One last interview: Interim superintendent talks final days at HISD

Even in her last month on the job as HISD's interim superintendent, Dr. Grenita Lathan is out in the community thanking partners.

Video Transcript

- First what is your actual last day at HISD?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Officially June 30th is my last day, but actually I'll be here until next week and then I'll be leaving next week. I'm just working virtually for two weeks, Yeah.

- Great. OK. How are you feeling about that?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: You know what, I'm excited. I'm ready to focus on one job. I'm kind of in both places because they are also working to get a budget passed in Springfield, and so I've had to actually be a part of those discussions as well. So Thursday night is the budget passage here and being also trying to get ready for my new job.

- Wow, OK. So as interim superintendent, I feel like there were some things that you couldn't say because it would look like you're like making an excuse. So I want to ask you this. What is the challenge of managing a district like this, that has been hard for you but would be hard for anybody? That, like I said, maybe you wouldn't want to say when you're doing the job because it would be like, Oh shoot that's an excuse, but you're leaving the job now, and you know the job, really well. And so what has really been the biggest challenge that you've faced or that anybody is going to face in that job?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: And the biggest challenge honestly speaking is communication. I know I'm speaking to a communications specialist, but you think as a leader that you're communicating, you're sharing the information that needs to be shared with staff, parents, and community members, but they're still, sometimes there's a piece that's missing or maybe we don't break it down enough in layman's terms so people understand all the educational jargon. And I would say communication is a major challenge. I don't care what district you're in, the size of it, there's always a portion of stakeholders that might feel left out or that you've overlooked. And so that's the big challenge of this job.

- A lot of people have said that this district is just too big. There's so many different people, or as you said stakeholders, to please and they have very different interests. Is that true? I mean, how does one handle that?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: So it is a large district and you do have a lot of stakeholders, a lot of voices, people that quote unquote need to please, but it's all about communicating, trying to make sure you have those connections there. You know, as a district, over the past several years we've just faced so many challenges, a lot of negative challenges. And so that's made it difficult, it's made it difficult to recruit personnel to the district, especially district level administrators, building level principals. And so it's not that is so large, it's just the issues that we've just been faced with as a district over the past several years.

- So you think this the size is not as much of a challenge as the immediate challenges that the district has gone through?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Oh Yeah, I definitely agree about the immediate challenges.

- OK. First among those immediate challenges are at the top of those immediate challenges. What would you say is the issue? What's--

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Well, number one, and it's still a continued threat of state takeover. You know, that's been front and center for three to four years now and it will continue until the litigation has been resolved between the board and TEA. And so that's a major factor. The number of low performing schools that we still have on our portfolio. We've been able to move a number of schools from airfreighted status but we still have a lot of work to do. So when you couple that with, like I said, the threat of a state takeover, the other challenges we've experienced as a district, it does make the work difficult. It's not that the work can't be done but you have to spend a lot of time nurturing people, reassuring people of the work and how important it is to make sure children receive a quality education. Because it can sometimes get lost in all the noise, like I said, of the negativity that's been put out there about our district.

- What is it-- this issue of the state takeover, walk us through a little bit about how that poses a challenge for you as an administrator? Because those of us on the outside, I have to tell you, is we're doing HISD story day to day or week to week, we don't talk about that? Like in our newsroom that doesn't come up. It's not top of mind for us that we're in the middle of that and that you're trying to navigate that along with whatever other issues. So can you give us some insight into how that changes your work?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Well, it changes it because, like I said, the threat of a state takeover means that the commissioner can appoint a board of managers which means he replaces the elected school board. He can appoint a new superintendent, and then with that comes a new superintendent, could also come new central level or cabinet level administrators. So it was that constant threat of this could possibly happen and so as, like I said, you tried to recruit people they were like, OK, what's happening with take over? Am I going to be safe? And so that was part of the issue.

