Feb. 16, 2005, 3:26PM
HISD Can't Fix 3 Schools
Saavedra hopes his plan to give outsiders control turns the troubled campuses around
By JASON SPENCER
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
Superintendent Abe Saavedra delivers the State of the Schools speech at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Tuesday. The Houston schools chief announced Tuesday he would consider giving outsiders control of the city's three lowest-performing high schools to accomplish what the school system hasn't been able to do on its own.
When the next school year begins in the fall, Yates, Kashmere and Sam Houston high schools will be operated by someone other than Houston Independent School District administrators, according to the plan introduced by Superintendent Abe Saavedra. He unveiled the proposal before 2,000 business and community leaders during the annual State of the Schools speech at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Saavedra said he is open to offers from nonprofit and for-profit groups, and HISD employees. That could include universities, school reform companies such as New York City-based Edison Schools, or local nonprofits, such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) or Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), both of which have a presence in HISD.
In his first such speech since taking over the 209,000-student district in December, Saavedra also promised:
•More pre-kindergarten classes for low-income children and tuition-based pre-kindergarten for those who can afford it.
•Less standardized testing.
•Zero tolerance for cheating on tests.
The three high schools marked for takeover have worn the state's "low-performing" label since 2001, despite leadership changes and other HISD-based reform initiatives.
"These redesigned schools must be fundamentally different from what exists today," Saavedra said. "The reform groups that take over these schools will have to correct the deficiencies, raise academic standards, redesign management practices, improve capacity among staff members or replace staff, and engage parents in the process."
Trustees back takeover
The admission that HISD is out of in-house ideas to turn the troubled schools around comes two years after it was named the top urban school district in America by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.
School board trustees will vote Thursday on whether to let Saavedra seek offers from groups willing to take over the high schools that have a collective student body of about 5,000. Several trustees, including board President Dianne Johnson, said they like the idea.
"It's bold," she said. "We're not going to have students stuck in low-performing schools."
Other urban school districts have taken similarly drastic steps to overhaul chronically under-performing schools, though many have been school systems in financial and academic crisis.
The School District of Philadelphia has hired a handful of groups, including Kaplan, Drexel University and the Princeton Review, to manage 16 high schools beginning next school year. Private companies already run 54 of Philadelphia's elementary and middle schools.
Some parents have promised to oppose Saavedra's idea.
"It is an awful thing," said Arva Howard, the mother of a Yates freshman and the vice president of Parents for Public Schools. "It is an unfair thing and it's something we will fight."
Yates' problems, she said, are the result of a long history of mismanagement and a lack of adequate resources. Howard said parents have been pleased with first-year Principal George August and she questioned Saavedra's priorities in light of the recent opening of a school exclusively for over-school-age immigrants.
"It's interesting that immigrants can come in and get a fully equipped school, but the children of taxpaying citizens cannot," Howard said.
Mercedes Alejandro, president of Parents for Public Schools, said she may support bringing in an outside organization to run the schools, but questioned Saavedra's timing. It was only last week that the school board approved Saavedra's plan to reorganize the school district administration, a move that Alejandro had hoped would improve the weaker schools.
Still, most trustees agreed something drastic must be done to get Yates, Sam Houston and Kashmere on track.
"We have given everyone involved ample time to remedy the situation," said trustee Kevin Hoffman, who represents Kashmere. "We have to act now on behalf of the students."
Targeting feeder schools
Mike Feinberg, a Houston teacher who co-founded KIPP more than a decade ago, said the organization would only be interested in an arrangement that would give it control of all the elementary and middle schools that feed into the high schools.
"Four years is not enough time to bring kids from where they're performing to the highest levels," Feinberg said. "The problems with Yates, Sam Houston and Kashmere do not start in ninth grade."
KIPP, which operates 38 schools nationally and plans to open nine more this summer, opened its first high school, a charter school, in Houston last fall. KIPP schools specialize in raising performance of urban students by using long class days and weekend studies.
Feinberg's sentiments were echoed by Chris Barbic, head of the three successful YES College Preparatory Schools in Houston.
"The way you ensure high schools perform well is by having great middle schools," said Barbic, who added that he won't be submitting a proposal to HISD.
Saavedra said he's open to proposals that include control of the feeder schools.
Yates and Sam Houston already host Houston-based Project GRAD programs, as do the schools in their feeder patterns. The organization does not manage the schools but offers its own curriculum, requires schools to impose strict disciplinary policies and promises college-bound graduates $1,000 annual scholarships.
Although some HISD trustees and administrators have recently raised questions about Project GRAD's effectiveness, the reform group is considering a takeover proposal, said executive director Roy Hughes.
Whoever gets the contract, it will likely be several years before any of the schools show significant progress, said Robert Wimpelberg, dean of the College of Education at the University of Houston.
"It takes at least six or seven years in a secondary school ... for demonstrable change that is institutionalized," he said. "This is a tall order, and starting with schools that are behind the eight ball is part of the challenge."