the school stayed on the “unacceptable” list because of poor math performance.

“What would make me have any confidence going into this year knowing that track record?” he said. “One of the things we’ve always preached is accountability, but it seems to have skipped a level at the very top.”

Gayle Fallon, the president of the 6,500-member Houston Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said making the teacher bonus contingent on students’ test scores will make it harder to bring teachers on board for the positions offering extra instruction.

“It should be a bonus walking in the door,” Ms. Fallon said. “A teacher in another building isn’t going to risk their career to come over there for a ‘maybe’ bonus and risk being put into an ‘unassigned’ pool [when the school closes]. Teachers in other schools are watching this carefully and going, ‘This is a career wrecker.’ ”

Ms. Fallon said she backs most of the academic steps in Superintendent Saavedra’s plan, but believes it lacks longer-term goals that could produce sustained improvement, such as putting a priority on building stronger reading skills.

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2006 edition of Education Week as 3 Houston Schools Fight to Keep Doors Open

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