Shared from the 11/10/2019 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Despite troubles, HISD still scores well

Compared to peers, district is stable and outpaces most on multiple measures

Steve Gonzales / Staff photographer

Cristal Soto teaches her middle school art class at Houston ISD’s Pilgrim Academy, which received a B grade from the state.


Sixth-grader Sulema Juarez reads a book at Pilgrim Academy, one of 280 schools in Houston ISD. The state plans to replace the school board in the coming months.

Steve Gonzales / Staff photographer

Students wait in the hallway between classes at Pilgrim Academy, where many students come from low-income and immigrant families.

Pilgrim Academy eighth-grader Printis Stevens has big dreams of becoming a forensic anthropologist, turning her fascination with science into a job that helps law enforcement investigators solve crimes and bring closure to families.

Her love of science gets cultivated each day in the bright, high-ceilinged classroom of Christopher Hua, an energetic, Johns Hopkins-educated teacher now in his fourth year at the Houston ISD campus. Students and the school’s principal, Diana Castillo, lavish praise on Hua for his ability to relate with students and willingness to spend after-hours time with kids.

“He’s not like a regular teacher,” said Printis, now in her second year at the west Houston campus. “He understands our point of view, how difficult things can be. He’ll take it from our perspective, and try his best way to teach us.”

Under the leadership of Castillo and teachers such as Hua, Pilgrim Academy ranks as one of the best campuses in HISD, home to 209,000 students and 280 schools. Pilgrim has earned back-to-back B grades from the state, a notable accomplishment given that nearly all of its students come from lower-income families and many immigrated to the U.S. with little knowledge of the English language.

For all of HISD’s well-documented foibles over the past two years — the abrupt departure of a superintendent, a state investigation into allegations of trustee misconduct, the failure to raise achievement at several long-struggling schools — the performance of campuses like Pilgrim has helped HISD retain its status as one of the nation’s better large, urban school districts.

Compared to its peer districts throughout the country, HISD outpaces most of them by multiple measures, with higher scores on the Nation’s Report Card, SAT and Advanced Placement exams. The nation’s seventh-largest school district also maintains a solid financial footing despite funding challenges in recent years.

“My clear impression is that (HISD) is doing better than people think,” said Cathy Mincberg, who served on the district’s board of trustees from 1982 to 1995 and now works as president and CEO of the Center for Reform of School Systems. “There’s been decades of focusing on good teaching, good curriculum, all the right stuff happening at the classroom level. Once you get that in teachers’ heads, it doesn’t go away. They’re really good despite the noise at the top.”

As state officials set in motion plans to replace HISD’s school board in the coming months — the result of Wheatley High School’s repeated low academic ratings and substantiated findings of wrongdoing by trustees — the new governing team will encounter a rarity in the annals of state interventions: a relatively stable, well-performing school district.

Dramatic state interventions typically have been limited to districts with widespread academic issues, extensive financial mismanagement or pervasive corruption. They include Detroit Public Schools, El Paso ISD, Newark Public Schools and The School District of Philadelphia.

“This is a unique and really puzzling type of development compared to what takeover has usually been used for,” said Domingo Morel, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University who has tracked about 100 state interventions in school districts nationwide. “This doesn’t fit into the other types of examples we’ve seen across the country.”

Nevertheless, a state law enacted in 2015 mandates that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath replace HISD’s school board or close historic Wheatley after the Fifth Ward campus received its seventh consecutive failing grade in August. Morath chose to oust the school board Wednesday after TEA officials denied an appeal of Wheatley’s rating.

Morath also concluded that HISD’s board should be replaced following a nine-month inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing by trustees. TEA investigators determined some board members violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, misled state officials conducting the inquiry and improperly interfered with vendor contracts. Trustees have accused TEA officials of conducting a biased and slipshod investigation.

In a letter to HISD officials, Morath said the move is necessary “to prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students or to the public interest.”

The district also suffers from dozens of shortcomings in administration, governance and oversight, according to ascathing Texas Legislative Budget Board performance review released Friday that recommended nearly 100 operational changes.

Amid the tumult, local residents and district staff say HISD has remained steady. Through interviews with the Chronicle and surveys completed during HISD’s superintendent search earlier this year, they described a school district led by staff who valiantly grapple with limited resources and the deleterious effects of poverty on students. Those efforts have contributed to HISD reducing its number of “failing” schools, as determined by the state, from 58 to 21 in the past four years.

“My daughter has been challenged ever since elementary school,” said Pedro Ayazagoitia, whose daughter is a junior at Heights High School, one of the district’s most academically and demographically representative campuses. “She’s struggled in some courses and excelled in some courses. It hasn’t been easy, but there’s so many different paths they can take in high school.”

At the same time, HISD still performs at below-average rates nationally across virtually every academic metric. Wide achievement gaps permeate the district, leaving tens of thousands of lower-income, black and Hispanic children unprepared for life after high school. Several campuses chronically underperform, ranking near the bottom of the state on standardized tests year after year. Historically, only one-fourth of HISD graduates enroll in college and earn an associates or bachelor’s degree within six years.

In a sign of dissatisfaction with their neighborhood options, more than 100,000 students living within district boundaries transfer to other HISD campuses, attend a charter school or enroll in a private academy.

“My son is in the JROTC, and they’re teaching him discipline and respect, but I wish they would have more programs for students to be more hands-on,” said Ruben Longoria Jr., whose son is a junior at Wheatley. “There’s several kids in our neighborhood who were scared to come here because they’re worried about getting picked on. They went to the north side or further out. It’d be great if they didn’t have to.”

