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HISD to get funding for electric school buses

Some good news.

Houston Independent School District is hopping on the city’s net-zero carbon emissions bus, so to speak, thanks to more than $6.2 million in funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The funds are part of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program Fiscal Year 2022 rebate competition, which will award nearly $51 million in funds from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Texas school districts, and $965 million in total to districts around the country.

Houston’s $6.2 million will go toward 25 new school buses, according to a statement from the EPA. Fifteen of the vehicles will be brand-new electric buses.

[…]

HISD must now submit Payment Request Forms with purchase orders that shows the district has ordered the new buses and eligible infrastructure.

The district is among 13 Texas school districts to receive funding. Dallas ISD, the second largest school district in the state behind HISD, was awarded roughly $7.6 million. Killeen ISD and Socorro ISD received the largest sums among the districts, totaling nearly $9.9 million in funding each.

The first – and last – time I blogged about electric school buses was a decade ago. It’s fair to say this has been a long time coming. There will be another billion dollars in federal funds available for applicants next year as well, so hopefully HISD can bump up that number. Metro has used a different pot of money to get their own electric buses. The more, the better.

If all we ever do are defensive measures, we’ll never make any progress

I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things, although some of them definitely should be questioned. I am saying we can’t just do things like these.

The Texas Education Agency announced Thursday a plethora of proposals that would, among other changes, require public schools to install silent panic alarms and automatic locks on exterior doors.

Other proposals include inspecting doors on a weekly basis to make sure they lock and can be opened from the outside only with a key. Two-way emergency radios would also have to be tested regularly. Schools would need to add some sort of vestibules so visitors can wait before being let in, and all ground-level windows would have to be made with bulletproof glass.

These proposed requirements come about five months after a gunman killed 21 people, including 19 children, at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. The gunman entered a door that had been closed by a teacher, but the automatic lock failed.

If approved, schools would have to start putting in place these safety measures starting in 2023. Before the end of this year, the education department will collect public comments on the proposed rules.

The state has allocated $400 million for increased safety measures that will be disbursed to districts. In the coming weeks, the education department will make a grant application available to districts. Districts will receive those grants based on enrollment, while smaller, rural schools will receive the minimum $200,000.

Proposing these safety measures is the latest action the state has taken to secure schools in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. In June, the education department announced that it would check all the locks on exterior doors prior to the start of the 2022-2023 school year and review every district’s school safety plans.

[…]

As Texas moves forward with different safety measures, experts have said there is no indication that beefing up security in schools has prevented violence. Rather, they can can be detrimental to children, especially Black and Hispanic children. Black students are overrepresented in all types of disciplinary referrals and are more likely to have their behavior addressed by school police officers than their white peers.

School districts also expressed concerns about the cost, because the Lege is famous for under-appropriating funds for things it mandates, and the ability to get this done by the deadline since every other district will be scrambling to do the same and there will be some competition for resources. I share the concern about how effective any of this is – remember that a lot of school shooters are current or former students at the schools in question and can often get through security checkpoints because of that – and of the negative effects on the children at the schools. We’re still dancing around the questions of law enforcement’s response to mass shooting incidents at schools, as certain key players continue to evade accountability. And we can’t even talk about restricting gun sales to people over the age of 21, for reasons that make no sense. There’s an extremely limited range of “solutions” to this problem that are politically acceptable to Republicans, and as long as they remain in power those are the only “solutions” we’re going to get, whether they have any effect or not.

More on hoax school shooter reports

I don’t know when this ends, but I continue to be worried that they will cause a major problem eventually.

This year has seen a significant number of hoax calls across the country. In the three weeks between mid-September and early October, according to an NPR analysis, local news reports documented 113 false calls across the country. Experts say this increase isn’t surprising given that most school shootings inspire copycats to call in false reports of shootings to law enforcement.

The source of these fake threats remains largely unknown. Law enforcement said some originated from local agitators, while others appeared to come from as far away as Ethiopia, NPR reported.

Regardless of the source, Texas law enforcement agencies say all threats are treated as credible until an investigation proves otherwise. But before threats are deemed hoaxes, law enforcement and parents must grapple with the very real fear that another mass shooting could be underway.

The families with children at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, also clashed with police outside the building on the day of the tragedy. Law enforcement took over an hour to confront the shooter, despite the fact that some officers knew children were calling 911 from the classrooms. Police outside the building prevented parents from entering the school, even putting some parents in handcuffs.

Prior to the shooting in Uvalde, the chaotic scene outside of Jefferson High School last month wasn’t the norm, said Deputy Chief David Hightower with the San Antonio Police Department.

“Now we see an increase in parents wanting to sort of take matters into their own hands in order to retrieve their children,” Hightower said.

He said the protocols for responding to active-shooter threats have not changed since the Uvalde shooting, but the heightened anxiety of parents and officers reflects the trauma still resonating across Texas. As a result of elevated fears, Hightower said there have been more officers assigned to communicating with parents.

One of the most recent examples of false active shooter threats in Texas was on Monday, when there was a false active-shooter call at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio. Police evacuated the roughly 500 students from the campus in response. After the lockdown was lifted, school officials said they would make counseling available for its students.

“Events like this shake everyone to the core,” said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. “It is definitely a situation that is at the top of mind of parents right now.”

Martinez-Prather added students are sharing in the anxiety, which she sees as an opportunity to teach schools about how to remain vigilant. Communicating with teachers and students about how to identify potential threats or concerning behavior is one area Martinez-Prather said schools can target to improve school safety. She also pointed to a guide for parents that details key components of school safety as another communication tool.

See here for some background. I couldn’t get all the ay through that story about the 911 calls from Robb Elementary, it was too upsetting. As I said before, when one of these happened at Heights High School, I think the first job is for law enforcement to make extra sure they not only know what their response procedures are but also that they know how they will operate with other agencies that arrive – at HHS, there was HPD, the Sheriff, various Constables, and I’m sure HISD’s police force in response – and who is in charge. And they very much need to communicate that to the parents, who have a justifiable fear following the tragedy at Robb that they can’t simply rely on law enforcement. That’s a problem in itself, and one of many other things that our state leadership has failed to address after this massacre. It’s on the locals in their absence, and I hope they realize that.

It’s really tough on LGBTQ students right now

Not a surprise, unfortunately.

Schools remain a hostile place for LGBTQ students, according to a new report from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which found a decline in access to resources, books and supportive clubs for those students.

Nearly 70% of LGBTQ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, according to the biennial report released last week. More than 78% said they avoided school functions or extracurricular activities because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

The findings come from the 2021 National School Climate Survey, which the organization has conducted every other year since 1999, offering a look into the unique experiences of LGBTQ students at schools across the nation and pointing to possible improvements.

“This year’s report shows we must make additional progress before LGBTQ+ youth are at minimum safe in schools where they can thrive and reach their full potential,” said Aaron Ridings, deputy executive director for public policy and research. “The attacks on LGBTQ+ youth from anti-LGBTQ+ extremists continue to create a chilling effect that threatens the wellbeing of gay and transgender youth across the country. We need leaders in states across the country who will uphold basic civil and education rights and let educators teach and students learn.”

Conditions have improved for LGBTQ students over the past two decades, according to the organization, though improvement has recently stagnated and researchers found few positive changes this year.

The organization that authored the report said it recommended that schools increase student access to appropriate and accurate LGBTQ resources, support student clubs, provide professional development to school staff, ensure that policies do not discriminate against LGBTQ students and create policies that ban harassment or bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

You can read the report, but honestly I think we have a pretty good idea. Lots of states, including but hardly limited to Texas, have been pushing all kinds of homophobic and transphobic policies, from curriculum changes to book banning to just out and out hateful rhetoric. The current election threatens to make things worse. What did you expect? Sure, things are better now than they were in the past, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. We have a lot of work to do.

