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Posts published in February 2013

Lessons on Humanity from a Cheetah

By Kristan Hoffman

With the spots of a Dalmatian, the build of a Greyhound, and the paws of a Great Dane, Savanna is clumsily put together but unbelievably cute. She’s also entirely feline — a cheetah cub, about 7 months old and 38 pounds. (Full grown, she could weigh double that.) I met her at the zoo, but not with bars or glass or a moat between us. No, she stood less than an arm’s length away at times, restrained by a simple leash.

This happened at an event for Andy’s work, hosted at the Cincinnati Zoo. As part of their “Ambassador” program, Savanna has been acclimated to a variety of human sights and sounds so that she can attend functions such as our party that night, or more importantly classrooms, to help teach people about wildlife studies and conservation efforts. Savanna stayed with us for nearly an hour, during which time she calmly sat for pictures, climbed on a table to monitor the room, and even nuzzled her 3 handlers like a house cat. With such affectionate gestures, and some of her baby fuzz still visible, it was easy to forget Savanna’s true nature.

Despite her training, Savanna is still a wild animal, ruled mostly by instinct. She was one of two cubs born to the zoo, but her brother didn’t survive. Apparently cheetah mothers won’t raise just one cub, because after 18 months cubs are left to fend for themselves, which would be hard to do on their own without siblings. Thus Savanna’s mother abandoned her, and Savanna became an orphan.

That’s when the zoo stepped in. They hand-raised her, secured her a spot in the Ambassador program, and even partnered her with a puppy of similar age and size to be an adoptive playmate and brother. The two will be best friends until she matures, at which point instinct will kick in again, because female cheetahs live alone. Fortunately one of the handlers is already eager to adopt the black lab, Max, when Savanna outgrows him.

The push and pull between the laws of nature and the intervention of mankind has defined Savanna’s life, and in some ways it defines ours too. Do we let things occur as they may, or should we step in and control when we can? That’s what I kept thinking about later that night, long after Savanna had left our party. It’s a pretty philosophical takeaway from a mere hour with a cheetah cub, but then, hanging out with Savanna was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I both enjoyed and was affected by.

And that, to me, is the mark of a great ambassador.

East Aldine District eyes expansion of boundaries

BOARD VOTES TO FUND 58 STREETLIGHTS, PROGRAMS

NORTHEAST – The East Aldine District at their monthly board meeting last Tuesday night voted to seek legislative approval for annexation of an additional 790 acres to the boundaries of the district.

The district also took action on a number of other action items on their agenda, including voting for additional new streetlights, and programs for agencies within their jurisdiction or area of service.

The areas proposed for annexation would not pay any additional taxes, according to East Aldine District president David Hawes, because the district is supported by a 1 cent sales tax. Residents already pay this when they purchase items, and would not incur any additional expenses. However, money spent in the four new areas would now be paid to the East Aldine District, instead of other government entities. In return, residents would get the benefit of district services such as heavy trash pick-up, streetlights, sidewalks, water and sewer service, public safety patrols, and other quality of life services provided to residents of the district.

The four areas to be added, if approved by the legislature, include two tracts north of Aldine-Bender Road, along Fountain View and Vickery Road, including Haverstock Hills apartments; a large tract between Lee Road and the Southern Pacific Railroad line at Homestead, including Pine Village; and a tract at the southern edge of the district known as Halls Park, which will be developed as a new park by the Harris County flood control district. Halls Bayou runs through this property, which is on the east side of US59, near the Sak-N-Sav store. This latter area is now part of the Greater North Houston Management District, that has agreed to cede the land so that it can be developed properly.

The District considered and approved a number of other agenda items.

These included approval of 58 new streetlight locations, on the following streets: Lauder, Chrisman, Exeter, Hopper, Percy, Allwood, Hartwick, Shady Lane, Illene, E. Mt. Houston, Northington, Bertrand, JFK, Orange Grove, and Somerset.

Eat Healthy Restaurant Program

The district is planning to work with local restaurants to promote healthier food choices. Through the display of the program logo on menus, tables, windows, and other marketing materials, restaurants will participate and help encourage a better, healthier lifestyle.

Recycling Center planned

The district is working on an agreement with Sunbelt Water District, to jointly operate a Neighborhood Depository & Recycling Center, for the benefit of all residents of the district. The location of the center will be adjacent to an existing Sunbelt plant at Hopper and Halls Bayou area.

Heavy Trash Pick-up

The district is also working with Precinct 2 Harris County to re-establish the Heavy Trash Pick-up program that was successfully run by Pct. 1. Details, locations and dates will be announced at a future time this spring, according to Richard Cantu of East Aldine District.

The district also approved a number of Economic Development initiatives to bring businesses and jobs to the area.

