Home » Academics » Part 4 – Looking at Issues Inside and Outside Huntsville Schools

Part 4 – Looking at Issues Inside and Outside Huntsville Schools

Rich Heiland

Not all issues impacting HISD can be controlled from inside

By Rich Heiland

Free Press Publications, LLC

For Walker County News Today

Fourth in a Series

            ASK MOST ANYONE who’s been in town long what’s wrong with the Huntsville Independent School Districtand they’ll tell you. Odds are they will be mostly wrong.

When the HISD was given an overall “F” by the Texas Education Association in its new accountability grading, some of the old “reasons” came back.

  • It’s all the inmate families following prisoners to town
  • It’s too many administrators and not enough teachers
  • Too many minorities who don’t want to learn
  • The schools aren’t safe – too many gangs
  • Immigration – too many students can’t speak English
  • The curriculum isn’t challenging enough
  • When they pushed a lot of veteran teachers into retirement a few years back, the schools went to pot.

The list could go on. Like any list, you can find hints of truth in it. But the truths are small compared with the impact of the overall data.

If one thing jumps out of the report, it’s poverty, not race or immigrants or gangs that may be the biggest elephant in the room.

We touched on it in Part 2 of this series.

The average income for white families in Huntsville is $32,400; Hispanic, $28,500 and African-American, $13,200.That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of families and individuals in each category doing better, but taken overall, Huntsville has a lot of people existing at or below poverty guidelines and the reality of that shows up in the schools. And, it shows up in performance.

THE NEW REPORT includes a measure for “economically disadvantaged.” That is based on how many students qualify for free lunches based on Federal poverty levels.

Overall, HISD has 48 percent of it 8,257 students classified as economically disadvantaged.

When you look at the high school you see that figure is 50.7; at Mance Park Middle School, it’s 56.5; and, at Huntsville Intermediate School, 61.5.

It’s the intermediate level where the numbers start to get, well, ugly in terms of the number of students coming to school out of poverty, as defined by Federal standards.

At Samuel Houston Elementary School, 63.3 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. At Stewart Elementary, it’s 64.9 percent. Scott Johnson has 63.2 percent. At Huntsville Elementary School, it’s a whopping 70.7 percent.

Looked at with another number, more than two-thirds of students at Huntsville Elementary are getting free lunches.

HISD Superintendent Dr. Scott Sheppard says while the number of disadvantaged students in lower grades may be on the rise, that’s not necessarily so. Overall, he thinks the numbers understate poverty.

“We do have a high number of reported economically disadvantaged kids, but we actually under-report on that number,” the told the Walker County News Today. “We have a lot of parents who, frankly, are too proud to ask for free or reduced lunches so they won’t appear in these numbers. Also, we have more at the high school level than reported.

“When a child reaches high school they often are more involved in making the decisions. They don’t want the peer pressure or free or reduced lunch. And, they want choice. If they are on free and reduced lunches, they can’t go through the ala carte line or the snack bar,” Sheppard said.

But, he doesn’t deny poverty exists and it impacts learning.

Operation Warm, which provides winter coats to children in poverty, also studies the impact of poverty on learning. Last year it said “Students living above the poverty line are entering kindergarten more prepared than those below it. Parents with low incomes, on average, have less time to read to their children, no-funds for pre-school, and less stable home environments.

“One factor doctors have begun to take note of in school success is the amount of words children hear by the age of three. Statistically, low income children will hear 30 million fewer words by the age of five. These children are also less likely to read in their spare time, or have trouble reading all together.”

The article also noted children in poverty live with increased stress that causes them to have problems focusing at school and fitting in. And often, there is little reinforcement at home for what happens in the classroom.

“Typically speaking districts with higher numbers of economically disadvantaged students tend to perform below school districts that are wealthy,” the report said.

SO, WHAT ABOUT race and immigration? If poverty is the elephant in the room race then race and immigration are the gorilla. But, trying to look at Huntsville schools in racial terms is not just racist, it’s highly misleading.

The reality is that in the HISD whites are a minority. The long-standing Afro-American population has grown and the Hispanic/Latino growth trend is a fact locally, just as it is across Texas and even nationally.

Overall 40.1 percent of HSID students are white, 23.6 percent are Afro-American and 31.5 percent are Hispanic. If you want to see the future, look at the high school where 38 percent are white, 32.9 are Hispanic and 26.2 black. Then, jump down to the elementary schools where the highest white population is 37 percent at Huntsville elementary. Two of the four elementary schools have Hispanic populations of around 40 percent and one has an Afro-American population of 44.2.

The faces in Huntsville schools are changing and that’s a reality. But, is it a reason for poor performance? There is no question whites outperform minorities on STARR tests, by as much as 20-25 points depending on categories.

But, when connecting dots, you have to loop poverty back in. When you look at average incomes, white wages are $32,400 a year, Hispanics, $28,500 and Afro-American, $13.200.

Sheppard is not buying the racial argument. Even though minority scores lag whites, he points to gains in schools that have high numbers of minorities and English language learners.

“We have seen incredible growth in pockets of our district,” he said. “Mance Park Middle School scores went up incredibly. Samuel Walker Houston moved up to meet standards and so did Scott Johnson.”

At Mance Park non-whites are 64 percent of the student population; at Samuel Houston, non-whites are 66 percent; and, at Scott Johnson, basically the same. So, the three schools showing the most progress are heavily minority. Other schools where minority enrollments are similar didn’t improve, which actually further challenges the stereotype that achievement is based on race or ethnicity. Again, the constant in many cases is poverty.

IN THE LAST 20 years Huntsville has seen a growth in private schools, fueled in part by faith, dissatisfaction with the perceived quality of high school but also safety fears. A few years ago a community forum was formed out of a fear that major gangs, with gang violence, were moving into the schools. Subtly beneath some of the fears were the issues of race and immigration.

This flight from public schools, for whatever reason, also has led to skewed results. For the most part those who have fled are not poor. They tend to be parents whose children no doubt would have boosted the test scores.

While Sheppard said he has no problem with alternative education, he does think an “apples and oranges” game is being played and that private schools are not magically better than public ones.

“It’s aggravating, frankly, that we only measure public schools. Schools that are not subject to the state’s accountability system don’t have to teach the same curriculum. They are never assessed. They can self-proclaim they are better, but there is no scorecard,” he said.

The more you look behind the grades, the more complicated it becomes. But, poverty seems to always jump out. What can the district do about that, and then about learning? And what can it do

Sadly, there is not much it can do. It can give free lunches. Beyond that, it can focus teaching techniques at where students are, and that is where Sheppard plans to focus.

Part 5 (Monday Sept. 10) – The first of two parts on Scott Sheppard’s plans for HISD

Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached freepresstx@gmail.com or 936-293-0293.

About Rich Heiland

Rich Heiland, former publisher of the Huntsville Item and owner of Free Press publications, LLC, a reporting/writing firm working with media, has been a reporter, editor and publisher at several daily papers. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University. He can be reached at freepresstx@gmail.com or 936-293-0293.

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