Math test scores took a hit during the pandemic

The decline started before the pandemic, but kept on going from there.

Students in Houston and across the nation showed “appalling and unacceptable” declines on the 2022 Nation’s Report Card, adding to mounting evidence that the pandemic impacted young people already facing academic and mental health challenges.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said low-performing students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were faltering even before the pandemic and now all performance levels are showing sharp declines. The nation must take swift action and invest more in education to reverse these troubling trends, he said.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it’s horrible,” Cardona said. “It’s an urgent call of action. We must raise the bar in education.”

The U.S. Department of Education administers the NAEP every other year to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. Comparisons can be made among states, as well as among 27 of the country’s largest school districts. Desegregated results from Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth ISDs are available, as are state totals. Score range from 0 to 500.

Results for Houston ISD show:

  • In math, the number of fourth-grade students performing “below basic” on the math NAEP increased 14 percentage points to 37 percent since 2019. On average, Houston ISD fourth-graders scored a 226, compared to 235 in 2019. The national average this year fell to 227.
  • The average score of a white fourth-grader in HISD on the math test was a 260, compared to a 212 for Black students and a 223 for Hispanic students. Additionally, 22 percent of white fourth-graders reached the “advanced” benchmarks of the math test, compared to 2 percent of Black and Hispanic students.
  • About 44 percent of eighth-graders in Houston ISD performed “below basic” on the reading NAEP, an increase from 41 percent in 2019. Their average score was 247, falling 2 points lower than 2019 scores and 8 points lower than the national average. White students averaged a 275, while Black students averaged 236 and Hispanics 244.
  • Additionally, only 4 percent of white eighth-graders in Houston ISD reached the “advanced” benchmark on the reading test.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said support services will be key to improving scores.

“While these challenges are not unique to HISD, providing students and families with the necessary academic and non-academic supports as detailed in our community driven five-year strategic plan, will address many of these needs,” House said in a statement. “We are confident that these investments in our students such as requiring a librarian, counselor or social worker, and supporting our schools with the highest need through our RISE program, will ensure a more equitable, targeted approach increasing positive academic outcomes.”

The first STAAR results post-pandemic weren’t so bad, but there was definitely an impact on poorer students. I feel reasonably confident that we can make up the lost ground, but what we can’t ever get back is those years of those kids’ lives. At a certain point, the effect of the learning loss has real long-term negative effects. That’s a problem that won’t go away.

One more thing:

There’s more to the thread, but you get the idea. Don’t let people go jumping to conclusions around you. The Trib and Texas Public Radio have more.

Reading and writing and DNA kits…

I dunno, man. I just don’t know.

Texas public school systems are set to distribute DNA and fingerprint identification kits for K-8 students to parents who wish to participate.

The state Legislature passed a law in spring 2021 requiring the Texas Education Agency to give inkless in-home fingerprint and DNA identification cards to each public school system in Texas. The kits will be made available at each primary-level campus. The cards are intended to be kept by guardians who can give them to law enforcement in order to potentially help find missing or trafficked children.

In the Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state, kit distribution will begin this week.

“Caregivers are under no obligation to use the kits, but they must be informed by your institution that the available kits will allow them to have a set of their child’s fingerprints and DNA in that they can turn over to law enforcement in case of an emergency,” reads a letter to recently sent to all HISD principals.

Other districts, such as Clear Creek ISD, have already begun to notify parents that the kits are available.

Some families have found the program chilling, considering that police asked parents waiting to find out if their children were slaughtered at Robb Elementary on May 24 to provide DNA samples to help identify the dead.

“When you put it in the light of Uvalde, it’s one of the most macabre things you could think about,” said Bob Sanborn, president of the nonprofit Children at Risk.

Kenneth S. Trump, a national school security consultant, said there may be a value in providing the kits to parents, but said the proximity and timing of the distribution may ring alarm bells for parents and children still reeling from the news of Uvalde.

“On one hand, I see the value in saying, ‘Here’s a tool you can have in case of potential threats,’ ” he said. “But I think we need to be very cautious about crossing the line of do no harm to the point where we are creating more anxiety.”

Messaging from administrators should be clear that the kits are intended to be an extra available resource for parents and guardians in case their children go missing, Trump said.

“Even if it’s about human trafficking or other risks, we need to communicate what is the probability of these events so it’s not creating fear and anxiety suggesting kids are in imminent danger in school,” he said.

I don’t really have much to add to what Messrs. Sanborn and Trump said. I get the reasoning behind that law. It makes sense, though I’d have a lot of questions about data privacy if either of my kids were still in elementary school and could receive one of those kits. But man, thinking about it at all is depressing as hell. I don’t know what else to say.

There’s a wave of hoax school shooting reports around the country

Weird and scary.

When Emmi Conley first heard in September about a rash of hoax calls reporting active shooters in schools, she dismissed it. Conley, an extremism researcher who studies groups and people behind public displays of violence, said she found no indication that these calls were connected to fringe online spaces where these pranks often originate.

But as the number of these reports swelled over time, Conley said she began to discern some very strange patterns — including the possibility that the calls may have come from overseas, and perhaps specifically from Africa.

“The scale and the timeline of the events is highly, highly unusual,” she said. “The calls are consistent. They are coordinated. They are grouped state-by-state and district-by-district, and they’re also sustained. So somebody is putting significant effort to keep these going.”

As Conley began digging further, more questions emerged. Elements of these calls were notably different than what she has typically seen in school-based threats. Nobody has taken credit for these calls, even as they stretched over several weeks, and the technological planning and research behind the calls betrayed a level of sophistication not typically seen.

In a statement, the FBI has said it is aware of the incidents, but has “no information to indicate a specific and credible threat.”

The agency said it is working with law enforcement at every level to investigate the cases. But some news reports, including in Minnesota and Louisiana, have cited local authorities who said the calls may be originating in Africa or, specifically, Ethiopia. The FBI would not comment on this detail.

For Conley, particulars around these calls suggest that the people or person behind them are, indeed, overseas.

“Our big questions now are whose attention are they after?” she said. “Is it the public? Law enforcement? Media? Something else? And why they’re after it?”

The story notes that schools in multiple states have been receiving bomb threat calls since March, and in five states there was more than one such call on the same day in April. This is a form of “swatting”, which is a term that refers to calls that falsely report an act of violence in progress or about to occur. Such calls have themselves sometimes resulted in violence as part of the police response. I’ve written about some recent local examples of similar hoax reports, and while Texas is not mentioned in that NPR story, there’s no reason to think whoever is behind this couldn’t target our state as well. As I said before, this is a grim reminder to school districts and police forces that they need to be thinking about this kind of situation and make sure they have plans in place to respond. Unfortunately, it looks like they need to have a plan in place for dealing with false alarms as well.

School enrollment in Texas declined in 2020-2021

Blame it on COVID.

Tens of thousands more students either dropped out or otherwise left Texas public schools during the 2020-21 school year, compared to previous years, according to the most recently available records from the Texas Education Agency.

The number of students who dropped out jumped roughly 34 percent from 46,319 students in the 2020-21 school year, which was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 34,477 two years prior. The number of students who left Texas public schools for other reasons, including death, pregnancy or to enroll in other education programs or schools, was 79,071 in 2020-21, up more than 12,000 from the 2019-20 school year.

The dropout rate for students in grades 7 through 12 increased from 1.4 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 1.8 percent in the 2020-21 school year. The rate decreased during the 2019-20 school year to 1.2 percent.

High schools saw the highest increase in its dropout rate. The rate increased to 2.4 percent in the 2020-21 school year, from 1.9 percent in the 2018-19 school year.

The number of students who left to be home schooled increased about 30 percent to 29,846 in the 2020-21 school year from 22,967 in 2018-19. The increase is likely due in part to the impacts of COVID-19. In October 2020, only about 54 percent of Texas public school students were learning in-person.

