HOUSTON'S MAYOR APPOINTS NEW DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION
Shortly after he began his administration, Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner, announced he had selected former Houston Independent School District (HISD) trustee Juliet Stipeche to serve as Director of Education, a new position within the mayor’s administration. The position was created to achieve “greater collaboration between the city and area schools, community colleges, and universities,” according to the Houston Chronicle. Mayor Turner explains it further in his announcement by saying, “The creation of this new position is meant to compliment, not compete, with the hard work of our area school districts. Creating the strong, well-educated Houston of tomorrow will require everyone working together. Juliet is the perfect choice for ensuring my vision gets implemented.”
Ms. Stipeche is well suited for the position. Not only does she have a law degree from the University of Texas, she also graduated magna cum laude from Rice University with a bachelor’s degree in political science, policy studies, and religious studies. She comes to the mayor’s office from Rice University where she was the Associate Director of the Richard Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity. For five years, she served as a trustee on the Houston Independent School District Board, including serving as president in 2014. Houston’s new Director of Education has also written and presented lectures on nearly 20 topics ranging from demanding excellence in education to empowering students in today’s world to educating for equity in Texas.
Mayor Turner goes on in his announcement to say this of his new appointee, “Juliet is very passionate about education and children and I share that passion. She is a visionary with transformative ideas. Her collaborative approach of working with parents, administrators, business, law enforcement and neighborhoods will help achieve my goal of moving this city forward and reducing the income inequality that is so often the result of deficiencies in the education system.”
CKW Luxe was honored to sit down with Mayor Turner and Juliet Stipeche recently to ask them about the position of Director of Education, the path that led Ms. Stipeche to being chosen for the position, and the future both parties envision for the position.
INTERVIEW WITH MAYOR TURNER
CKW Luxe: The position of Director of Education is new for your administration. Can you give us an idea as to the reason you considered the position necessary for Houston?
Mayor Turner: In my estimation, you can’t have a strong vibrant city moving in one direction and an educational system moving in another. Both must be heading in the same direction. I believe it is important to have someone in my administration, reporting directly to me, who is in charge of educational initiatives. There are 17 school districts that crisscross Houston. It is imperative that my administration have someone within it who is responsible for communicating and working closely with all of them and being a focal point for the administration in terms of education. Juliet Stipeche, I am convinced, is the best person for that job. Not only is she a former member of the school board, she is also passionate about education.
CKW: Please tell us what you see as the overriding philosophy of the position as well as its chief goals and objectives.
MT: Houston is a diverse city and it is important to communicate with every group. Although many of the people are doing well, 24 percent are working poor. Income inequality in the city is growing. It is my belief that education has a lot to do with this. There are those who are dropping out of school, just getting their GED, or not going on to post-secondary education. This is not because they aren’t smart or talented, but often times we don’t put the right amount of emphasis on the children of our city. It is my hope that Juliet will provide light on many communities where we can tap that talent, encourage students to stay in school, and provide them with the initiatives they need to turn their lives around and maximize their full potential. You can know what is required, but passion is necessary to get it accomplished. Not only does Juliet know the educational system, she is passionate about it and committed to it. It is my hope that we can reduce income inequality, not just through increasing minimum wage, but by providing our children with the skill sets needed to take advantage of opportunities coming to the city. We have a responsibility to say we believe in you, advocate for you, and will open doors for you with someone coordinating this and being responsible for it.
CKW: Can you tell us if there is any particular issue or concern within the Houston educational system that you consider to be the most pressing or time-sensitive? If there is, would you share it with our readers and discuss what you feel is the right direction to go in improving it.
MT: School finance. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that our current system is constitutional. I disagree with that. Under our current system, HISD is going to have to give up $166 million to the Texas Education Agency, which the agency will distribute to other districts in the state. If this occurs, thousands of children will suffer. We need every dime to take care of our own.
Since the commissioner will be able to grab properties and reassign them to other school districts in other parts of the state, I have tasked Juliet with partnering with HISD and other school districts under recapture, or at risk of recapture, to work together to persuade the Texas legislature, in January of 2017, to change or reform the school finance system so districts are not subject to recapture. We need a fairer school finance system or our kids will suffer. This, to me, is our most pressing concern; not only will it affect HISD, it will affect the city of Houston as a whole.
CKW: As education involves the whole community, how do you see the community becoming involved with working out solutions for education-based concerns?
MT: To reiterate my earlier statements, the community must work to persuade the Texas legislature, in January of 2017, to change or reform the school finance system so districts are not subject to recapture.
Parents should be alarmed, and they must be educated about the action and engaged in the process of doing something about it. If not, education will be adversely affected. It is crucial they are aware of how much money will leave and go somewhere else unless they take a stand against it.
