Houston – Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House II took to the mic with concern in his voice. Earlier in the day, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the county’s COVID-19 threat level from orange, or significant, to red, or severe, amid the return of rising infection rates. House had been following data closely, and during last week’s agenda meeting, he asked HISD’s Board of Trustees to take a risk and vote on re-instituting a mask mandate.
“If we have an opportunity to save one life, it’s what we should be doing. This is something I’ve labored over for the last week or so as I’ve watched these numbers come up,” said House during the Aug. 5 meeting.
HISD’s Board of Trustees, which unanimously selected House as the sole candidate for the job of superintendent, will vote on whether to require masks on buses and campuses at Thursday’s scheduled meeting.
“As superintendent of schools of the largest school system in the state of Texas, that concerns me. It concerns me greatly,” said House.
If approved, the mandate would go against Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order, which prevents governments and schools from requiring facial coverings.
An uphill battle: COVID-19, student achievement, and longstanding inequities
For House, who began his tenure in July, concerns over COVID-19 run the gamut. From healthcare to students making the grade, the pandemic has impacted all aspects of public education, toughening an already tough task to right the ship.
“We’re a very large organization and that’s what the goal of my 90-day plan is – to get out into several different components of this community and get to know where our struggles are, where our successes are, and build on them,” said House.
Arguably, the biggest struggle has been the learning loss during the pandemic, with some students attending class in person, some virtually, and others not falling through the cracks.
“We know that in a school district of 210,000, we’re probably about 10,000 students less, in comparison to where we were in the previous year,” said House. “That’s a concern, and we have to wrap our arms around who those students are.”
Recent STAAR Test results for the 2020-2021 school year confirm what education analysts have referred to as the COVID-19 slide. In HISD, 41% of students failed to meet standards in reading in 2021 compared to 32.5% in 2019 when the STAAR test was last administered before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data released by the Texas Education Agency.
In math, the number of students failing to meet standards nearly doubled, from 27.5% in 2019 to 52.3% in 2021, the data confirmed.
HISD isn’t the only school district witnessing regressions in student achievement. In fact, TEA data confirmed drops statewide, deepening racial disparities among students.
House, who served as director of schools for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Tennessee, said he studied HISD’s challenges and applied to run the district for the challenge to fix them.
The Clarksville-Montgomery County School District has an enrollment of roughly 36,000 students, district data confirmed. That’s compared to HISD’s estimated enrollment of 210,000. House said the size differentiation does not intimidate him. He said he planned to revisit some programs that worked in Tennessee in hopes of addressing some of HISD’s concerns.
Conquering those challenges, however, House conceded, will take time.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all. It’s not an opportunity to fix this in one month or in six months or even two years,” said House.
Time is a currency by which is hard to come. That challenge is even more pronounced in public education, a field that didn’t initially pique House’s interest, despite being the family business.
“I went to school on a full athletic scholarship and had the opportunity to consciously not follow in the footsteps of my mother and father in terms of being an educator,” said House. “But it’s one of those things when you fight it and you know it’s in you and you inherently have been around it your entire life. It’s what I fell back on and I’m so thankful that I had those experiences with my family to understand what my calling was.”
From point guard to principal
Millard House II aspired to become a physical therapist after graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla., his hometown.
He was a member of the marching band.
He also played basketball, where his position of point guard served him well.
“The one thing about me as a leader, coming up through high school and college I was always a point guard. So, leadership came fairly natural. I was forced into that role as a person that was a team captain. That was a leader of baseball or basketball,” House said.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Science, House returned home to Tulsa with every intention of attending physical therapy school.
“The whole idea was to go back to physical therapy school, which didn’t work out. My first job out of college was working as a barber at a barbershop,” said House.
As a barber, young boys wanted House to cut their hair. He says that’s because the boys liked the fact that he was a student-athlete.
“I had a couple of pictures that were in my booth, and so the kids navigated to my pictures and saw that I played basketball in college and asked lots of questions. I was able to take those questions and utilize those conversations around, ‘How are you doing in your lesson,’” said House.
A school principal noticed House’s approach and invited him to work as a substitute teacher.
House said that’s when he answered his calling.
“I felt like I had a gift of being able to give back to kids and they listened at a high level. That was contagious and it was at that moment I knew I needed to get certified to work with children,” said House.
He did just that, getting his first job as a teacher in 1995. By 1998, Tulsa Public Schools had promoted House to the principal of one of its worst-performing schools -- Anderson Elementary.
“It felt natural. It felt really natural. I was a 26-year-old principal in the next-to-lowest performing school in the State of Oklahoma at the time,” said House.
Leading, House said, is what came naturally.
“It was probably the most pivotal time in my life and career to get that opportunity at that moment, but leadership is about how you build capacity in other people, as well,” said House.
