HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Houston Independent School District Superintendent Millard House spent Saturday afternoon meeting with parents at Wheatley High School at its back to school event.
Chronic poor performance at the high school led the Texas Education Agency to announce in 2019 it would take over conservatorship of the district.
As he enters his first year as superintendent at HISD, and the district continues to fight the takeover, House admits it will be tough to not only mitigate COVID-19, but also keep students in the classroom and mitigate further learning loss.
"The last time we talked, we talked about this being an epidemic, and public education is in a situation where, because of the learning loss that has been presented (by) COVID, many of our students are behind. They're struggling," House told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "Just as the last 18 months have occurred and many students have gotten behind, it's going to take time to get many of them caught back up as well."
But how much time the state's largest district - with about 200,000 students going back to school Monday - has to get caught up is still playing out in court.
HISD has spent two years fighting the state TEA takeover in court. During that time, state leaders passed a law that will go into effect on Sept. 1 and hold the district even more accountable for turning around its struggling campuses.
"They can't be allowed to fail because it's too big of an impact on future educational attainment and the future economy of the state," said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who authored the Senate Bill 1365.
The new law establishes a turnaround model and increased interventions for low-performing or failing schools, like Wheatley, and allows for state conservatorship if a campus has a repeated history of struggling academically.
Districts that receive an "F" score on their state accountability (A-F) rating for three years will be required to implement a state-approved turnaround plan. If the state doesn't think the plan would raise the school's rating to a "C" within two years, the state would be allowed to take it over or close it.
The new law allows the conservatorship to apply to the district as a whole, not just the failing school.
"You can't have generations of kids go through high schools that are clearly failing," Bettencourt said. "There may be a pathway to avoid a state takeover. It just depends on really what happens in the next academic year."
Timeline of takeover
Over the last two years, every school and district across the state got a pass when it came to academic performance, meaning they weren't given an A through F accountability rating because of the pandemic.
That won't be the case this school year, and one of the HISD's lowest performing schools, Wheatley High School, needs improvement.
Wheatley received a failing grade with a 59 out of 100 for its overall rating for the 2018-19 school year, the last time the TEA accountability rating was given. It also received an "F" for student achievement, relative performance and closing the gap. The school received a "D" for academic growth.
To turn those scores around, House said it will be important to partner with the community and make research-based decisions that benefit the students.
"We're going to do this together. We're going to be there with you from day one," House said. "It's not just about (visiting Wheatley on Saturday). It's about it's about Monday (the first day of school) through the last day of the school year and beyond, and providing the kind of supports that we know will move the dial."
Years of low academic performance and failure to close the academic achievement gap at Wheatley led TEA Commissioner Mike Morath to announce in 2019 plans to take over HISD and appoint a new board of managers at the district.
HISD filed a lawsuit in Travis County saying the TEA did not have the right to take over the district. A county judge issued a temporary injunction in January 2020, which ultimately halted the takeover while the lawsuit is pending.
The TEA appealed the temporary injunction in the Third Court of Appeals, but it affirmed the decision that the temporary injunction should remain in place while the case is being decided.
Now, the TEA has asked the Texas Supreme Court to overturn the temporary injunction, but it's unclear if the case will be heard. In the meantime, the case is pending.
"The third court's opinion was well reasoned and correct and notably written by judges from both parties, and so I think they got it right, and we are certainly hopeful that the Texas Supreme Court will agree," said Dave Campbell, a senior attorney at O'Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo.
As HISD waits for a final decision on the possible takeover, House said he's going to work as fast as possible, including with the ones trying to take the district over, to get students back on track academically.
"We're going to be working with our teachers, our administrators, to do what's necessary. I do believe that it's going to be important that we work with TEA as well," House said. "We have our arms wide open to ensure that we take the feedback, working with conservators that are in the district already on a weekly basis, daily basis, to ensure that we take a close look at what's in the rear view mirror to make sure that we're not missing anything and get better as we go."
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