By Laura Onyeneho
As the first woman and person of color to serve as Superintendent of Springfield Public Schools in Missouri, Dr. Grenita Lathan, former interim HISD Superintendent, is excited about the new opportunity and reflects on lessons she has learned and the accomplishments achieved while in Houston.
During her three-and-a-half-year tenure, she has led HISD through multiple crises including the threat of a state takeover of the school district, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Texas winter storm.
In an exclusive, one-on-one exit interview with The Defender, Lathan reflects on her decision to leave and shares her views about different aspects of the district.
Defender: What are the biggest accomplishments you’ve achieved as the interim superintendent of HISD?
Dr. Lathan: Over the past six years working in the city of Houston and the Houston Independent District I’ve been very proud of the number of things we were able to accomplish as a team because I didn’t accomplish this work by myself. We had a team that was able to move 20 schools out “F” rated status. At that time, we called them improvement required campuses. Then we went on to create our Achieve 180 Program. It continues to provide additional resources to our most underserved schools. We were able to get a number of schools that had been low-performing for five, seven, eight years. Namely Kashmere High School was able to exit improvement required status. Two years ago, we were able to ensure that every elementary school campus in our district had a certified fine arts teacher. I could not believe when I heard that we had all these campuses that students did not have access to a fine arts teacher. So that would be a dance teacher, a music teacher and an art teacher. When we think of the whole child, that child has access to everything. That was a priority in our budget. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with our WrapAround services program, where 210 campuses had a WrapAround specialist devoted to connecting families with community resources to be successful. We were so excited to announce that Yates High School in the historic Third Ward was authorized as an international baccalaureate campus in 2019. I’m excited that I was able to make a difference in the lives of the children that I was called to serve.
Defender: As you reflect on your three years, are there goals you wanted to accomplished as interim superintendent that you wish you had time to complete?
Dr. Lathan: One of those goals was to see Wheatley High School exit “F” rated status. As you recall, last year during the pandemic, it prevented our schools from taking the mandated assessment. The students weren’t able to sit for the test. Had they sat for the test, Wheatly would have exited “F” rated status. That was one goal I wasn’t able to see, but it’s still going to happen.
Defender: With the threat of COVID-19, Hurricane Harvey and the Texas Winter Storm, how have you been able to produce district-wide academic gains?
Dr. Lathan: We came together as a team. Members of team HISD rallied together. One of the biggest challenges for me as the leader of the district at the time wasn’t so much the closing down of schools, it was more so about how we’re going to make sure that our children were being fed in the event our schools closed for one or two weeks. It closed for almost six months to a year for some students. Our focus was on how were we going to be prepared to make sure we meet our children’s needs. Our school nutrition team came together. They developed a plan. We collaborated with Houston Food Bank and a number of our community partners to start our first food distribution on March 14, 2020 at Chavez High School. We provided mass food distribution throughout the entire city. Our partners at NRG were phenomenal. Our elected officials hosted giveaways with us. We also were able to do it with the City of Houston Health Department. Whatever I needed concerning the health and wellness of our students, they were ready to assist. When it came down to vaccinations, they trained our nurses so we could be able to hold vaccination clinics. When they say “Houston Strong,” they truly mean it.
Defender: The first day of school begins in the fall and the COVID-19 pandemic is lingering. What are some of the plans HISD has to keep our children and teachers safe for the upcoming school year?
Dr. Lathan: I don’t think people realize that we have 192,000 students in the district. We lost a number of students due to COVID-19, but 86,000 students came to school daily from October 19th until the end of the school year. Over 26,000 staff members were at work. We added additional staff, additional cleaning services, making sure we had PPEs available and establishing a reopening plan. We had a communicable disease committee that provided us advice from medical officials, teachers, principals, community leaders and parents. We also had an instructional continuity plan that addressed virtual learning and face-to-face instruction.
Defender: The predominantly Black schools are considered to be some of the low-ranking in the city. What have you done to improve conditions at these schools?
Dr. Lathan: Recruiting highly effective principals who in turn were able to recruit teachers, adding the additional finances so they can have those support positions. Some of the schools needed counselors and social workers and WrapAround specialists. We extended the school day initially for teachers so they had an extended professional development time. The problem with a lot of our school space is that based on their enrollment, we knew the numbers were down, so some campuses didn’t receive as much funding. So, we infused certain positions like a reading specialist because reading was a major issue even in our high schools where students were not reading above grade level. We added nurses because some of our campuses didn’t have full-time nurses. It depends on the particular campus and how its constructed.
Defender: What limitations did you have as an interim superintendent?
Dr. Lathan: It was very hard to recruit central office personnel and principals from outside of the district (because of the threat of a state turnover). If you go back and look, you’ll see some of the appointments I made at that time were internal because when a district is in transition, people don’t want to take a chance of leaving a stable situation to move to an unstable one. There were times where we needed to attract outside talent, but it was difficult.
Defender: Supporters of yours have claimed that you are a victim of racism despite making academic strides in the last three years. What are your thoughts about this?
Dr. Lathan: There are a lot of reasons and thoughts as to why I wasn’t made permanent. That’s a question I can’t answer because I’m not the person who gets to vote. I did what I was called to do. I’m at peace with my work and what I’ve accomplished in Houston. I know now that God had another option for me and that there was another part of the country where I needed to serve children and I’m excited about that. I don’t have any regrets. I was the right person at the right time to lead our district and I’m ready to go to the next level and to do what I need to do in my new district.
Laura Onyeneho is the Defender Network Education Reporter and a Report For America Corps member. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org