By ERICKA MELLON | Houston Chronicle
June 6, 2008
The closure of Sam Houston High School boiled down to math.
Officials with the Houston Independent School District say they tried to solve the problem — spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix it — but for five straight years, Sam Houston could not get a small group of black students to pass the state-mandated math exam.
Now, after state Education Commissioner Robert Scott forced the predominantly Hispanic school to close Thursday, some are criticizing Texas' accountability system as too harsh — mandating drastic action based on a few students. Others say the blame lies with HISD for letting the poor performance continue.
This year, only 29 percent of the black students at Sam Houston passed the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. Half the Hispanic students passed, which would have been just good enough to qualify for the state's acceptable rating, if not for the black students' passing rate.
"In one sense, closing the whole school is a very heavy-handed response," said Ed Fuller, an education researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. "But then again, you have this five-year track record of poor math performance."
Numbers behind the scores
Among Sam Houston's 2,500 or so students, only about 110 are black. Most of the others are Hispanic, and about 65 white students attend.
For school officials, talking about the performance of one student group is tough, and raising test scores can be tougher.
"You have to be very careful with singling out groups of kids at the high school level," said Kelly Trlica, HISD's assistant superintendent over secondary curriculum and instruction. "Any group of students, to sort of single them out, is hard socially," she said
HISD might have another chance with Sam Houston, though. Commissioner Scott has said the district can submit a plan to reopen the school in the fall with a new principal, mostly new teachers, some new students, a different academic program and a fresh name.
As district leaders craft that plan, due to the school board Thursday, some are warning district leaders to learn from their mistakes.
"People of other races always feel like they have the best solution for the teaching and learning of African-American students when they don't even understand the total concept of African-American culture and the environment which these young people of today live in," said Carol Mims Galloway, a Houston school board member and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Houston.
Valerie Hill-Jackson, an assistant education professor at Texas A&M University, said teachers need to learn how to connect with black students.
"We know this is a culture that is very vibrant, exuberant, likes to talk," said Hill-Jackson, who is black. "So, if I'm a math and science teacher, how can I use that to my advantage? I can have them get out of their seats."
Julia Guajardo, Sam Houston's executive principal, and Trlica said school officials made serious efforts to boost the test scores of all students, no matter their race. Teachers assessed which students were having difficulty with the same math concepts and then tutored them in small groups.
Working on a solution
The school also adopted a new computerized math program called Agile Mind and worked with consultants from the respected Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Still, only 17 of the 59 black students tested — or 29 percent — passed the math exam this year. That's up slightly from 24 percent last year.
The passing rate of Hispanic students increased from 46 percent to 51 percent.
Gloria White, managing director of the Dana Center, characterized the math gains at Sam Houston as "small forward progress." She emphasized that a major turnaround takes at least three years and that consultants only started working with Sam Houston teachers last year.
"You need collaboration time with the teachers," White said. "It's a process. It's not an event. Sometimes you see some movement in the first year, but it's not anything you can count on."
Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, when he announced the news of Sam Houston's closure Thursday, called the state's accountability system "antiquated," in part because it doesn't take into account the progress made by schools.
On the language arts test this year, for example, the passing rates of black students at Sam Houston jumped 17 points to 84 percent.
Marina Mendoza, the president of the parent group at Sam Houston, said she was shocked to hear some people, who weren't aware of the problems with black students' scores, suggest the campus performed poorly because of illegal immigrants at the school.
"I thought that was so unfair," said Mendoza, who has two children at the school. "We should never look at this as a racial problem. It's an educational problem."