Houston ISD's superintendent spoke for the first time since the district announced the planned closures of five schools. Dr. Terry Grier told parents, teachers and community leaders Wednesday that HISD has never been better. But not everyone agrees with that.
In his annual State of the Schools address at the Hilton Hotel Americas, Grier said HISD became the first district to be named Urban School District of the Year twice in a row. The district also received two multimillion-dollar grants from the federal government, and Grier says graduates are being offered more scholarship money than ever before.
"Our graduation rate is at an all-time high; dropouts at an all-time low. We had a phenomenal year. The kind of year an urban district only dreams of," said Grier.
Grier said HISD is striving to provide a quality education to all 211,000 students in a safe environment, but that goal still hasn't been reached.
Over 80 percent of the district's students come from disadvantaged homes, and Grier said reading skills are still a major concern for the district going forward.
There's also the controversy over Grier's plan to close five campuses where enrollment has dropped. The proposal to close Dodson, Nathaniel Henderson, and Port Houston elementary schools, along with Fleming Middle school and Jones High School, have sparked outrage and allegations for racism. Grier says it's about economics.
"One of the issues here is that Houston is a district of choice, and when you have 2,200 students in a zone, and only 450 of those kids chose to go to that school, and when that enrollment goes down, you spending three times for the children in that school as you are for others across the district," he said.
A lone protester, Kofi Taharka of the National Black United Front, confronted Grier after he'd finished his speech. Taharka contends that HISD is deliberately driving down enrollment at the schools in order to close them.
"Why are you trying to close the schools and not put all the resources into the schools necessary?" he asked Grier.
"I hear you," Grier replied. "And I'll have that conversation with you another day."
Grier earlier said allegations the district was deliberately withholding resources from the schools was simply not true, pointing out that Jones High School was funded as a magnet school, and most of the teachers were replaced, but enrollment dropped in spite of that.
The district still hasn't resolved allegations of teachers at Jefferson and Atheron Elementary schools cheating on standardized tests. Grier said the report on the investigation into those allegations will be completed by the end of February.