Enrollment in 2020-2021 was at 5.3 million, down from 5.4 million the year before. I expect this number to bounce back, if only because the overall state population keeps growing and continues to be young, but this is a big blip and it needs urgent attention. That’s going to have to come from the locals, because the current crop of state leaders will do nothing to help. Yes, this is another reason to vote for Democrats this November.

Uvalde school district suspends its entire police force

Um, wow.

Uvalde school officials on Friday suspended all of the district police department’s activities following the firing of a recently hired district officer who was revealed to have been among the first state troopers to respond to the deadly school shooting in May.

Lt. Miguel Hernandez and Ken Mueller were placed on leave, and other officers employed with the department will fill other roles in the district, according to a Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District press release issued Friday. Mueller decided to retire, the release said.

The release did not specify why Hernandez and Mueller were placed on leave. A district spokesperson did not immediately return phone and email messages.

The decision arrived 10 days after protesters set up at the UCISD administrative building to demand the removal of officers from campus grounds until investigations into the police department’s response to the shooting are complete.

The district said decisions regarding the future of the department had been pending the results of two investigations, but it suspended the department’s activities Friday citing “recent developments that have uncovered additional concerns with department operations.”

[…]

Upon suspending the police department, the district asked DPS for extra troopers for campus and extra-curricular activities, according to the Friday news release.

Berlinda Arreola, the grandmother of Amerie Jo Garza, a 10-year-old who was among the 19 students killed in the shooting, was walking into her workplace when she received an email with news about the suspension of the school district’s police department. Arreola told her supervisor she had to go.

“Go go go go,” the boss told her.

She went to meet other family members of the victims, who have been gathering outside the school district to protest. Arreola said she hugged everybody.

“This was a huge step,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done and so we’re going to continue the fight because we’re not done.”

I did not follow the story of the former DPS trooper, whose name is Crimson Elizondo, who was hired by the Uvalde police despite being under investigation by DPS for the way she responded to the shooting. You can read the story and click the links to catch up as needed. I’m just trying to think of something remotely analogous to this in my memory, and I cannot. I am absolutely stunned. Texas Public Radio has more.

Another hoax shooting situation

And this one shows another challenge for school districts and law enforcement to reckon with.

After a lockdown at Jefferson High School sent worried parents to the school, the San Antonio Independent School District says it will enhance communications with families in such situations.

On Tuesday, a report of a shooting at Jefferson High School caused the campus to lock down, sparking a chaotic scene outside the school as panicked parents waited for updates. As school district police officers and other law enforcement searched the campus and found the report to be unfounded, verbal disputes erupted between parents and officers. Some parents had to be physically restrained from entering the school. A few parents grappled with police.

The incident showed how parents of school-age children remain concerned about school safety — and law enforcement response — in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde mass school shooting that left 21 dead. School officials said it’s possible the report of a shooting was a hoax.

Superintendent Jaime Aquino sent a letter Wednesday to all district families praising local law enforcement for responding quickly to the shooting report and explaining the district’s lockdown procedures.

“Yesterday, our officers worked seamlessly with the officers from the San Antonio Police Department as part of our unified command protocol,” he wrote in the letter, adding that 29 district officers and 58 San Police Department officers quickly arrived at the scene.

But as the crowd of parents at the scene grew larger, resource officers informed parents they weren’t allowed to enter and that students could not be released because of the lockdown. Parents grew angry and frustrated as they waited for updates on the situation.

An hour and a half after the first notification to parents, the district informed them that no evidence of a shooting had been found, but by that time some physical altercations had broken out on the steps of the high school.

In his letter, Aquino stated that when a school is locked down, students and staff cannot be released “until officers determine that the threat has been resolved, give clearance, and lift the lockdown.”

To improve communication in such incidents, Aquino said the district will send staff to the campus to keep families on the scene informed of what is happening.

See here and here for some background. As before, I don’t blame any of the parents for their reactions. To me, the lesson here is that schools and police need to recalibrate their responses to take into account the level of anxiety parents are (justifiably!) feeling these days. They need to come up with a strategy that allows for quicker and more direct communication to parents, both those who are at the school that has had a (thankfully fake) report of a shooting, and to those who haven’t yet shown up at the school. It’s in everyone’s best interests to do so. I hope HISD is paying attention to this.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

First school ratings since 2019 released

All in all, not too bad. But for poorer schools and school districts, it remains a very hard go.

The Texas Education Agency on Monday released its first public school ratings in three years and despite pandemic interruptions, the number of schools that received the highest rating increased.

This year, 27.9% of 8,451 schools evaluated received an A rating. Another 46.1% received a B, 19.4% received a rating of C and 6.7% received “Not Rated” labels. Not all schools and districts are rated because some are alternative education programs and treatment facilities.

The state agency’s ratings — tied in large part to results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test — are the latest metrics used to grade how well Texas public schools are performing as students emerge from the worst of the global coronavirus pandemic. Even though students returned to classroom instruction last year, surges in COVID-19 infections both last fall and winter forced some schools to close and revert back to remote instruction.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath credited local educators with the increases seen, despite those interruptions, in each of the A and B categories and a reduction in the number of schools that received below-average grades, those in the “Not Rated” category.

“These results show our state’s significant investment in the post-pandemic academic recovery of Texas public school students is bearing fruit,” Morath said. “I’m grateful for the driving force behind this year’s success: our teachers and local school leaders.”

The TEA’s ratings are determined by scores in three categories: how students perform on the STAAR test, which is given each spring; improvement in those scores; and how well schools are educating disadvantaged students. Students are tested on different subjects: reading, math, science and social students.

Districts also get an overall rating. There are a total of 1,207 school districts in Texas, and 1,195 were evaluated. Out of the districts evaluated, 33.1% got an A, 54% got a B, 9.4% got a C and 3.5% got a “Not Rated” label.

[…]

In 2019, the last time that TEA put out these ratings, 8,302 schools were rated, and 21.1% received an A, 39.5% received a B, 26.1% received a C and 13.3% received failing grades. In 2019, 1,189 districts were rated. Of those, 25.3% received an A, 56.9% received a B, 13% received a C and 4.8% received failing grades.

Texas continues to show some struggle with getting “high-poverty” schools an A grade. Data shows that only 18% of those campuses in Texas were rated an A. The TEA labels schools as “high-poverty” if their number of economically disadvantaged students surpasses 80%. Of the schools that received a “Not Rated” label, over half of them were “high-poverty” schools.

Texas has about 5.4 million students in its public schools, and 60% of them are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced lunch. Out of the 8,451 schools rated this year, 564 campuses received the “Not Rated” label. Most of these “Not Rated” campuses — 499 — serve students who live in some of the state’s poorest communities.

While there is work to be done with Texas’ poorer schools, Morath said, the increase among the A-rated schools — a rise seen after the pandemic interrupted classroom instruction — means the state is on the right track to catch students up to pre-pandemic levels.

This spring’s STAAR results showed big gains in reading. While math scores did increase from the dips seen in 2021, they revealed that Texas students still have work to do to catch up to their pre-pandemic test score levels.

You can see all the results here. The Chron complied results for area schools; HISD overall got a B, but some schools such as Kashmere and Yates high schools were Not Rated, which is the grade given in place of a D or F this year. Those grades will return next year. As I said, all things considered this isn’t bad, but there remains a lot of work to do. We need the Lege to not do anything to screw it all up next spring. Reform Austin has more.

The book ban requests are coming from inside the house

Typical “grassroots” campaign.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

The wave of book reviews and removals that swept across Texas in the last year was driven more by politicians than parents, a Houston Chronicle analysis found, contradicting claims that recent book bans were the result of a nationwide parental rights movement to have more control over learning materials.

