Parents Power School Reform

Houston's Hogg Middle School is raising the bar, with help from YES Prep and some pushy parents.

Houston's Hogg Middle School is raising the bar, with help from YES Prep and some pushy parents.
Title

SLIDE SHOW: Parents Help Drive the Change

Photography by Eli Reed/Magnum Photos

Hogg Middle School, a creaky old Houston institution, has become the target of an unusual troop of middle school reformers: parents of local elementary school kids barely out of kindergarten.

These parents, mostly college-educated professionals with first and second graders, mean business. They aren't satisfied with throwing fundraisers to support enrichment programs or organizing parent activities to give the school a little boost.

They want to transform Hogg, which serves students in grades 6-8, from the inside out -- to make it a place where they and their neighbors want to send their children. And they've decided to model their reform, in part, on nearby YES Prep North Central.

Hogg stands in the Heights, a leafy Houston neighborhood of well-tended bungalows with front porches and tall shade trees. The school's middling test scores and shaky reputation on discipline have prompted many parents in this gentrifying area to send their kids to private school. Meanwhile, many of Hogg's current students get bused in from other areas.

"We're interested in making sure that the school is the best it can be for every kid who's there now and for those who will come in the future, whatever their background might be," says parent Lucky Sahualla, who carefully emphasizes that his group isn't, as he says, "coming in to save" the school. "We can't afford not to prepare every kid to go to college anymore."

The school's leaders, as it happens, agree. They have joined Sahualla and a handful of fellow parent reformers in advocating change, but so far, the going has been tough. Among the obstacles encountered? Union contracts, Houston Independent School District (HISD) mandates, and philosophical differences among school staff, to name a few. Tradition, a perennial hurdle, also has dogged the group, but they remain determined to transform the school.

Sampling Success

Sahualla's group started meeting last spring with Hogg's then principal, Imelda Medrano, and together they visited YES Prep North Central, charter school for students in grades 6-12, for inspiration. After scouting trips to other schools, the group came up with ideas for meeting improvement priorities at Hogg that included stronger academics, tighter discipline, and a greater emphasis on preparation for college.

The Hogg parents and teachers, as well as Medrano, were most impressed with YES Prep's robust focus on college, the parent-student contract, and the stringent RISE disciplinary system. Fortunately, Hogg already had begun work on becoming an International Baccalaureate school, another impressive feature of YES Prep North Central.

Over the summer, a task force of Hogg teachers began moving toward new goals for change, creating a new discipline system based in part on RISE. The new principal, Alma Perez, hasn't decided on next steps yet, but she knows she'd like to institute a parent contract, interdisciplinary studies, and more character education, and she intends to make YES one of her sources of ideas.

A Tough Road Ahead

Even armed with solid blueprint for change, full of elements tested at successful schools, Hogg administrators and their supporters face an enormous task. Among the 840 students at Hogg, most (87.5 percent) are Hispanic, and more than 84 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Their test scores typically earn the school a state rating of "Academically Acceptable" -- better than "Academically Unacceptable," but not as good as "Recognized" or "Exemplary." The school is so financially strained that it couldn't replace dilapidated ceiling tiles in the cafeteria; instead, a local bank donated money to have the tiles painted in bright colors to mask their flaws.

And there's more: Hogg recently lost its after-school funding, its much-needed building renovations are still a few years away, and Perez says the new discipline system alone "took some time to sell" to some teachers.

"It's not going to be the school we all want it to be overnight," admits Sahualla. "But by the end of this year, we should see the path of how it's going to get there. The light should be more visible at the end of the tunnel."

So far, school and HISD officials have welcomed the parents' participation with unusual openness -- even giving them a seat on the selection committee that hired Perez after Medrano changed schools. (It helps that Sahualla, a onetime Teach for America member, is friends with school board member Natasha Kamrani). The parents offer time, energy, professional expertise (such as marketing and grant writing), and connections to local businesspeople able to make donations.

"Many principals would say, 'I don’t want parents telling me what to do.' I don't see it that way," says Perez. "They want rigorous academics. They want students to build relationships and have positive discipline, and that's nothing a parent shouldn't want."

But there are limits in the public school system that could make borrowing YES Prep's ideas difficult. To extend the learning day, for instance, Hogg would have to contend with the teachers' union contract and the districtwide busing schedule. Though Perez doesn't believe the traditional/charter divide makes adopting all of YES Prep's practices impossible, she acknowledges the need for flexibility. "We can develop alternative strategies," she says.

Meanwhile, administrators at YES Prep are eager to work with Hogg. Phil Wright, co-school director of YES Prep Southeast and formerly the middle school principal at North Central, started his career in public schools and only reluctantly switched to working at charters.

Though he believes he can have a bigger impact on kids at charter schools, where the obstacles are fewer, he is inspired by the push to transform the aging middle school. "I still think the ultimate achievement," says Wright, "is what Hogg is trying to do."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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This article originally published on 11/2/2009

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