Juliet Stipeche, HISD Trustee addresses obstacles

HISD board president talks about obstacles hurting our children 
Juliet Stipeche had rose-tinted glasses perched on her nose when she was elected to the Houston Independent School District’s Board of Trustees four years ago. Those glasses lost their hue quickly, though. 
“I went in thinking I was going to make good schools even better, that every child had an opportunity to succeed. I still believe that,” said Stipeche, who was first elected to represent District 8 in 2010 to fill Diana Davila’s unexpired term. “But, I also know there are great obstacles in place that hurt our children that we, as a community, have to work through.”
Those problems, she said, revolve around poverty and illiteracy in a city that has changed and continues to change demographically.
Houston has become the most diverse city in the world, one facing increasing economic inequality thaat creates challenges the seventh-largest district in the United States has to combat.
During the 2012-13 school year, 62.7 percent of HISD students were Hispanic, 24.6 percent were black and 8.2 percent were white. The National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows a 39-point gap in fourth-graders between whites and blacks in reading scores and a 36-point gap between whites and Hispanics.
“We’re ground zero for what the rest of the country eventually will be like, and the issues it will need to address,” said Stipeche, a lawyer and associate director for the Richard Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity at Rice University. “In Houston, we have a unique challenge and opportunity to create programs and an educational system that takes into account an ever-changing world.”
Studies from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research show Houston is becoming a city segregated along racial, ethnic and class lines. Economic inequality is creating a huge gap between the poor and the prosperous.
“Education has always been the key to bridging that divide and saying in one single generation a person can lift himself from poverty to achieving great success. But, that idea is becoming less and less available to children today,” she said.
Poverty in the district
More than 80 percent of district students are economically disadvantaged, and 22 percent of Houston children live in poverty. 
“Poverty is crippling, painful and debilitating,” Stipeche said. “And, because of it, children are coming to school underprepared. They do not have access to quality pre-k and early childhood education, so it’s very, very difficult to catch up.” 
The effects of poverty are obvious; often, the schools that are struggling the most academically are located in areas that are “extraordinarily economically disadvantaged,” she said. While many of those schools have high percentages of Hispanics and blacks, poor whites are also performing poorly, Stipeche said.
“A lack of infrastructural support in a community impacts student achievement in the classroom,” she said. “You have parents working two or three jobs; you have students who don’t have access to books, don’t have access to tutoring, who come back from the summer behind because they don’t have an opportunity for enrichment. And, in general, a child who grows up in poverty learns 30 million words less than a child who grows up in an affluent home.”
Then, the children go to schools that are struggling to find and retain good teachers — because of the stress of teaching in that environment and filling so many gaps in the students’ lives. This burns out teachers. Also, the teachers worry their underperforming students will affect their performance review, which ties to their pay raises.
Illiteracy in the community
A key measure of a student’s future is the ability to read at a proficient level in third grade. But, only 36 percent of HISD’s third-graders are reading at the recommended level.
“If you can’t read, how can you participate in society? There’s no way you can succeed if you can’t read,” Stipeche said. “If you don’t have students reading at grade level by third grade, you’re going to have to pour tremendous resources into getting things back on track. That will compromise the health and integrity of the entire school system.
“There are too many children who go to bed each night, unable to read, and it’s going to ruin their future and our future as a community.”
These are more than school issues, Stipeche insists.
A 2012 report from the Center for Houston’s Future says that more than 23,800 HISD students failed to graduate on time. Each high school dropout costs the state about $5,000 per year in lost wages, sales tax revenue and welfare payments. A dropout is four times as likely as a college graduate to be jobless and 47 percent more likely to go to jail.
Stipeche feels the state has gone “over the edge” with standardized testing when the emphasis should be looking at the individual schools and what is needed to make them successful in their particular situations. The district, city, county and state operate in silos and need to work together to help students get access to resources that address the direct needs of students in each school, she said.
Schools need to provide greater support services, great teachers, great principals, after-school programs, access to technology and healthcare in the community, food programs to feed hungry students and provide mentors and role models.
“The emphasis needs to shift back to getting kids to read,” she said. “I just want to get books into kids’ hands.”
Children need to be exposed to an educational environment early, so Stipeche endorses universal pre-kindergarten for all children. And, she believes a focus should be on continuing to recruit the best teachers and retain them with good salaries, with a bonus system or recruitment system for teachers who work in challenging schools. She advocates an assured performance contract; when the district purchases a product, it expects a certain level of improvement in the schools.
“We desperately need good teachers, but the community can help us — by coming in and reading to children during the day,” she said. “People can volunteer for 30 minutes or an hour or whatever time they can devote. The kids love to have people come and read to them.”
Those volunteers would have rose-tinted glasses knocked off their noses, too, she believes, and would start acting as advocates for the schools. 
“The challenges are extraordinary,” she said. “Everybody needs to be part of the solution.”
Innovation in HISD
HISD is innovative and has had some successes with the best-in-class magnet and vanguard schools, internal charters and dual-language programs. The breakfast program is feeding students who come to school hungry and unable to concentrate on their work. 
The Literacy By 3 Plan targets resources for classrooms and teachers and calls for help from the community to ensure every student is reading at grade level by the third grade.
Since 2005, HISD has been offering pre-kindergarten for kids who meet certain economic or language deficiencies, or are children of military members. But, 3,000 children who qualify for it just aren’t taking advantage of that option.
“The bottom line: We’ve been trying every option we can,” Stipeche said. “But we’re not getting where we want to be. So, we know we can’t do it alone. We need all hands on deck.”
Dave Schafer is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.