A Desire for Change: Parents, leaders seek to resolve race issues at HISD

By Lisa Trow – Managing Editor – The Huntsville Item

HUNTSVILLE — Google “perseverance,” and you’ll find that praise for this quality is as old as the Bible and Plutarch and as fresh as football’s superstars.

Perseverance, the necessary grease of  the wheels of industry, is what it takes to get things done. So say philosophers, statesmen and entrepreneurs.

And so say the parents and advocates of African-American students who are concerned about discrimination and racial sensitivity at Huntsville Independent School District.

These advocates have become regular visitors to Huntsville Independent School District facilities and meetings of the HISD Board of Trustees to address their concerns about racial and ethnic sensitivity, equality and other issues — and to offer their solutions, some of which the district has adopted.

But representatives of this group believe there is much more to be done and say they still sense lack of commitment and interest in the repairing the relationship between African-Americans and the district at large.

While incremental changes keep hope alive, Helen Watkins and other members of the black community share a deep desire to see major cultural change — in which minority students have role models to look up to and feel embraced and included.

“As a former employee, I have not seen a district-wide demonstration of cultural sensitivity or an interest in diversity in other ways,” said Watkins, who retired as a school district nurse after 25 years on HISD campuses.

By contrast, she said, individual faculty members and administrators of all races continue to demonstrate “very sincere, very passionate” acts of racial inclusion and respect for other cultures.

“(HISD teachers and administrators) have been to conferences and seen what other districts are doing (to hire minority teachers and create a more inclusive atmosphere). We don’t have to reinvent the wheel on this,” Watkins said.

Helen and her husband, Richard Watkins, a former prison warden and past president of the Walker-Trinity Counties NAACP, are among those who have attended school board meetings with other parents and advocates and visited with HISD trustees and Superintendent Richard Montgomery.

Montgomery defends HISD’s record of academic performance during his five-year tenure as superintendent.

Montgomery has taken steps — with effective results — to address the performance of at-risk students, such as the full-day pre-kindergarten program Montgomery implemented after he was hired more than five years ago.

“We are very proud of him for doing that,” Helen Watkins said.

Montgomery is also proud of the pre-kindergarten program.

“We had a half-day pre-K program, but we just weren’t getting much done,” Montgomery said. “Going to a full-time pre-K was a bold step for us because the state wouldn’t fund it.”

HISD now funds the pre-K center and additional, certified teachers hired to teach pre-K students with grants.

Joby Burguart, an HISD kindergarten teacher for the past 25 years, said she sees significant benefit from the full-day, revamped pre-k center.

When students move into her full-day kindergarten classes at Stewart Elementary “they already know the routine and they’re not as scared or as timid” as they might be without this type of pre-K preparation, and this allows her to move forward with instruction.

Montgomery believes the pre-kindergarten and other programs like the Texas Science Technology Engineering and Math Academy, ramped up mentoring programs, sensitivity training and team teaching in which faculty work together to get better results will have a long-term effect on the performance of economically disadvantaged and minority students.

Scores on standardized tests over the past five years have risen among students of all ethnicities and the gap in performance between white students and their minority counterparts is closing.

“When I look at these results I just want to shout,” Montgomery said. “Some of these are textbook examples of the results of these programs.”

Almost half the district’s student population — 47.9 percent — is considered at risk for dropping out. That is slightly lower than the at-risk population statewide, according to Texas Education Agency figures for the 2008-2009 school year.

But HISD’s percentage of at-risk students is higher than other districts in Walker County.

New Waverly Independent School District’s population of at-risk population is 36.9; 33.6 percent of much smaller Richards ISD students are at-risk.

Nacogdoches ISD, a similar-size East Texas district with a similar ratio of minority to white students and with a state university in its district, has an even higher at-risk population at 58.6 percent.

HISD’s drop-out rate is 1.9 percent, which is down from more than 3 percent five years ago. This means that even though almost half the population is identified as “at-risk,” only about 2 percent actually drop out of HISD schools.

The school district can verify with documentation that at least 81 percent complete their educations, either at HISD or another district.

HISD believes it has documentation to show an 85 percent completion rate, in contradiction to the 81 percent that the Texas Education Agency recorded.

Those four points mean the difference between a rating of academically acceptable and recognized. Montgomery expects the matter to be resolved next month.

