New from ASBJ: Houston literacy push unbowed by Harvey

The start of the 2017-18 school year was delayed for most public schools in Houston for two weeks due to Hurricane Harvey. Watching TV news reports, it was hard to juxtapose the torrent of rain and catastrophic flooding that left their mark in August with the glorious weather that greeted us during our visit just a few months earlier.

Videographer Connor Toomy and I came to the nation’s seventh largest school district to get a first-hand look at the Houston Independent School District’s Literacy By 3 reading initiative. Our morning began in the library of Montgomery Elementary, located in the Dumbarton Oaks subdivision of southwest Houston. As topography, flood control infrastructure, and luck would have it, the school was among the district campuses identified has “minimally impacted” by Harvey and its aftermath.  

“This is a beautiful community with a rich heritage” and “a vibe” that’s uplifting and exciting, Houston ISD School Board President and District IX Trustee Wanda Adams told us when we visited the school in May.

What Montgomery’s circa-1960 school building lacked in eye-catching architecture and design, its warm and inviting library made up for in books -- hundreds of new books courtesy of the Wade Smith Foundation. The retired Houston Texan lineman and NFL Pro Bowl player is one of many community members who support the district’s literacy education efforts in ways both large and small.

That support is vital for schools like the 730-student Montgomery Elementary, a Title 1 school where nearly 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and about 40 percent classify as Limited English Proficient.

More than economics or language, what stood out during our visit to Montgomery was the pride and determination among those leading the school -- evident even before we got into the details of the district-wide literacy program that is changing the landscape of learning in Houston schools. We couldn’t help but be impressed by the steady academic progress documented, a testament to veteran principal Faye McNeil and her committed and creative teaching, administrative, and support staff.

“When you grow up with a love for reading, you just want to share that with students,” McNeil said. “At the end of the day, for many of our kids, we are it.  We have to make sure that we're doing everything we can to encourage them and give them what they're going to need to be successful adults.”

That attitude is needed more than ever in schools throughout Houston, southeast Texas, and the Gulf Coast as they recover and get back to the business of teaching and learning. Let’s wish them well.

View “No Ordinary Day,” our multimedia story on Houston’s literacy program and stories on other innovative districts in the October mega-issue of American School Board Journal.


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