CKW: If you could look into a crystal ball, can you tell us what you believe will be the future inroads made in education in Houston as a result of this new appointment?
MT: Often times we focus on fundamentals like the infrastructure of the city, but many people are deficient in their own lives. Until human infrastructure is addressed, what we do with streets won’t be enough. Education addresses the potholes in human infrastructure giving students the tools they need to realize their full potential. My hope is that, through Juliet’s efforts working with parents and school districts and focusing on education and business communities, this city will be one of hope and inspiration for our kids regardless of where they come from. Our message will be that we will provide you with what you need to succeed in any endeavor. The city will partner with school districts to give you that opportunity. If you want it, it’s there for you. You won’t be ignored. Our goal is that every child in the city, regardless of economic background, knows that if we believe it we can achieve it.
Interview with Juliet Stipeche:
CKW Luxe: Our readers would love to learn a little more about you. Can you fill us in on your background, your interest in education, and the post you held before accepting this position?
Juliet Stipeche: I tell everyone my story begins with my parents. My mother is from Mexico and my father is from Argentina. They always told me and my sister we could achieve anything we wanted to if we studied and worked hard. After attending a local area high school, I received a scholarship to Rice University, graduated with honors, had an opportunity to receive a scholarship from the University of Texas School of Law, and attained my law degree. After law school, I went on to practice law and served on the HISD board from 2010 to 2015. With this new opportunity, I am delighted to be able to serve with Mayor Turner to help young people and the community.
CKW: In your own words, what do you think are the skills and insight you bring to the position?
JS: As a native Houstonian growing up in the city’s East End, I saw people who experienced economic challenges. As well, I loved to help my fellow students, and so I tutored other students when I was in school. Serving and helping others is critical in my life and the reason I became a lawyer. In the courtroom, I advocated for others. Now, in this position, I can be an advocate for young people, students, and opportunity youth in our community.
CKW: Can you talk a little bit about your main duties as well as describe what you consider to be the most important aspects of your job?
JS: Education really begins while children are in the womb, educating parents on the importance of pre-natal care and helping young parents take care of and educate their children. Robust early childhood education is imperative so that children are ready to learn as soon as they start school. Then there is K to 12, opportunity youth, technical education, post-secondary education, and much more … education permeates all levels of a life. The Mayor is hopeful we can expand opportunities to increase the access the entire population of Houston has to educational opportunities regardless of age, class, and zip code.
CKW: Please tell us what you personally hope to achieve as Director of Education.
JS: There is a study by Professor Stephen Kleinberg that identifies Houston as the most diverse city in the country. According to Mayor Turner, it is also becoming one of the most economically segregated. Kleinberg’s study goes on to say there are structural barriers that prevent every young person from succeeding. We are attempting to identify those barriers and break them down. They include income inequality, quality affordable housing, and great public schools. One barrier that is often not discussed is access to social capital, meaning networks of opportunities like scholarships and job and educational opportunities. I believe it is my job to communicate and coordinate the resources that exist to open the doors of opportunity for all young people.
CKW: Do you plan to enlist the help of the local community, and if so, what role do you think it will be able to play?
JS: The role of the community is critical to the success of education. We need to think about how to enlist young people in colleges and universities to serve as role models and mentors and how to empower parents with knowledge to help children succeed in school. We can do this by learning the best practices of what’s happening locally, regionally, and nationally and by bringing these practices to Houston and making them specific to Houston’s needs. The transformative opportunity that presents through education is critical and must be a priority for the entire city. This is near and dear to the Mayor’s heart.
CKW: How would you like to see the mandate of the position grow in the coming years?
JS: I would like to see the mandate grow in terms of us being able to develop transformative innovative programs that provide meaningful impact to the community. Currently we are working on the Higher Houston Youth Initiative. We are also collaborating with superintendents from the various districts to develop a strategic vision and plan to identify where we see ourselves in the next 10 to 30 years.
HISD is facing a $107 million shortfall for the 2016 - 2017 school year. Under the state of Texas’ current funding structure, specifically Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code, HISD is required to make “recapture” payment to the state of $162 million. It is able to pay $55 million of that. Chapter 41 is a state law passed in 1939 to try and balance inequalities between property-rich and property-poor districts. It allows the state to remove money from property-rich districts exceeding a state-set level and redistribute it to property-poor districts. Even though 80 percent of HISD students are from low-income families, HISD has exceeded the state-set level due to Houston’s rising property values, causing it to go into recapture, according to the HISD. Although the City of Houston has numerous educational issues to confront, and a large hurdle in the form of recapture to overcome, it has a Mayor and a new Director of Education looking at the concerns and seeking solutions with their eyes wide open. It is clear that not only do they understand the best paths to take to successfully solve the issues, they also have the passion required to make certain their goals are accomplished.