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At schools across Houston, students and parents protest Texas Education Agency’s takeover of state’s largest district

By Alejandro Serrano, The Texas Tribune

At schools across Houston, students and parents protest Texas Education Agency’s takeover of state’s largest district” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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HOUSTON — The chants began two minutes before the first bell at Sinclair Elementary School.

“I don’t know what I’ve been told. TEA is really cold,” nine students and their parents, some holding donuts and coffee, chanted.

The crowd of about 20 gathered in front of the Houston Independent School District campus to rally against the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of the state’s largest school system. Parents questioned the state’s intentions behind the takeover and expressed a variety of worries, from concerns about an overhaul of funding that would affect all the district’s schools and programs to a lack of clarity from the state about what it is doing and why.

“The biggest question is really if the school district was struggling five, 10 years ago but has made significant improvements … why would you stir things up now?” George Frey, father of one Sinclair student, said. “Why are we doing this?”

About 15 minutes after the 7:30 a.m. bell, parents protesting walked their kids into the school for an important day — career day.

Across the neighborhood at Heights High School, a handful of parents handed out informational cards about the takeover and asked those dropping off students if they wanted to sign a petition. Elsewhere in the city, high school students staged walkouts.

The protests were among numerous demonstrations that occurred across the city Thursday, the same day that applications were due for seats on the state’s board of managers that will replace Houston ISD’s current democratically elected school board. Students said the uncertainty about how the takeover will affect their future — and that of generations younger than them — drove them to walkout of class in protest.

“I am protesting the hostile takeover of Houston ISD to empower other parents to fight for their rights and for the rights of our children,” parent Kourtney Revels said. “Education is a right, not a privilege, and taxpayers like me would like to see more equity, school funding tied to enrollment and inflation, and the end to using STAAR to shame our communities, instead of hijacking the largest ISD by the state for political reasons.”

Education Commissioner Mike Morath said three weeks ago the state was moving to remove the trustees of HISD, with roughly 190,000 students and more than 250 campuses, following a yearslong legal dispute over the state’s initial plans to take over due to persistent low performance at a single school and board dysfunction. The Texas Supreme Court in January lifted a temporary injunction that had staved off the appointment of a state governance board.

Phillis Wheatley High School, the school that triggered the takeover, has since performed better — even after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted instruction — and the district overall performs better academically than many other large school systems in Texas. The board dysfunction was not cited in last month’s takeover notification.

However, a 2015 law mandates a takeover when a school district or one of its campuses receives failing grades from the Texas Education Agency for five consecutive years; Wheatley High reached that threshold in 2019, its seventh failing year.

The state also plans to replace Superintendent Millard House II, who started the job in July 2021 and helped navigate the district to a full return to in-person instruction and toward a semblance of stability after years of leadership tumult.

TEA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. HISD officials said in a statement they respected “the rights of our students to assemble and express their views through protest.”

Local education advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education, parents and students organized Thursday’s protests, the latest one in continuous opposition to the takeover from many in the city since the state announced its plans on March 15.

An student at Northside High School in Houston holds a sign protesting the TEA takeover of HISD, on April 6,2022.
A student at Northside High School in Houston holds a sign protesting the Texas Education Agency takeover of Houston ISD. Credit: Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune

More than 100 students walked out at Northside High School on Thursday morning, penned into a courtyard in front of the school by gates administrators closed shortly before the students went outside.

Holding signs that had messages like “Tearing Education Apart TEA Go Away,” the students chanted and gathered by a platform where a few spoke to the larger group.

Senior Edith Fiallos said she opposed the state intervention, which she believed would not fulfill the district’s needs — such as more funding and resources — and may lead to what no student needs: more standardized testing and school closures.

“We as students and teachers know what we need,” Fiallos said, standing behind the school’s front gate as the crowd behind her dispersed back to class.

An hour and a half after the walkout at Northside, students at Carnegie Vanguard High School staged their own walkout, marching around the block through rain and returning to the front of the school for an impromptu rally.

Bela Jotwani, a junior whose brother will be a freshman at the campus next year, said the weeks since the takeover announcement have been filled with worry stemming from TEA’s vague responses to questions from teachers, parents and students.

“It’s all up in the air. The TEA hasn’t put out any information about anything that’s going to happen except for — strictly — the board of managers,” Jotwani said. “I just don’t know [how] my education is going to change.”

Another student, sophomore Eliut Delgado, said the takeover will strip Houstonians of their right to democratically elect a board to guide the district and replace it with individuals picked by the state’s Republican leaders.

“My immediate concern is that we become a vessel for different policies — experimental … whether it be book bannings or anti-LGBTQ,” Delgado said. “We have no idea what the effects are.”

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