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Children at Risk

One less food desert

From the inbox:

With high hopes of more to come, Mayor Annise Parker, Council Members Stephen Costello and Dwight Boykins, the Houston Redevelopment Authority (HRA) and others broke ground on the first project to target a Houston food desert. With financial assistance from the city, Pyburn’s owner John Vuong is building a first-class grocery store to serve South Union and surrounding neighborhoods. The store is scheduled to open the first quarter of 2015.

“An estimated two-thirds of Houstonians are overweight or obese and a high percentage of them live in food deserts with no access to fresh food,” said Mayor Parker. “This forces families in these areas to rely on unhealthy processed or fatty foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. I am excited that we are able to take the first step to address this problem that impacts the overall health of our residents and am confident there will be additional opportunities for grocery stores in other food desert areas in Houston.”

“Everyone should have access to fresh food, no matter the zip code,” said council member Costello. “I am grateful to the Vuongs for recognizing the need and reconfirming their commitment to serving the community. Pyburn’s will not only provide fresh meat and produce to South Union, but will also create jobs for our city’s youth and spur economic development in an area ripe for more industry.”

Vuong and his family own and operate 11 stores, nine of which are located in Houston. They have extensive experience operating in low to moderate income areas. The new venture, which must create a minimum of 25 jobs, will be the next generation of the company’s stores, named Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods. The funding agreement with the city requires that the store be designed to provide customers with a shopping experience equal to that of grocery stores in high income areas of Houston. In addition, there is room at the site for additional complementary development. The loan agreement prohibits uses inconsistent with community revitalization, such as liquor stores and pay-day loan establishments.

“My family purchased the land at Scott and Corder over eight years ago and this opportunity to partner with the City of Houston allows us to realize our dream of bringing healthy fresh food choices to South Union and the surrounding communities,” said Voung. “We are humbled by this opportunity to invest, serve and bring over 25 new jobs to this community.”

Council member Dwight Boykins is excited the new store will be located in his council district. “As a child growing up on welfare, my walk to school took me by this site,” said Boykins. “I am thankful to the mayor, the Voung family and all the other people who worked so hard to secure this opportunity for my community.”

“Everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase healthy food for their family,” said Yael Lehmann, Executive Director of The Food Trust. “We applaud this initiative by the City of Houston to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas,” said.”

The City is providing a performance-based loan of $1.7 million for predevelopment, land acquisition, construction and equipment. The total project cost is estimated to be $3.7 million. Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to the Houston Redevelopment Authority for economic development projects will be used for the project. Funding is available for additional projects and HRA will work with potential partners on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for building or revitalizing grocery stores in food desert areas.

To combat food deserts in Houston, which has fewer grocery stores per capita than most large cities in the country, the Mayor, partnering with Council Member Costello, The Food Trust and Children At Risk, created the Houston Grocery Access Task Force in 2011. At the end of 2012, the Task Force issued their report, Roadmap for Encouraging Grocery Development in Houston and Texas. Economic development tools, such as performance-based loans, were highlighted as key opportunities to increasing access to fresh food. The report can be accessed here.

The Chron story is here. We first heard about this proposal in December. Council passed an update to its ordinance about the minimum distance a retailer that sells beer and wine must be from schools and churches in January to allow supermarkets to be built in some places where they would otherwise have been forbidden. Here’s a Google map link to where this Pyburn’s Farm Fresh Foods is going up. According to CultureMap, the closest existing grocery store is an HEB at Scott and Old Spanish Trail 1.2 miles away. That’s not that far, but if you live south of Corder it could get to be a bit of a hike, especially if you depend on public transportation. Be that as it may, I think it’s a good thing to encourage this kind of development in parts of the city that don’t have it regardless of whether there are any associated health benefits to it. I do hope someone is going to follow up with a study, however, because if there really are health benefits we as a country should pursue this kind of development more aggressively, and if there aren’t we should at least be careful to not make dishonest arguments in favor of it.

More reactions to the city’s settlement with the strip clubs

Not everyone likes it.

Bob Sanborn, CEO of the nonprofit organization Children at Risk, and other advocates against human trafficking said on Wednesday that they should have been consulted before a deal was struck.

Mayor Annise Parker, who brokered the agreement, said it ended a lengthy lawsuit and gives the city more funds to fight trafficking.

“We settled a 16-year-old lawsuit and it’s unfortunate that they don’t agree with my decision,” Parker said. “I don’t think we should get sidetracked by those folks who simply don’t like the adult entertainment industry.”

