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There are some rock-solid truths to the universe usually discovered by anyone who's ever been in ISS (in-school suspension).
You don't spend the day with peers who rank among the school's best and brightest. The teacher in charge is either a humorless martinet or a coach who likes to tell war stories which need to be good because he is the only one doing the talking. Each student is isolated at a separate desk; no group activity, no pod work, no changing classes.
Most importantly, though, there is magic in the room. Because suddenly, you can get all this work done that you've found impossible to attempt, let alone complete before.
The Houston Independent School District is about to embrace that lack of distraction in a big way — with a touch of humanity — as it goes about the business of trying to get more kids to walk across the graduation stage.
Under a new credit recovery program that Superintendent Terry Grier hopes will start in January, high school students who aren't on track to graduate on time will be offered the chance to go one-on-one with a computer. They will be evaluated by the computer both for what they don't know and what they do. And backing them up will be 30 specially selected "graduation coaches," described by Grier as a combination of "mentor, coach and quasi counselor."
The biggest part of HISD's credit-recovery approach is that students will start working in a course at the point where their knowledge stops. If the computer says they understand the first five lessons in Algebra I, students will start with lesson six and proceed from there. They work at their own pace, and if they're taking multiple classes, they can schedule their own times when they want to tackle a particular subject. They can even work from home. Pass the class, and shazaam, they get a credit.
The graduation coach will monitor proceedings, answer questions, encourage completion and proctor exams. Grier, who instituted a similar program at his last superintendency, in San Diego, says elementary and middle school students there "recovered 4,523 courses that they had previously failed." He didn't waste any time getting it going here.
Grier had his education experts evaluate several potential software programs. Principals and teachers were invited over to try out the four finalists his administrators came up with and help the district buy the best program.
"Then we did something we had not done here," Grier says. "We identified students who'd failed three or more courses. We brought them in and let them experience each one of the softwares." As it turned out, all three groups separately picked the same software from APEX Learning, which turned out to be the same program the San Diego district used. (Grier says he stayed at arm's length throughout the selection process.)
Eli Martinez, 16 going on 17, was one of those students. Martinez admits he has failed his share of courses at Reagan High School and says he was really surprised when the district wanted his opinion. Right now the 11th grader is doing okay in algebra, world history and English, but is behind in biology and chemistry.
Not only did he get to test-drive software programs in algebra, history, world geography and English, but he ended up explaining them to the educators. "I kind of caught on to it. It was a couple of programs that were kind of like college level; the others were easy, where the strategies were just more direct without excessive writing or paragraphs."
Senior Cecilia Gomez, now paying for earlier years of not paying enough attention, was also part of the group. She's been working hard this year, hoping to graduate with her class. She's already taking some computer-instructed classes and likes them for their speed.
"You don't have to take a class a whole semester. You can do it in a month or four weeks. You don't have to be worrying about, 'Am I going to fail the cycle or something?' Your goal is to make a 70 in the class. You make a 70, you get the credit."
"It's really easy to get a high school diploma," Gomez says. "You just have to pass your classes."
HISD's program, in many ways, shows amazing similarities to the computer-driven alternative-education program run by the private, for-profit Community Education Partners, which promises to get kids caught up who are far behind while also amending their bad behaviors.
There are differences. CEP is dealing with students who, for the most part, don't want to be there. HISD's students will be engaged because they've bought into finishing school. CEP students are there for the long haul, typically referred there for 180-day stints (a school year). In the HISD credit-recovery program, students are up and out as soon as they pass enough classes.
According to many reports over the years, CEP has a lot of distractions due to in-school fighting. And while HISD went out of its way to select the best teachers possible as graduation coaches ("We interviewed more than 100 teachers for 30 positions," Grier says), CEP is still working through its ranks to clear out teachers who have been uncertified for years.