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New campuses, minor cutbacks greet HISD students in 2018-19

August 26, 2018

After a year of unprecedented challenges and changes, Houston ISD students will return to class Monday to find a district that — if all goes according to plan — has sailed through the worst of storms.

Hurricane Harvey is in the past. Projections of mass layoffs and ballooning class sizes have been quelled. The district’s leadership team has stabilized, for now.

Still, when an estimated 214,000 students arrive for the first day of the 2018-19 school year, many will see changes large and small that will impact their daily routines. The impact of budget cuts and magnet program changes will be felt by some students, while others will enjoy the fruits of years-long construction in brand-new facilities.

“Our classrooms are set up, they’re beautiful and they’re ready for students to learn,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said.

Here’s a rundown of what’s new in HISD as another year begins at Texas’ largest school district.

New campuses

Students at 11 schools will return to find new or dramatically renovated facilities, as the district debuts construction projects with a combined price tag of more than $400 million.

Several high schools will open sparkling buildings that prioritize flexibility and space for career-centered activities. For example, the High School For Law and Justice’s new East Downtown digs feature a built-to-scale courtroom, crime scene investigation lab and law library — a far cry from the school’s former Rice Military campus, built in the 1920s.

“I think the kids are just going to be fascinated and amazed by what they see,” said Carol Mosteit, principal of the High School For Law and Justice. “We had struggles in the old building with space and things falling apart. I just think the whole atmosphere and culture will shift to one of wanting to be here.”

Four other high schools also will re-open with new facilities or major renovations in areas just east or south of downtown: Eastwood Academy, Energy Institute High School, Yates High School and Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy.

Ten of the 11 projects were financed through the district’s $1.89 billion bond program approved by voters in 2012. About three-quarters of the projects are complete. District officials still are contemplating whether to seek a bond election in 2019.

Students at two other schools seriously damaged by Hurricane Harvey also will shift facilities Monday. Hilliard Elementary School, located on the city’s northeast side, will reopen after it remained closed throughout the 2017-18 academic year. Braeburn Elementary school students, who spent last year at the old DeBakey High School for Health Professions, will move to modular buildings placed on the campus of Welch Middle School. Braeburn, located on the city’s southwest side, was demolished and is being rebuilt, with a target opening date of January 2020.

Budget cuts

Most schools across HISD will experience some belt-tightening this year to accommodate the district’s $84 million in budget cuts. District leaders, however, believe they have avoided major changes in day-to-day operations.

“You won’t see the necessary cuts we had to make at the classroom level,” Lathan said. “You’re not going to see overcrowded classrooms.”

For most HISD campuses, the necessary budget cuts will have relatively minimal impact on spending. HISD leaders trimmed per-student funding, which makes up a sizable chunk of total allocations at each school, across all campuses by about 2.5 percent. That money pays for teacher compensation, substitute staff, small equipment purchases and general supplies, among other costs.

Some schools, however, will see more sizable changes after the district reduced funding for many magnet schools. Vanguard campuses DeBakey High School for Health Professionals and Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts are expected to lose roughly 5 to 15 percent of total funding.

“Our biggest situation will be that we lost a few teachers,” said Nellie Naidoo, president of the DeBakey High School for Health Professionals Parent-Teacher Organization. “Our principal tried to find ways to save all our (Advanced Placement) courses and she tried to make sure our classroom sizes weren’t too much bigger.”

HISD officials did not respond to requests for information about the reduction in teaching ranks this year. During the budget process this spring, district officials said they expected to employ fewer teachers in 2018-19, eliminating jobs through attrition. The district still hired more than 1,000 new teachers this year.

About 50 teachers this year were issued notices that they would not be retained due to budget cuts, but those employees later were told they could take jobs at other HISD schools. HISD had a full-time employee count of about 11,800 teachers last year.

Transportation changes

HISD will have additional staff members on-site Monday morning and afternoon at the district’s new magnet school bus hubs, where students traveling outside their neighborhood zones now will be picked up and dropped off. District officials implemented the hub system this year to simplify routes and reduce the amount of time students spend on buses.

The change means many students will have to travel farther to reach their bus stops — typically three miles or less — but take more direct routes to their magnet schools. Some students will have shorter overall commutes, while others could spend more time in transit to magnet schools this year.

HISD Transportation Services General Manager Tim Brown said district officials will be reviewing whether more hubs are needed as the school year gets underway.

“This program does have room for expansion,” Brown said. “We’ve already explored the opportunity to be able to do that. The campuses have not been identified, but the concept under which we can expand has been solidified.”

Throughout the year, HISD also will roll out an upgraded GPS system that will allow families to track buses electronically in real-time. HISD trustees approved spending up to $3.5 million in May for purchases related to the technology. Directions for accessing the system will be released as it goes online.

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

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