Education News

HISD Proposal To Cut Off Student Congress Draws Controversy

The HISD school board will consider a proposal at its meeting Thursday to dissolve the relationiship between HISD and the official voice of the district’s 200,000 students.

A student at Bellaire High School raises their hand during a district presentation in this file photo.

Updated Friday, 7:49 a.m. CT: Houston ISD trustees delayed a vote on a resolution to break the district's ties with the Student Congress and form a new advisory committee, amid backlash from students and some board members. The board voted 8-1 to postpone the vote at a meeting Thursday night. Administrators have until August to take back up the issue.

Original story is below:

The Houston school board could vote to end its relationship with the official voice for its 200,000 students, dissolving a six-year relationship that brought student concerns to top administrators, school board members, lawmakers and judges.

The board approved the HISD Student Congress in November 2014 to represent students from “any and all HISD high schools.” A speaker is elected to lead the group, which has advocated on issues from hiring a superintendent, mental health and the student code of conduct.

Before then, there was no district-wide student government group, only campus-based organizations.

“If you do go to all these different schools, with all these different backgrounds, there are a set of concerns that students across the district still share," said Amy Fan, who was the group’s speaker when she was a senior at Bellaire High. Fan recently graduated college and now advises the congress.

"I think coming to that realization is really powerful,” she said.

Consider the state's massive school finance lawsuit, where members of the student congress filed an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court. And more recently, the group, also known as “StuCon,” surveyed thousands of Houston students about how to reopen schools during the pandemic.

But the time for the Student Congress has passed, HISD's Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has decided.

“Our recommendation is to dissolve and start anew so that every child, every high school has an opportunity to send a student leader to be a part of the conversation,” Lathan told board members at a recent meeting.

Houston Independent School District Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

Lathan said concerns include low membership, a lack of representation for all high schools and a lack of communication. District administrators say that they’ve tried to contact the HISD Student Congress with no response.

“There was some concerns about the organization — are students being pitted against each other? There was a breakdown in communication,” Lathan said.

Another major contention: District staff say that outside adults are interfering and influencing the student-led group.

Members dispute that, saying those “adults” are alumni from HISD and its Student Congress, and provide support and structure that district administrators have failed to offer itself.

In fact, current members of the congress told Houston Public Media they had no idea about the proposal to end the relationship until they saw it on the agenda.

“It truly shocked me, especially seeing the board meeting," said Jazmin Alvarez, 16. "I didn’t expect them to discredit StuCon. It was just shocking to me."

Alvarez is a junior at Eastwood Academy, and one of about a dozen current members of the council. One reason she and others were surprised was because emails show active communication between the group and at least one administrator as recently as last fall.

Jazmin participated in a recent workshop faciliated by a civic collective, called Institute of Engagement, and led by HISD alumni.

“I was so excited. And I still am excited to get this going, get things up and running. I was excited to be a part of something bigger than myself,” Jazmin said. “Student voice is so important right now. We really need to advocate for ourselves.”

Superintendent Lathan wants to launch a new student advisory council instead. The original proposal stated it would be “under the direction” of HISD administration, though that language has now been removed.

“Students would still be the advocates, being able to utilize their voice to share information not only with administration, but also with trustees as it relates to concerns or recommendations for changing things in our district,” Lathan said last week.

“I want to be very clear that this is about including more students, as opposed to excluding students.”

But several school board members have questioned what kind of message it sends to young people to cut one student group in favor of another.

“I mean, the message should be that student voice is welcome. It’s honored,” said Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca. “If there are issues, then let’s work past the issues, and let’s come together and figure it out.”

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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