Houston ISD board to vote on whether to replace its student congress

HOUSTON, Texas -- Two of the founders of Houston ISD's Student Congress, Zaakir Tameez and Amy Fan, said they were blindsided when the board of trustees agenda for February included an item to cut ties with the group, which was founded in 2014 as a vehicle for student involvement in policymaking.

"No one on the administration had reached out about this," said Fan, a 2016 Bellaire High School alumna and graduate of Duke University who now acts as an informal adviser to the group. "It was literally just me opening up the agenda ... and thinking, 'Wow, why are they doing this without consulting the group itself?'"

The founders alerted the current leadership of the congress, of which there are 12 students from a handful of high schools, though there is not a formal leadership structure.

"Honestly I felt very disappointed," said Yesenia Gaspar, 16, a junior at Carnegie Vanguard High School and member of the congress' leadership team. "We've been really excited ... and wanted to recruit to get as many new students as we can. ... And then they just hit us with this."

The congress was chartered in 2014 with the backing of the trustees, who also honored Tameez for his work in organizing his fellow students at the time. The congress was supposed to have regular contact with the administration, a funding account and ongoing support.

"It's been around for three superintendents, 20 school board members and seven generations of high school students," said Tameez, a Carnegie alumnus and now a Yale law school student. "We all thought it would continue on forever. Obviously, things changed."

The organization has kept going in part because Tameez and Fan have stayed involved as informal advisers, they said.

Nicholas McDermott, a senior at Kashmere High School who is also part of the group's leadership, said the founders help guide them and bolster their confidence.

"We took ownership of the group, but we can ask Amy and Zaakir, is this the right decision to make, or how should we handle this?" McDermott said.

Unable to make inroads with this group, however, HISD administration is instead proposing starting a district-sanctioned student advisory council with elected membership representing each high school.

"This recommendation is not to silence our students but to ensure that all of our students across every trustee district and all of our high schools have the opportunity for their voice to be heard," interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan told trustees Feb. 4.

Lathan said there have been attempts to connect with the congress in the past two years that were unsuccessful, including attempts to hold meetings.

Trustee Elizabeth Santos said she has met with the group twice in the past few years, including once with trustee Sue Deigaard, but that priorities have shifted and the group has not received the support and direction it needed.

"This is a teachable moment for our students. ... There was a breakdown in communication somewhere," Santos said. "I'm going to ask my colleagues to either table this to a later date or if we could just put it off until we've heard both sides."

If the vote proceeds Feb. 11, the congress could continue to exist independently, officials said, but its formal relationship with the board and administration would cease. The new council would get more support and direction to prevent it from lapsing, officials said.

"What we would commit to in this case is yes, this group would have sponsorship," HISD Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Rick Cruz said, such as providing transportation to meetings and establishing administration meeting dates in advance. "We want this to be a collaborative approach. ... If there's an adversarial stance as there has been, it's not possible to make anything better."

SEE RELATED STORY: HISD student congress raises concerns about in-person learning

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