How The Woodlands Has Gone Astray; A Suitable Houston Honor for the Inventor of Air Conditioning

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  • ” ‘Truth of the matter is, we have an identity crisis,’ Gebert said. ‘We are not really a city. … We’re not even a dot on a real Texas map, and that bothers some people.’ ”

    ^ I suppose that it depends on which map you’re looking at. The last Texas state road map that I purchased indicated The Woodlands very clearly in accordance with its population at the time. A lot of small localities on that map are not incorporated cities. The Census Bureau tracks it separately, too. But Gebert summed it up accurately, what these folks want is an identity. The loudest folks on this issue never present arguments that have to do with city services or municipal finance. They seem most highly concerned with accumulating the trappings of ‘normalcy’, whatever that means. Normalcy is a very strange and expensive desire.

  • So, the story of the Woodlands is that property values are at all time highs, resident happiness is at all time high, success and affluence are overflowing and it is still THE most desirable neighborhood in Houston for upper middle class families (and up). So why do people constantly bash it’s lack of diversity (it’s over 80% white). Why is there a NEED for diversity, why is that that diversity MUST exist according to some people? This is a perfect example of diversity being unnecessary for a success of a community, and in fact in this case if diversity is introduced at this point it will reverse the community’s successful trend and will bring property values down and inevitable slide of the community into mediocrity if not down right it’s failure. In short, diversity for diversity’s sake makes absolutely no sense.

  • SHSU is not planning a medical school, they are planning an osteopathic college. These are completely different animals.

  • for all the talk about the woodlands’ sustainability and ecology-mindedness, it’s a bit ironic that we now know the quickest and most efficient way to create deforestation and unsustainability is to create a bucolic suburb in the very middle of it. thanks for all the concrete and deforestation Mitchell, once a fracker always a fracker.

  • Indeed, the parasite development that has sprung up all around the Woodlands has destroyed way more land and trees than the Woodlands development itself may have preserved. It also has failed to inspire other developers to emulate its model of environmental conservation.

  • Are there any large apartment complexes in the Woodlands? If there are, you’ll have a Spring Branch or Sharpstown situation in due course.

  • I agree, to an extent, Commonsense. Diversity is a really, really good thing. But it only works if it’s allowed to develop naturally. Attempts to force diversity on cities and neighborhoods typically don’t reach enough people to make any difference, and when they do, they’ve got all sorts of up intended consequences.
    It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1960s, deeply prejudiced cities and neighborhoods in the South needed to be forced of accept minorities. But a lot has changed in 50 years.

  • The Woodlands is doing all right as far as exurban edge cities go–they’ve put more emphasis on pedestrians, quality of life, and a sense of place than other exurbs, and are being rewarded for it with soaring property values. Whether it’s sustainable, I don’t know–I think that will largely depend on whether it can continue its job growth and basically become a complete independent city without any aspirations as a bedroom community for Houston.

  • umm, guys, i know lots of woodlanders that are proof positive why economic homogenization is not a good thing.

  • @commonsense – If the happiness of residents were at an all-time high, there wouldn’t be an article full of locals bitching about how terrible things have gotten.

    And taking one subset of the population and cramming them into one location, along with their political ideologies, religion, and tax money can have some pretty bad effects on the rest of us. Like when their congressmen torpedo mass transit in the urban core. Or when they hold pig races next to the site of future mosque. Or when they shut down all the abortion clinics in the state. And cut public school funding while simultaneously building $100 million football stadiums (using debt). And the list goes on…

  • Something not talked about concerning The Woodlands is how, by failing to incorporate as a municipality, the residents are economic rent seekers from the rest of the taxpayers of Montgomery County. They’ve been very good at getting the services they need for their community, while asking a much broader population to help them pay for it.

  • @Superdave, all those things have nothing to do with a subset of population living in any particular location, those views and actions are wide spread geographically.
    By your logic I can state that a certain subset of the population that lives in 3rd ward is constantly voting for more welfare and redistribution of wealth, prevent demolition of derelict buildings (schools, post office) for no reason what so ever, systematically displace more qualified college applicants simply because of race, and constantly blame the Woodlands subset for their own historical and cultural failures which perpetuate poverty and ignorance.

  • “THE most desirable neighborhood for upper middle class families”

    Perhaps for a certain subset of upper middle class families, but you couldn’t pay me enough to live there. I don’t want a 4000sq ft house and chain restaurants on an artificial lake are hardly my idea of a desirable city center. And if you don’t work there, have fun sitting in traffic for 3 hours a day…

  • “So why do people constantly bash it’s lack of diversity (it’s over 80% white). Why is there a NEED for diversity, why is that that diversity MUST exist according to some people?”

    I’m not sure there “needs” to be diversity within a community, but the plain fact is that the United States as a whole, and Texas in particular, is experiencing rapid demographic change, which will accelerate over the next two to three decades at a minimum. It will be increasingly difficult for white people to remain in white enclaves, and the argument for living in and raising one’s children in a diverse environment is that they will develop the skills to thrive within a diverse workforce.

  • On the contrary, as far as taxation goes, The Woodlands is the crown jewel of montgomery county, Montgomery county could not survive without them. Part of the reason Woodlands doesn’t want to be annexed is because of their financial and political clout and they can pretty much tell the toothless hillbillies up in Conroe what to do.

    I lived in the Woodlands for a couple of years and my commute was no more than 30 minutes, Hardy Tollroad is Woodlands’ private autobahn.

    I also advocate choice, one can choose to live in the woodlands and one can choose to live in 5th ward, nobody is stopping anybody. No reason to force one group on another by force or guilt.

  • When diversity occurs in an all Black or all Hispanic nabe it’s called gentrification, and is bad according those same people who praise diversity.

