The road to redemption: Wheatley HS on a journey to demonstrate academic growth

From a sprawling mural featuring famous politicians and educators to students laughing as they head to their next class, it’s hard to imagine Houston’s Fifth Ward community without Wheatley High School, the campus that has served many residents as a gateway to adulthood.  

There’s the feeling of perseverance and reassurance when you step foot onto the Wheatley campus. Plagued with the “improvement Required” label since 2012, the district learned in August 2019 that Wheatley wouldn’t meet standard for the 2018-2019 school year.

Despite Wheatley High School demonstrating tremendous academic progress and earning a passing grade of D this year with a calculated score of 63, they earned an overall rating of 59 due to a provision introduced into TEA’s 2018 Accountability Manual. 

“This is not the end for Wheatley,” Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “We’ve continuously proven to the state that our district is more than capable of turning around some of HISD’s most underserved campuses. We’re the same district that has brought multiple campuses out of Improvement Required in the last two school years, and I have faith that we will do the same for Wheatley.” 

With no time to dwell in disappointment, the campus and the district decided to turn what could have been a moment of defeat into a journey of redemption. Twenty-year education veteran Principal Joseph Williams, who joined Wheatley in January 2018, brings a strong yet compassionate stewardship that has already begun to transform the campus.  

“It was important that I establish a culture of trust with my colleagues, so I could empower them to be reflective practitioners in building their capacity and efficacy,” Williams said. “I am an agent for change when it is about improving the school community for the sake of our scholars. And when the systems and processes are no longer effective, it is inevitable that we challenge the status quo and look for solutions to those problems.” 

For the 2019-2020 school year, the number of academic and emotional resources almost immediately intensified as the district wrapped its arms even tighter around Wheatley’s students, staff and community.  

“As an Achieve 180 campus, we have been padded with additional teachers to reduce the class size, instructional specialists to provide more intimate and smaller group instruction, and furniture to transform learning spaces into places of collaboration and interaction,” Williams said. “We have also added a veteran librarian to our staff that is helping to push our literacy efforts.”  

Alongside the academic support, the district has also made the campus’ accessibility to social and emotional resources a top priority. To date, customized wraparound services such as the Miles Ahead Program, a male-focused support group that will aim to equip students with the tools they need to pursue a higher education, as well as the district’s juvenile diversion program.  

In his second school year, Williams has established a culture opposite of the testing anxiety that once periled Wheatley to one that celebrates the achievement of short-term goals such as recognition of teachers, classes, or scholars with attendance and formative assessments—all of which have yielded positive academic and emotional outcomes. 

“I have learned that you can alleviate a lot of anxiety amongst others by simply talking with them,” Williams said.  “When you are transparent and truly try to best inform others, it can definitely put those at ease. Although our focus is instruction and student achievement, I try to remember the joy factor that affords opportunities for scholars and faculty opportunities to do fun activities and bring everyone together. ”