Houston: shuttering Houston's only full-time dual language program?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jun 17 12:51:10 UTC 2008

Summing up a school
Wharton Elementary is a high-performing school with community backing.
Why shutter it?

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Houston Independent School District officials probably reckoned they
made a thrifty choice when they planned to close William Wharton
Elementary. Because many Wharton students come from neighborhoods
outside its zone, administrators must have assumed that shuttering the
school, consolidating its student body with that of a bigger facility,
and perhaps selling the pricey Montrose real estate was a winning

They failed to do their homework. A small army of Montrose residents
organized to save the school. The residents have spoken out at public
hearings, met with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra and launched a
tidy new Web site called www.friendsofwharton.org. In the process, the
coalition revealed the central role a healthy school plays for its
community. Wharton, the Montrose activists argue, is not only an
academic success story. It is a catalyst for political participation,
as neighbors return there year after year to vote. With cozy,
mini-Alamo style architecture, it's one of a handful of HISD
elementary schools considered architecturally significant. And it
hosts an Urban Harvest community garden, a neighborhood playground and
a baseball field, which cost the Neartown Little League more than

HISD, of course, is not the park service. Much as neighbors like
Wharton, administrators could argue, the district must pass only one
exam in deciding its fate: whether it benefits Houston students. Yet
Wharton, it turns out, educates well. Uniquely well. Home to Houston's
only full-time dual language program, Wharton offers a carefully
calibrated program that immerses native and non-native speakers in a
mix of languages. By the time these children get to secondary school,
all of them — native speakers or not — are bilingual. Intriguingly,
the system enhances the test scores of both English- and
Spanish-speaking children.

Wharton, which has 378 students in its 397 available slots, just
finished educating its second set of dual-language sixth-graders.
Here's how they did on TAKS. In reading, 94 percent met the district
standard; 32 percent achieved Commended Performance. In math, 100
percent met the district standard; 68 percent achieved Commended
Performance. All these students, moreover, have the language skills to
take the TAKS in English or in Spanish. As one school administrator
put it in a letter to activists, "Those are clearly 'Exemplary'
results. ... Wharton is going to be a Recognized School again this
year. And our reward is ... ?"

HISD, of course, isn't hunting down good schools to persecute. The
district needs to economize: Recent state legislation essentially
flattened the district's revenue, and overall enrollment is ebbing.
According to HISD policy, Wharton fits the category of schools too
small to be cost-effective. Renovating the 1929 building will
certainly cost more than tweaking the new construction funded by
recent bond issues.

But the district neglected several critical calculations. The first:
unilaterally uprooting an institution in a community fast changing
from renters to homeowners, and from largely single, transient
residents to young families who are firmly committed to the community.
Consistently, Montrose activists and at least one school board member
complain that HISD refuses to act with transparency and respond to
local input. When, how and where the planned consolidation will occur
remains a mystery.

HISD also failed to set a clear protocol for closing small schools.
The district has chosen not to shutter several small facilities,
typically underperformers, partly because of their historical meaning
to their neighborhoods. Throughout Houston — and Montrose is no
exception — many neighborhoods have two schools serving the same age
group, puzzlingly close together. This is a legacy of past educational
segregation, when blacks and whites went to separate, decidedly
unequal schools. HISD has rightly avoided shutting down some small
institutions that faithfully served their neighborhoods as community
centers over generations. Though Wharton was originally a white school
(it's now mostly Hispanic), it plays a similar role in the surrounding

Least forgivable, HISD wants to dismantle a school that is succeeding.
How many other successes can the district claim? According to recent
research, Wharton probably plays a role in its students' scores. If
so, closing it is no economy. It's easy to imagine why parents cherish
this school. It's far less ordinary to have a school inspire equal
support and gratitude from neighbors without children there. If
Wharton's closing goes forward, the district will rob Houston — and
itself — of a badly needed success story.

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