In the eight years that Vivek Agarwal has taught science at North Forest Independent School District’s lone high school, he has watched six principals and four superintendents come and go.
“By the time they learn the system, they are gone,” he said. “There are too many changes.”
The turbulence is familiar to the northeast Houston district, which for almost three decades has wrestled with poor academic performance and financial mismanagement. Between 2008 and 2010, the Texas Education Agency took over the struggling district in an attempt to turn it around. In 2010, only 48 percent of the students at North Forest graduated within four years and just 27 percent of ninth-graders passed state math exams. Then in July, the district was told it would be closed by the state and annexed into the neighboring Houston Independent School District.
North Forest ISD has now gotten what amounts to a stay of execution. The Texas Education Agency announced a week ago that the district would get another year to make financial and academic improvements. But the question of whether students would be better off attending different schools still lingers. Though staying in underperforming districts holds clear risks, some education advocates say there is little research that indicates closing districts improves outcomes for students.
When the education agency announced the forced closing of North Forest last summer, reaction from the community was immediate. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, called the decision to close the predominantly black school district “the highest level of hypocrisy and racism.” Carol Mims Galloway, then a member of the HISD board, questioned whether her district could adequately serve the 6,400 new students who would probably attend some of its lowest-performing schools.
“We would love to see TEA do something visionary, do something with effort and some future in it to help North Forest,” said Ivory Mayhorn, a community activist. “But to just close it and find an easy way out, no, that’s not going to happen without some serious response from the community.”
North Forest ISD officials said the education agency was punishing the district for mistakes that happened while it was under the agency’s control. “It almost seemed like a move of opportunity, truthfully,” Superintendent Edna Forte said.
Now, with the news of the extension — which by early February, the district had spent about $200,000 in legal costs to obtain, according an open record request — supporters have reason for encouragement. But the battle for its future is far from over.
One day in February before the district learned of its reprieve, fliers for college financial aid workshops and motivational speakers — new offerings this year — hung in the high school’s worn corridors. As she sat in the library before lunch, junior Laporsha Ford said she had noticed a difference at the high school this year. School leaders are “more organized,” she said, and the whole place has “a brighter edge to it.”
“It’s not as depressing as it once was,” she said.
But signs of the district’s struggles remained. In an unexpectedly full math class, six students stood without chairs. Students shouldered see-through backpacks, which they have been required to carry since January when one student shot and injured another on campus.
Debbie Ratcliffe, a TEA spokeswoman, said North Forest had made progress on all fronts. But she also said the decision to give the district more time was based on the agency’s own failure to fulfill a provision requiring a review of how absorbing North Forest ISD students would affect the Houston district — and a concern that the state was running out of time to clear the annexation with the United States Department of Justice.
When the education agency took over North Forest ISD in 2008, the district was nearing bankruptcy. The Houston Chronicle had recently uncovered that North Forest had used $6 million in construction bond money — a number that would grow to $13.3 million — for other expenses. But embarrassing details about the district’s finances continued to emerge while it was under the TEA’s control, like the $18,000 spent on renovations to the foyer in the district central office, including a 114-gallon aquarium.
A few months after the state’s two-year takeover ended, the board voted to oust the agency-appointed superintendent and chose Forte to take his place in March 2011. Since then, she has trimmed more than $4 million from the budget and cut staff. She also contracted with Pedro Noguera of New York University, an education researcher who specializes in reforming struggling urban districts.
Within the next year, North Forest must meet requirements set by the TEA, which include beginning a five-year repayment of the remaining $8 million the board borrowed from the construction bond fund, developing a dropout prevention plan, and improving standardized test scores.
The district plans to sell surplus property to raise extra money. But there is a possible flaw in that plan: Area real estate values have dropped 5 percent in the past year and a half. The district may also continue to lose funds from the state if families keep moving out of the neighborhood. Student enrollment has dropped almost 30 percent in the past five years.
Achieving the academic goals hinges on changing the culture at the district, which has suffered with the constantly shifting leadership, Noguera said.
“Kids were getting good grades and failing the state exams,” he said. “Teachers were sending the wrong message to kids about what the expectations are.”
Noguera said he has been working to “recalibrate everything” with professional development sessions with the staff. He was also critical of the state’s role in supporting the district.
“What has the state done to help this district? It has sent in advisers that have not been there to help them,” he said. “We are the first group that has come in and provided that kind of support.”
Compounding the challenges in the district, said Agarwal, the science teacher, is the lack of support for students outside the classroom. Many of his students are from low-income families, and they must work after school to help support their families. Others are grappling with dire circumstances. Agarwal said that when he asked about a formerly cheerful model student who had grown listless in his class, the school nurse informed him that the student had recently been raped.
“The kids are in adult situations,” he said.
If Houston ISD is eventually required to take on North Forest’s students, the high schoolers would most likely be split among three neighboring high schools: Kashmere, Wheatley and Booker T. Washington. Each of those schools was rated academically unacceptable in 2011. But because they are part of a larger district, with other schools that are not as low performing, Forte said, their students’ poor performance is disguised.
“Those schools are failing on a larger scale than ours,” she said.
For parents in the small North Forest district, she said, moving to slightly higher rated district is not worth giving up local control. She said her district is able to provide services tailored to its student population, like Saturday tutoring sessions where free breakfast and lunch are served.
“One thing is not changing, and that is the kids,” Agarwal said. “If this group disperses in different schools, it is going to taint everywhere, and they are going to have to deal with the conflicts because they won’t be able to perform as well as everybody else.”
This is the second installment in a five-part series in which The Texas Tribune explores the struggles of failing school districts — and what's at stake for those who want them to survive. Part one looks at whether closing a district ends up benefiting students. Part three reports on the progress that Premont ISD has made after cutting sports to focus on academics and boost finances. Part four looks at a rebirth for schools in the Wilmer-Hutchins area after the local district was shuttered. Part five is a video report looking at whether the state system is helping failing districts.