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Second-chance HISD school gets reprieve

April 12, 2019

A Houston ISD school designed to give older students another shot at graduation will get its own second chance.

HISD trustees voted 7-0 to reject a recommendation Thursday to close High School Ahead Academy, a northside campus serving about 150 older middle school students, many of whom were held back multiple grades. District administrators wanted to close the school because of low academic performance, dwindling enrollment and excessive disciplinary issues, among other concerns.

Trustees offered several reasons for keeping the campus open, many of which centered on the needs of over-age students and High School Ahead Academy’s unique ability to serve them. Students travel from all corners of the district to attend High School Ahead Academy, including the northeast and south-central sides of Houston.

EARLIER ON HOUSTONCHRONICLE.COM: Citing poor results, HISD considers closing school for held-back students

“It’s interesting to hear how far students will travel to this campus to get those additional services, those alternative services,” HISD Board President Diana Dávila said. “(It) shows commitment, shows dedication, shows the desire for students to be in that environment and parents to send them to that environment.”

The decision to keep High School Ahead Academy open drew applause from several of the school’s supporters in attendance, who endured about two weeks of nervous anticipation before the vote. Annetta Randel, an administrative assistant at High School Ahead Academy for the past four years, said the campus serves dedicated students who sacrifice for an opportunity to catch up academically.

“We have a special group of students,” Randel said. “They come to us, they’re already behind. If they have that extra help, somebody that believes in them, they can succeed.”

High School Ahead Academy opened in 2010 under then-superintendent Terry Grier, who championed the campus as a unique setting for older students at risk of dropping out. Administrators designed the program to allow students to complete two grade levels in a single school year, fast-tracking them back on a path toward graduation.

But in recent years, academic results and enrollment have plummeted, prompting the district administration’s closure recommendation. Over the past half-decade, about 30 percent of students have accelerated two grade levels in a single school year, while about 40 percent left the district without completing the program, district officials said.

High School Ahead Academy also held the ignominious distinction of issuing 2.7 suspensions per student last year, the highest rate among Texas’ 8,600-plus campuses.

“That was another concern, that they’re going to this particular school for additional support, but they’re being suspended out-of-school,” Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan told trustees.

Board members, however, said academic and disciplinary data from High School Ahead Academy should not be compared to other campuses, where the vast majority of students are on grade level. Some trustees questioned administrators’ claims that students could be better served at their neighborhood campus, surrounded by younger children.

“It’s still kind of a leap of faith that these particular students are going to do better at their home schools,” HISD Trustee Anne Sung said.

Board member Jolanda Jones also expressed unease about shuttering a school where 65 percent of students are black and nearly 35 percent are Hispanic. In recent years, 10 out of 11 HISD school closures occurred in predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods.

“I really struggle with closing more schools in the north side, in historically disadvantaged areas,” Jones said.

Randel said High School Ahead Academy needs additional support from volunteers, as well as more reliable transportation from the district.

HISD trustees also voted 6-0 on Thursday to rearrange and set some limits on public comment, an effort to reduce the length of their meetings and receive more timely feedback.

Speakers to agenda items will now address trustees during a 60-minute window at their agenda review meeting, which occurs one week before board members vote on items. The hearing of citizens, during which residents can speak to trustees on any issue, still will occur during regular board meetings, with a 30-minute limit. The board’s president will have discretion to increase the maximum time allocated for comment.

Several residents have criticized the move, arguing it limits the public’s ability to provide input on key issues facing the district.

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