The findings, drawn from public information act requests sent to nearly 600 Texas school districts that teach more than 90 percent of the state’s 5.4 million public school students, show there were at least 2,080 book reviews of more than 880 unique titles since the 2018-19 school year. Of those, at least 1,740 reviews occurred during the 2021-22 school year.

Nearly two thirds of those reviews — 1,057 — occurred after state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, asked districts last fall to check their shelves for books on a list he circulated. The books on Krause’s list of roughly 850 titles, predominantly feature LGBTQ+ characters and people of color in main character roles, as well as mentions of racism, the Holocaust, sexual violence, sexuality and abortion.

About a dozen districts account for more than 1,500 of the book reviews, the Chronicle found. Most of the reviewed works remained on shelves, with 269 books removed entirely and 174 instances in which access to titles was made available only to older students. In some cases, districts removed books they deemed out of date but replaced them with more recent titles on similar subjects.

Most districts in the Houston region largely ignored the Krause list or did not conduct reviews because of it.

Krause did not respond to emails requesting an interview, and has refused to reveal whether he and his office created the list or if it came from a third party. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News last November, he called his letter and the list “an inquiry used for fact gathering to see if anything needs to be done,” and said he did not anticipate they would be leaked to the news media.

“We could decide there’s nothing here, let’s move on. And nobody even knows about it. Or it could be we’ve got a pervasive problem,” he said. “It certainly raised the consciousness of parents needing to be involved in their schools. We’ve had some school districts thank us and say, ‘We don’t want inappropriate materials for our kids.’ We wanted to give schools an idea of what books they had in their library so they don’t get caught off guard.”

The Chronicle’s findings, likely an under-count of book reviews because 292 districts did not respond, represent one of the clearest assessments to date of the extent of an escalating, national assault — mostly led by politicians, elected officials and conservative activists — on literature that explores race, LGBTQ+ issues and sexuality.

“It’s a malign campaign to create a moral panic around information young people want and need,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It’s resulted in really tragic consequences, not only for young people being denied access to information, but also for people who are made to understand they don’t belong in their communities, at least in the eyes of the individuals who raise these claims.”

The library association registered challenges or removals of 1,597 individuals books across the country in 2021, a record number since the nonprofit began keeping a tally 20 years ago.

See here, here, and here for some background. I would bet that Krause had help from one or more under-the-radar billionaire-funded right wing groups. Why do the work when it’s so easily outsourced? To be fair, some of the book-banning energy does come from deeply committed bigots from the private sector. There’s never an escape from those people. Sadly, it’s the school librarians who are on the sharp end of the stick here. I don’t know what we can do about that. Read the rest of the story and get involved with your neighborhood schools to help them deal with this crap.

HISD buys stuff for its police

Okay, but I hope the plan to deal with an active shooter has more than this in it.

Houston ISD trustees Thursday evening approved a measure to buy 200 rifles, ammunition and 200 ballistic shields for the district’s police department, which Superintendent Millard House II said last week was not prepared with its current equipment to stop an active shooter.

Trustees voted 6-3 on the purchase after spending roughly an hour in closed executive session discussing the item and about 20 minutes of intense discussion from the dais. Trustee Dani Hernandez proposed postponing the measure by a week because she was “not willing” to proceed without more specific information. That effort, however, failed with a 3-6 vote.

Earlier in the meeting, about a dozen speakers urged the board to delay the vote or to vote no.

“I need more information about the broader safety plan for the district in general. At this time, I don’t believe I have all the information I need,” Hernandez said before the vote. “I don’t think that we have explored all options at this point — safety is essential for HISD.”

HISD Police Chief Pete Lopez told the board last week he was confident in the training the police department had received but he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” The equipment to be purchased would be used to help with scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

“My officers are dedicated to our students and to our staff and regardless if we have the equipment or not, we are still going to respond,” Lopez said after the vote. “This act tonight will allow us to respond in a safer manner.”

The police gear will be for specific situations, not items that police will walk around with, House said.

“The bigger issue here is ensuring that they have all the tools possible so that they can be as safe as possible,” House said, “and provide the kind of safety that we want to provide on campuses.”

See here for the background. While in general I tend to think that most police departments have (and spend money on) too much stuff, I don’t have an opinion on this particular purchase. I’ll accept that they need it in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. I will just say again that all the manpower and equipment added up to diddly squat in Uvalde, so what I want – what I would think we would all want – is to know that there’s a plan in place for this kind of horrific scenario, and training in place to back it up. I still haven’t seen any talk about that, and that concerns me. Buying stuff is the easy part. Please reassure all of us that you’re at least working on the hard part, HISD.

It’s not a teacher shortage yet

But you can see one on the horizon.

School districts across the Houston region are trying to fill thousands of teacher vacancies before most will be welcoming students back to classrooms in the coming weeks.

A review of about 18 area school districts’ job listings, including Alvin, Deer Park, Fort Bend, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Katy, Magnolia, Pasadena, Galveston, Humble, Spring Branch and Spring ISDs, as well as Lamar CISD, showed a need for more than 3,400 educators to fill a variety of vacancies as of Monday.

The Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest system scheduled to kick off its year Aug. 22, had about 870 openings for certified teachers listed on its career portal Monday.

Aldine ISD, which serves nearly 67,000 students and employs more than 4,000 educators, currently has 370 teacher vacancies. That number is “way up” from previous years, according to administrators, despite recruiting efforts that include signing bonuses, increased salaries and looking for applicants internationally. Klein ISD is searching for 120 teachers, according to its website. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state’s third-largest system, is trying to fill 472 teaching vacancies.

It is a nationwide problem as low pay, long hours and the politicization of education have taken their toll on the beleaguered profession.

“You look across the state and across the country, there are districts even smaller than us with even more vacancies,” HISD chief talent officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner said. “We’re all feeling the challenge together of staffing during this very unique time. We’re feeling like we’re going to get as close as we can.”

HISD, with roughly 195,000 students and 27,000 full- and part-time employees, had about the same number of vacancies at this time a year ago, Grant-Skinner said, before reducing it to about 400 by the time schools opened. To fill those openings until certified educators could be hired, the district sent central administration staffers who held teacher certifications into classrooms. Grant-Skinner said there have been no conversations about doing that again this year.

The 870 openings represent about 8 percent of the 11,000 teachers included in the upcoming year’s budget.

Since then, the district has raised teacher pay, hoping it will help recruit and retain educators. Several other districts, including Katy and Cypress-Fair ISDs, also have boosted teacher salaries.

Emphasis mine. I highlighted that to note that this problem, at least for HISD, is not unprecedented. The gap was more than cut in half least year, HISD was able to fill in other vacancies from within, and they have raised their pay as a way to attract new job seekers. There are obviously a lot of major challenges facing teachers now, most of which are the result of actions taken by Republicans, but it’s too soon to say for this year that the problem is getting worse. That may end up being the case, and it’s good to draw attention to this now, I just want to be a little cautious about getting ahead of ourselves.

That said, there are other danger signs out there that should be taken seriously.

More Texas teachers are considering leaving the profession than at any point in the last 40 years, according to new polling from the Texas State Teachers Assocation.

The survey found that 70 percent of teachers were seriously considering quitting this year, a substantial jump from the 53 percent who said so in 2018, the last time the typically biennial survey was conducted. Teachers attributed their grim outlook to pandemic-related stress, political pressure from state lawmakers, less support from parents and stretched finances.

The survey represented all grade levels and regions of the states. It was skipped in 2020 amid of the pandemic.

[…]

In the survey, which was completed by 688 Texas teachers, 94 percent said the pandemic increased their professional stress, and 82 percent said financial stress was exacerbated. Experts have pointed to better pay as a key way to recruit and retain teachers. Respondents taught for about 16 years on average, and their average salary was around $59,000. That’s about $7,000 below the national trend, according to the teachers association.