    And sure, the area surrounding The Woodlands has been deforested by why blame the developers who preserved the forest where they had control?

  • The Woodlands has always seemed like a company town to me. If I moved all the way out there I’d eventually owe my soul to the company store.

  • @commonsense – Those issues are indeed “wide spread geographically” – in the form of all the white-ville suburbs all over the state. That’s how people like John Culberson and Tom Delay get elected in stronghold districts and are able to wield disproportionate sway in larger political matters. And as a resident of the 3rd Ward, I totally agree – and I’ve seen first-hand how the introduction of diversity into my area is breaking down those problems. And you can interchange Sheila Jackson Lee’s name with Culburson’s without offending me. Diversity is a good thing – and the Woodlands lack of it is not.

  • The elephant for the Woodlands is that it is nothing more than modern white-flight. How is your average working-class-diverse person supposed to afford a home and a car to live there?
    As for the complaining about traffic and such, they can go to hell for all I care. If the wealth and education found in the Woodlands were invested in a struggling smaller town, or established neighborhood, then it would benefit more of us. Do you really have to go al the way to Montwoody county for good schools?

  • i’m just nitpicking here, but “gentrification” is when old housing is torn down to be replaced by new housing out of economic reach of the surrounding community. and of course it’s bad, though not necessarily because of itself. displaced citizens from gentrification are usually pushed to areas lacking similar infrastructure and amenities as the last location. the city then loses out because we have a larger portion of folks lacking adequate transportation/infrastructure to help supply labor to employers. it’s a net loss to the city as a whole at that point. this all can of course be managed to mitigate any of the negatives, but naturally never is so it’s all just related to your perspective at that point.

    i can’t believe i’d ever actually be typing this, but the reason that lack of diversity is so frowned upon is because we just came out of a century in which we had created the most dense areas of severe poverty ever seen in this country and we are still reeling from the after effects. these went well beyond anything of the likes of the european immigrant hoods of the 19th century. from this we’ve been able to study that poverty is a clearly proven statistical disease that will eat and spit out everything around it if concentrated in such a manner. that is why our country, and the world at large, so favors “diversity”, because it can all be better managed in smaller portions to maintain a stable and educated pool of labor for local employers. diversity is a clearly proven economic win-win for all involved. that’s not to say that any of this would relate to the woodlands in and of itself, except it’s only exhibit A out of many many exhibits that show Houston to be a highly stratified mix of economic segregation. that means Houston could be doing much better economically if we could find ways to better manage our areas of extreme poverty and if we could lower the cost of transportation for all involved (not that i support LRT or an expanded metro by any means at this point in time). i understand that this isn’t a priority for most of us, if any, but it’s to our own disservice and at the detriment of the city as a whole. don’t think any of us our economists on the board here, but I’d love to see any studies pointing out the opposite.

    and Dana-x, if you want to preserve the woodlands you do what george and susan strake did. if you want to spearhead the destruction of woodlands, you do what mitchell did. this has been repeated over and over again throughout time, ignorance and foolhardy intentions are not an excuse at this point. you’re too kind for your own good.

  • In my experience, GlenW, people who ask that sort of question are looking at things in a vacuum.
    Maybe parts of The Woodlands are too expensive for a low income worker. But Greenspoint is not far away, and it is affordable for the masses. For those with a little more money, parts of Spring and the FM1960 corridor are within reach. If there’s no transit available, they can buy $2,000 clunkers to get themselves to work. It’s all perfectly do-able.

  • Texas Central’s proposal for dallas-houston HSR completely ignores a huge problem on the table for the Houston area. Both current plans for the line has it traversing along US290 to 610, then into downtown. While this would satiate commuter rail demand for the northwest corridor – assuming plans include stations along its path – the better route would clearly be along I45 with stops in Woodlands and IAH. As it’s currently imagined, I oppose this layout until it offers a greater positive impact for Houston mass transit needs more pressing than simply a straight shot to dallas.

  • RE 30 min commute to the Woodlands:

    People living in far flung areas always downplay their commute times. Google Maps is showing 45 minutes now from the onramp from downtown to the offramp at the Woodlands using the Hardy tollroad. Since most people don’t work and live next to onramps and offramps, it’s an easy hour each way door to door. To downtown. Add a solid extra 20 minutes each way to the Galleria or med center.

  • @ Memebag: I really appreciate your quips.

    Regarding the company store: I can’t help but think, with no small bit of humility on my part, that there’s no such thing as a life lived without the construction of an identity and the allocation of economic resources toward the self-affirmation that it has been verily adopted and flaunted. You’d have to be some kind of an especially disciplined Buddhist monk or perhaps mentally retarded not to get caught up in it.

    It reminds me of a Zappa quote, one of my favorites. He was informed during a performance that there were uniformed police among the audience. It was apparently considered noteworthy by some. His on-stage reply was that “Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself.” Damn straight.

  • Unfortunately, The Woodlands has become “too attractive”, with a development company that is more than willing to milk it for all it is worth. Still, it offers a lot for families. There are plenty of inexpensive older homes and apartments in the immediate area, and there is nothing stopping anyone from moving in.

  • I remember as a kid my dad took us out to this new place called the Woodlands. There was nothing but trees and dirt roads and we all piled into the golf cart and listened to the salesman pitch it as country vacation home property!

  • Everyone was so busy discussing The Woodlands, they missed the unicorn of a development that is going up next to the Katy Freeway: a midrise spec office building with ground floor retail!

