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On schools and neighborhoods

Efforts to revitalize neighborhoods in the Fifth Ward are running into HISD’s proposal to close five schools.

Nearly half the students who attend Nathaniel Q. Henderson Elementary School live steps away from campus in an aging, rundown apartment complex. The neighborhood, in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, is at a crossroads.

The city is seeking a federal grant to help fund a multimillion-dollar makeover of Cleme Manor Apartments, even as school district officials consider closing N.Q. Henderson Elementary due to low enrollment.

Parents and elected officials in the area say they see a contradiction, with the high-poverty neighborhood northeast of downtown teetering between deterioration and revitalization.

“If there’s no school, how am I going to draw more people in this area?” City Councilman Jerry Davis asked the school board this month. “We need to work together. We can’t have one entity going out doing good works and not the other.”

Henderson Elementary is one of five campuses on HISD’s potential closure list. After hearing from the public at a series of meetings, the district plans to reveal any changes to the proposal next week. The school board is set to vote March 13.

One of HISD’s smallest elementary schools, Henderson enrolls roughly 360 students. About 170 live at Cleme Manor Apartments, a development for low-income tenants on Coke Street, a crosswalk away from Henderson.

In early February, the city’s housing department gave notice that it is seeking final approval for a $3 million federal grant to renovate Cleme Manor. The project, according to the notice, would promote affordable housing and “encourage economic revitalization for Houston’s near north-side.” The funds would come from a grant dedicated to recovery after Hurricane Ike.


The city also is considering pursuing a federal grant to help fund more than 160 single-family homes that would be scattered across the Fifth Ward, said Stedman Grigsby of the Housing and Community Development Department.

Justin Silhavy, the demographer for the Houston Independent School District, said he is in regular contact with city officials and knows about the planned projects. However, he said, he doesn’t expect the number of children in the general area to grow significantly.

Several schools around Henderson Elementary also are underpopulated. HISD’s rezoning plan could help fill Pugh and Bruce elementary schools – each less than two miles from Henderson – though students could end up choosing to attend other campuses under the district’s transfer policy.

See here and here for the background on HISD’s plan. For this part of the plan, HISD would send Henderson students to two other nearby schools, both of which are also underpopulated. The problem is that the area has been steadily losing people for years now. I believe the Fifth Ward is ripe for the kind of redevelopment we’ve seen in Midtown and EaDo, but I have no idea what the timeframe is for that, and there’s no guarantee that will lead to an increase in the kid population. So I get why HISD is proposing these closures – as the Chron editorialized, the objective case is good, but community engagement has been sorely lacking. Even then, it’s a tough thing to close schools. The effect on a neighborhood where a couple hundred kids already attend a given school is profound and disruptive, and in this case is in conflict with the larger goal of attracting people back to that neighborhood. I’d like to know what an alternate plan, one that involves investing in these schools to entice students, perhaps students that don’t currently attend an HISD school, to enroll there might look like before I’d be willing to sign off on closing them.

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