Besides salary, Texas teachers on average also receive some of the worst retirement benefits of those in any state, a separate study from June found. Teachers who have retired since 2004 have not received a cost-of-living adjustment, although the Legislature has routinely passed “13th check” bills that send extra annuity payments.

In addition to pay, 85 percent said they felt state lawmakers held a negative view of teachers, 65 percent said the public held a negative view and 70 percent said support from parents had decreased over the last several years.

If your job is more stressful than before, if you don’t feel respected by the powers that be or your stakeholders, and if on top of that you could make more money doing something else, well, that’s a pretty powerful combination. We can take this feedback seriously and try to do something about it, or we can ignore it and risk having to deal with a crisis situation later. Seems like a straightforward choice to me.

How would HISD’s police respond to an active shooter incident?

It’s a question we would all rather not have to think about, but this is the world we live in. And at this time, the answer that Superintendent Millard House gave to that question was not reassuring.

Houston ISD’s police department would not be prepared should Texas’ largest school district be targeted by active shooter, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday night.

“I don’t know that this has garnered community insight but what I do know is that, if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared,” House said during an agenda review meeting.

His remarks were in response to questioning from Trustee Dani Hernandez regarding an item the board is expected to vote on during next week’s meeting for purchase of items worth more than $100,000. The specific agenda item includes various purchases for the school district’s police department.

House said the district would be buying 200 rifles, 200 ballistic plate shields and rifle ammunition.

“As we study the Uvalde scenario and looked at what … proper preparation that needs to be in place, officers would not have been prepared for what that looks like,” House said.

[…]

Hernandez asked what research was guiding HISD, instead of feelings. House asked HISD police Chief Pete Lopez to share information in response to her question.

Lopez said research showed police who were better prepared helped in stopping a shooter faster. He was confident about training the district’s police force — estimated to be more than 200 employees — had received. But he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” He said they needed scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

The school district has about 195,000 students.

“The equipment that I’ve requested is to provide additional training to teach the officers how to breach the doors, how to use those shields and also quickly enter that room and neutralize the suspect,” Lopez said. “And of course save our students and our staff.”

Like I said, nobody wants to have to think about this. Given that we have to, there are two things that I want to know up front, based on what we have witnessed from Uvalde. One is that there is always a clear definition of who is in command at such a scene. While it’s unlikely that DPS and Border Patrol would show up at an HISD school wit an active shooter, HPD and the Sheriff’s office will almost certainly have officers on the scene. Make sure that there is a written policy that says who is the leader, so that we don’t have a nightmare situation where dozens of cops are waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. And two, the policy must also state that the top priority is going after the shooter, again to avoid a repeat of what happened at Robb Elementary. Everything else, from best practices to training to equipment to whatever else can be provided for. First and foremost, we have to make sure that there’s a commitment to stop the person or persons responsible for the shooting. You wouldn’t think this is a thing that needs to be said, and to be clearly spelled out in an official document for which there would be severe consequences for now following it, but it is and we do. So let’s make sure we have one. Campos has more.

HISD approves its budget

First one for the new Superintendent.

Houston ISD trustees on Thursday unanimously approved a $2.2 billion budget that will give teacher raises some have called long overdue and fund the upcoming school year when the district is expected to begin implementing a strategic plan aimed at making the state’s largest school system more equitable.

All nine trustees voted in favor of the proposed budget following a presentation from Superintendent Millard House II about how parts of the budget will meet board goals, which a few trustees had asked about. A roughly $100 million deficit will end up being reduced to some $30 million at year’s end through unspent funds, mostly from job vacancies, administrators have said they anticipate.

“We cannot hope to serve the needs of our children by being close-fisted on the most important determinant of their success: high-quality professional educators,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos, who frequently advocates for educators from the dais, said in a statement posted on Twitter after the vote. “This budget honors our kids by honoring our teachers, support staff and principals. It is past time for HISD to be the district that sets the standard in our region. I’m proud to be part of the team that gets us there.”

The compensation package, backed with the help of federal COVID-19 relief money the district received, will boost the salary of a starting teacher to $61,500 from the current annual pay of $56,869. Employees at the higher end of salary ranges will see about $3,000 more each year, those salaries reaching the mid- and high-$80,000s.

Other employees are also expected to receive raises as the district will update its master pay table.

The spending plan also set the financial framework for the first full year of House’s five-year strategic plan. Campuses will be required to staff librarians or media specialists, nurse or nurse assistants, and counselors.

In addition to the $2.2 billion operating budget, the district expects to pay another $374 million in debt service. Central administrators this spring cut $60 million in what House has called the first step toward financial sustainability. The cuts did not affect the police force, financial or legal services, House said.

See here and here for some background. HISD was known to pay its teachers less than other area districts, and it has seen some teachers leave as a result, so the pay raise was needed. We’ll see how those first pieces of the strategic plan go. I’m generally optimistic, but there are always some bumps in the road. Now that this has been settled and HISD appears to be in fairly stable shape for the near term, it’s probably time to start talking about the next capital bond issuance. The last one was in 2012, and there are surely numerous buildings that need work, and that’s without mentioning the urgency of better ventilation as a COVID mitigation. I don’t know if there’s time to get a bond item on the ballot this year, but if they wait until next year at least it’s a city election year and we’ll have an open Mayor’s race, so they won’t have to sweat as much to get their voters to the polls. Hope you’re working on a plan for this, HISD.

The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

Southlake keeps on Southlaking

On brand.

Seven months after teachers at the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, went public with their concerns about an administrator’s advice to balance books on the Holocaust with titles that show “opposing” perspectives, district employees this week discovered that a new clause had been added to their annual employment contracts, listed under the heading: “Non-Disparagement.”

“You agree to not disparage, criticize, or defame the District, and its employees or officials, to the media,” it read.

Four Carroll teachers, speaking on the condition that they not be named because they feared retaliation, said they were disturbed by the new contract language.

“Only a district that is knowingly doing something wrong would choose to silence its entire staff,” one of them wrote in a text message to a reporter on Thursday.

“I hadn’t yet decided if I was going to leave, but it seems the district decided for me!” another wrote.

Officials for both the National Education Association and the Texas State Teachers Association, unions that represent teachers nationally and across Texas, condemned the contract language as an attempt to silence teachers.

“This is the first time we have heard of a school district putting that language into a teacher contract,” said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “It is a rejection of a teacher’s fundamental First Amendment rights. A teacher also is a taxpayer, who is entitled to criticize a public school district.”

Michael Leroy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that prohibiting public school employees from criticizing their district “is absolutely indefensible under the Constitution,” adding that the new clause in Carroll’s teacher contracts is “clearly unconstitutional. I mean, that’s not even a close call.”

Nondisparagement clauses are more common in the employment contracts of private companies, which are not subject to the First Amendment, Leroy said.

[…]

Leroy, the University of Illinois law professor, said the nondisparagement clause appears to violate a half-century-old U.S. Supreme Court precedent that established the right of government employees to speak on matters of public importance, even if it means criticizing their employer.

In that 1968 case, Pickering v. Board of Education, the court found that a school district in Illinois violated a teacher’s First Amendment rights when it fired him for writing a letter to a local newspaper criticizing the school board for prioritizing funding for athletics over teacher salaries.

“If a teacher, and for that matter if a public employee, is speaking on a matter of public concern, it is protected speech,” Leroy said, noting that the only time he’s seen government employees asked to sign a nondisparagement clause has been in settlement agreements after public employees have been fired, not as a condition of their employment.

Two other labor law experts agreed that a blanket ban on teachers criticizing a public school district is probably unconstitutional.

A Carroll teacher, texting a reporter from her lunch break, summarized her reaction to the new contract language this way: “It seems like if we say anything to anyone then we’re screwed. What happened to freedom of speech?”

See here for the previous example. Maybe they need Elon Musk to buy Carroll ISD, if he has any cash left over after Twitter.

