The community is outraged. The options are limited. The time to do something is upon us.

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has come to the point where it is being forced to relinquish control of ten Black and Brown schools in the Greater Houston area, in compliance with a 2015 law they have to deal with because of their failure to improve academic performance at these campuses.

The controversial and much-talked-about law, SB 1882, has forced HISD to make some very tough decisions about what they have to do about these ten schools; and many Houston taxpayers and families are not happy about the proposed actions the district is set to take.

To be compliant with SB1882, HISD has until Monday, April 30th, to have a signed contract submitted to the office of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in order to avoid having their schools permanently taken over by the statewide educational governing body.

To help you better understand SB 1882, it basically allows HISD to enter into a contract with a qualified entity, such as a charter school, to operate a district campus and share teachers, facilities, or other education resources on that campus. More importantly, however, under the new state law, the TEA can legally takeover any school within HISD, if that school has received an “improvement required” rating for poor academic performance for five consecutive years.

The ten HISD schools on the chopping block, that fit that criteria this year include: Blackshear, Dogan, Highland Heights, Mading and Wesley elementary schools; Henry Middle School; Woodson PK-8; and Kashmere, Wheatley and Worthing high schools. All of these schools are made up of predominately Black and Brown students.

Because HISD did not want to run the risk of having TEA takeover the schools, they met on this past Tuesday to propose their next steps in order to comply with the state law.

According to HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones, the vote on Tuesday was simply to give interim HISD Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan the authority to negotiate a contract with their chosen qualified partner, which happens to be one of HISD’s existing charter school operators – Energized For STEM Academy.

There are many questions swirling, as to whether Energized For STEM Academy is the right entity to takeover these 10 underperforming Black and Brown schools.

Energized For STEM Academy, which has been run by Lois Bullock since 2008, currently operates middle and high schools within HISD with approximately 1,000 students combined.

Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), held a press conference this past Monday to express his wide-ranging concerns about the proposed entity and the lack of details and information surrounding the selection.

However, Skillern-Jones says the district has no other choice but to choose a partner they are familiar with on a local level, and one that meets the criteria.

“SB 1882 is the law governing these schools, and while we don’t agree with it, it is the law,” said Skillern-Jones. “We have to find the best options to help our students. The other options are closure, or do nothing, and allow TEA do come in and do what they will with our campuses. Right now, we need to focus on getting a partnership in place, getting these schools off the list and getting them back. In addition, we have to ensure that no others join them and that’s where our focus needs to be.”

To be eligible for the benefits of SB 1882, HISD has to partner with two types of entities in order to operate the charter. HISD had to either, on approval by the TEA Commissioner, (a) choose an institution of higher education, a non-profit, or a government entity that has been granted a charter under Subchapter C, Chapter 12; or (b) choose a State-Authorized Open-Enrollment Charter School in good standing.

Skillern-Jones said that while Energized for STEM Academy was the recommended option, she believes avoiding school closures and keeping control at the local-level, is the best way to deal with the challenges the district finds itself faced with, because that is what her constituents want.

According to Skillern-Jones, the HISD Board reached out to various entities in the area, as well as across the country, such as the City of Houston, Texas Southern University, Houston Community College, University of Houston, Johns Hopkins, and others, but could not find any takers for a variety of reasons.

For the most part, Skillern-Jones states that the entities they initially targeted had concerns about potential legal issues and challenges they would face having to oversee these schools, as well as the potential liability they would undertake by becoming a qualified partner with HISD.

According to Skillern-Jones, when the request for applications went out to solicit partners, only two entities responded back to HISD – Energized for STEM Academy, which is local and already operating in the district; and Generation Schools Network, which is based out of New York.

This is an unprecedented situation, which has the current HISD Board of Trustees flying blind, and having to solely rely on HISD’s legal counsel to provide direction and guidance.

As far as the details of what HISD can and can’t do, along with other critical details, Skillern-Jones states that the board won’t know anything until they have a negotiated contract to review. Skillern-Jones did say, however, that all of the schools would keep their names, identities and school identification numbers. As it relates to governance and academic control, HISD would have no regulation over the administration of the academic plan, as well as no say over who gets hired or fired, according to the rules of the partnership under the state law.

TEA did not finish writing the final rules for SB 1882 until recently, and per their own website, the final rules were not set to be published until February 26th or sooner. The final rules articulated, among other items, the definition of what “to partner to contract to operate” actually meant. The, new TEA rules (regulations) became effective on April 4th.

In essence, there is no way HISD could have known what the full criteria would be until then.

There are other questions lingering out there, such as whether the impacted schools will be allowed to keep their sports, fine arts, and other UIL-related programs and activities. Will these expectations be in the final negotiated contract? Has the HISD Board given Dr. Lathan instructions as to what the district wants to see in the final contract? Will current HISD employees be paid by HISD or by the selected entity? How will the employees’ pensions and retirement be handled? There are so many unanswered questions that the community won’t know until the negotiated contract has been finalized and prepared to send to TEA.

Getting to this point didn’t happen overnight, but unfortunately, the day of political reckoning has now come. By entering into a partnership, HISD would be able to hold off having the state takeover these schools or close them down for at least two years.

Many in the community are asking HISD to sue the TEA over their failure to comply to state testing laws, as well as for discrimination based on race through the accountability system.
HISD is on a time crunch and the clock is ticking. If they don’t submit a negotiated contract with their chosen partner before the April 30th deadline, they’ll have to either quickly find another partner within days, or simply adhere to the state sanctions, which could include school closures.

In the meantime, the Forward Times will continue to follow this issue and keep the community abreast of the latest happenings.

The post Our Kids Deserve Better: HISD Forced to Relinquish Control of 10 Black and Brown Schools appeared first on Houston Forward Times.

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