  • I regularly made it from Woodlands parkway onramp to Galleria area in 35 minutes flat. Sure if there was an accident or unexpected events then it would take much longer. But I don’t get why people make such a big deal about commuting times, I actually enjoyed it as personal time, listened to the morning radio, gathered my thoughts for the day, actually became fully awake, listened to some books on tape, etc. I’d choose living in a big house with lots of land in peace and quite and have a commute than live in a filthy inner core stuffed like sardines with weirdos and having to lug my groceries in foot like a donkey.

  • For whatever reason, wealthy Mexicans don’t seem so blithely dismissive of “the trappings of ‘normalcy'”:
    Now: forget you read that. It is important to the terms of the debate that we ignore the natural tendency of the rest of the world to form enclaves of the well-to-do. At any rate, they won’t do that here!

  • Re: the Dallas-Houston HSR route, one of the preconditions of this project is that it not have any stops along the way in suburbs or minor cities. Additional stops add significantly to the total travel time and add operational complexities that would undermine the intercity value proposition.

  • Joel: you’re right in your assessment. But like many who discuss concentrated poverty and gentrification, you’re missing a few key points.
    1: gentrification doesn’t happen all at once. The early stages of gentrification, when middle class people are just starting to move in, are actually highly beneficial to poor neighborhoods. It’s only really the end stages of gentrification that are bad, when the last vestiges of affordable housing and small businesses are demolished to make way for rich people.
    2: moving the poor out to middle class neighborhoods isn’t a silver bullet that solves all their problems. In many cases, they need a different set of services than what is provided in middle class areas. They might need job placement services, for example, or parenting classes, when what’s available in the new neighborhood is retirement planning and babysitting services.
    3: it’s impossible to stress enough how important diversity is to communities, but there are two ways to reach diversity. The first, which is what HUD likes to do, is to move poor people out of poor neighborhoods and into middle class neighborhoods. There are three big downfalls to this. First, the efforts are virtually impossible from a political standpoint. Second, they’re almost always too small in scale to make a real difference. Third, they leave even greater poverty and despair behind, in poor neighborhoods. The much better way to get diverse communities, is to improve poor neighborhoods to the point that the middle class will move back in; while preserving the right amount of affordable housing to allow the poor to remain.

  • You may have made it from downtown to the Woodlands in 35 minutes a few years ago, but times have changed. At rush hour these days, that’s a fantasy. “Filthy inner core” That’s a good one.

  • The Woodlands exists because of Houston and not vice-versa. The majority of its residents don’t work there, its “town center” notwithstanding.

    Beyond the work opportunities that Houston provides for its exurban satellite, there are the cultural amenities. The inner loop of Houston is where the major sports stadiums are; where the symphony, opera, ballet, and theater companies are; where the universities are; where the museums are; where the major hospitals are; where the zoo is. Houstonians who recognize this look at the Woodlands with as much affection as they would for a Stepford wife.

    All of this is to say that the civic pride expressed by Woodlands residents, present and past, with respect to Houston is hardly impressive. What is impressive is just how sensitive Woodlanders are to criticism of their homogenized community. The mention of diversity touched a nerve here, and rightly so, because the Woodlands is a good example of our bad tendency to self-segregate. Proponents of diversity aren’t debating the rights of people to self-segregate, but rather their wisdom. Societies whose different members can’t or won’t live together aren’t healthy, and the Woodlands is symptomatic.

  • Houston reader: it’s very easy to put all the blame on those rich people who self-segregate, but there are much deeper forces at play.
    All else equal, say I’m a pilot, and I’m based out of Intercontinental. I’d be crazy to drive all the way to the Woodlands, right? Why not live in Greenspoint or somewhere else that’s closer to the airport? It’s a shorter drive. There’s more diversity. But there are also higher crime rates and the perception that crime is MUCH higher, the restaurants close in the evenings and on weekends, there are no good child care options or schools, the housing stock is deteriorated….
    If we want diversity, the answer isn’t to spew vitriol at people who choose to love in places like The Woodlands. The answer is to ask “why are they moving there?” And act on it when they answer.

  • ZAW: You go wrong on a few points. I didn’t single out either the rich or the poor, but rather the general tendency to self-segregate. Also, my “vitriol” was directed at those who celebrate the Woodlands at Houston’s expense, irrespective of where they live. That’s particularly relevant to this thread. And your example of the pilot is a straw man. People living in the Woodlands aren’t commuting to Intercontinental in any significant numbers—the traffic down to the loop on 45 and the Hardy toll road will tell you that.

    I’m sympathetic to the fear of crime (less so “perceived crime”) and to the desire for good public schools. I’m not sympathetic to driving 30 miles from town in search for solutions, because those solutions create their own problems: infrastructure demands, traffic and pollution, the elimination of pine forest, to name a few. And such long-commute solutions are often illusory: there’s crime in the Woodlands, too; Houston schools are better than you seem to think, and they afford a good deal of choice. I know this because I have two kids in HISD schools.

    Beyond that, the relative lack of cultural amenities is the icing on the Woodlands cake for me, but if you feel that my earlier post was too harsh, I’ll admit that I don’t really believe that the women-folk of the Woodlands are Stepford wives.

  • You may be able to make it from the onramp to downtown in 35 minutes, but how about the trip from Gosling or Kuykendahl to the freeway? One of my coworkers says that part can take 15 to 45 minutes all by itself.

  • If people want to self-segregate and move somewhere like The Woodlands, great. I’m glad they are free to do that. What I don’t understand is the myopia that self-segregation can create, when people forget that anyone would ever value anything else over clean and shiny (and white) suburbs.