North Houston EDC brings new Director of Economic Development

Houston– February 12, 2013 – The Board of the North Houston Economic Development Council (NHEDC) announced that they have hired a Director of Economic Development to help grow the organization in the coming year. Stacey Osborne, who was the Economic Developer for the City of La Porte until late last year, will be working with the NHEDC to strategize its future operations in the North Houston region.

Houston Intercontinental Chamber of Commerce (HICC) and NHEDC President Reggie Gray said that Osborne is a good fit for the task at hand. “I’ve known Stacey for many years, and she has a solid reputation in the Houston economic development community. I know she’ll do a great job for us as we grow this organization and make it stronger.”

The NHEDC is a 501(c)(6) organization that was formed in 2009 with the purpose of facilitating the retention, expansion, and relocation of business in north Houston and improving the quality of life for its residents. The organization works closely with HICC, and partners with numerous area organizations with similar goals and missions. Membership is open to any corporation, partnership, sole proprietorship, association or estate having an interest to support the objectives of the organization. Membership fees range from $1,500 to $10,000. There are three committees that each meet three times annually, and the organization holds quarterly leads meetings open to all members, where they discuss current projects in the business development pipeline.

For more information about the NHEDC, please contact Stacey Osborne at (281) 943-7805 or via email at sosborne @northhoustonedc.com.

Congresswoman Lee holds rally for North Forest – Jackson Lee urges fight to stay open

NORTH FOREST – Administrators were caught by surprise last week, when the Texas Education Agency issued a press advisory that they would close North Forest ISD by June 30, and merge it with Houston ISD on July 1. They cited continued deficiencies in financial and academic performance, and a low completion (graduation) rate as compared with the rest of the state of Texas. North Forest officials were especially unhappy that they learned of this proposal on Thursday through media sources, and did not receive their official letter of notice until the next day, Friday. They also stated that within the week they had been in discussion with TEA about partnerships with outside educational institutions and the plans to continue academic improvements that are only now taking effect. At that time there was no indication of the closure notice to follow.

However, just as quickly the supporters of the district, led by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, vowed to fight the closure order, and held a rally on Saturday morning with hundreds in attendance voting unanimously to fight against closure. The rally was held inside and outside of Shadydale Elementary.

Congresswoman Lee started the morning with a meeting with the press, to express her opinions that the TEA notice was discriminatory against the minority district, and North Forest was not being treated fairly nor the same as other districts in the state.

Accompanied by North Forest officials, attorneys, and other government representatives, Lee led a discussion of efforts the district was making to improve, and Superintendent Forté and attorney Chris Tritico said North Forest had met and satisfied all 10 criteria that TEA had required in their one year reprieve issued last spring of the first closure order.

James Troutman of NFISD presented several charts indicating achievements in the district equal to or better than HISD schools in the surrounding “Northeast Quadrant,” and questioned why the state wants to send North Forest students to schools that are performing at a lower level than this district.

Attorney Chris Tritico outlined a number of legal steps that can be take to fight the closure order, and indicated the district is prepared to pursue all of them. This includes a “record review” of the current order, a pending lawsuit about the previous ruling, appeals to the state court, and a review and ruling by the federal Department of Justice. He said “there is a lot of litigation left, and we plan one hell of a fight.”

After the meeting with the press, the group around Jackson Lee retired to the meeting room in Shadydale Elementary, where the public had gathered.

As the public rally continued, Lee cited the accomplishments of students who graduated from the district, and noted that its diversity of ethnicity was a strength that many admired. She noted the number of grants and financial support that the district has received in the last three years, numbering in the millions from business and government, as a sign of the interest and the belief of others in the district’s potential.

Speaking next was Superintendent Edna Forté, pointing out that the district had delivered on its commitment to the 10 TEA critieria. She questioned the truthfulness of statements in the letter of closure, indicating the writer “said the opposite of what we have accomplished.” She noted the number of partners that have been engaged to help, including HCDE on financial accountability, and several charters and colleges on academic teaching improvements. As if to underscore this, HCC board chair Bruce Austin said to the public that he was ready to commit their college to teach courses in the high school, to help.

James Troutman presented about 10 charts, showing that NFISD schools were as good or better in academic performance as HISD schools in the northeast quadrant adjacent to the district. He noted improvements in test scores, and completion rates in 2011-2012.

Attorney Tritico noted that the district had met all 10 TEA criteria, including increasing the Fund Balance from a negative $8 million to a positive $4 million, and raising test scores. He indicated that TEA Commissioner Williams had been very evasive when he tried to meet with them over the last two months.

At this point, the public had a chance to add their opinions.

Ivory Mayhorn blamed many of the problems on TEA, saying they “made a mess of NF for the last ten years.”

Senfronia Thompson asked the public to contribute to a Legal Defense Fund, to continue the fight against closure.

