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What’s going on at T.H. Rogers? HISD reverses plan to split up students

The Houston Independent School District recently paused a plan to relocate students with profound disabilities from a specialized school, T.H. Rogers, after backlash from parents. If the students are separated, they’ll be the second special education group to leave the campus. A program for deaf students at T.H. Rogers was split up across other campuses this school year. 

Dominic Anthony Walsh / Houston Public Media
A student, Joshua Green, and his mother Ruthie. Next school year will be the last at T.H. Rogers for Joshua Green, but his mom, Ruthie, plans to continue fighting for the program to remain at the school.

Houston Public Media and the Texas Newsroom — a collaboration between NPR and public radio stations across the state — are looking into the shortfalls of the special education system in Texas, and we want to hear from you. We hope to shine a light on the lack of resources for families, the hardships faced by students and the enormous efforts of educators. Have a story? Share it with us. We will keep your information anonymous.

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Editor's note: On January 12, 2023 at 4:13 p.m. — a few hours after this story was first published — Houston ISD sent the following statement from Superintendent Millard House II: "I am happy to share that HISD will not be moving forward with the transition of students in the PSI program at T.H. Rogers following a pause on the decision prior to the holiday break. HISD is committed to meeting TEA requirements for the least restrictive environment to keep the program intact at T.H. Rogers and better engaging our parents and families in decisions impacting our students, now and into the future. The feedback, advocacy, and involvement of our community was critical in arriving to this outcome."

Relu Akpiruo's son, Oise, was born in Nigeria. After ten months, he stopped responding to his name and reacting to sounds.

Relu paid for expensive tests. They confirmed her son was deaf, she said, and doctors warned he might be ostracized.

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"I have seven kids," she said. "He's the fifth child and the third boy. And so I needed help. My country wasn’t helping me, and I was paying so much."

She moved her family to the United States in 2016. Oise started attending a specialized program for deaf students at T.H. Rogers School in 2018.

According to his mom, he was improving.

"We could say ‘Good morning,' ‘Good afternoon,'" she recalled. "We know our alphabets. We could say ‘come on, let’s go, yesterday, tomorrow.' He would understand."

Last school year, Houston ISD announced that the 74 deaf students at T.H. Rogers would be split up across several schools in an effort to integrate them into a more general population.

Another parent wrote an email to the district with a list of concerns.

The move proceeded without public controversy or news media coverage. Relu also opposed the decision, but she said she couldn't afford to hire a lawyer.

After four years at T.H. Rogers, Osie along with eight of his deaf classmates now attend Billy Reagan Elementary.

"Now he’s just not signing," Relu said. "He's not signing like he used to before. He's not catching up ... if he gets stressed at me, and I don’t get it, and I tried to sign to him, he has no idea. The best he could do is hold my hand and lead me to where he wants me to go."

Houston ISD Executive Officer of Specialized Learning and Services Khechara Bradford said special education families can always contact district staff with any concerns about student progress.

"We never get it right 100% of the time," she said. "Sometimes with transition, there are periods where it’s just getting used to that new environment. And then we see where there are gains, and it sometimes can be exponential growth. So it’s a really good point for her to feel like she has a voice and can share her concerns with the teachers."

More changes at T.H. Rogers

Before that program moved, T.H. Rogers School housed three groups — the deaf students, a "Vanguard program" for "gifted and talented" students, and some students from a program called "Preparing Students for Independence (PSI)" for kids with profound disabilities.

T.H. Roger student Beau Aubin
Dominic Anthony Walsh / Houston Public Media
15-year-old Beau Aubin is a student in the T.H. Rogers PSI program for profoundly disabled students.

15-year-old Beau Aubin is one of the 100 students in the PSI program. About half of them are assigned to T.H. Rogers.

Aubin has cerebral palsy and occasional seizures. Julie Beeson is his mom.

"Our children are outliers," she said. "They are profoundly disabled children that are on the intellectual level of probably one or two years old."

And like the deaf students, Houston ISD planned to split them up across schools closer to their homes. The plan was announced in November.

"They belong together in a community, as do their parents," Beeson said. "What is happening to us is unconscionable."

She said the situation kind of feels like an old movie, "The Wizard of Oz."

The basic premise: a Kansas girl is swept by a tornado to a strange land, where a giant, floating head is in charge. But the head is actually controlled by a Nebraska man hiding behind a curtain.

Julie Beeson wants to know who's behind the curtain — who's accountable for a plan that she thinks will be bad for her son, and that she had no say in.

Who made the decision?

There are a number of moving pieces, including two conservators from the Texas Education Agency. They were put in place two years ago to improve Houston ISD's special education department, in response to what TEA described as "institutionalized failures."