Superintendent House backs off a key piece of his budget plan

Sounds like he heard the concerns.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Wednesday said he would scrap a plan that would have centralized the funding of specific positions and programs, instead asking his administrators to come up with a plan that would let campus principals maintain control over their budgets while requiring they staff key positions and provide critical services.

“I have asked the leadership team to present a revised funding model that will create a more equitable baseline education for all students and maintain HISD’s commitment to campus-based budgeting that meets the specific needs of each unique student population,” House said in a letter to the Houston Independent School District community. “We will set clear expectations and hold each campus accountable for improving educational outcomes and eliminating achievement gaps for all students they serve.”

The letter said schools that have not had the money to invest in those key staff positions will receive additional funding to do so.

“All schools will be expected to provide a baseline education experience to all students beginning in the 2022-2023 school year,” the letter stated.

The development which House called a compromise, was the latest this week after House’s Chief of Schools, Denise Watts, told principals Monday the administration would be “revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy.”

In Wednesday’s letter, House said his decision was the result of hearing from trustees and “many of you.”

See here for the previous update. I’m fine with this, as the main goal of achieving equity is still in there. The details matter as much as before, and we will need to continue talking about how this will be done, what will change, how funding can be ensured, and so on. But this was a good step for the Superintendent to take. The Press has more.

Maybe not so fast on the HISD budget stuff

I’m OK with this.

The Houston Independent School District may reconsider proposed budget changes that would have centralized the funding of certain positions and programs, a top district official told principals Monday.

“Our cabinet team is revisiting the budget and staff allocation strategy this week. As a result, we need to pause all budget meetings and your planning based on the previous allocation sheets,” Chief of Schools Denise Watts told principals via e-mail. “It is my hope that we will be able to communicate how to move forward soon. I apologize for any frustration or confusion that this may cause. I appreciate your flexibility and patience.”

[…]

Under the strategic plan, which aims to make the school system more equitable, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the plan calls for the district to centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

During the first workshops about the budget, several trustees had raised concerns about the lack of details they had received about the proposals, the speed at which the proposed changes would occur and how the district planned to pay for the strategic plan, which will be initiated with the help of federal COVID relief money.

“I am happy to hear the district is listening to the feedback,” Trustee Bridget Wade said Monday.

Wade last week tweeted that she was a “no” vote until she saw more research and data guiding the district. “The pause and redirect are a much needed start.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I agree with Trustee Wade, we need more time and data before we can move forward with this. I’m not making any judgments about Superintendent House’s proposals – as I’ve said, I generally like the goals, but the details very much matter, and so does buy-in from the stakeholders. Big changes need careful handling, and that takes time. I recognize that we can’t take forever, but we should take as much time as is needed, and we should very much listen to the concerns that have already been raised. I am hopeful this will proceed with all due care.

More on the HISD budget plan

Trustees make first contact with the Superintendent’s plans.

More than a month after Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II unveiled a strategic plan aimed at making the district more equitable, trustees still have unanswered questions about how to pay for it and concerns about whether parents and community members understand some of the changes that would occur.

Chief among the changes prompting some of those questions is House’s call to centralize funding for certain positions and programs, a shift from the district’s decentralized system that empowers school principals to spend their budgets as they see fit.

Under the plan, the district would centrally fund such jobs as assistant principals, nurses and fine arts teachers, in an effort to ensure all campuses staff those positions, which currently is not the case. Additionally, the district would centrally fund programs such as Advanced Placement, special education supports and athletics.

In interviews and during budget workshops this month, trustees largely have agreed that all campuses should have those staffers and programs but several say they want more information about how the changes will affect principals’ autonomy.

They also want to know how the district will pay for the initiative, which is projected to cost $255 million to implement in the first year of the five-year plan.

[…]

The district plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money and general budget funds to pay for the first year. Funding it in the other years, however, has not yet been discussed in great detail.

“This isn’t the first time that this type of change has been proposed, right? What I would like to see as a trustee is to see there is transparency around the process, that there is community understanding and buy-in,” said Trustee Judith Cruz, currently serving as board president, “and ultimately that there is alignment to the board’s vision and goals.”

Most recently, former Superintendent Richard Carranza proposed centralizing various staffing and budget decisions, but the plan fizzled out after he left the school system in 2018, less than two years into his tenure. His successor, interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, said the district needed more outreach before changing its funding model.

The district was expected to create a committee to study resource allocation. It is not clear if it ever did.

Trustee Dani Hernandez asked House during a workshop Thursday if that group ever had been formed and produced any reports. House said he was not aware of any.

“I feel like it’s a lot more of a plan than it previously was,” Hernandez said after last week’s presentation. “I still have a lot of questions about it.”

Administrators have said the change will not be a complete abandonment of the district’s decentralized operations but more of a hybrid model in which principals still will make some budgeting decisions.

Duncan Klussmann, former superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said the level of autonomy given to principals that often is associated with HISD could lead to different programming available to students across the district without “guardrails.”

2019 report by the Texas Legislative Budget Board called for structural changes across the district after finding the decentralized model had delivered inconsistent resources to students and poor monitoring of spending.

“I think there is a balance that organizations are always looking to,” Klussmann said, “to try to figure out that right balance between campus autonomy and centralization.”

See here and here for the background. The story goes on to quote an expert who has some reservations about the plan and the speed with which it is moving forward. She and a colleague turned those concerns into this op-ed piece calling to slow things down.

Houston’s school board needs to take the time the city deserves to see if consolidating budget power back to the top is the right way to go. As such, we respectfully call for the board to stand up for the community and ensure a full public vetting process. It’s what such a monumental decision warrants before a well-established budget strategy with a lot of wins is ditched in the blink of an eye.

Those wins include the fact that the current model, known as weighted student funding, advances equity. Under the highly transparent model, the district gives schools more dollars for students with higher needs. Peer-reviewed research proves it: in fiscal year 2019, HISD spent $384 per student more on schools attended by the average low-income student than schools attended by other students. The weighted student funding strategy brought student achievement gains that won HISD the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education. (The link between implementation and positive student test scores is documented in our research .) And while the district today clearly has ample room to improve, in a district like HISD with very limited dollars, there’s no wiggle room to get it wrong. It is these successes that led the school board to make weighted student funding a cornerstone of district strategy.

The Houston superintendent’s move goes against the tide of dozens of mega-districts that have adopted WSF in recent years — from Atlanta and Denver to Chicago and New York, Memphis-Shelby County and Metro Nashville — each posting equity gains as a result. Most recently, District of Columbia Public Schools approved weighted student funding, swayed by the evidence backing it. And in 2015, the bipartisan federal Every Student Succeeds Act included a pilot program enabling districts to expand their weighted student formulas to include federal funds as well.

We understand that the natural state of many districts is to centralize power over finances. But HISD’s board has long resisted that pressure, choosing instead to run a system that gives principals latitude in how best to staff their schools to meet differing student needs.

[…]

The district need not jettison weighted student funding to mandate that all schools apply an effective reading curriculum or offer fine arts — things that leadership has called for. The district can absolutely require all schools to offer certain programs or services under weighted student funding; principals simply keep the leeway to decide how best to deliver those offerings at their school. It’s the district’s responsibility to then hold principals accountable for outcomes.

So, a centralized funding model does not win more money for schools. It does, however, incur losses. Principals — who know their students and the strengths of their unique mix of staff — lose their flexibility to decide how to tailor their resources to meet the needs of their diverse students. And a proven track record of equity hangs in the balance.

In working with scores of districts through our national school finance research center, we can confidently say that Houston’s rush to change is unprecedented. We have never seen a big-city district so dramatically overhaul its finance model without at least two years of planning. And while the threat of a state takeover continues to hang over HISD, there is no evidence that the Texas Education Agency is demanding this rapid-fire shift.

