HISD administrators propose major changes for some campuses
Houston ISD administrators announced preliminary plans Thursday to close and immediately reopen six chronically low-performing schools, a process that would force hundreds of students to leave their home campus and result in the replacement of all staff in those schools.
Administrators also proposed handing over control of hiring, curriculum and governance of eight other schools to two nonprofit organizations, a concession that will allow students at those campuses to continue attending their home school.
The two proposals are being made to stave off a potential state takeover of the district’s school board, a possible punishment mandated under a new Texas law. If any district has a single school that fails to meet state academic standards for five consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency must now replace the district’s school board or close the chronically failing school.
The changes were announced during a school board meeting where district leaders also discussed early plans for tackling a projected $208.8 million budget shortfall.
Ten Houston ISD schools must all meet state standards this year to avoid triggering the law, a highly unlikely proposition. To avoid a potential state takeover of the board, district administrators are proposing major changes to the 10 schools, along with four low-performing campuses.
“The focus is not to close schools,” Houston ISD Superintendent Richard Carranza said. “The focus is to ensure our students have incredible opportunities and that we control our destiny and nobody else controls our destiny.”
The proposals would need approval of the district’s school board. A vote would likely occur in mid-April. In the meantime, district staff are planning to meet with community members and coordinate plans with the Texas Education Agency.
The six closure-and-restart schools -- Blackshear, Highland Heights, Hilliard and Wesley elementary schools, Cullen Middle School and Woodson PK-8 – would only serve limited grade levels in 2018-19.
The four elementary schools and Woodson PK-8 would offer pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, while Cullen Middle School would offer sixth grade.
Students in grade levels that aren’t served would be transferred to nearby campuses.
The six campuses would add a single grade level each year. District officials are also asking the state to allow it to serve additional grade levels in 2018-19.
The eight remaining schools would all become “partnership” campuses with outside organizations, a move that would allow Houston ISD to avoid potential state intervention for at least two years. The “partnership” campuses would still serve all grade levels.
PREVIOUSLY: HISD officials propose drastic changes at low-performing schools to avoid state takeover
Under preliminary plans, Dogan and Mading elementary schools would partner with Children’s Learning Institute at University of Texas Health. Henry Middle School and Kashmere, Madison, North Forest, Wheatley and Worthing high schools would partner with Talent Development Secondary, a Baltimore-based nonprofit.
“We’re at a crossroads,” said Houston ISD Trustee Wanda Adams, whose district includes two of the 14 schools. “We really don’t know what the solution should be, but we know what we have to do.”
Dealing with the law
District officials selected campuses for closure-and-restart or partnerships based on academic offerings in the school’s feeder pattern and recommendations from a committee analyzing magnet programming in the district. Houston ISD administrators had initially proposed making major changes to 15 schools, instead of 14. They removed Lawson Middle School from the list Thursday.
The 14 schools are all in high-poverty areas, and nearly all serve predominately black or Hispanic student populations. In the past few decades, campus closures have been largely concentrated in those areas, a pattern that trustees want to avoid repeating.
“This is difficult,” Houston ISD Trustee Jolanda Jones said. “We’re trying to save our black and brown schools, because last time we did this, those are the schools that got closed.”
The dramatic proposals have been forced by the new law, known as HB 1842, which passed in 2015 with support from 85 percent of the Texas Legislature. Twenty-six districts across Texas face the punishments outlined in HB 1842, including Dallas, San Antonio and Waco ISDs.
Proponents of the law said it would force school districts to address the lowest-performing schools after years of neglect. Opponents in Houston have argued the punishments are draconian given that Houston ISD has about 280 schools, yet a single chronically-failing school could trigger a state takeover of the board.
Houston ISD administrators had already implemented changes at all 14 schools, along with 31 other campuses, through a district program called Achieve 180. Those schools have received additional support designed to address students’ non-academic needs, and some campuses have seen dramatic staff turnover.
Administrators have said they’re seeing progress at the 10 schools that could trigger the new state law, but “we know it’s going to be hard” for all of them to meet state standards, Houston ISD Chief Academic Officer Grenita Lathan said.
‘Shocking’ budget cuts
The proposed changes came after Houston ISD officials offered more details Thursday for how they plan to address the projected shortfall in the district’s $1.9 billion budget. Teacher layoffs, a reduction in bus routes and fewer school district police officers are all among the cuts under consideration.
The impact on campuses could be drastic. Almost all custodians to be cut, with schools cleaned a couple times per week rather than every day. The number of campuses with an assigned Houston ISD police officer could fall from 89 to 24. Bus routes could be drastically reduced, only sparing special education and homeless students’ routes in some cases.
Administrators haven’t estimated the number of teacher layoffs that could occur. About 2,000 to 2,200 teachers leave the district annually, but attrition likely wouldn’t cover all the needed cuts.
The proposals are all preliminary and could change as the district seeks input from staff and community members. But the $208.8 million deficit is real, as will the pain closing it will likely cause.
“What you’re going to see today may be shocking in some ways,” Carranza said.
Houston ISD Chief Financial Officer Rene Barajas told the board there’s an option to increase its revenues: hold a Tax Ratification Election, or TRE, to increase its property taxes from the current rate of about $1.20 per $100 of a home’s value to $1.33. That would cost roughly $200 a year for property owners with a taxable value of about $200,000, and bring in an estimated $119 million for the district.
CARRANZA: HISD faces changes, challenges in financial storm
Houston ISD Trustee Sue Deigaard said it would likely be an uphill battle to pass such a tax.
“I find it striking and frustrating that every year it’s about what can we cut instead of finding efficiencies,” Deigaard said. “I do not understand how we can go to the public for a TRE until we give them confidence we’re been as efficient as we can be with our money.”