‘In the upper half’

Like many of the nation’s largest urban school districts, HISD faces immense challenges in preparing students for college and the workforce. Many of those hurdles stem from the effects of intergenerational poverty, as well as policymakers’ failure to create the conditions necessary for overcoming societal inequities.

To date, no traditional urban school district successfully has closed achievement gaps and produced outstanding academic results for masses of lower-income children.

“I haven’t seen any large, urban district in the country nail it,” Mincberg said. “We’ve seen some episodic things. For example, KIPP and YES Prep, which began in HISD. I think the charters have been very good in recruiting poor kids, but also finding families that really are invested. We don’t see that all the time in public schools.”

Some of the nation’s biggest districts have reported better results than others, largely due to the quality of state policies, local leadership and availability of resources. Boston, Chicago and Miami frequently draw praise from leading educators and perform well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered to students in 27 of the country’s largest districts.

Students in HISD score at below-average rates on the NAEP compared to the rest of the nation, which is significantly wealthier and whiter than Texas’ largest school district.

However, HISD performs relatively well when compared to four of its closest peer districts: Dallas ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Los Angeles Unified School District and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. All serve a majority-Hispanic student population, enroll at least 85,000 students and report median parental incomes of less than $50,000.

Among those five, Houston scored second-best in 2019 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, trailing only Miami-Dade. The test, commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card, ranks among the most respected methods for judging district- and state-level student performance.

“It’s very hard to compare urban districts because student populations vary so much … but when we adjust for those, Houston tends to land in the upper half of school districts for academic performance,” said Kristin Blagg, who has analyzed NAEP results in the context of demographics as a research associate for the Urban Institute.

HISD also ranked in the upper half of the five similar districts on multiple other metrics, including average SAT score, average ACT score, percentage of students scoring 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams and chronic student absenteeism. HISD did report the lowest four-year graduation rate — about 80 percent — among the five districts in 2018.

From A to F

While HISD performs relatively well compared to its peers, the district still harbors significant achievement gaps among campuses.

Schools located on the city’s wealthier northwest and west sides, as well as campuses with large numbers of students transferring in through HISD’s choice system, mostly rank well above district and state averages under Texas’ academic accountability framework.

Some secondary choice campuses enroll a disproportionately high share of affluent students, including the renowned trio of DeBakey High School for Health Professions, Carnegie Vanguard High School and Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Other choice schools, however, boast fantastic results while serving mostly lower-income children.

Those include Eastwood Academy, Houston Academy for International Studies and the district’s four early college high schools. At those campuses, nearly all students enroll in college after graduation.

Among elementary and middle schools, pockets of success among less-affluent students exist across the district, often the result of strong and stable campus staffing. At HISD’s Burbank Middle School, an A-rated campus where nearly all students qualify for free or reduced lunch, eight of the northside school’s nine administrators have worked there for several years. Principal David Knittle replaces about 15 percent of the school’s teachers each year, significantly better than the average district turnover rate of roughly 25 percent.

“There’s not one thing I could pinpoint that I’d say is what makes this school successful,” said Knittle, now in his fourth year leading Burbank and 13th year overall at the campus. “Having the high-quality teacher is number one. But you also have to create an environment and expectation where that work can happen.”

Still, dozens of schools serving children of color in impoverished neighborhoods continue to post poor results.

Among the district’s 12 lowest-rated high schools, fewer than one-third of seniors graduated on time in 2017 and enrolled in college the following fall. Most who made it to college needed remedial courses during their freshman year.

At the elementary and middle school level, about 35 percent of HISD campuses have received at least one failing grade in the past five years under the state’s academic accountability system. Roughly 5 percent of Texas schools receive such a designation annually.

“It’s not like children can’t make it,” said Shawn Rushing, who serves on decision-making committees at Madison High School and Lawson Middle School on the city’s south side, where many campuses rate among the lowest in HISD. “Everybody involved needs to have the highest level of empathy and understanding for children, to create strategies to raise their intelligence and importance of education for children.”

Praise and criticism

For HISD parents, the district’s ability to maintain its relatively strong standing rests with the dedication and talent of rank-and-file employees.

When the superintendent search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates surveyed hundreds of HISD residents and staff earlier this year, the company’s president said many highlighted HISD’s 11,000-plus educators and 14,000 support staff as “one of your greatest resources.” Residents also praised HISD for its multitude of options available to families, personalized instruction strategies, focus on turning around chronically low-performing schools and diverse student population.

Those surveyed, however, had several criticisms of the district, including school board dysfunction, inequitable distribution of resources among schools, a lack of transparent communication with parents and a shortage of social and emotional supports for children.

Michelle Perez, the mother of three students in HISD schools on the city’s north side, said Houston-area friends typically wince when she mentions her children attend classes in the district. The reaction, Perez said, does not match her experience in HISD, where her kids have benefited from access to diligent teachers, free prekindergarten classes and extensive extracurriculars like mariachi band.

Still, Perez said the district could use smaller class sizes and more stable leadership.

“I’ve definitely noticed there’s been a lot of superintendents over the past five years,” Perez said earlier this month after a ribbon-cutting for the new 360,000-square-foot building at Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center, where her son is a junior. “It takes years to get settled, and I do worry that they’re making the right choices for kids.”

Castillo, the 14th-year principal of Pilgrim Academy, said HISD’s leadership and governance challenges have not yet significantly impacted the day-to-day education of her 1,100-plus students, crediting her campus staff for maintaining its strong work amid the district-level commotion.

“We maintain our focus, we want to do what’s best for kids, and that’s all that matters,” Castillo said. “We’re a huge district. There’s so many good things that are going on, and I hope that we’re given a chance.” jacob.carpenter@

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