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Education News

Lessons From The Last School Closure In Houston

The merger of two schools highlights lessons for the latest proposed closures.

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Principal Clayton Crook has overseen the merger of Ryan Middle School with Cullen. He says one lesson is to prepare early.

It’s time for the last class of the day at Cullen Middle School in southeast Houston.

Students stream through the white and maroon hallway. Principal Clayton Crook stands at one end with his walkie-talkie. “That door closes you know where you have to go — detention today, ”he tells one student.

A year ago, there was concern that this orderly scene would be very different. People worried it could be chaotic — or worse.

“Cullen Middle School and Ryan Middle School have a history of being rivals — in just about everything — athletics, academics,” says Crook. “So they felt it would be a problem merging those communities together.”

Crook says he hasn’t seen any issues with that rivalry.

“We’re very proud of that — that our kids have come in and you can’t tell a Cullen kid from a Ryan kid. You really can’t.”

The merger of these two campuses reveals some lessons about the complicated business of closing schools.

One lesson, says Crook, is to prepare early. He started last school year before the summer started. Another lesson is to focus on building relationships.

So Crook held meetings almost every month where parents could ask questions. Students at Cullen gave their future classmates from Ryan tours of the campus. There was even a joint pep rally in May.

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Last year, the Houston school board decided to close the historic Ryan Middle in Third Ward as a neighborhood school.

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This year Ryan Middle opened as a brand new magnet school. It’s a partnership with Baylor College of Medicine and prepares students for the health sciences. There’s a waiting list of about 600 students to get in

Cullen has now absorbed almost 200 students from the historic Ryan Middle School in Third Ward.

Some teachers have also changed campuses. Lynnette Durant spent five years at Ryan. Now she teaches English at Cullen. She says she’s getting used to a larger campus but has enjoyed a warm welcome.

“The teachers have really taken us in — just bringing us in and helping us to understand the Cullen way and how things go and what the expectations are,” Durant says.

Still, the merger has not been perfect.

Work crews were still finishing $14 million renovation at Cullen when the year began.

The merger has also taught the Houston Independent School District some lessons about the latest proposed school closures.

In February, district administrators proposed closing five schools. That list has since narrowed to two schools: Jones High School and Dodson Elementary.

“In looking back, we needed to engage the community maybe more so,says Michael Cardona, the chief middle schools officer and interim chief high schools officer for HISD.

“Just bringing it [the proposal] out in February probably is seen as a last minute deal. You know, I am a parent. So I mean — I understand that they want to have open communication and so we should have done that.”

If other schools do get consolidated, one parent at Cullen has this advice.

“It’s not going to be a smooth transition in the beginning,” says Kenyetta Richardson. She has a son at Cullen and she also works in the attendance office.

“You have to be patient and work with others, you know. And if you have a good support team, then it will work out just fine.”

In fact, some things are working out great at the old Ryan Middle School.

After the school board closed it down as a neighborhood school, it reopened as a totally new program.

The new Ryan academy is a partnership with the Baylor College of Medicine. Students are learning Latin and neuroscience. It will receive about $2.3 million over three years from a $12 million federal grant for magnet schools.

That has left some parents whose children attended the old Ryan feeling a little cheated.

Arva Howard used to be the PTA president at Ryan. She’s still involved on a school committee there. 

“I wish my children had the opportunity to attend that school the way it is now. It is an amazing school,”says Howard.

What’s also amazing is that a campus that was closed because of low enrollment is now a special academy with about 700 students on the waiting list.

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Almost 200 students from the old Ryan Middle School now take the bus to Cullen. Some teachers have also transferred, like Lynnette Durant. She teaches English now at Cullen after five years at Ryan.

More than 900 students have applied for 250 spots, according to HISD.

Howard wants to see the same kind of innovation and investment at other schools.

“I don’t think they put anything near into Cullen what they put into Ryan. So great, I love it at Ryan. Please don’t close it. But can you please spread that around? And why wouldn’t you?”

That’s same question other parents are asking in this latest round of possible school closures.

They may get an answer when the school board meets March 13 to make a final decision to close two schools or not.

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