And then even at the building level, the uncertainty around our budget situation, are we still in recapture. Remember a portion, because we are considered a property rich district, a portion of our budget goes back and it actually helps districts and students in other districts. And so that was a major challenge for us, and it still is, but it was in 15, 16, 17, 18, it was a major challenge based on the number of cuts we needed to make in our budget. Over $100 million we had to cut, and when you think about almost 75% of your budget is personnel, that means we were cutting people.

- Yeah. So do you think that that system is still in need of being remedied?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Oh yes. The financial-- overall financial system, Texas the financial system of recapture property wealthy districts, that needs to be addressed. Because we have a number of students, like I said, coming from homes of poverty that need additional supports. And yes we do receive additional dollars in federal monies through Title one, but now you add a pandemic on top of what we've already experienced as a community or state with Hurricane Harvey, Imelda, Yuri, we've had a number of challenges as a city and a state.

- Yeah. How's the infrastructure? How are the buildings in HISD? Do you feel like that that's a big challenge that the new superintendent will be facing or what do you think?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: It is a new challenge. Was-- it's a challenge because the challenge is existing. We're finishing off the last of the 2012 bond, Bel Air will open in August, really excited about that portfolio of all of our high schools, but now we need to address our elementary and middle schools, and that will take a new bond. And in order to get a bond passed, the voters must support it. And so in order for voters to support a bond, they have to believe in the school district. And so that will be a new challenge or a challenge for the next superintendent.

- Do you think in general the public appreciates what this school district, what you've done under your leadership for HISD students?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: I do. I believe the public appreciates it. I still think we need to do a better job of communicating all the outstanding opportunities that are available to students in our district because I don't think people realize. You know, students being able to graduate with an associates degree. So you're walking into college as a sophomore or junior in college. Students graduating with an aviation degree. I mean, things that we could have only dreamed about when we were in high school and going to college, and how we, before the students, do the merge program to be able to obtain four year scholarships to some of the top colleges and universities in the country.

And then all of the opportunities through career and technical education. Students graduating with a level one, level two certifications. So they're graduating, going into the world of work, whether they're working for SAP earning $70,000 or more per year. So those are things we still need to share with the public so they are aware of all the wonderful opportunities that are available for children in our district.

- Do you think that we reporters have done a good job covering those stories?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Yes. And I think-- and I know you have to balance it and I will tell you. There are times we'll send a response back not only to your station but others and say, hey you got that wrong, but I really feel overall, and I think because of the fact that you watched as newscasters all of the challenges that we faced as a school district, what our community has faced, that you've been more balanced than I've seen in other markets I'll be very honest with you.

- I know that it's been said behind your back that one of the reasons you really wanted the superintendent job to not be interim was because of your affinity for the children, the children of this district, can you tell me a little bit about your thoughts about that? And, I mean, you didn't have to stay on for three years interim when a lot of people felt that you deserved a chance to have the job and you were strung along. So why did you-- why did you stay and fight for this position?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: You know what, honestly speaking the team members in HISD, the, staff members that I worked with the students, like I said, the outstanding programs, the opportunity to make sure-- the charge when I came here 2015 was to take low performing schools and get them out of low performing status. I was able to successfully do that with my team, because it wasn't just me, and then the love of, OK we have more schools, we need to move those schools out.

And it was really trying to see that mission accomplished, especially as it relates to Wheatley high school, saying Wheatley high school exit F-rated status. I truly believe had they-- would taken the assessment last spring, they would have exited, and it was trying to see that work through. And then, as one of my mentors reminded me, there are children in other parts of this country that need an outstanding leader. And it was like, you know what, you're right, children here will be OK but it's time now to share that love with other children. In a community that is, like I said, is growing, it is a smaller community but there are children that need to see a leader like me and they need opportunities for academic enrichment and expansion.

- Why do you think they never gave you the superintendent job? Why do you-- do you feel you earned it?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Oh I know I did. And see, I know I earned it but it's nothing that-- I'm not bitter, there's no need to. I know I've done what I was asked and tasked to do, and so that's the confidence that I have in myself and my abilities, and it's just like any other relationship, people make a decision to wed or not to wed, and that's how I kind of look at it. And so that was the decision, the board-- they are elected body, they have the right to make the decision and select the leader that they want. And so it's OK.

