Playing a game of Deal or No Deal, the Houston Independent School District dangled a “rotten” carrot before the Black community and the stench of that carrot left bad tastes in the mouths of residents and community activists fighting for fair, equal and quality education for their children.
“This is not over. They have awakened a sleeping giant and we won’t stop until our children get justice and (Superintendent) Terry Grier is no longer here,” said Kofi Taharka, leader of the Black United Front, Houston Chapter. “The process is a joke. We have to make them accountable at election time because need leaders, not puppets, who will hear the people and represent and be spokesmen for what the people want.”
After over two hours of heated passionate speeches, emotional appeals and challenges calling for changes at the top and making a case to two schools open in those communities, the HISD Board of Education voted 6 to 3 to repurpose Jones High School into a specialized Futures Academy.
Trustees Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Anna Eastman, and Paula Harris opposed the proposal. Trustees also voted 5 to 4 to close Dodson Elementary. Trustees Anna Eastman, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, Wanda Adams and Paula Harris were opposed to the closing the school. The move also effectively kills the Athletics program at Johns High School.
These votes come after weeks of debate and conversation including nearly 75 comments from concerned citizens during the board’s meeting and the removal of three schools from the original closure and consolidation proposal.
The vote went forward despite making cases for the two schools to remain open and active in those communities.
Community leader and activist Travis McGee said he is not pleased with the compromise or the results of the vote on Jones and Dodson schools
“They told us take it or leave it. They always feel like they gotta give us something to make us feel good and then they go and take something back,” he said. “(Terry)Grier is a plantation master who sent people who look like us out here to do his dirty work and they doing a damn good job of helping him kill our community.”
McGee said the truth is Black education is being sold down the river over real estate and money. He said if the board wants to do something good it an better utilize space and cut fat in the administration. He added that the bright spot was have 126 people come together in solidarity to let the board know the giants are awake and that they got the board’s number and are fed up with the games.
Board member Wanda Adams told citizens that prior to the Jones compromise, both deals were dead on arrival until State Rep. Borris Miles got involved in 11th hour negotiations with Superintendent Terry Grier and board members and worked out the compromise. Miles said it was the only way the community could walk away with a “win”.
“This is politics and you gotta count the numbers. What we got is a commitment to put something at Jones that will be viable for the community,” Miles said. “This was hard process of sifting through propaganda and policy, but in the end Jones stays open and now we expect all who spoke out to save Jones would now join the effort to build the new Jones.”
However, others see it differently and despite putting the best face on the discussions, community activists vowed that the fight has only just begun. They want a complete review of HISD policies and procedures and for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the lack of quality education and the inequality Black and minority children and communities are facing trying to get a education.
The Hon. Minister Robert Muhammad of Muhammad Mosque No. 45 made it clear that the education master plan and the deals made closing schools in African American neighborhoods proves that the current system and leaders in place do not work for the best interests of Black students or Black communities.
He predicted a rocky road ahead because of the breakdown in trust and the awakening of the sleeping giant in the community.
“The decision had already been made and deals have already been worked out,” he said. “What went on behind closed doors tells me something is rotten here.”
His greatest concern is that the district leaders destroyed an elementary school that is a feeder for the high school.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. The education system is working the way it was designed and that is to destroy our children. It isn’t broken. It is working the way they designed it – to destroy our children.”
Muhammad is calling a new education paradigm (direction and system) that must be created to address the needs of Black children and minority children and that gives all children an equal opportunity and equal footing to get an education and a full opportunity to shine into the future.
Muhammad said the response is that Black people have awakened to finally understand the truth about what is happening in schools and communities.
“They awakened that sleeping giant (in us). They have awakened the leviathan that was sleeping underneath, have rubbed the lamp and the genie has come out and released the Kracken of Greek Mythology,” he said. “There will be no more good days and business as usual.”
Muhammad said it is only the beginning because the issues are not going away.
“It’s happening in our schools, our transportation, our infrastructure in our cities, in state legislature and the federal government and Congress,” he said. “In Houston, we getting messed over by the downtown business groups and foundations and we have no hope but to come together unite, love one another and work side by side to change the way things are going. There will be no more good days for them or for us.”
Grier tired to put his best face on a tough situation.
“School closure discussions are never easy,” Superintendent Terry Grier said. “However, we must continue to have constructive conversations on the issue of school size and school efficiency. Not to do so could be harmful to our communities and the students that reside in them. The goal remains creating better, stronger schools.”
Board member Wanda Adams said she understands the frustration of closures and hopes time can help rebuild trust between the board and the community.
“We need to make sure we look at our policies and they line up with what we are doing in HISD,” Adams said. “We should not be closing schools but come up with plans and see if they work first and then review them and see what actions we need to take.”
She said she hopes that people get as concerned about literacy, drop out and graduation rates and school closures and step forward willing to help make things better.
Pastor and long-time activist Rev. F. N. Williams said the bright side of the situation and most positive thing about awaking the sleeping giant is that the community came out and stood up united and it was the people who came out and the people who spoke for themselves.