Shared from the 8/9/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

My school’s F rating was wrongly given

Garrett Reed

Wisdom High School teacher Garrett Reed, right, stands with former student Romaric Compare, an immigrant from Burkina Faso.

Earlier this summer, Children at Risk made public its annual A-F ratings of Texas public schools in the State of Texas. In the press conference, Robert Sanborn, the nonprofit’s director, honored the top A-rated schools, awarded staff with certificates, and shared encouraging comments about a job well done.

I was happy to see high-performing schools and teachers publicly honored — we need more of that — but I could not help feeling angry at the F rating assigned to the hardworking school where I teach.

Upon delving into the methodology and the data used to calculate the F rating, I was shocked to find significant holes. My school — Houston ISD’s Margaret Wisdom High, formerly Lee High School — fell into one of them.

We’re located in southwest Houston, near Richmond and Hillcroft, an area famously home to new immigrants and refugees. Sixty-five percent of our students — more than 1,100 kids — are in our English as a Second Language program.

I teach beginning ESL. Over the past 24 years, I have taught students from at least 50 different countries; they speak scores of languages. Often my students migrated to the U.S. to escape war, persecution or social breakdown in their home countries. As a rule, immigrant and refugee students arrive at our high school with interrupted or no formal education.

Students show up at Wisdom’s front door at any time during the academic year — whenever it is that they’ve been released from ICE custody or liberated from refugee camps to make their way to America. About a third of them arrive weeks or months into the academic school year.

We don’t ask these late arrivals to sign a lottery list or direct them to some other school or ask that they come back in August when school starts. We welcome them with open arms, give them uniforms, and set them up with schedules. We test to find their academic levels, give them information on social services and place them in appropriate classes.

As students pour in, there are no unassigned “free” teachers waiting in the ranks to take on the newcomers. It’s not uncommon for my classes to double in size by the spring semester.

But that’s what Wisdom High does: Dedicated, experienced teachers deal with constant new arrivals like doctors in a “M*A*S*H” unit. Under stressful circumstances, staff embrace incoming students and work double-time to bring them up to speed. Trying to catch up, our students work double-time, too, attending after-school and weekend tutorials.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to learn English in a matter of weeks or months — and certainly not to read and write it at the level required to pass the barrage of high-stakes state tests and graduate in the required four years.

Children at Risk’s website says that it bases its school rankings and grades “on student achievement on standardized tests, student growth year-to-year, and how well schools support economically disadvantaged students.”

That sounds fine. But what about newly arrived students with little or no English-language skills? For grades 3 through 5, Texas’ state standardized tests are available in Spanish. Children at Risk, to its credit, includes those tests in its calculations. But kids who speak languages other than Spanish or who come to our country after grade 5 must take the tests in English.

By not analyzing English language learners separately, Children at Risk leaves out a factor that’s especially important here in Houston. According to the Texas Education Agency, 30 percent of HISD kids are designated as English language learners. These students are not outliers or statistical anomalies; rather, they are a significant portion of the district’s students.

To be fair, Children at Risk accounts for impoverished students — a designation that covers 95 percent of Wisdom’s students — but if poverty were the only obstacle that immigrant and refugee kiddos had to deal with, our rating would unquestionably be higher. (Preliminary HISD data indicates that the Texas Education Agency will give Wisdom a C or C+ this year.)

But really, the question isn’t just whether the rankings and grades should consider English language learners. The question is whether those interested in supporting our most vulnerable students should spend so much of their time and energy rating schools. Using brute data to rate schools that serve at-risk children objectifies kids, and it completely misses the enormous number of social, emotional and linguistic nuances that affect academic progress.

I invite the Children at Risk staff to my school, to connect in a real way with Houston’s newest Americans. I challenge them to sit with refugees from war-ravaged counties and assist these students in finding their first words of English. I invite them to accompany me to share ameal with an Afghan, Syrian or Congolese family newly settled in a Gulfton apartment — to hear their hopes, dreams and desires in our great country.

I agree that teachers and schools need to be held accountable, and that the public should see a quantifiable measure of progress. But the measures we use must be accurate and humane. All of our schools and students deserve that.

Reed teaches English as a Second Language at Wisdom High School.

See this article in the e-Edition Here
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