It's back to school across the Houston area

August 22, 2011 10:45:38 AM PDT
Hundreds of thousands of Houston-area school children get back to the books on Monday. On this first day of school, there's the usual excitement, but there is also a little bit more apprehension as parents wonder how the state's big cuts in education funding will affect their children.

Our area's largest school district, Houston ISD, is working with hundreds of millions of dollars less this year thanks to those state budget cuts. And two new gender-based campuses are opening in HISD -- an all-girls school opening on Cleburne and a boys-only school opening on Bringhurst.

It's still hot and sticky out, but summer is over and a new school year is underway. That means new shoes, new supplies and new goals.

For these 6th and 9th grade boys, it also means a new school with new teachers and new classmates.

"We believe that we can get every kid that enters our ready for college," said the principal.

The Young Men's College Preparatory Academy is designed to get students ready for college by helping them navigate a rigorous curriculum without distractions from the opposite sex. The boys here have mixed feelings about that.

"Kinda bad," one student told us.

"That's OK. I already have a girlfriend," said another student.

Still, Hammad Muhammad is keen on the bottom line.

"College is a way to prepare me for my career in the future, and so this is a way to prepare me for college," he said.

Dr. Grier toured the new campus, greeting students along the way. He says despite a tight budget, using this existing building and money from the HISD foundation for sharp uniforms made this school possible.

"The additional cost of starting the school up is really just about transportation -- just getting the kids to school if they don't live in this zone," said Dr. Grier.

He says the focus is getting 100 percent of students ready for college.

Both the all-boys and all-girls schools starting with 6th and 9th grade hope to expand next school year.

This idea of gender-specific schools may be new to Houston's public school system, but other cities like Chicago and New York have done the same thing, and their all-boys schools, for instance, are said to be quite successful.

Fort Bend County ISD
In Fort Bend County, thousands of kids headed back to class Monday morning. At Brazos Bend Elementary School, we saw a few parents capturing their children's big day with photographs and the kids were pumped.

While one student we spoke with was excited, some parents expressed concerns about how the state budget cuts will effect the students. Ft. Bend Co. is one of several districts in our area that had to cut back on bus service because of the cuts. Students who live within a mile or two of their schools have been impacted the most by those cuts.

Clear Creek ISD
A similar scene played out at Webber Elementary School in the Clear Creek School district Monday morning -- lots of excited faces in the crowd and many parents there also expressing concerns about how the budget cuts might affect their children's education.

Cy-Fair ISD
The new school year brings plenty of changes, many of which were brought on by the state's budget shortfall that led to budget cuts in many districts, including Cy-Fair.

There are 107,000 students in this district starting school Monday. Bane Elementary School is one of its 'exemplary' schools. Parents say they hope it stays that way in spite of state budget cuts.

Five-year-old cousins Aniya Caruthers and Lawrencia Ballard are excited about starting kindergarten. They have their new shoes and backpacks on, and their parents, who grew up in the Cy-Fair district, are hoping Bane Elementary will continue to meet their expectations for their daughters' education.

With the state slashing billions from public schools, Cy-Fair is feeling the pinch. The district cut $47 million from its education spending for this year. Cutbacks included a $20 million reduction in employee health care funding, a decrease in teacher assistant jobs, and the elimination of 80 central administrative titles.

The spending plan also changed the average ratio of 22 students to 1 teacher, with a limit of 25-to-1 in kindergarten through 4th grade.

"I just want them to be able to be more hands on and that way I guess the teacher ratio is not so much where the kids are over here by themselves, but everyone can learn and she can actually do it. The way she is, she gets bored very easily," said parent Sherrita Washington.

"They work with you and everything, the principals, so everything is well taken care of I am not worried about her going here. I have a lot of confidence in that. Last year was the same; I had no problem with nothing, with the teachers, anything. Everything was perfect. So hopefully this year will be the same," said parent Shemika Curry, said the parent and former Bane Elementary student.

Teachers in Cy-Fair were lucky because the budget did not lead to teacher layoffs.

School zone reminder
One thing that's always top of the list for schools anytime of the year is making sure your kids get to and from school safely. Houston police officers were at the School at St. George Place early Monday, reminding parents about back-to-school safety and about paying attention to speed limits in school zones.

Police chose this school because a four-year-old was killed crossing the street there in 2008. The child has a garden planted in his memory and police want to remind drivers all over Houston to slow down.

As HISD and other area districts head to school for the first day today, police want drivers to be alert. No cell phones and no texting in school zones. It's not just advice, it's the law in Texas and it can cost you as much as $300 if you're caught. But worse, it can cost the life of a child.

Another thing that catches drivers off guard is school zone speed limits. Look for flashing signs and posted limits.

One final note -- we are not used to seeing school buses during our commute. Do not drive around a bus when its arm is extended with the stop sign. It's against the law and you could hit a child who is exiting the bus and crossing the street. [Survey ranks costs of fines]

Help speed things up
School officials will be busy enrolling new students. To help speed things up, parents are being asked to bring all necessary documents. They include birth certificates, recent report cards and proof of residency, like utility bills. Most schools also require immunization records. HISD is encouraging parents to call its hotline for important information regarding bus routes, schedules or registration. Call 713-556-8900 from 9am until 4pm today and tomorrow. Other districts have useful information on their websites.

Feeling the effects of cuts
This will be the first year in which schools will deal with a cut in funding. The state legislature had to cut $4 billion dollars from public education over the next two years. In order to make up for the budget shortfall, school districts had to cut jobs and programs.

New and improved buildings in HISD
Some students are returning today to new and improved buildings. In HISD, there are six new elementary school buildings opening up today. They are Almeda, Frost, Lovett, Dechaumes, Berry, and Horn elementary schools. Two more -- Lewis and Deanda -- will open later this fall. Twenty other campuses also underwent major renovations during the summer break.


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