School officials urge community to raise its hand for education reform

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

April 8, 2013 at 9:03 p.m.
Updated April 8, 2013 at 11:09 p.m.

It's been a few years since one of Melissa Lyman's daughters cracked open a textbook inside a Victoria school district classroom.

But the 52-year-old nurse nevertheless gathered with about 100 people at the district's Miori Lane conference center Monday to hear leaders debate how best to improve an education system that they say looks a little grim right now.

"I'm still trying to keep my finger on what's going on," said Lyman, of Victoria, as an advocacy group called Raise Your Hand Texas prepared to take the podium. "It's about our community. We have to make them (the students) successful."

Lyman's daughter, Kelsey, graduated 13th in her class from Memorial High School in 2007. A year earlier, the school was rated "unacceptable" by the Texas Education Agency. That made applying for colleges and keeping up with her peers once she got there a bit more difficult, she said.

"I think it limited her possibilities as to where she could go," Lyman said.

Kelsey graduated from Texas A&M University. She now teaches fifth-grade English at KIPP 3D Academy, a public charter school in Houston.

And some public schools could take a few notes from its operations, Lyman said.

"I like the investment the teachers make. Every day, the expectations are high," she said of their accountability and long 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. school days.

Lyman said VISD is "on its way" to success, though, after splitting Memorial, which she said had fallen into disrepair, into East and West high schools.

David Anthony, CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas, meanwhile, laid out a plan that he said would best carry that success statewide.

He said the Legislature should first restore the $5.3 billion in funding it cut from public schools in 2011.

He said Texas has not begun to feel its detrimental effects because lawmakers fortunately prepared for growth in enrollment in the 1990s. He also said teachers tend to pick up the slack, purchasing materials out of their own pocket.

He said one way to protect what money is left is to oppose school vouchers in every form because they help educate only 3 percent of the student population in Texas.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission also found 5.9 percent of charter schools were rated academically unacceptable, twice the percentage of public schools.

"We can't forsake the 91 percent (of children in public schools) with all of those experiments," Anthony said.

Six percent of students in Texas are in private schools.

Anthony also said that high-stakes testing needs to be scaled back.

Texas students must pass 15 end-of-course exams to graduate, the highest number in the nation, according to the Education Commission of the States.

VISD Superintendent Robert Jaklich agreed.

"We do not believe more testing means more learning," he told the audience. "They should be used as a rule and not a hammer."

Jaklich applauded a February court ruling that he said would administer public school funding more equitably. He also was hopeful after the Texas House voted Thursday to restore $2.5 billion to the education funding that they cut. That decision was forwarded to the Senate, which will finish ironing out the budget's details, he said.

Ruben Cortez Jr., who was elected to the state board of education in November, said the students matter more than the politics in Austin.

"I started with the premise that I am a parent," he said of his life in Brownsville, where three of his children attend public school and his wife serves as a principal. "It wasn't about being a Democrat or a Republican."

He said that's why he worked to end what he called "eleventh-hour amendments" to measures that could drastically change curriculum. He said now the 14 state school board members need to provide 24-hour advance notice before changing anything on the document.

Kathy Hunt, 56, of Victoria, was excited to be involved in the discussion. Hunt teaches physical science at Industrial High School and has been a member of Raise Your Hand Texas for the past five years. She is struggling because some of her lab equipment is outdated.

"It doesn't represent the latest technology," Hunt said. "We (teachers) take care of the whole student."



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