Others at the meeting offered their support in various ways. Thelma Scott offered special needs teaching in conjunction with the program at Lakewood Church. Matty Alissa offered a scholarship pledge for the next 10 years. HCC board members Robinson and Flores reminded that group that the college was teaching now at NFISD, and plans to build a new building for their programs on Little York. Eric Carr and his classmate offered to tutor in fields such as math where they have skills.

In conclusion, Jackson Lee proposed five solutions to improve North Forest. These included

1. A collaborative partnership with other Educational Institutions;

2. Establishing an Endowment Investment program

3. Follow through on the Race to the Top, with federal funds to have Harmony Schools teach

4. Charter School participation, with YES, KIPP, and Harmony, perhaps others

5. Merge with HISD

Lee took a vote, and the first four were unanimously approved. The merger option was unanimously defeated.

State Commissioner of Education recommends closure of North Forest ISD

AUSTIN (February 7, 2013) – Commissioner of Education Michael L. Williams today notified representatives of the North Forest Independent School District (NFISD) of his formal recommendation to close the NFISD and annex it into the Houston Independent School District (HISD), effective July 1.

Williams based his decision on the district’s continued poor academic performance over the past year as reflected in its low high school completion rate and poor performance on statewide assessments.

“The decision to close a school district is a tough decision for all involved but we can no longer be tolerant of chronic underperformance,” said Commissioner Williams. “My recommendation is based on the district’s poor performance over the past year, which is reflective of a familiar pattern of failing to meet student needs over decades.”

In May 2012, NFISD appealed a decision to revoke the district’s accreditation. That appeal was denied. However, NFISD’s closure and annexation was abated for one year to allow the district the ability to demonstrate improvement. Certain conditions and requirements were set.

Among the conditions, NFISD was required to achieve an acceptable rate of improvement or a 75 percent completion rate for the 2011-2012 school year (class of 2011). The district has historically underperformed in this area. The completion rate is made up of the percentage of graduates and students who continue in high school for a fifth year.

The 66.4 percent completion rate for the class of 2011 was almost nine percentage points below 75 percent (the state accountability system benchmark for completion) and reflected just a seven percentage point increase from the NFISD class of 2010.

If the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had issued district and accountability ratings for the 2011- 2012 school year using the 75 percent completion rate threshold, NFISD would have been rated “Academically Unacceptable” for the 4th consecutive year. North Forest High School would have been rated “Academically Unacceptable” for the 7th consecutive year.

NFISD was also required to improve its performance on statewide assessments. The district performed poorly on the statewide assessments – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) – administered in the 2011-2012 school year. TAKS test scores for the 10th and 11th grade mostly declined or remained the same in all subject meters tested.

1In the federal accountability system, the district and all of its campuses missed Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). In the area of Reading/English Language Arts, the district did not meet the federal AYP standard and showed a five percent decline from the previous year. In mathematics, the district again failed to meet the federal AYP standard and showed an overall decline of 11 percent from the previous year.

“I fully recognize that there have been people in North Forest ISD working hard to turn things around for a very long time, but we can no longer afford to wait,” said Commissioner Williams. “More importantly, the students of North Forest can no longer afford to wait for a strong education they need and deserve.”

The Commissioner’s recommendation to close NFISD and annex it into HISD will now go to TEA Chief Deputy Lizzette Gonzalez-Reynolds, who was designated by the previous commissioner in 2012 as TEA’s final decision maker in this matter. If Reynolds approves the closure, the U.S. Department of Justice must pre-clear the merger with Houston ISD.

The North Forest ISD has ten days from today’s notification to request a re-opening of its record review for the limited purpose of determining the district’s compliance with the terms and conditions of last year’s order. In addition, NFISD can ask the State Office of Administrative Hearings to review this decision. If all legal hurdles are cleared, the merger with Houston ISD would be effective July 1.

Sheriff holds all-county School Safety meeting

EAST HARRIS COUNTY – Sheriff Adrian Garcia called an all-county meeting last Thursday night, Jan. 24 to tell the public what his department is doing to provide enhanced school safety, to allow school districts to explain their safety procedures, and to hear comments and answer questions from parents and the public.

The meeting was held in the new Grant Fine Arts Center of San Jacinto Community College North. It was attended by several hundred interested parties, parents and the public.

In his opening welcome remarks, Sheriff Garcia said that this forum had originally been planned after the Newtown, Connecticut shooting at the elementary school, but that it was even more relevant because of the shooting at Lone Star College only two days before. He said the forum would attempt to answer the question for everyone, “what are we doing to keep our children safe? What more can we do?”

Sgt. Jimmy Cook, HCSO, showed the audience a training video used in many school and office jurisdictions, preparing people for a correct response when there is an “active shooter.” The message of the video was, take three steps: Run or Hide or Fight, depending upon the circumstances.

