Houston ISD families blast the state’s takeover of the district as an intervention that won’t improve student learning

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks to the press on March 3 about the Texas Education Agency and its then-possible takeover of Houston Independent School District. The TEA confirmed the decision Wednesday. (Joseph Bui For The Texas Tribune, Joseph Bui For The Texas Tribune)

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HOUSTON — Parents, students and educators here on Wednesday denounced the state’s decision to take over the school district as a power grab that won’t improve student learning.

[Texas Education Agency will take control of Houston ISD in June]

The Texas Education Agency confirmed its plans to remove all nine members of Houston Independent School District’s democratically elected school board, as well as its superintendent Millard House II. The district, with roughly 190,000 students — about 85% of whom are Hispanic and Black, will become the largest to be taken over by TEA.

“There’s not a single parent that I’ve spoken to who wants this,” said Audrey Nath, whose son is a kindergartener at Wharton Dual Language Academy. “None of the parents or teachers that I’ve spoken with at school or on the playground or at play dates are saying, ‘Oh, we need to have some non-elected managers taking over our school.’ Nobody is saying that.”

The state’s takeover comes as more than 270 campuses and schools continue to grapple with disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After struggling with remote learning for two years, Ivona Washington, now a senior at Lamar High School, said it took her months to get back into socializing at school.

For many students, she says, teachers serve as an important adult figure in their lives. She worries that connection could be lost during the takeover if teachers are tasked with focusing on other priorities.

Lamar High School senior Ivona Washington speaks at a press conference regarding the state takeover of HISD, in Houston on March 15, 2023.

Lamar High School senior Ivona Washington speaks at a Wednesday press conference regarding the state's takeover of HISD in Houston. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune

“They just threw us right back into school and now they want us to start doing amazing,” Washington said. “If I go to school and my teachers only care about me as a test score for money, I can feel that and you don’t want to be there.”

The school district needs its students and teachers supported with resources — not taken over by state-appointed individuals, said Caoilin Krathaus, a junior at Carnegie Vanguard High School.

“My classmates and I and all of HISD students need adults that represent us and care deeply about our education, our concerns and not our financial value,” Krathaus said at a news conference held by the Houston Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest union.

Phillis Wheatley High School — the campus whose poor performance state officials say triggered the takeover — sits in Houston’s Fifth Ward, where several residents said Wednesday they were skeptical of the state’s intentions for taking over. They questioned the timing of the state’s intervention because the school has improved its performance — even after the pandemic — and the district overall performs better than many other districts in Texas.

Others said they hoped the district would be spared of too many sudden changes after finding a sense of stability following a decade defined by various scandals, including the start of the yearslong legal fight with the state about the takeover.

But on Wednesday as the schools were out for spring break, many questions remained.

The district is one of the Houston area’s largest employers with nearly 30,000 full- and part-time workers, yet several said they were not certain how the takeover may affect their lives. The same went for several HISD parents and students.

“We’re praying that it is for the good, not to make it worse,” said Melinda Torry, a science multigrade teacher who’s been with HISD for more than a decade, as she ate lunch in the Fifth Ward neighborhood with a colleague. “The bottom line is the students.”

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