    An example of what bothers me so much: I was leaving a Strake Jesuit football game earlier this year, and a Woodlands dad and I fell into conversation on the way out. He commented “this is such a great campus. Too bad it’s in this neighborhood.” As a SJ parent, I didn’t have any choice but to answer him politely, so I murmured something about how the lower property costs made it possible for the school to buy more land to improve and expand. But in reality, I was just incensed by his comments … still am, actually. What, a working class neighborhood doesn’t deserve something nice like a private school campus in it? The school has nothing to offer the neighborhood, and vice versa? The neighborhood has less value in absolute terms because it’s not wealthy, or aesthetically pleasing? What is it about living somewhere like The Woodlands that changes the way a person thinks, that they can look at the (abundant) life going on outside their clean little bubble and not recognize its value? I don’t have an answer to this question – it just bothers me an awful lot.

  • @Vonnegan

    I sympathize with your viewpoint and notice identical perhaps unanswerable questions popping into my own mind when I encounter people such your interlocutor. I cannot come to any conclusion other than such thinking has roots deeply set in a post-affluent insularity that requires continual acknowledgement of ego & self-esteem. His bubble – as you aptly put it – contains all the trappings of comfort that offer such a mirror and empowers an audacity to make the comment he made to you. Traveling to Bellaire Blvd, he brings his arrogance & conservatism and he naturally rejects experiences and notions foreign from those that coddle his ego. While there’s little one can offer in counterpoint to persuade him from his perch, a redeemer is in knowing folks that run low on humility are the least vigorous, neediest people. They won’t stray far lest their bubble deflate forcing them to see the list of shortcomings they hide.

  • Am I the only one that sees the irony of someone walking out of the bubble of their in-town private school questioning the merely larger bubble of The Woodlands?

  • Woodland’s dad’s comments were possibly ractist, but definitely elitist. There is, however, nothing inherently elitist or racist about sending a kid to private school and thus Vonnegan’s position as a “private school parent” does not make him/her a hypocrite for pointing out the elitism and possible racism of Woodland’s Dad. With that context, the answer to your question is “no” because someone in the “comment of the day” comments accused Vonnegan of calling the kettle black, which is itself ironic, in sort of a meta way.

  • In my opinion, and as head of household, The Woodlands and others comes down to value and quality of life. You can – or once could (havent priced lately) – acquire a big house on the cheap with great schools and all in areas with low crime. So because it is not as diverse as some would like, then it is all of the sudden a pariah? Id bet a bunch that these are hippie libs whining because it doesnt fit their perpetually unrealized utopia. For me, again, i dont care what skin color occupies that space. I want a great home i can afford, great schools, and low crime. The Woodlands offers tremendous value. BTW, i live in Montrose.

  • @Mel, thanks!

    I think assuming that everyone who sends their kids to private school is simply looking for a bubble to put them in is as poor an assumption as the one the Woodlands Dad made, when he condemned the entire neighborhood around Strake as unworthy. I never said that all Woodlands parents believe the same as Woodlands Dad; I just lamented his attitude and the circumstances that lead to it.

  • @ Peacethrustrength: What are “great schools”, exactly? Aren’t those just code words for (at the very least) socioeconomic segregation? Its a serious question and a statistician’s enigma.

    Would an individual student, let’s say white male with an IQ of 115 from a household earning between $75k and $100k, both of whose parents are college-educated and possess no felonies and speak English in the household achieve the best grades and/or SAT scores and/or college accession in The Woodlands HS, Strake, Lamar HS, or Kerr HS? How much does the school matter by comparison with the student and household circumstances? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there isn’t a difference, but it might actually be good for the student to go to a “bad school”, especially if they take on the identity of a “good student” almost by default. People do tend to perform according to what is expected that their role should be, after all.

  • Also, I don’t mean to be pushy but I’d really like to nominate myself for comment of the day on that, because this is a conversation that is ABSOLUTELY relevant to the residential real estate market, but its not the sort of thing that most people have given much consideration.

  • Niche, you have hit upon an issue that is at the core of not only the perception of school quality but also a prime driver of the residential real estate market, especially in the suburbs (and thereby a driver of retail and office markets as well). In my admittedly qualitative, non-scientific observation of the dialogue surrounding schools, the general public perception of school quality is not nearly driven as much by teaching methods, administrative / management styles, or teacher qualifications, as by the demographics of the students themselves. In the greater public’s mind, affluent demographics = good schools, with the demographics being the more independent variable (though there’s obviously a feedback loop as more affluent home buyers will be drawn to schools with already affluent students). Private schools are obviously not as related to real estate (with Strake Jesuit as an example), but the perception issue seems as relevant.

    To put the issue another way, is a student from an affluent household likely to perform worse academically if he/she attends a school with less affluent demographics? My sense is, many people seem to think so and make school enrollment decisions accordingly. Perhaps this assertion is justified by empirical data and experience, I don’t know.

  • Schools matter. Especially in high school. Better schools mean higher standards and more opportunities for students. More AP classes, better qualified teachers, and higher standards/grade competition make a huge difference in student outcomes. A kid who is in a school with no AP classes, lots of at-risk kids/troublemakers and second string teachers who couldn’t get a better job will have an uphill battle compared to a kid who is at a school with lots of AP classes and high standards for students and teachers. It is not necessary to start off with kids who are from affluent/well educated families in order to have great schools. There are a number of charter/magnet schools across the country that get disadvantaged kids to perform on the level of their peers in top public and private schools. But, if you have a district with lots of kids from affluent/well educated families, it will usually follow that the schools will be good because parents will demand quality and it is just easier to set higher standards when the kids are motivated to do the work. Most kids are just a blank canvas. Most of their limitations are external. I used to work in high schools in arts programs. Every time you put a great teacher, coach, etc. in a school and gave them the support they needed, you would see kids excel well beyond what was happening at the school with the mediocre teacher.