The at-risk designation, which “opens up an avenue of state funds available for teachers, technology” and other resources, is based on factors such as scores on eligibility of free or reduced price lunches, limited proficiency with English, standardized tests scores, academic performance, pregnancy, behavior — anything that would reduce a student’s chances of completing his or her education, Montgomery said.

HISD’s method for identifying, documenting and punishing behavior problems, the sort that earn a student a citation or referral to HISD’s Alternative Education Program, is a sore subject with African-American parents, who confronted board trustees in July with allegations of unjust treatment of their students.

“I’ve been contacted by more than 50 families about this issue,” Erskin Hill, president of a local group called All People for Justice, told the school board in July. “And this is not the first time we have come before the board…Some parents in the district feel their concerns are not being heard. We can’t let this continue.”

Parents point to the district’s own figures that show that African-American kids are disproportionately cited for infractions.

Montgomery told trustees in July that TEA was monitoring the disciplinary system at HISD — and at other school districts — for evidence of disparities in documentation and lack of due process as part of a statewide review.

The TEA team, at its first visit to HISD, found that 72 percent of the disciplinary reports had errors, which included cases in which accused students were denied due process.

HISD hired the Austin-San Antonio law firm of Walsh Anderson to help rewrite the district’s code of conduct to improve the disciplinary process.

Parents also accused the district of using citations as the first option for dealing with errant students rather than less formal methods that with lighter penalties.

Montgomery agrees that disciplinary citations need to be handed out more judiciously.

“It was never intended as a first resort,” he said.

The remedy for that is “good strong teachers who are not intimidated by these kids when they act out,” Richard Watkins said.

It’s important, too, he said, that teachers understand the pressures some of these kids deal with at home and what type of response is likely when they feel like they’re being disrespected.

Another issue, said Richard Watkins is the district’s lack of knowledge and understanding of gang culture and its trappings.

Watkins, while a warden, offered HISD the assistance of Texas Department of Criminal Justice gang specialists, but was turned down.

Since retirement, Watkins has, at the request of the parents of students of all ethnicities, served as advocate in HISD disciplinary cases, including ones accused of being gang members.

One such student, whom Watkins successfully defended, was a young Asian man studying to become a Buddhist monk. The Buddhist symbols he had in his possession raised the suspicions of district administrators, who formally accused him of being a gang member.

Montgomery also saw the need to train staff to recognize the signs of gang activity and consulted with TDCJ and local law enforcement.

He also wanted to stave off any concern that students were being racially profiled by anxious teachers and administrators coping with discipline and safety issues.

These measures may result in more effective detection of actual gangs on campus, but parents say there has not been enough done to address the overall perception that people of color are not welcome or heard on HISD campuses and that the district provides few adult professionals to be role models for African-American students.

The district’s teacher-student ratio for black students is 1-to-40. For Latinos, it’s one teacher for every 123 students. For whites, the ratio is one teacher for every eight students.

These are figures that worry minority parents as well as the school superintendent.

African-American male teachers are in especially short supply, a weakness considering the number of  black male students the district says are “struggling.”

Statewide, ratios are 1-to-21 for blacks; 1-to-31 for Hispanics; and 1-to-7 for whites, according to TEA.

“These ratios alarm me,” Montgomery said. “Especially with Hispanics. I didn’t realize (HISD’s ratio) was that high.”

The ratios for Latino teachers to students likely will go up in the future, predicted Montgomery, who was honored in 2007 by the local chapter of LULAC as educator of the year.

“The black population is dropping and the Hispanic population is growing. I predict it won’t be long before the Hispanic population at the high school is higher than the black population,” Montgomery said. “It’s already true at the pre-K center.”

Montgomery’s strategy for managing a burgeoning population of Latino students with limited English proficiency and other issues of racial and ethnic sensitivity is a menu of several types of training for faculty and administrators.

Student advocates like Richard and Helen Watkins agree with Montgomery on the obstacles HISD faces in attracting qualified minorities to a still-rural district in East Texas.

HISD does not have the resources to compete for qualified black and Latino teachers who can “pretty much name their price,” Montgomery said.

The district also has tried to recruit bilingual teachers from areas with high populations of Latinos, but “we find it almost impossible to recruit from these areas — we just can’t compete,” he said. “That sounds like an excuse but it’s not offered as an excuse. It’s a situation we’re trying to address.”

In response, Montgomery has implemented the 100-student TSTEM  Academy to encourage high school students to become teachers by offering dual high school- college credit classes.