Sanborn said his group wants to make sure the city is committed to going after traffickers, even if they are connected to those topless clubs making yearly payments to the city. Children at Risk also wants the city to license or close almost 300 other unlicensed sexually oriented businesses, like some massage parlors and cantinas.

“Houston is a hub for human trafficking; some would say we are ‘the hub’ for trafficking,” Sanborn said during a news conference. “This is the wrong deal and it’s certainly the wrong city.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t think the city was required to consult with anyone on the settlement terms of this 16-years-long litigation, and if their goal was to bring that case to a reasonably satisfactory close then the last thing they would want to do is involve more parties in the negotiations. That said, the city clearly did at least run the terms of the deal past the other groups that were present at their own press conference. I don’t know if the city included Children at Risk on the list of those it notified about the settlement or not – perhaps they did and [email protected] chose not to attend that press conference, and perhaps they had a smaller list of invitees in mind. I think the terms are acceptable, and I think it makes sense for the city to try to get the bigger clubs to voluntarily cooperate so they can concentrate on the more marginal players. Licensing and enforcement is a matter of resources, and the city hopes that this settlement will allow it to deploy its resources more efficiently. Check back in a year or two and we’ll see how that’s going. As for the complaints raised by some Council members about the settlement, well, that’s just how it is. As there was no payout to be made by the city in the deal, there was nothing for Council to approve, so there was no role for them to play. There’s not much more to it than that.

One more thing:

Sanborn noted that Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and District Attorney Devon Anderson support Children at Risk’s anti-trafficking efforts and read statements from each.

“Prostitution is not a victimless crime,” according to Garcia’s statement. “It’s a greedy industry that thrives on forced labor, drug addiction and sometimes even illegal imprisonment.”

The story, especially the headlines, gives the impression that Sheriff Garcia and DA Anderson were standing with Sanborn, [email protected], and the other groups in criticizing the settlement. We don’t know what Anderson said, but that clip from Garcia’s statement isn’t specific to the deal. Out of curiosity, I contacted the Sheriff’s office to ask about this, and was informed that Sheriff Garcia was not making a comment on the city’s deal with the strip clubs, and has not made any comment on that deal. Like I said, that wasn’t clear – to me, at least – from the story, so now you know.

HISD graduation rate up

Good news.

Terry Grier

Students in the Houston Independent School District are graduating at a higher rate for the fourth straight year, thanks in part to better tracking and online make-up courses, Superintendent Terry Grier said Monday.

The district reported a graduation rate of 78.5 percent for the Class of 2011, up 4 percentage points from the prior year and 14 points from 2007.

“This is big-time news,” said Grier, who joined HISD in 2009. “To see this type of improvement in our school district, I think it has major implications for our city.”

Grier attributed the improved graduation numbers partly to school committees that meet weekly to track students who drop out – visiting their homes in some cases – or are at risk of dropping out. He also said his “grad lab” program, which allows students to recover credits at a quicker pace through online courses, has helped.

HISD graduated more than 9,000 students last year, up from nearly 7,000 four years ago. The number of dropouts fell to 1,364, from nearly 2,400 in 2007.

Grier has made raising the graduation rate and lowering the dropout rate centerpieces of his administration, so I’m sure he’s delighted to tout these numbers. As we know, there’s more than one way to measure this statistic, but by either metric HISD is moving in the right direction. Ensuring that every kid can pass the exit exams and be ready for what comes after high school is the next step, but we can celebrate this first. Hair Balls has more.

On calculating graduation rates

The Texas Education Agency publishes graduation rates for all Texas public schools every year. Some people and organizations disagree with their methodology, saying they assume too many departing students wind up in school elsewhere or are homeschooled rather than counting them as dropouts. One such objector is Children At Risk, and they released their own report this past week.

Based on the most recent data, 61 percent of low-income students in Harris County public schools graduated, compared with 72 percent of those from wealthier families, according to the study. The rates reflect students who entered ninth grade in 2004 and graduated by 2010.

Children at Risk used data from the Texas Education Agency to calculate its own graduation rates because the researchers believe the agency’s publicly reported numbers don’t count all the dropouts.

For example, [Children At Risk President Bob] Sanborn said, he is skeptical when districts report to the TEA that numerous students leave after their freshman year to attend private school, to be home-schooled or to return to their native country. The state doesn’t require proof the students enrolled in new schools – and doesn’t know if they end up graduating – so Children at Risk counts them as dropouts.

Officials with the TEA and several local school districts strongly defended the state’s higher graduation rate calculation, arguing that the Children at Risk method punishes schools by counting as dropouts students who leave for legitimate reasons such as moving out of state or the country.