Erica Walker, currently a high school guidance counselor, knows firsthand the extent to which House trusted her. House hired Walker, then a recent college graduate, to teach first grade at Anderson. House’s first year in charge doubled as her first job in the classroom.
“I wouldn’t have known that it was his first year had he not told me because I just always felt comfortable and felt like he knew what he was talking about,” said Walker.
Walker said House’s support of teachers and administrators helped them turn around Anderson’s failing grades.
“What I felt was really good is that Mr. House did a really good job at setting up professional development that would help implement programs that were successful for our students. I remember school-wide things. School-wide reading programs that were brought in to help the students,” she said.
Walker kept an article House gave her during her first months on the job that offered tips on how not to foster disciplinary problems among students. He highlighted, underlined, and left marginal notes throughout the text.
One note that has stuck with Walker to this day is the following message: “You are doing these things (sic). Keep up the good work.”
“Houston is getting the best. I just appreciated his support and his drive and his desire for students to succeed,” said Walker.
Most of those students were considered low-income, living in an underserved, underrepresented neighborhood on Tulsa’s northside, a predominately African American neighborhood, in a community with a history steeped in pride as well as pain.
‘He inherited education:’ Black Wall Street and ‘deeps roots’ to teach about the past
Both of Millard House II’s parents were educators and strived to leave their children with a lasting understanding of their city’s history.
“Dad has 10 sisters and brothers. He’s deceased, but many of them were educators. My mom has four sisters and brothers,” said House.
His father, Millard House Sr., served as a history teacher. The elder House also worked in education. In 1970, Tulsa Public Schools assigned House the task of leading the district’s mandate to desegregate.
Like most cities in the U.S., desegregating Tulsa’s public schools wasn’t easy. Tulsa’s struggle to overcome segregation was rooted in an act of terror so deadly, parts of its Black community have yet to recover.
“The history of Tulsa, Oklahoma is a history that most cities don’t have in America,” said Willie Sells, owner of Tee’s Barber Shop in Tulsa’s historic Greenwood neighborhood, better known as Black Wall Street.
Black Wall Street was the name given to 35 square blocks in Greenwood, which is just north of downtown Tulsa.
Black-owned businesses thrived in the community until May 31, 1921, when Greenwood’s fate forever changed. A white mob destroyed the Greenwood District. An estimated 300 people were killed in the fighting. Those 35 square blocks that defined Tulsa’s black existence were nearly erased. However, for those whose relatives bore the bruising, the Tulsa Massacre was never forgotten.
“The old folk didn’t talk a lot. You know, that’s a hidden secret they didn’t talk a lot about but we knew that Greenwood had burned down and we knew they called it a riot, but as we got older and looked into it, we realized that it was actually a massacre,” said Sells.
Sells is House’s uncle and would cut the hair of both father and son.
“I think [the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre] gives him deep roots as to how to get the history taught throughout America. We need it taught,” said Sells.
Millard House II said his parents kept alive the legacy of the Tulsa Massacre.
“It wasn’t talked about very often in Tulsa and when you did hear it, you were careful about how you told the story, ironically, and my family was different. My father was a soldier for history and a soldier for understanding and feeding the minds of all portions of history. The story of Black Wall Street is an important story in our history,” said House.
That history also helped to guide Millard House Sr. through the tall task of desegregating schools.
“He was really committed to education and really wanted everyone to succeed in education – especially the students in north Tulsa,” said Dr. La Verne Wimberly, a longtime educator in Tulsa.
Dr. Wimberly joined Tulsa Public Schools in the late 1960s, retiring in 2006 after serving many positions, including interim superintendent of schools.
But when she started, Wimberly was a teacher, experiencing the struggle that was integrating the classroom.
“It was like anything else when you’re trying something new – you’re going to have many people who are going to be opposed to the idea and some people wanting to jump right in,” said Wimberly.
In 1986, Wimberly joined the Tulsa Public School’s central office, working directly with Millard House Sr. She also got to know the younger House over the years, especially once he became a principal himself.
“I think he had the motivation to want to become successful and he identified the staff who can help him do that. As a leader when you go in being positive and knowing that this can be done, usually the staff will fall in line with the person who’s leading the charge,” she said.
Wimberly researched HISD upon word that Millard House II would be its new leader.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy task, but I think with the commitment or the right resources, the right staff and people who are willing, it’s going to work out fine,” she said.
“Equity is going to be a big part of what he needs to do – equality, making sure that all students are included in the strategic plan that the district has,” Wimberly continued.
House said that’s his plan: “Fostering a community for all students to succeed,” is what his mom and dad taught him.
“I want to make sure that children have the opportunity, truly all children, have the opportunity to be the best version of them that they can be,” House said.