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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.