As I said before, I generally support the goals of Superintendent House’s vision. I’m fine with taking all the time needed to study it and make sure that we’re not disrupting things that are working well or implementing things that don’t have empirical backing yet. I’m out of my depth beyond that, so that’s all the more reason why I’d say taking more time on this is worthwhile.

HISD’s budget plan

From the op-ed pages, a few words from Superintendent Millard House.

During a listening session at Chavez High School last September, a mother told me in tears that her child had to travel an hour each way to reach a magnet school. When parents and students don’t have options for a great education in their own neighborhood, it should not come as a surprise that Houston ISD has 20,000 fewer students enrolled since the 2016-2017 school year. While the COVID pandemic plays a major role in that number, enrollment had already begun dropping.

We need the trust of everyone in the community to turn things around. And to build that trust, as the superintendent, I must be frank.

When I was hired to lead the Houston Independent School District last summer, I believe I was clear-eyed about the opportunities and challenges I was taking on. If there was one thing that was not clear to me, it was the urgent financial challenges facing our district. Years of poor budgeting practices, unchecked waste and organizational inefficiencies combined with steady declines in enrollment have created a structural deficit that my administration could not have anticipated just a year ago. Now it’s time to do the work and start making the tough calls.

We have assembled a world-class team and built a five-year strategic vision for this district that — if we make hard choices and put students first in our decision-making — will stabilize the district and make it one of the few urban districts in the country that provides every student with an education that meets their unique needs and prepares them for success in life after graduation.

[…]

It is clear there are three things HISD must invest in to stabilize the district:

1. We cannot afford to lose any more students and we must bring new students into the district. Stabilizing and then growing enrollment is the single most important thing we can do to right-size the budget and meet our commitments to the Houston community.

2. We cannot afford to lose more experienced educators. When we lose teachers, kids suffer. We must pay our educators a competitive wage because it’s the right thing to do and HISD will not survive if we don’t.

3. We cannot afford the wasteful spending at the district- or campus-level that has not just created inefficiencies, but also exacerbated inequities across the communities we serve. We must centralize some aspects of school budgets to reduce costs and meet the needs of all children.

See here for more on the strategic plan. There are still a lot of details to be filled in, and of course there needs to be support for both from the community and the HISD Board. I like the overall direction, and I generally agree with the three points outlined above, though decades of “fiscal conservatism” mumbo-jumbo have left indelible scars that flare up in the presence of old saws about cutting waste and finding efficiencies like Harry Potter whenever He Who Must Not Be Named is up to something. We’ll see what the details and the next two budgets look like and go from there. The Press has more.

Students against banning books

I have three things to say about this.

Greg Abbott in the 80s

For high school senior Gabrielle Izu, Texas’ public school book bans feel personal.

The books Texas is targeting — mainly novels that focus on discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity — tell the tale of Izu’s past and future. The 17-year-old high school student is Asian American, Black and Hispanic and bisexual, and she hates to see her identities or her peers’ censored.

“I ignored [my sexuality] for a really long time. And I think that as a young girl, if a book showed me that this is a life that could be lived, I could have had a lot more peace and coming to terms with bisexuality,” said Izu, who attends James E. Taylor High School in the Katy Independent School District near Houston.

Here and there, Texas students are forming their own book clubs to read what adults want banned. Books like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Ashley Hope Perez’s “Out of Darkness” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House.” Books that, until last fall, were easy to find and access.

In Katy ISD, students have distributed hundreds of novels challenged by adults in Texas. They’re getting the books free of charge from a political advocacy organization and publishers. And Leander ISD near Austin, students are coming together in a banned-book club to discuss those books. Some students are starting to attend school board meetings to fight for the freedom to choose what to read.

More than a hundred Katy ISD students of a variety of ages, races and gender identities met after school to discuss the bans and pick up contested novels. Among the books they’re reading is Kalynn Bayron’s “Cinderella is Dead,” a novel that follows a queer, Black teenager’s coming-of-age story. Izu, who saw herself reflected in the book, said her heart broke when Texas schools targeted it for a ban.

“It felt like my identity was seen as dangerous because of the banning of a story like that. What about my story? Am I seen as a bad influence?” Izu said. “Am I seen as something that should be shamed?”

Texas parents and politicians say they are protecting students with book bans. Many students, including Cameron Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy ISD, aren’t buying it.

“It’s clear that these books address issues of race and LGBTQ identities, and that is the exact reason that certain people are seeking to remove these books from libraries and prohibit students from accessing them,” said Samuels, who helped with distribution efforts. “And these policies have dire consequences for us because they keep us struggling with our queer identities.”

Katy ISD students showed strong support at the events, Samuels said. But not all parents are happy, and some have even tried to enter the school to disturb student discussions on Texas’ book bans, they said.

1. I salute these kids and wish them the best of luck in fighting what is likely to be a long battle. At some point, there is going to be a very heavyhanded response from someone in authority, whether it be a principal, a law enforcement officer, or just some loudmouth (quite possibly an elected official) targeting them online. That will get ugly very quickly, and who knows what happens next. I just hope whoever is that first target has a good support system around them.

2. Whether as a result of that heavyhanded response or not, this fight is going to find its way into the courthouse sooner or later. If there is some litigation going on already, I confess I’ve missed it. But one way or another, some aspects of this will be decided by judges.

3. I hope all these kids will be registering to vote at their first opportunity, and will be sure to vote against everyone who has tried to take their books away from them, from their school board up to their legislators and governor. Let me say this one more time: Nothing is going to change until someone loses an election for their support of banning books.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

HISD lifts its mask mandate

A bit earlier than expected.

The Houston Independent School District will lift its mask mandate Tuesday, no longer requiring the use of face coverings at all facilities and buildings, district officials said Monday.

The change in policy at Houston ISD arrived three days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it measures community spread to account for hospitalizations in addition to caseloads. Additionally, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last week lowered the county’s COVID-19 threat level to “significant,” the second-highest possible threat level, while Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted a mandate that required city employees and visitors to municipal buildings to wear masks indoors.

“Masks within HISD schools, facilities, and school buses will become optional,” Superintendent Millard House II said in an e-mail to principals Monday morning. “Please encourage students, staff, and any other HISD stakeholders that may need an additional layer of protection or are exhibiting symptoms of a communicable disease to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.”

See here for the official announcement. I was expecting this to come in a couple of weeks, but here we are. My kids have been pretty dedicated mask wearers, so we’ll see what they and their friends do. I hope that we have done what we can to improve air circulation in the schools, and I hope this spurs some people to get their kids vaccinated. And I really really hope we don’t have to change directions again this semester. The Press has more.

HISD’s strategic plan

It sounds good. Let’s see what feedback it gets.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II on Thursday unveiled his long-awaited five-year strategic plan, offering an equity framework that would aim to equip all campuses with library, nursing and counseling staff, as well as fine arts, gifted and talented programming and special education support.

The plan also would increase teachers’ base salaries, offer signing bonuses to new educators, expand early childhood education and reorient how the district communicates with families.

HISD officials plan to outline the monetary details of the plan during a March 3 meeting to workshop the upcoming academic year’s budget. House said administrators have a “solid handle” on how the plan will be funded but declined to elaborate until that information is presented to the board in two weeks. Some initiatives will be funded with federal COVID-19 relief money.

“We know that everything that HISD does has a bearing on this great city,” House said. “When I say I am excited about the entire plan, I really am excited about the entire plan — from being able to compensate our educators in a manner that I know and think they deserve (to) being able to set a base system in terms of how we support our schools and a staffing plan, as well.”

The plan calls for increasing the range of teacher’s salaries by several thousand dollars over the next couple of years. Currently, teachers make between roughly $57,000 and $84,000, according to numbers shared Thursday. Under House’s plan, that range would increase by the 2024-25 school year to between $64,000 and $90,000. Additionally, the plan would implement raises for police officers, principals and assistant principals while updating the master pay scale for all of the district’s other support staff.

