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April 6, 2000     (512) 463-0300

ENATE EDUCATION COMMITTEE MEETS IN HOUSTON

HOUSTON - The Senate Committee on Education met at the Community Education Partners (CEP) School in Houston today, April 5, 2000. The Committee heard testimony regarding a wide range of education issues affecting not only Houston, but students and teachers across Texas. Committee members include Chair Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Senators David Cain of Dallas, Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, Steve Ogden of Bryan, Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant, David Sibley of Waco, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Royce West of Dallas and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. Also at today's meeting were Senators Mario Gallegos and Rodney Ellis of Houston.

The Committee was welcomed to Houston by Senator Gallegos, who told the committee that many challenges face the Texas education system. Specifically, he called for more hispanic input into planning for the future of education in the state. He was very critical of the Houston school district, saying that it simply does not educate Hispanic students as well as others.

Leading off the day's invited testimony was Dr. Rod Paige, Houston Independent School District (HISD) Superintendent. He recommended delivering school content through the Internet as an addition to traditional education. He also described his district's use of Charter Schools. Dr. Don McAdams of the HISD then told the members that it is necessary to measure the full range of student performance and that the current TAAS test is not adequate for this. Laurie Bricker of HISD then addressed teachers' problems of low pay and insurance.

Next up were members of the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP). Chair Rob Mosbacher, Jr., told the members that GHP's alliance between business and schools is an essential part of improving school performance. He says GHP is working with the schools in areas as diverse as exposing students to the workplace and helping the district in purchasing supplies. Vice-Chair Rosie Zamora addressed the need for early childhood programs such as Head Start, saying they're especially necessary in economically disadvantaged areas. GHP member Lucretia Ahrens said that while there has been improvement in student performance, new positions opening in the workforce require more education than ever before in areas such as physics and advanced mathematics.

Kay Douglas, Trustee for the Huntsville Independent School District and representing the Texas Association of School Boards, then testified that children who grow up in abusive domestic situations need special care in the schools. She says they have special difficulties when it comes to learning not shared by other students. She also called for counselors to have expanded training for counselors so that they are able to confront the issues facing students who are victims of violence.

Jim Nelson, Texas Commissioner of Education, then reported on how $300 million dollars authorized by the 76th Legislature were being spent. For example, certain ninth graders who are having problems moving on have been targeted for special help to ensure that they stay in school. Other funds went to after-school programs for students aged ten to fourteen. He also recommended a renewed emphasis on secondary education, given that the TAAS test is becoming more and more difficult.

Jan West, Director of Education for the Houston Area Urban League, called for greater parental involvement in the education process, saying it's a sure way that student achievement will improve.

Then came a group of representatives from Houston area Charter Schools. Richard Farias of the Raul Yzaguirre School for Success, a Charter School, said that Charter Schools are being treated as stepchildren, as second-class citizens, and told the panel how his school involves parents as well as students in after-school programs despite the fact that most of the students in his school are high-risk, in the categories of students that are most likely to drop out.

Graciella Kavulla, principal of the George I. Sanchez Charter School, also spoke in favor of Charter Schools. She says a at-risk students do much better in a smaller school, that one to one mentoring is essential and that if we lower expectations, we're saying "we don't expect you to do well."

Michael Feinberg of the Kipp Academy testified that it is essential to get good teachers and give them the freedom to teach, without being bogged down in paperwork. His school also meets half day on Saturdays, sometimes during the summer, and each student has two to three hours of homework a night. He says the result of this is that between 98 and 100 percent of his students pass the TAAS test.

Diane Merchant of Mainland Academy of Galveston, says that when you challenge students with a difficult curriculum, they respond and achieve. She urges that every school be held accountable for its curriculum, that every child should be reading by the end of third grade. She asked that the Legislature create an agency specifically to oversee Charter schools, or at least an expansion of state oversight.

Charles Miller, member of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, urged a fine-tuning of the accountability system, saying that the children now entering Charter schools in Texas have greater needs than did the first wave of Charter school students several years ago.

Tammy Campbell, representing the NAACP, told the members that discrimination against both Black and Hispanic students still exists in Texas schools and that despite a recent court ruling, that the TAAS test is still causing minority students to drop out and administrators to falsify figures.

Don McLeroy State Board of Education from Bryan, says that teachers are using too much time preparing for the TAAS test and too little time fostering learning. He recommends that parents be given the opportunity to choose a placement test that will provide feedback on a student's true abilities, and what the student still needs to learn.

Paul Williamson of the O'Donnell Foundation, says that advanced courses for students are necessary, that the earlier they are introduced to advanced material, the greater the chance they will go on to college.

Joan Vinson, a Dallas Independent School District teacher, specializes in advanced placement training for teachers. She says this is a training that teachers actually enjoy, because it helps them prepare students for higher education. In responding to a question from Senator Nelson, she said that it is essential that parents know about advanced placement training and encourage their children to participate, so they can better prepare for college.

Ana Tinajero is a student in the Dallas district. She testified that magnet program and advanced placement courses have enabled her to excel to the point where she can now attend her choice of Stanford, Harvard, or MIT, this despite the fact that neither of her parents were able to finish High School.

Gayle Fallon is President of the Houston Federation of Teachers. She testified that special schools for students who have trouble learning or behavioral problems are essential and that recent legislation discouraging social promotion has been very helpful. She also said that despite recent pay raises, which are very appreciated, there are still problems in keeping teachers in the classroom since they can usually make more money somewhere else.

Marilyn Lawson is a school nurse from Houston. She said that every school in Texas needs a nurse to assist with students' health needs, at least one nurse for every 750 students. She also requested that Hepatitis B immunizations be made available to school district employees to protect them from exposure. The reason for this is that even though the state has made immunizations available to students, they are simply not getting the shots.

Dr. Fayette Clarke is with the Houston school district. She testified that many students are entering school with learning disabilities that prevent them from learning to properly read. She says specialized training can help these students to catch up.

Rhelda Ball is principal of Cornelius Elementary School in Houston. She says that her students have traditionally scored high on standardized tests and that the relatively few students who don't can raise their scores through similar special training.

Brock Gregg, from the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said new legislation could help the teaching profession police itself, but that the one topic concerning compensation to most teachers is that there be some kind of statewide insurance for all teachers statewide.

Melody Pinson, Region Six director for Association of Texas Professional Educators and a third grade teacher, said there were only a limited number of teachers here today because they were preparing for the TAAS test. But more importantly, that children are changing faster than the education system. She says teachers are not leaving due to salaries, but because they have very little support and large classes.

Public testimony followed. Officials and residents of the Deer Park School District said that the state's current funding system that forces it to send some of its tax money to poorer school districts has caused a financial crisis, one that will force it to eliminate 40 teachers and 35 other employees this year. Parents from other school districts said their schools face similar problems.

The Committee stands in recess subject to call of the chair.

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