  • Your unscientific observation about what consumers think of as being the mark of a “good school” is undoubtedly correct. HAR and various developers and homebuilders used to heavily advertise the TEA school ratings (“Exceptional”, “Recognized”, et al.). The TEA ratings were never appropriate for that purpose. Nowadays its been changed to “Met Standard” or not. HAR still makes it easy to parse through school data, and I know that people do bother to do exactly that. It’s just that the data may not matter; there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the data matters or does not matter as it pertains to the educational outcome of an individual child.

    I sort of suspect that homeschooling gets a bad reputation for a similar reason, that the people most inclined to do it tend to be the people that are least capable of doing it and are doing it for the wrong reasons. Their kids’ outcomes reflect that on average, but the average outcome should not necessarily inform somebody that might be contemplating homeschooling.

    On the broader subject of education, it is also worth asking whether educational outcomes are relevant. Somebody capable of getting into Harvard would have likely fared well if they had gone to UH instead, or even just completed all of the MIT open courseware and then obtained professional certifications. I get the sense that pretty much any school that is picky about accepting applicants is mostly just measuring whether the applicants have gone through the motions of doing things that the applicants think are expected that they should do. If universities are screening for droll instruction-followers, that’s what they’ll get.

    There’s a universe of educational alternatives out there, and it the universe is expanding at an astonishing rate. Real estate professionals are probably safe to continue their old ways for the time being, but consumers and parents really should be taking a hard look at their lifestyle preferences rather than flying on autopilot.

  • @ Old School: Well you’ve brought up one metric that’s definitely worthwhile to consider, is how teachers decide where to teach. Some schools and some districts are perceived as so undesirable for teachers and other staff that they have to pay higher salaries (call it hazard pay) to attract workers if they can attract them at all. If the perception is a self-fulfilling prophecy, then a school that is expected to be dysfunctional will in fact become dysfunctional. And then there’s a school districts’s leadership, which is guided heavily by the political process. If the voters in a school district repeatedly pick crappy leaders (North Forest ISD & La Marque ISD come to mind) then those are districts that are going to have operational problems.

    OTOH, I’m a UH economics graduate. It’s not a well-reputed school, certainly in that field…but at least its better than their communications school. But I also have taken to perusing MIT’s upper-level economics open courseware more or less recreationally and I have to say, it makes me impressed with the instruction that I received at UH. It’s not that MIT’s instruction isn’t better; it is, ever so slightly. The foreigners that they have on staff at the very least have accents that aren’t as thick. That counts on some level. Or maybe there’s selection bias and MIT only bothers to video classes taught by their more intelligible professors? I bring this up to say that prestigious schools don’t always have the best instruction; professors at top schools are usually mostly expected to research, write papers, and get published. They aren’t always expected to be wonderful teachers. Teachers in K-12 schools usually teach to the state standards. That is what is expected of them. (That may not necessarily describe you Old School, but it probably would describe a math teacher.) If teachers expect to have an easy job, maybe they won’t work as hard. If they expect it to be difficult, maybe they’ll rise to the challenge. Again, people tend to adopt the roles they’re given.

    It strikes me that to the extent that somebody is willing to work in a difficult school, it might be because they are passionate about what they do. Why does an ER nurse work in an ER? It’s a stressful environment, so it should be subject to the same hiring biases. They’re definitely being compensated extrinsically to work there. But does that imply that an ER nurse is a “bad” kind of nurse. I don’t think so. Not at all. And I’d be very hesitant to use that argument on most teachers; actually….it could even cut both ways. For instance, I feel justified in not having any general sense of respect for kindergarten teachers in an affluent suburbs…and also for having specifically avoided dating them in my past.

  • “It is not necessary to start off with kids who are from affluent/well educated families in order to have great schools. There are a number of charter/magnet schools across the country that get disadvantaged kids to perform on the level of their peers in top public and private schools.”

    Yes, definitely. True 110%. And I think a lot of the success charter/magnet schools have is that the kids are there because they have parents who want them to be there (and the older they get, the more they want it themselves). If you have parents who step up and say “this. this is what my kid needs” and then go through school visits, application processes, longer hours at schools like KIPP, etc. – that is half the battle. Good schools don’t have to be populated with kids whose parents have money; they just need a lot of kids whose parents give a damn.

  • Income demographics can make a difference in perceptions, but parental involvement also matters a great deal in both how an individual student performs, and how a school overall gains a reputation. Harvard Elementary ( along with Travis Elementary) in the Heights is perceived as “safe” by middle class and affluent parents to send their children to. Both schools have high levels of parent and community support. Martinez Elementary by Moody Park is maybe a mile or so away, but it’s reputation among home buyers is vastly different. You don’t see people with Martinez signs in the front lawns in that Near Northside neighborhood, or the school’s stickers on the back windows of their cars. When parents become involved with the school their children attend, the school’s teachers and administrators become more accountable. It creates a set of expectations that attracts other parents that want the best for their child to buy in the zone, and the cycle perpetuates itself.
    I find it ironic that the same types of people who love sending their kids to Harvard Elementary today, would not have dreamed of doing so 20 years ago. And today, they are loath to send their kids to Hamilton Middle or Reagan High, because they don’t have the same kind of “reputation”. The reality is that Hamilton and Reagan draw from a wider area that gets lower income students, and students of a different racial makeup than their own kids. But if all the Travis and Harvard parents sent their children to Hamilton, wouldn’t the demographics of that school change more to their liking? Would that make them “great schools” that TheNiche was talking about people wanting to buy into?