Students enrolled in TSTEM classes reflect the ethnic make-up of the district, he said.

The district also initiated a “grow your own” scholarship program for minority students majoring in education at Sam Houston State University.

In exchange for four years teaching at an HISD school, the district will fund part of the student’s college degree.

But Richard Watkins, who with others such as LULAC chapter president John Escobedo, suggested the program to Montgomery, said the district falls short of what they envisioned.

The NAACP and LULAC were prepared to put up scholarship funds to add to the district’s, which might have increased the pool of students who would become HISD teachers after graduation. The district didn’t take them up on it.

Escobedo and Watkins also met with HISD’s previous superintendent to address the issue but after a year of discussion, the superintendent dropped the initiative without an agreement, Watkins said.

Watkins and others, including Grover Goodwell, Hill, Raymond Russell and others continue to come to school board meetings to offer not just complaints but solutions.

At the school board meeting last Thursday, Goodwell passed out to trustees a set of questions: Does HISD have a written diversity program? Required diversity training? Management expectations of diversity training for all staff and faculty?

Barbara Williams Rash asked trustees why students were not allowed to watch President Barack Obama’s back to school speech, why students were not allowed to make the choice whether they watched, and if trustees didn’t agree that a presidential address to students was relevant to classes in history, economics and current events?

Russell thanked the district for “timely answers” to questions he asked at a previous board meeting.

“Parents should be proud that you’re taking a stance rather than just disciplining, disciplining, disciplining.” But, he said, “I think you’re missing an opportunity.”

Russell urged the board to set up a parents’ advisory committee to help address issues that arise in the district.

“If the board chooses to set up a volunteer (parents’) committee, let me be your first volunteer,” he said.

Some trustees — like Board President Karin Williams, who expressed frustration at last week’s board meeting over an apparent lack of interest in communicating with parents —  have begun to ask the district to be more accountable for maintaining positive relationships with parents of all races.

Montgomery, who has given presentations to civic and other groups to show documentation of gains students have made over the past five years, has also hired SHSU professor Mack Hines to conduct a “Race Matters” sensitivity program and to gather information about attitudes among the district’s African- American population.

The results have not been fully analyzed yet, but Richard Watkins obtained copies of Hines’ report through an Open Records Act request.

They describe a demoralized group of parents and students feeling the effects of what they perceive as institutionalized marginalization.

Policies aside, Helen Watkins said, it may be intangibles that contribute to these feelings of marginalization.

The eighth grade gala, for example, which is hosted by parents of Mance Park Junior High School students about to move on to Huntsville High School.

Admission to the gala is $200 and by invitation only. The event is held at a public place, such as the Walker County Fairgrounds. Students are expected to wear formal dress.

In the past several years, African-American students, mostly those who are popular and from families of the means to, avoid the trappings of this “mini prom.”

The district has no event of its own to include all eighth-graders. Likewise, there are few programs for students aimed at learning about diverse cultures or events designed to bring kids of different ethnicities together.

“The results are obvious,” Richard Watkins said. “The high school is a classic example. Go out to the commons during the lunch hour and look at how the kids divide themselves.”

Once again at the beginning of a new school year, parents are asking about why a back to school speech by the nation’s president is not being shown live to HISD students.

Montgomery offered an answer: The first year President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, gave the same pep talk — some parents complained.

Nevertheless, Montgomery said, that speech, as well as this year’s speech by Obama, is available to students to watch at the discretion of their teachers.

“Last year we didn’t show it live because there was some controversy and some mystery around it,” he said.

But after district officials screened the speech and once they were satisfied Obama’s message was not political, they made it available to teachers on the district server.

This year, the district gave the principals the discretion to show the speech to students live or recorded.

The image of a black man as the nation’s chief executive is important to African-American students in ways some district administrators may not appreciate, Helen Watkins said.

But she and Richard Watkins are encouraged at the “professional courage” demonstrated by some in the district who want an all-inclusive community in which all parents’ voices are heard and their ideas considered.

“It would be irresponsible for us not to pull up this district by the bootstraps,” Helen Watkins said. “The children are our future, and if we don’t look after these children, we won’t have much of a future here in Walker County.”

The Nov. 2 school district election is an opportunity to vote in trustees who will join others in holding the district accountable, Richard Watkins said.

“The community has to take an active role in electing good board members who have an interest in all kids,” he said. “The board must hold the superintendent responsible …for good student performance and a positive environment for all.”

The Huntsville Item