Houston ISD superintendent Millard House II blamed them, at first. Houston Public Media obtained secretly recorded audio of a meeting between district leadership and a handful of special ed parents.

"It was just executing the orders that we were being told, and I hate to throw anybody under the bus," he said. "I couldn't say that publicly on the news because I don't want TEA pissed at me. We're a district that has been under conservatorship, and I don't need any problems with TEA."

Documents obtained by Houston Public Media contradict that claim.

Reports from TEA show that conservators approved of the plans to relocate the deaf students, which Houston ISD said was driven by an outside review. The Region 4 Education Service Center — which oversees a network of area programs for deaf students — said that review was "conducted by an external team of independent reviewers," and that it was shared with the district in 2018.

But TEA said it has no records related to the most recent relocation plan for the profoundly disabled students — the plan that House initially blamed the conservators for.

A TEA spokesperson also denied ordering that move, and said "any decision(s) concerning which students are served on the T.H. Rogers campus rests with individual students’ ARD Committees and Houston ISD and is not driven by the Agency.”

We asked the Houston ISD superintendent about this tension in an interview.

"I’m really not interested in terms of the idea of who said — who said what," House said. "We know we have an issue that we need to right for these parents, and that’s what the focus will be moving forward — to ensure that we do what’s in the best interest of our students and our families."

When pressed about who made the decision to relocate the profoundly disabled students, he said "The district is going to own it at this point. I’ll just say that. We'll own it. We'll address the issue."

What's next, and why?

Houston ISD's Khechara Bradford said the students will remain at T.H. Rogers next school year. But the pause won't necessarily last forever.

"The district has paused all work around this, being very responsive to parents," she said. "Moving forward across the district — not just looking at this one campus — we want to provide more inclusive learning opportunities that are closer to a student’s home, so that it’s not a hardship for families."

T.H. Rogers is in West Houston, far from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the district. And there's also federal law to consider, which requires students be placed in a "least restrictive environment."

Basically, school districts are legally required to lean towards integration rather than isolation when crafting individualized plans for special education students. The law also calls for students to be placed with kids closer to their age, when appropriate.

"It’s a different model," Bradford explained. "And I think it’s a more modern model of special education, where we’re not sending students off away for special learning. The learning and the support is following the students."

Those considerations are captured in the TEA records obtained by Houston Public Media.

In July 2021, TEA conservator Molly Coredau's monthly report detailed concerns about the deaf program, as well as a milestone for improvement: "By August 2022, all students served through the (Regional Day School Program For The Deaf) will be provided with a continuum of placement options that supports access to and progress in the general education curriculum in the Least Restrictive Environment."

The agency said it had no similar records related to Houston ISD's most recent plan to relocate profoundly disabled students. Based on records from Houston ISD, conservators met with the district's special education leadership as early as Oct. 6 2022 to discuss "T.H. Rogers accountability." The district told the PSI parents about the relocation plan the next month.

Houston ISD withheld other records about the planned relocation of the PSI program, citing a handful of exceptions to the state's public information law.

Dave Muzyka was an administrator at T.H. Rogers for about 25 years, including a decade as principal. He said he understands the concerns about the least restrictive environment — when it comes to the deaf program.

"For a long time, they said that there were not academic inclusion opportunities," he said. "For the deaf, there was some validity in that. I mean, the way you teach a deaf or hearing-impaired child and the way you teach a GT child, it’s two totally different approaches."

But then there's the PSI program, for students with profound disabilities.

"The PSI program, I feel completely different about," he said. "There’s a tragic shortage of special educators in the state of Texas — nationwide, there’s a huge shortage. It’s not going to turn around anytime soon. So when you’re looking at taking medically fragile students with high physical needs — having a collection of those students in some place that had the medical support, it was fantastic."

He was confused by the now-paused plan to separate those students.

"Being isolated on a campus, how is that considered the least restrictive environment?" he said. "If you’re looking at the chronological age, okay. But none of these kids in the program are at the cognitive level of their chronological age. So then the question is, how do we help this type of student grow and push towards success and accomplish? And I don’t know. It just didn’t make any sense to me when I heard about it."

In a December interview, Houston ISD superintendent House said "My goal is to take the pause and have as least amount of change for the students moving forward.”

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Dominic Anthony Walsh

Education & Families Reporter

Dominic Anthony Walsh covers education & families for Houston Public Media's enterprise team. His work examines the institutions and policies affecting millions of students and families across Texas, with a focus on Houston — home to the largest school district in the state. He comes to the Bayou City after...

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