Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mayor's annual State of the City address

I was fortunate to get to attend Mayor White's annual State of the City address to the Greater Houston Partnership today at the Hilton Americas downtown (if you haven't visited it yet, drop by sometime - it has an incredibly stylish decor with some great views that will be even better when the new "central park" gets built). It was a sold-out event. GHP Chairman Chip Carlisle gave a glowing introduction to the Mayor, reflecting on his high-profile role during Katrina and Rita that the city can be proud of, which generated one of the most enthusiastic and sustained standing ovations I've ever been a part of.

Mayor White outlined several initiatives and made quite a few interesting points during his speech:
  • Crime: holding irresponsible apartment owners accountable for lax security, possibly tightening youth curfews on school nights, and cutting down on wasted police time from private security false alarms.
  • Fighting traffic congestion: this year's focus will be on encouraging more flex time and telecommuting among Houston employers. He pointed out that 600 fewer commuters during a 15-minute window saves a lane of freeway space that can cost tens of millions of dollars. A summit is being held for one hour on Feb 21st at Wortham Theater where business leaders will talk about best practices and lessons learned.
  • Affordable housing: "Project Houston Hope" - foreclosing on over 500 tax delinquent properties so they can be turned over for affordable re-development.
  • Energy efficiency: He wants us to be a national leader. As an example, volunteers coordinated by Centerpoint will canvas 1,300 homes in the Pleasantville neighborhood and offer to weatherize any homes that want it, which should lead to a roughly 10% reduction in energy usage and utility bills. In the next 60 days, they want to launch a program to provide good consumer information to citizens on their power choices, including pollution-free options.
  • Unity in diversity: He called on the GHP to continue to broaden its network, increase diversity, and reach out to more small entrepreneurs.
  • Cooperative government: He talked about how proud he was of how all levels of Houston government work together cooperatively, which is not the case in many metros around the country.
  • Education: How's this for a scary statistic: there were 70,000 local 9th-graders in 2001, but only 44,000 graduating seniors in 2004. He's pushing a major effort to keep kids in school, including getting them to sign commitment letters, which lets them attend an NBA all-star event next month.
The more I reflected on that last statistic, the less shocked I was. I have to be honest: the way high schools work today, with very limited vocational education, not to mention Bill Gates' description of them as fundamentally "obsolete" in the 21st century - if you're 16 or 17 and know you're definitely not on the college track, there's really not many obviously compelling reasons to stay in school. I'm in no way advocating dropping out, but if you really try to put yourself in that teenager's shoes, I think you can see why they make that decision - even more so if they're an immigrant with limited English skills who long ago fell off the academic track of their grade-level peers and are really just marking time. Late high school is just not relevant in their world, especially compared to getting a job and making money. Maybe we need to go a step beyond simply pressuring them to stick it out and try to understand and provide a high school experience pertinent to their world and their needs? An experience where they see and feel the value, and want to stick around for graduation? I know that's a lot more work for the schools and their districts, but wouldn't that have a lot more real long-term impact for both them and for our city?


At 8:00 PM, January 30, 2006, Blogger Polimom said...

The LATimes is running a series right now on the high-school drop-out numbers. I wrote about it this morning, not realizing we had similar numbers here in Houston.

It's actually a pretty terrifying statistic - particularly if it's nationwide. It also directly impacts the issue in which Andrew expressed interested: crime.

Taken together, the crime and education cycle we seem to be moving into need immediate focus.


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