Dr. Steve Head, president of Lone Star College, updated the audience on the events of the shooting on his campus on Tuesday, and the subsequent arrests of two perpetrators.

Sheriff Garcia praised the response of his officers and other law enforcement. He said that within a few minutes, 150 of his deputies responded, and anoth-er 50 officers from other jurisdictions also arrived.

Next, several officers in charge of divisions of the Sheriff’s office spoke on their responsibilities. Capt. Cordova heads the SWAT team or High Risk Unit, with deputies on call 24 hours. Christina Garza heads the information division, and spoke about methods of reaching the public and the media, with social media, webpage, and the website hcso.hctx.net, as well as traditional email for press releases. Sgt. Franks and the Sheriff urged the public to use the website: www.iwatchharriscounty.com for tips that report criminal activity. Sheriff Garcia said this has been very effective, with over 2 dozen behind bars from these tips. Lt. Robert Henry spoke about the development of the Mental Health unit, a necessary corollary to arrest and incarceration.

The public wanted to know what they could do to help school safety. A representative of the Houston Ministers Against Crime said they walk the halls of schools in Channelview, with a calming effect. Dr. Head agreed that a similar situation occurs in their campus at Victory Center. Pastor Gilmore said “we need to bring God back into school.”

Constable Ken Jones explained how his department contracts with 6 school districts to provide officers in the schools as needed, in 33 schools. These officers get special training every year, paid for by the districts, for gangs, first responders, and updating on basic policing.

Chief Clements of Galena Park ISD said they have used campus based officers since 1996, and they make a positive relationship with students. Drills are conducted on a regular basis. Some of the problems officers deal with are drugs, assaults, and counterfeiting.

Houston ISD’s Sidney Zullinger said that Safe School are a marketing necessity, that parents want to send their children to a safe environment. He has 200 officers, and 261 schools. Every high school has a certified police officer.

Zullinger and most of the panelists spoke on the issue of guns for school personnel. The concensus was that armed police officers are okay in the schools, but not armed teachers. Dr. Head said that in a chaotic scene after a shooting, you cannot be sure who is a “good guy” after gunfire, if everyone has a gun.

When asked by an audience member whether more deputies are needed, Constable Jones related his experiences in Highlands, where they concentrate officers in high crime areas, and partner with the Sheriff on Task Forces for special situations. He noted that the County budget would allow him to hire 3 new officers this year, paid for by the three precincts his district covers. These comments were in general, not necessarily related to schools, he said.

Sheriff Garcia said that most schools are conducting Safety audits in cooperation with the Harris County Department of Education. He said that Harris County had authorized his office to hire more officers this year.

In closing, Garcia urged citizens to participate in the CPA or Citizens Police Academy to learn more about his department and crime fighting. He said that School Safety should be looked at as a County-wide strategy, not individual districts.

Charges have been dropped against 1 in Lone Star College shooting

According to the Harris County District Attorney, on Monday, January 28, prosecutors dropped charges against Carlton Berry, a 22-year-old man, who authorities initially believed was involved in a shooting that wounded him and two others at Lone Star College.

Carlton Berry was arrested soon after the Jan. 22 shootings at Lone Star College-North Harris and charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. But authorities later accused another man, Trey Foster, 22, of being the alleged shooter.

Foster has been charged with two counts of aggravated assault and faces a charge of resisting arrest in an earlier case. He was arrested Friday, January 25, in Plano, near Dallas.

Investigators say the shooting happened after 25-year-old Jody Neal bumped into Foster while Foster was walking with Berry. Foster and Neal argued but went their separate ways.

But when the two ran into each other 30 minutes later, they argued again and Foster allegedly fired at Neal, wounding him in the abdomen and leg. Berry also was shot and wounded, and a maintenance worker for the college, Bobby Cliburn, 55, was hit in the leg.

Authorities say at least 10 shots were fired, causing panic and leading to a campus lockdown.

Berry’s attorney, Robert A. Jones, said his client never should have been charged or jailed because the evidence showed he was a victim. Berry was shot in the left hip, which Jones said was an indication that Berry might have been facing away or running away from the shooter.

“He said that continually, whenever (authorities) talked to him, that he didn’t do anything. But that wasn’t enough. Then they started their investigation based upon his statement and they realized he didn’t do anything,” Jones said.

Prosecutor Alison Baimbridge said authorities dropped the charges in the interest of justice. She said that as with any investigation, the more witness interviews and evidence collecting that are done, authorities are “better able to determine who was where, what actually occurred.”

Charges were formally dropped during a court hearing Monday, January 28, and Berry was later released from jail.

Foster made his initial court appearance the same Monday. He is being held on bonds totaling $100,000, and if he posts them, a judge ordered him subject to GPS monitoring and a curfew.