HISD also will offer signing incentives for new teacher hires; those with at least two years of experience who sign by April area expected to receive $5,000, and others would get $4,000. Teachers hired through August are expected to receive a $2,000 signing bonus. Meanwhile, current teachers who commit to teaching three more years at HISD will get signing bonuses each of the next three years — $500, $1,000 and $2,500, respectively.

[…]

The plan calls for centralizing the funding of specific materials and services to ensure all schools contain them, including fine arts and athletic programs; gifted and talented programming; special education supports; and substitute teachers.

The plan also would create a baseline of staffing to secure all campuses have 11 key positions staffed: principal, nurse or associate nurse, assistant principal or dean, counselor or social worker, librarian or media specialist, student information representative, physical education teacher, art or music teacher, administrative assistant, clerical worker and wraparound specialist.

The move appears to be a direct answer to community members, staffers and parents who attended a series of community forums last fall to make the case for nurses and librarians at all campuses.

See here for some background, and here for the message Superintendent House sent to parents. A copy of the strategic plan workshop is embedded in the story. The broad outlines of this sound good, but of course the details really matter. HISD has certainly tried to revamp its magnet school program in the past. It’s hard to do because it creates winners and losers, or at least the perception of such, and people who like what they have now aren’t usually all that happy to see it get changed. In five years’ time I won’t be an HISD parent any more, but I still care very much about getting this right, which among other things means doing it with the participation and buy-in of the community. I wish the Superintendent and the Board all the best with this. The Press has more.

HISD may lift the mask mandate after spring break

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD students will get an extra day spring holiday and will complete the last day of the first semester before the winter break next school year under a calendar approved by the board of trustees Thursday.

The board also faced a parade of speakers demanding the district lift its mask mandate. The item, however, was not on the board’s agenda.

Superintendent Millard House II said the district planned to continue following COVID infection and spread data and, if trends hold, may reassess its policies in early March and potentially lift the mask mandate by the time students return to classrooms after spring break.

“When school resumes on March 21, a scenario exists where masks will be optional,” House said. “We can only get there, as we know, if we all pull together and continue our efforts of mitigation that we know work.”

First, my kids (or at least the one who will still be in HISD next year; the other will be off at college) definitely appreciate having the fall semester end at the start of winter break. Neither of them liked having to deal with finals in January. I suspect they are not alone in this.

Second, HISD had previously considered lifting the mandate at the end of 2021, but chose to keep it in place as omicron began surging. The intent was always to review the policy and scale it back or take it down when it made sense to do so. Some other large urban districts have already taken this step. It’s a complex decision, one that needs to balance evidence that masking has some negative effect on kids, especially younger kids, with the reality that even a “milder” form of COVID can still wreak havoc as teachers and support staff get sick and have to isolate. Hopefully the numbers will stay down enough for this to make sense, and if we’re really lucky maybe we’ll get a longer lull before (sigh) another variant comes along. Here’s hoping for the best.

Back to school

Sort of.

Roughly one-quarter of Houston ISD students were absent Monday, the first day back following the district’s winter break, according to the district.

District officials released figures Tuesday that showed 45,515 students were absent on Monday and 26,259 on Tuesday, resulting in attendance rates of 76 percent and 85 percent, respectively. The district’s average daily attendance was 95 percent in the 2018-19 school year, the latest figures available from the Texas Education Agency.

While the data did not include reasons why students missed school, the absences offered a clue about the potential impact of the COVID-19 omicron variant surge on schools as they resumed instruction following breaks in the Houston region.

One possible reason for the high absenteeism on Monday: At least in my house, we all thought school didn’t start until Tuesday the 4th. Most years, the first Monday in January is a teacher in-service day, so schools are open but not for students. That was not the case this year, and it wasn’t until we saw an email from the Superintendent on Friday that we realized our error. I would not be surprised if some number of families had made travel plans that didn’t have them back in town until Monday. Obviously, COVID diagnoses and exposure and plain old fear played a role as well, but the difference between Monday and Tuesday is big enough that I think failure to understand the schedule was a factor. Just a thought.

Now that we’re a week into the school year, my kids, at two different HISD high schools, did not say anything about having a lot of substitute teachers or empty classrooms or anything like that. HISD does still have its mask mandate, so maybe that has allayed some fears, I don’t know. The younger kid has finals next week, so I am hoping for as much normality as the fates will grant us. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, on a tangential note:

Houston Independent School District is calling on students and alumni for help to address the loss of learning its elementary students suffered due to challenges from the pandemic.

The district announced Wednesday that it is hiring 500 HISD students and alumni for spring semester tutoring positions at elementary schools throughout the district. The district is seeking students ages 15 and up and alumni currently in college for the position which pays $12 an hour, according to a release.

[…]

Student tutors will work in-person with shifts available during the school day, after school and on Saturdays, according to the release, and will be paired with a certified teacher for up to 20 hours a week to help third to fifth-grade students with core subjects like English, Math and Science.

The program begins in January and runs through the end of June, according to the release. Those interested should apply by Jan. 12 at apply.ieducateusa.org. No experience is required and the district welcomes all majors.

The HISD press release is here. Go check this out if you’re interested.

Back to school, kids

It’ll probably be fine. And honestly, there’s no appetite for anything else.

Most of Texas’ roughly 1,200 school districts will welcome students and staff back within the next week, even as other states debate whether to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff or even return to remote learning. Almost 1 in 4 COVID tests in Texan are coming back positive for the virus, and hospitalizations have increased by 1,613 patients compared with a week ago. As of Dec. 28, 4,917 Texans were hospitalized for the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, there were 220 Texans under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. That number has been increasing since Christmas. Texas saw the highest number of people under the age of 18 hospitalized for COVID-19 in early September, when it was at 345.

The omicron variant has been surging across the United States. So far, it has generally been less severe and deadly than the earlier delta variant. However, the federal government recommends that all children 5 or older get the vaccine.

At Cook Children’s Health Care System in Tarrant County, positive cases among children have climbed sharply since Dec. 21 — going from a 5.7% positivity rate to 22.1%. “We are seeing upwards of 400 positive COVID-19 cases among children per day,” Dr. Mary Suzanne Whitworth said in a statement. “This is similar to where we were in early September when delta was spreading rapidly in our area.”

Despite those numbers, education leaders have largely urged a return to regular in-person instruction, with precautions in place.

Superintendent Millard House II of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, announced Wednesday that it will maintain its mask mandate and will start to offer free COVID-19 testing for students and staff.

“We are looking forward to adding this layer of protection to our COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” House said in a statement. “We remain committed to keeping our students and staff safe and working toward implementing strategies that can help us continue offering safe and sustainable in-person instruction.”

In Austin, the school district will continue to require masks on campus and will offer testing to students and staff and vaccination clinics for anyone 5 and older.

In an email sent to Austin parents, district administrators said they were keeping schools open because they were confident that mitigation strategies were working and because vaccines are now widely available.

“Our layered protocols work! We have been here before. We can do this. Our kids need the schools to stay open,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde wrote in the email.

She added that the Austin ISD would continue social distancing, serving lunches outdoors and using its advanced air filtration system to slow the spread.

HISD’s mask mandate has been a big success, though it hasn’t really been tested by omicron yet. If people are properly wearing appropriate masks, they can protect themselves pretty well. Better ventilation and doing whatever possible outside is helpful. I’d feel a lot better if a whole lot more kids were getting vaccinated, but maybe getting them back into schools will nudge a few more in that direction. Some universities have pushed back the start of in person classes for their spring semester in favor of online learning, but I just don’t see that as viable for the independent school districts, at least not at this time. Mask, ventilate, vax, test, and isolate as needed, and we can get through this. I’m hoping for the best.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.