  • Old School hit the nail on the head. A “great school” offers kids opportunities they might not have in the failing schools. I like to measure schools on where their valedictorians go to college. The greats: Bellaire, Lamar, Carnegie Vanguard, Clements in Fort Bend ISD: they’re sending their valedictorians to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford…. Failing schools like Lee send their valedictorians to UH if they’re lucky. Don’t get me wrong, it’s more impressive for someone who is the first of their family to go to college at all, to get into UH, than it is for a legacy to get into Harvard. But still who would you rather send your kid to school with? Which learning environment do you want him to be in?
    Then there’s the diversity question. My observation is that the better schools are actually MORE diverse than the failing ones. They attract students from far and wide who want to attend. Failing schools, by contrast, are often smaller, and overwhelmed by students from one neighborhood – which often means one race or socio-economic class.
    Finally, there’s the neighborhood question. I wish we could do away with feeder patterns altogether. Give every kid the chance to apply to several schools, and attend one that he is accepted to: just like with college. (Those who don’t apply could automatically be placed by a computer algorithm in the school nearest their house that has room). Unfortunately, that’s not how it works in most cities, and it’s really not how it works here. The quality of public school that your kid gets to attend is still largely based on where you live. As a result, schools have a huge impact on property values. To get the trifecta in HISD (a great Elementary School, a great Middle School, and a great High School) you have to spend a fortune. This is a major reason for so many people fleeing to The Woodlands and other suburbs.

  • I’ve believed for a while that involved parents are more important than teachers for success in school. I saw that at Harvard, and am seeing it at Lanier now. I am heartened too at the number of Harvard/Travis parents who sent their 6th graders to Hogg this year in an effort to turn that school around like Harvard was turned around.

  • This has been an extraordinary discussion, though I feel that my question is yet unanswered. I ask it because the physical and financial lengths educated professional parents will go to to find a school zone that is “acceptable” for their child is almost mind-boggling. Think how many miles of commuting such home buyers add to their lives and how much more they pay for their residence in order to assure themselves that they wI’ll be in a school zone with the “right demographics.” Huge swaths of our middle suburbs – think Spring, Alief, Sagemont, Bear Creek, etc. – offering ample suburban homes on ample lots are simply ruled out by educated professionals because of this issue. You can even get brand new homes in these areas for much lower prices than the outer suburbs. But it doesn’t matter; the educated professional population continues to migrate to the outermost reaches of the metro, just so they can be assured that the prices they’re paying for housing will help keep out potential schoolmates from socioeconomic classes that they don’t trust. This would in the long run seem to be a big problem for retaining top companies within the Beltway, since these educated professionals are the workers they seek to attract and retain; even the execs living in River Oaks and Memorial likely have to face this when evaluating office location.

  • By the way ZAW, Alief did away with its feeder patterns for high schools. Didn’t seem to help.

  • @ ZAW: I went to a school that would be about demographically on par with Stephen F. Austin HS or Reagan HS that was down on the border. Very poor students, corrupt leadership, very low expectations. Our valedictorians and salutatorians got into the ivy leagues without any problem — if that’s where they wanted to go. Some would stick around for family reasons.

    Is there a public dataset on where valedictorians end up going to college? The valedictorian-college matriculation pattern is probably another case where the data (if it exists in more than anecdotal form) is rife with multiple layers of selection bias. If parents that have their shit together are all bunching up so that the best-situated kids are all competing to be the best of the best, then yeah probably those who actually are at the top of the class in an affluent high school are going to be ridiculously qualified. Obviously. (That shouldn’t inform your opinion of the school, because those kids are outliers and your kid probably won’t be.) And you know, probably the next dozen students ranked behind them are also plenty good. But since the “good kids” aren’t evenly distributed among schools, you can’t tell whether they might have performed just as well in other schools. In fact, they might have had better college matriculation outcomes in a crappy school if a would-be #10 kid from The Woodlands HS moved over to Lee HS.

    That is of course, if college matriculation is as valuable as people think it is. I’m dubious about that, too. The more that I read about patterns of academic performance and life outcomes the more I’ve come to believe that what makes “good schools” “good” is that parents are able to signal status and mitigate a mostly-baseless set of fears.

  • I would like to see HISD go to college style enrollment as well. Isn’t the whole idea to try to encourage people support for their bonds? I can assure you I’d be more apt to vote for one if HISD really had college style enrollment, minus of course the Legacy BS and Affirmative Action, since using either would make the college style enrollment moot and you’d end up with a worse situation than you already have.

  • It’s true, Planner, that people get really hung up on demographics. But, when you are trying to find a school for your kid, there are reasons for that. Our public schools have never really figured out what to do about kids with problems, often from the lower on the socio economic scale. They used to warehouse problem kids in alternative schools. That wasn’t a good solution, so they started mainstreaming these kids. But that doesn’t really work either. What happened is that these troubled kids came in, and parents who cared about their kids pulled them out. If they were lucky, they sent their kids to Magnets. If they were middle class, they fled to other suburbs. If they were rich, they sent their kids to private school. If they were poor, they headed to the Charters. The zoned public schools in poorer neighborhoods became catch-alls; de-facto alternative schools, but unlike true alternative schools, parents default to them and have to work to get their kids out!
    I don’t want to bash racial and ethnic diversity, because it is hugely important. It’s why we insist on a public education for our Son. But the quest for diversity in Magnets, coupled with cuts to Magnet budgets in HISD, is a the reason we have to leave for the suburbs. I know people who live in neighborhoods zoned to Lee, who went to Bellaire, and on to Harvard: but they’re American Indian. I know people who are zoned to Sharpstown who went to DeBakey, and on to med school: but they’re Latino. The general consensus that I get from talking to people is that these schools already have plenty of rich whites and want to enroll minorities to get their numbers to look right. They’re not going to accept a kid who’s as blond haired and blue eyed as my son.
    I am fully aware of how racist that last paragraph might sound to some people. But it’s the strong impression that my wife and I have gotten as we research where our son will start school. We want a quality, diverse, public education for our son. It’s incredibly frustrating that we have to move to Fort Bend County to get that (since we can’t afford a house in Bellaire). But it is what it is.

