What Went Wrong at Worthing High School, And How It’s Trying to Survive

In collaboration with the Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Media investigated why Worthing High ended up near the bottom of the state’s rankings, and how it’s trying to avoid closure.

By Laura IsenseeJuly 9, 2018 10:30 am, , ,

From Houston Public Media:

For six decades, Worthing High School has been known as the pride of Sunnyside, one of Houston’s oldest black communities, just a few miles south of downtown. Prominent alumni have worked at the Pentagon, served in the Texas Legislature and played in the NFL.

But the neighborhood could lose Worthing High. It has failed to meet every state academic target over the last four years – the only school in Texas to miss so much.

Unless Worthing boosts test scores and gets more kids ready for college – and fast – state law requires the Texas Education Commissioner to shut it down or replace the locally-elected Houston school board with outside managers this year.

In collaboration with the Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Media investigated what went wrong at Worthing High: Why has it gotten to this point, and what’s being done to fix it?

We obtained public school records, interviewed current and former educators, as well as community members and students.

Here are some of our findings.

Principal turnover

Since 2011, Worthing has had more administrative turnover than any of Houston’s over 40 high schools. The current leader, Khalilah Campbell-Rhone, just finished her first full year and is the school’s sixth principal in 10 years. That turnover, according to educators and community members, is the number one reason why Worthing High has struggled so much. As longtime football coach Brandon Ellis put it: “You’d be on a high and then you’d come down. One minute, OK, we’re excited, we got new personnel, we’re going to fight, we’re going to take care of business – and then all of a sudden you have a change coming. I think it trickled down to the kids as well.”

Worthing High School Principal Khalilah Campbell-Rhone high-fives a student during a visit to teacher Michael Judge's Algebra I classroom on Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Houston.

High rate of “ineffective” teachers

Without consistent leadership, Worthing High has struggled to hire and hang on to teachers. One former principal, Tod Nix, told us that his hands were tied when he tried to recruit from the outside.

It was a dumping ground for teachers that nobody wanted,” said Nix, who resigned from Worthing after his name was tied to a cheating probe at another district. He was later cleared and still works in education.

The Houston Independent School District maintains that principals have complete freedom over hiring at their campuses, and the Houston Federation of Teachers said that in years of layoffs, like then in 2011, the district instructed school leaders to hire from a list of teachers who had been laid off before recruiting other candidates.

However, our reporting partner, the Houston Chronicle, analyzed five years’ worth of teacher ratings. They found more than a third of Worthing’s teachers were rated as “ineffective” or “needs improvement.” That’s twice as bad as the district average.

The new principal, Campbell-Rhone, has replaced more than half the teachers. For example, she brought in math teacher Michael Judge. He has almost three decades of experience and creates a space where kids feel comfortable, letting them work on algebra equations while listening to hip hop.

Poor Reputation

Since the 1990s, enrollment at Worthing High has dropped. With about 850 students, the school is half the size it used to be. In fact, most students zoned for Worthing High – about two-thirds – choose to study someplace else. In an informal survey, parents told the district that they’re worried about fights on campus and complain there’s not enough variety of courses.

Dynasty Stephenson, 17, lives near Worthing, but made up her mind in sixth grade not to go to high school there.

“That’s when Worthing was the worst.  I heard they brought guns to the school, the gangs were at the school, kids were selling stuff at the school,” she explained. “I was already looking forward to my future, trying to see what college I want to go.”

So, this past year, Dynasty woke up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus to attend the higher-ranked Lamar High School.

One incident in particular hurt Worthing’s reputation. In 2011, a gang fight broke out at an informal football game and a former student was killed.

The school’s records also back up parents’ safety concerns. Our reporting partner, the Houston Chronicle, crunched discipline data. They found Worthing had more than 600 fights over the last five years. That’s the highest rate of any Houston high school and triple the district-wide average.

The number of fights are on the decline, according to Campbell-Rhone.

We still have kids who sometimes skip. We still have kids who sometimes fight. But is it the culture here? No, you have now become the outlier,” she said.

Darius Hines, 16, heard about that reputation when he was deciding where to go to high school. He chose Worthing High because his grandfather went there. Darius told us that his experience has surprised him. He’s found his best friends, teachers who mentor him and opportunities to prepare him for college.

For example, this summer, he’s spending a month at a prestigious prep school near Boston, where he’s studying writing and debate.

When he starts his senior year this August, he wants to do his part to transform Worthing.

I mean, I just feel it in my soul, like, deep down we are going to change Worthing, make it better for everybody,” Darius said.

So far, early results show that changes at the school are paying off. On the state algebra test — where last year Worthing scored the worst in the state – they’ve doubled the passing rate from 34 to 68 percent. But on reading, scores remain low, making it too soon to say if Worthing High will make the state’s grade and avoid closure.

In a statement, Houston’s interim superintendent Grenita Lathan said that Worthing has had a long road to improvement, but it’s starting to see a boost thanks to many steps taken at the school.

“The passionate teachers and staff that have continually put students first during the last school year have truly made a difference,” Lathan said.

When state ratings are released in August, the principal, Campbell-Rhone, believes that Worthing will make the grade for the first time in years – and beat off the threat of state closure