Update: After this story went to press, the Houston ISD school board added an agenda item for its Sept. 12 meeting to consider asking the district to appeal the rating given to Wheatley High School.
At Kashmere High School, Houston ISD administrators and community members touted the school’s profound turnaround—earning a passing grade on the state’s rating system for the first time in almost a decade.
“With the right support, we have changed the narrative,” interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan told the audience Aug. 15.
Despite the fanfare, one underperforming school and a Texas Education Agency investigation could shake up the district’s elected board of trustees, who do not make the day-to-day decisions of the district but are held responsible for its oversight. The state has the option to appoint a board of managers to replace the trustees, a move that has divided elected officials, community groups and parents.
“I think we need new leadership. Schools have graduated a decade full of kids who can’t read as well as they should,” said Heights resident Heather Golden, who is involved in a group advocating for district accountability and has two children in HISD.
Others say taking over the board or implementing other sanctions would be too politically charged.
“The looming takeover has not been fair and has not been transparent,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, at a an Aug. 21 rally.
Achieving a turnaround
Meanwhile, the district faces further academic hurdles, with 21 schools receiving F ratings.
Under House Bill 1842, passed in 2015, a school that receives a failing grade can trigger state intervention if it is unable to improve after five consecutive years. The failing grade is equivalent to the “improvement required,” or IR, rating issued in previous years.
“The next battleground is, No. 1, having no improvement-required schools, no IR schools,” Lathan said. “No. 2 is surpassing the performance this year for those schools out of IR.”
Kashmere did not meet standards for eight years in a row—but its challenges are not unique, district leaders said.
The schools most likely to struggle with meeting accountability standards tend to have higher enrollments of economically disadvantaged children. At schools rated F in 2019, 96% of students fit this category, compared to the overall state average of about 60%.
These students are performing two to three grade levels behind, Lathan said, in addition to facing economic and social challenges.
“We talk about educating the whole child. That’s the investment now that is needed. It not only takes the school community but it takes ... the community at large to support it,” Lathan said.
The district’s turnaround program, Achieve 180, offers social support services, teacher incentive pay and a data-focused approach to student performance at the 44 campuses that have been in IR. Most of the $17 million budgeted for Achieve 180 in 2017-18 went to incentives and salaries.
This effort also involves a combination of process—using data and sharing best educational practices—and people, Achieve 180 area superintendent Felicia Adams said.
“The leader matters, the right principals, right teachers—people who know how to take these resources and work with them,” Adams said.
Gaining, losing ground
Not only did the district move all but six schools out of IR in 2018-19, it also saw rating increases or stable grades year over year at over half of its schools. The district earned an overall rating of 88, better than Dallas and San Antonio ISDs.
“This school district has made significant educational gains for the last couple of years … that has gone unrecognized,” said Garcia, whose district includes a part of the Heights area.
At the same time, 15 previously passing schools slipped in 2019, receiving a failing grade under the accountability system. Of these and other failing schools in 2019, some suffered what Lathan called a “forced failure” because of a TEA rule that requires a campus be rated as failing if any one of its three accountability areas, based largely on test scores, receives an F.
For Wheatley High School, also in northeast Houston, a passing grade of D became an F, putting it past the five-year limit set in 2015. The district can appeal the ratings, which are not finalized until November, but Lathan said it is unlikely she will do so.
“Right now we don’t see any extenuating circumstances that would cause us to need to request an appeal as it relates to that test score,” she said.
That leaves the fate of Wheatley, and the board of trustees, in the hands of TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, who under state law must either shut down the campus or replace the school board with an appointed board of managers.
“Hopefully the TEA would consider their backgrounds, experience, expertise, including financial know-how, and get a good cross section of Houston represented,” Golden said. “But if they can demonstrate they’re with the children, that will go a long way.”
The Greater Houston Partnership, a regional business advocate, has been one vocal proponent of a board reset.
“The HISD board’s lack of focus on the kids has prevented district administrators, principals and teachers from doing their jobs,” GHP President Bob Harvey wrote in a statement to Community Impact Newspaper. “We think the board’s long-term failure to consistently support all of our schools and create opportunity for all of our children warrants new leadership.”
If ordered, a board replacement could take several months to unfold, and with trustee elections on the Nov. 5 ballot, advocacy groups say now is not the time to disengage from the district.
“The elections will still happen, and it definitely still matters who sits there,” said Jasmine Jenkins, executive director of Houstonians for Greater Public Schools, a school board watchdog group. “It’s up to both boards as to how they would work together.”
If replaced, the elected trustees can still participate in discussions as non-voting representatives, she said, and they can be in line to take over once the managers are phased out, which could occur after two years.
Even if a board of managers is not appointed, the makeup of the board is set to change. Two trustees, Jolanda Jones and Rhonda Skillern-Jones, are not running for re-election. Another two—board president Diana Davila and Sergio Lira—face challengers. They are also among the trustees a TEA investigation cited for violating the state’s open meetings law—a charge they are suing to have dismissed, at the expense of the district.
“I had told my children, I will do just this one term,” Davila told Community Impact Newspaper while she was mulling the decision. “I didn’t start the fight, but I don’t want to leave it.”