  • @ Local Planner: Regarding your question as to whether educational outcomes are independent of the demographics of one’s peer group — yeah, I don’t know. There’s not a public data set that is sufficiently robust to answer that sort of question. (It does exist, but is confidential.) I suspect that various permutations of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity do have an impact on individual students, but probably in unpredictable ways, some desirable and others not.

    However, that’s the frustrating thing about all of the costs that educated people impose upon themselves is that they *should* be educated enough to understand that their kids’ educational outcomes and life outcomes are something that they can influence but not reliably control for by merely sending those kids to a school. They *should* know better than to do what they do. They’re well-educated, after all, and *should* be expected to engage in evidence-based behaviors. Unless…it turns out that “good education” is for most people more a process of cultural indoctrination and group identification as opposed to a straightforward transfer of academic knowledge. That’s much harder to conceptualize in an evidence-based logical framework, but intuitively I think that there’s something to the hypothesis.

    If people of a certain class of people won’t live in certain places because they would feel out of place, apart from their herd, that they don’t belong apart from their herd, then maybe “good schools” are a code words for that too.

    (Incidentally, I would suspect that political identification is likely analogously related to education and geography in the sense that people tend to mostly base their preferences on other peoples’ preferences rather than on policy analysis.)

  • @ ZAW: So you’re absolutely convinced that, despite the obvious commitment to educational attainment (at least through primary and secondary school) that exists in your household, that somehow your children cannot have a satisfactory experience at Sharpstown (or wherever it is they’re zoned to)? If so, why not? I would surmise that your answer generally applies to the thousands of middle class and affluent households who have housing choice and decide that outer suburban school zones are the ones for their kids.

    I often suspect that you and other parents fear that lower income kids will so disrupt classroom order that learning for otherwise well-behaved children cannot take place, or at least not enough of it. That and school resources will be so consumed with catering to “problem” children (who maybe constitute such a large share of the student body that achievement-oriented students are more the “problem”) that high-achieving student won’t receive the attention their parents feel they should. But as I don’t have children, let alone ones that have shared a classroom with working class kids, this is pure guessing on my part. But whatever it is, it’s enough to generate major real estate location decisions.

  • ZAW, you’re absolutely correct about HISD. It gets old to have to dance around the obvious. Try getting your Anglo child into RO Elementary, if you’re not zoned to that school, they could be Einstein and they’d be denied. The politics of that district are ridiculous, the calculus that goes into their magnates are absurd. It ruins the district, to be honest I hear horror stories even about Lamar and Bellaire. It’s a shame because magnets should be based on academics not race, but in America everything comes down to race.

  • Local Planner, Niche, et al: you are giving your idea too much credit for novelty. Interested parents absolutely understand that plugging their average kid into any wretched public high school could in some sense cause that child to “win,” at the very least the minor lottery that is automatic admission to their own state’s flagship school. But life is not pursued like game theory. Attitude to education is just a culture way, like: naming customs, average age of marriage, the role of the elderly, speech, sexual mores, food, etc. And you have it backward – people don’t so much seek, at economic cost to themselves, like-cultured people, as the customs of a group bind people together, for a surprisingly long time. See David Hackett Fischer.

  • Planner: did you ever get to see Public Television’s Dropout Nation? That documentary was set in Sharpstown High School, you know. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve done an amazing job of turning the school around. It’s now your average big-city, not so great high school; light years ahead of the train wreck it was back in 2008 when Dropout Nation was made. Still, though, it only ranks a 3 out of 10 on’s rankings. And the elementary and middle schools in our area are no better. So we’re really hamstrung.
    Education requires teamwork. Parents drive the process for most kids (my son included) but we count on good, devoted teachers and we count on a classroom environment where learning is not made impossible by problem kids; where our son is not held back because the rest of the kids are behind. That’s why we shy away from the zoned schools in our neighborhood; and why we feel we have to move.
    Again, it hurts me to say this. You know how unflinching I’ve been in fighting for people to come back to the Sharpstown area. I still think 20-something’s who don’t have kids are stupid to skip over the area: if you don’t have kids in the public schools, it’s a great place to live! But I have to put my son and his future ahead of that. I can’t risk his education.

  • Shannon, do you have a kid in HISD? If not, quit prattling on on topics where you have no knowledge other than what one of your buddies told you based on third hand information. River Oaks Elementary is one of the whitest schools in HISD, and the reduction in the percentage of white kids there is due to higher numbers of Asians. The percentage of hispanics and blacks has been flat. Try looking at the data sometime.

  • Luciaphile: I don’t claim any novelty for the things I have described, they’re pretty intuitive for most home-buying families and have been for decades. But I bring them up again because they rarely are verbalized directly, perhaps because they touch on politically/culturally sensitive topics. That lack of direct attention seems to lead to all sorts policies and resources being devoted to other issues in both the city planning and educational worlds that are potentially ineffective and even deleterious ways of dancing around the problem, and claiming of potential solutions to sprawl and urban-decline-related issues that are really nothing of the sort. Your average citizen will be much more direct about why our middle ring suburbs are such an economic disaster – basically a holding tank for non-Anglos destined for low-wage service jobs, the welfare system, and / or prison – the primary reason being that middle class and affluent families refuse to live there (they can afford housing choice), and the primary reason for that being school demographics (and sometimes perceived crime, but mostly schools). But public officials never seem to want to acknowledge this. So, permit me to put the issues out there again.

  • I’ll also add that articles like this one in The Chronicle don’t help:
    Stories like “Why We Teach” make for good journalism. But they scare middle class parents away when the schools really need to do just the opposite, and market themselves to middle class families.