- Have you had any communication with the new superintendent coming into HISD?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Yes, we've had communications. And I will do whatever I can to make sure that he is set up for success.

- And what's your advice to him?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: You know what, the same advise everyone, listen, go out, meet people, build relationships, get to know all the aspects of the district and the city, but do what he feel is best to take this district to the next level. And I'll be one of his biggest cheerleaders rooting him on and saying, hey, go ahead. And I'm excited and looking forward to what he'll be able to bring to the district and to the city.

- What do you think in terms of how-- there were issues with the board, that had nothing to do with you. Do you think that you just got affected by that?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Oh most definitely. It happens. And that happens in different situations. And it was, like I said, a lot of factors. And I was able to just work through that. But it happens.

- You were with HISD in more than one capacity, and this is not your first rodeo, you're not a lifer with HISD. Tell me a little bit about what it is you love about just being in education? Why are you in this field, why are you staying in this field, and, I mean, it is a hard job and many of us would not want the task that yourself is still so enthusiastic about. Why?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: I mean, is when the-- like I said, I tell people it's always, you know, the first day of school when you see those kindergartners, they arrive or those sixth graders going into middle school, the ninth graders going into high school, and then it's graduation to know that we have accomplished a goal on behalf of the children that we serve and that the children to receive what they need. And then I think back, like I said, I was a teacher for a number of years, and now to be able to see some of my former students or to hear from them to say, hey you made a difference in my life. That's what it's about. Is making a difference in the lives of the children that we serve because one day they'll be taking care of us, one day they'll be running this great country, one day they'll be on the news telling us what's going on on the local scene, and so that's what it's about. Truly connecting with people, with teachers, principals, but truly making a difference in the lives of children.

- What is it that you think in general is just the big challenge facing education in the next decade as we move forward? I know lot of new challenges, but then again a lot of new growth opportunities have happened because of COVID for example. It's revealed some weaknesses in education but it's also, as I said, revealed some opportunities. What are your thoughts about what the big challenge is, not just for HSC but in general?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Finances. Right now there's an infusion of money to support learning [? loss ?] and to address still the digital divide that exists in some school districts, but not in HISD, but I'm worried about what happens in the next three to four years when that infusion of dollars they're gone and when people reset and it's back to business as usual. So that's the worry. Addressing the learning [? loss, ?] I don't believe we'll be able to address it, not only in this district but any district in one to two years. It will take about three to five years to address what has occurred over the past year and a half.

- Yeah. You mentioned the digital divide, and you don't feel that there is one in HISD anymore?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: No. I mean, we have-- every child and parent that requested a device were able to receive a device, that will continue. Of course, we will be back at 100% capacity of students returning back to face-to-face instruction in August, but we've been able to provide those devices to students and they're proud of what we're able to do as a team. I mean over 100 and-- I think we're about at over 130,000 devices now that we're deployed out to students and families. That's just the laptop or Chromebook and then you add another probably 40,000 hotspots that we were able to deploy.

- So would you say in that regard COVID helped you to reach students technologically who-- that you previously had not been able to?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Yes I would definitely say that.

- You got the funds and that you're able to help support them?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Yes.

- Yeah. What about educators? I mean, now that we are so technologically advanced in terms of everyone having access to technology, do you think that's going to really change how teachers teach moving forward?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: I hope it changes but I hope we're not 100% reliant on technology and on the computers, because it has to be a mixture. The old fashioned teaching, old fashion without some technology, that still works also. But I think it's going to be a combination.

- Yeah.

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Well, should be a combination.

- OK so what do you want to say? I'm basically done, I want to know what you want to tell people as you get ready to exit this position and move on to your new job, anything you want to say?

DR. GRENITA LATHAN: Just thank you again. It's been a pleasure to serve as the leader of this great school district in the various capacities or positions that I've held over the past six years. So thank you to members of team HISD and to the greater Houston Community.