Houston’s Learning Curve

It’s one of the most diverse, one of the poorest and one of the best public school systems in the country. But there’s still a lot of work to do.

Read Article with Photos at Politico.com

“HISD has a lot of good intentions,” says Adeeb Barqawi. “But I think what’s missing is that HISD cannot do it all by itself.”

Adeeb Barqawi teaches physics at the 85-percent low income Kashmere High School. The 25-year-old Teach For America recruit founded ProUnitas this year, a local non-profit that identifies resource gaps among his underprivileged students. “Our kids’ basic needs are not being met,” he says. “How are we expecting achievement?”

Barqawi teaches physics at Kashmere High School, one of the original Apollo campuses; he says the program changed little. The school dates to 1967, when the surrounding Kashmere Gardens neighborhood was a younger, more vibrant mostly African-American community. Abandoned homes and overgrown grassy lots pepper the neighborhood today. Kashmere High is 84 percent black and 85 percent low-income. Many of the students who would otherwise attend Kashmere opt instead for the Barbara Jordan magnet high school nearby. Dwindling enrollment and low test scores have kept the school on the verge of closure for a decade, but community outcry has kept it open so far.

Barqawi is an intense and enthusiastic 25-year-old Teach for America recruit in his third year at Kashmere. He finished college at age 19 and worked for Pfizer before following his brother’s lead joining TFA. Like many TFA’ers before him, Barqawi sees himself as part teacher and part agent of systemic change. Rather than take the popular view of education as a direct route out of poverty, Barqawi flips the equation. “Our kids’ basic needs are not being met, and therefore, how are we expecting achievement?” he wonders.

This year Barqawi formed a nonprofit called ProUnitas to help draw together support from unconnected, often underused resources, like an activity room at a nearby public housing complex, a city health department community center, food banks and community health resources. They’re all looking for ways to help, and he has students in need. One of his partners in ProUnitas, Patsy Morehead-Potts, grew up around here, graduated from Kashmere, and has spent the last 39 years teaching in Houston. When Barqawi introduces us, she’s just finished another day teaching in the classroom where she’s worked for the last 37 years.

At the Gulf Coast Arms, an affordable housing complex with school-age kids in two-thirds of the units, ProUnitas organized a health fair last Thanksgiving with 32 health care services, health insurance sign-ups and $15,000 worth of food bank donations. Barqawi has also helped with a grant to redevelop a park near the complex and, through “Project Grad,” paired his students with mentors to talk about their plans after graduation.

“Most kids at Kashmere don’t really have parents, or dad isn’t around. They don’t really have nobody to push them,” says Shequoyae Belton, a junior at the school. “My mom works full time, so I don’t even see her ’til the weekends.” Belton is one of nine Kashmere students at the city community center on a Thursday afternoon in April. The center is a mile and a half from Kashmere, so kids get free bus passes to make the trip. Here they can play games and work with their counselor, who’s paid by the city, on their résumés and summer jobs applications.

“We cannot have quick fixes. There must be an up-front investment in kids. There must be an up-front investment in communities,” Barqawi says. And the investments need to include a long-term plan. After all, he wonders, “When I leave, then what?”

Patrick Michels—a former teacher—is a staff writer for the Texas Observer.