  • LP: I take it as an article of faith that planning decisions are made with blinders on and insufficient attention to logic. But there are a couple problems with the notion that if government got out of the sprawl-creation business, Anglo and Asian homebuyers would seed blighted areas and benefits to the city and to the poor would flow therefrom. For starters, the numbers aren’t there. Sprawl if not in the 20th century, for some time past and certainly going forward, will be heavily immigrant-driven. I expect in ten years’ time, the urban revival movement (or moment, really) will have been stripped of any language censuring sprawl. That’s already begun to happen. Your no parking-minimum requirements, your pro-density code changes, will be seen for the boutique affair that they are. Not that they won’t perhaps be improvements, but they will be uncoupled from the fading dream of preventing sprawl. Two, improving schools by tinkering with their demographics smacks of missionary zeal, that one group has something to impart to another, more benighted group. That is utterly taboo in the current climate. More importantly, it’s actually not true. The group that is having the babies, is the group that needs no help. There is no success but reproductive success. Period. No matter what their economic status, or the quality of their schools, or whether they go to school at all: if they are having more babies and feeding them, they are the world’s winners. We might pay heed to them for a change.

  • @ZAW, what part of Sharpstown do you live in? My wife and I are looking to buy next Fall. We’re considering Westbury, Spring Branch, and Walnut Bend right now.

  • Luciaphile hits it out of the park, across Crawford, and into the construction site.

    You need a yard. You need three bedrooms (parents, boys, girls); you can stick a window A/C unit in the detached garage when your eldest son needs space.

    The added time you spend driving all the way out to f***ing Fulshear is time you’re not screwing your wife, and the added money you spend on gas and a mortgage is money you’re not spending to bring up #2, #3, #4 or #5.

  • Dude, my taxes go to HISD, so I have a vested interest, plus property values are tied to HISD, so I’ll bitch all I want, I pay for the right. RO is exemplary, Lanier is not bad, Lamar is a mess, but it’s better than all but Bellaire in HISD, how sad is that! You should read ZAW’s comments, he sums the district up perfectly…and he has a child, a child he is opting not to send to HISD, the very children the district wants, but is losing on droves. HISD is ruining the magnets and schools like Lamar by insisting on race based admittance. RO has a deal with the RO neighhborhood so it’s whiter than 99 percent of the schools, HISD doesn’t like it, but they made the deal to get support of RO for bonds, but whatever.

  • Liciaphile—wait, What? The last part was a real gem.

  • Walker: we’re actually in Braeburn Valley, about a mile south of Sharpstown. We love the neighborhood, but the schools are driving out. Well, the fact that we insist on a public school education, coupled with the public schools is what’s driving us out. If you are good with sending you kids to parochial school, the Sharpstown area is a great place to be: Strake Jesuit / St Agnes. Westbury Christian; any number of other schools do a great job.
    Shannon: don’t get me wrong. HISD is light years ahead of other big city school districts like Chicago and New York. They could have had my child if they: 1: set up the Apollo program to be child-based rather than campus based: in other words, put Apollo classes in every school in the district, so that students who are struggling can get the extra help they need without dragging down the rest of the kids, but also so that they don’t put a scarlet letter on certain campuses. And more importantly 2: EXPAND THE MAGNET PROGRAM instead of shrinking it.

  • As I understand it, the “deal” ROE has with the neighborhood is that all zoned kids can go there. That’s the same deal that all other Vanguards that are also neighborhood schools have (like Lanier). If you’re zoned, you go. If you also test into Vanguard, you get a spot. Sounds fair to me, since these schools are neighborhood as well as Vanguard. HISD stopped having racial quotas in magnet/Vanguard admits in 1997, because of a lawsuit filed against them.

    I haven’t looked in a while but if I had to guess, I’d say that West U is the “whitest” elementary in HISD, and not ROE West U is either no longer a magnet or about to lose their status, so they are all neighborhood. Hence, whiter than most of HISD, but likely still more diverse than the private elementary schools that West U residents like to send their kids to (not judging, just observing).

  • Hmmm, yes…..then explain how Lamar HS is magically 25 percent Anglo, 25 percent Latino. 25 percent black, 25 percent Asian…chance? …magic?? Please, it’s a quota, I’m sure they’ve figured out how to get around the law, just like UT, but still all about race. Lamar would be 75 percent white, Bellaire as well, but for HISD machinations.

  • Shannon, do you understand anything about data? Where do you get the idea that Lamar is “magically 25 percent Anglo, 25 percent Latino. 25 percent black, 25 percent Asian”? For 2012/2013, it was:

    Black 29%
    Hispanic 37%
    White 28%
    Asian 4%
    Other 2%

    The attendance boundaries for Lamar are huge, from 288 to the West Loop, and from I-10 to the South Loop. Unfortunately, HISD doesn’t put the in/out of zone information on the web page. The data above is at

    West U Elementary is 68% white. Bellaire is 24% White, 41% Hispanic, 14% Asian, 20% Black

    I’ve never seen any evidence that HISD is skewing admissions by race.

  • Lamar isn’t 25% of each of those groups at all – see their demographics here:

    HISD publishes this info on every school. It’s much easier to find than info on any other district in the area.

    Lamar is predominately a neighborhood school; the magnet program is relatively small. If it’s less Anglo than the neighborhood, that’s because a lot of those students go to private/ parochial schools. I read in the midst of the last magnet kerfluffle that HISD was zoned something like 45% white kids but enrollment is less than 10% white.

    Let’s not forget that the primary reason HISD established the magnet program was to avold a busing order. Its stated purpose still explicitly includes diversity as one of the main goals of the program.