I don’t see Children At Risk’s report on their website, but K-12 Zone has their listing. I suppose you can see the two as the upper and lower bounds on graduation rates, since no one can ever be sure what happened to every kid that leaves a school before finishing it. Which one is closer to the truth, that’s the question. It sure would be nice to be more certain about this. In any event, the good news is that the trends are upward, though they’re still not where you’d want them to be. With the new exit exams coming, the concern is they’re in for a fall. However you tote up the numbers, we need to keep an eye on them.

More on mental health

Stephen Schnee, the executive director of MHMRA of Harris County, and Octavio N. Martinez, Jr, the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and a clinical professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, make the case again for not cutting mental health services in the state budget.

The Houston-based nonprofit organization Children At Risk found that in 2009, an estimated 229,055 kids in Harris County had a diagnosable mental illness. MHMRA of Harris County serves an average of 2,490 kids per month, just a small fraction of those who desperately need treatment. Houston’s mental health system is already stretched to its limits – it can take weeks for kids to receive noncrisis services, exacerbating their symptoms and creating a need for even more intense treatment and services. If devastating budget cuts come to fruition, this will further restrict access to care. See this KTRK story for more.

Texas ranks 49th in mental health expenditures per capita – how much worse can it get? We are already almost at rock bottom. If lawmakers cut funding for public mental health services, some children and families will have no place to go for care that shouldn’t be considered optional. Is this really the best we have to offer our kids? And if it is, what message are we sending to the future leaders of Texas?

That message would be “Dan Patrick’s property taxes are more important than you”. Any questions?

If we deny children appropriate mental health care now, we’ll just pay a higher cost in the future. Left untreated, kids with emotional disturbances are more likely to drop out of school – a 2008 national study found that in 2005-06, only 43 percent of kids with a mental illness graduated from high school. Children At Risk reports that high school dropouts cost Texans a huge amount in the long run – an estimated loss of up to $9.6 billion per cohort. Additionally, high school dropouts contribute to higher rates of crime, incarceration and use of welfare and social services. Given these statistics, it makes sound fiscal sense to provide adequate mental health care for youth at an early age, or else taxpayers will just pick up a much bigger tab in the future.

[…]

This is an issue where everyone can agree. Hospital districts, community leaders, advocates, sheriffs and police chiefs across Texas believe that any cutback in funding for mental health will likely result in increased traffic to hospital emergency rooms, juvenile justice facilities and jails, and that equals increased costs for government and taxpayers. Underfunding mental health services simply shifts the cost to other agencies and to local government authorities, whose budgets are already inadequate.

It’s estimated that 52 percent of youth in the Harris County juvenile justice system have at least one mental health condition. The Texas Public Policy Foundation found that youth who become career criminals cost taxpayers and victims an estimated $2 million during their lifetimes. Community-based services for youth with mental illness like those provided by MHMRA are far less expensive, and in most cases, far more effective.

Sure, this is an issue on which everyone should agree, but let’s be real. The same TPPF that recognizes the cost of skimping on early intervention is one of the leading voices right now arguing that we don’t have a budget shortfall, we just need to adjust the level of services we’re providing to the amount of revenue we have and ignore all that wailing and gnashing of teeth about the effect that would have. They don’t even agree with themselves. Good luck getting anyone in their thrall to agree with you.

Where does your school rank?

How good is your neighborhood school? Not just in terms of its Texas Education Agency’s rating, but in comparison to other schools? Here’s a way to find out.

The greater Houston area is home to some of the best — and worst — public schools in Texas, according to the 2010 Children at Risk/ Houston Chronicle rankings.

The Houston Independent School District boasts seven campuses among the state’s top elementary, middle and high schools, but it also has four that placed at the bottom. The Fort Bend and Alief districts each had one school among the state’s best, while five charter schools in Harris County landed at the bottom.

Children at Risk has ranked area high schools, primarily based on student achievement data, since 2006, but this is the first time the nonprofit advocacy group has rated local elementary and middle schools. The rankings use a formula created in consultation with the Chronicle’s education reporting staff.

The full list was in yesterday’s print edition. A searchable database is available at the Chron and also at the Texas Trib, which adds a few items as well. The Trib delves more into how these rankings came about.

When Children At Risk first started ranking Texas public schools five years ago, it only named the top performers, wary of embarrassing educators and students at campuses that didn’t measure up.

The hesitance emerged even though widespread educational failure had prompted the project in the first place, says Robert Sanborn, the president and CEO of the Houston-based nonprofit advocacy and research organization. The rankings grew out of a conference at Rice University that focused on high school graduation and featured John Hopkins Researcher Robert Balfouz, who talked about “drop-out factories.”

“At first, we didn’t want to make any high schools look bad,” Sanborn says. “But we’ve changed that over the years. What we’ve found is that [spotlighting low-performing schools] proved to be a tremendous advocacy tool for parents — they can ask, ‘Why isn’t my school better?’”

So now, the group’s rankings — including the ones we’re publishing today, for most public schools in Texas — lay out the worst schools along with the best and every gradation in between. That’s a stark contrast from the state’s accountability system, which simply groups schools in one of four broad performance categories: Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, and Unacceptable. Though Children at Risk uses some of the same data that are the basis for the Texas Education Agency’s “ratings,” it does something that TEA doesn’t: It gives every school a hard number that compares its performance with that of every other school.

“You see the best in the state and the worst in the state,” Sanborn says. “This isn’t a PR campaign — they are straight-up rankings. … We used to have [district] superintendents angry with us, arguing this isn’t the right way to measure, but they’ve gotten away from that.”

Sanborn was in the studio for Houston Have Your Say: Education Crisis last week. He had an interesting idea about Houston’s high schools in the Chron story:

While HISD had eight high schools ranked in the top tier in the state, the district had double that in the bottom quarter. Jones was listed as the worst high school in the Houston area and the sixth-worst in Texas.

HISD is planning to turn Jones into a magnet school for science, technology, engineering and mathematics that would be open to students across the city.

To Sanborn’s way of thinking, “Big, comprehensive urban high schools do not work. That’s something we see across the whole state.” He suggests smaller, specialized schools would help engage students.

Hair Balls wrote about the Jones proposal last month. Large suburban high schools still do pretty well, though I suspect they will come to have similar issues as their urban counterparts over time.

Anyway. I’m glad and not surprised to see our neighborhood elementary school ranked highly, not glad and not surprised to see our neighborhood middle school ranked poorly, and not prepared to start thinking about our neighborhood high school just yet. How did your schools do?

Graduation rates

According to one study, a little more than half of HISD’s high school freshmen ultimately graduate.

Despite dozens of commencement ceremonies planned for the next two weeks, only 58.5 percent of Houston-area students who should be graduating will be earning diplomas this spring, community advocates said today.

Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, announced on the steps of Houston City Hall this morning that his group commissioned the Texas Education Agency to conduct a study of six-year graduation rates. They learned that that 53 percent of the students who begin as ninth-graders in the Houston Independent School District had not graduated from any Texas high school in six years.

“We feel there is a real crisis, a crisis of graduation,” Sanborn said, pointing out the link between poverty and education levels. “We really don’t think the TEA and the school districts are being honest with the public.”

Sanborn said HISD estimates it graduates as many as 77 percent of its students within four years. That number is based on faulty data that doesn’t count as dropouts students who claim they’re going to be home schooled, attend private school or move out of state or country.

Sanborn said the first step in fixing high schools is admitting the severity of the problem. He called for the state Legislature, the TEA and individual school districts to become more transparent and use the graduation rate calculation formula Children at Risk used in this study.

Karen Garza, HISD’s chief academic officer, said the district certainly sees dropouts as an important problem that they are working to address. She questioned whether the Children at Risk numbers fail to consider how mobile the population of this urban school district is by excluding students who may start here but graduated in Oklahoma or Mexico or anywhere outside of Texas.

“We acknowledge this is a major issue. We’ve got to get better at keeping kids in school,” Garza said. “We want solutions. We offer more and more options, things like flexible hours and on-line courses.”

But, Garza said, HISD uses the formula prescribed by the TEA and she doesn’t see the Children at Risk calculation as being any more reliable.

I don’t know which way of calculating the “true” graduation rate is superior. I’m not sure it matters that much – whichever method you choose, you can at least tell if it’s getting better or worse over time. The NCAA manages to keep track of graduation rates at its member institutions, so this can’t be rocket science. Pick a method and stick with it – let’s not lose the forest for the trees.

Council Member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown comments on the Children at Risk study. I’m still a bit amazed at how education has become an issue in this race, and I’m still not sure what role the Mayor should be playing in Houston’s public education; it’s not clear to me how much of a role the Mayor could play without legislative action, anyway. That said, I’m always glad to see public education be the topic of conversation, at least among people who care about its success. Maybe just by keeping the spotlight on it, we can have a positive effect.