In a district where eight of its high schools and 11 of its middle schools don't even have a school counselor, the Houston Independent School District trustees got together for an agenda meeting early Thursday morning to talk "transformation" possibly achieved through smaller learning communities and "close relationships" between students and educators -- all part of a plan to persuade failing students in some of its most troubled schools that the district yes, really does care about them.
Superintendent Terry Grier brought in Gerry House, president of the Institute for Student Achievement, a private company, and ISA's vice president Adalberto Andino to talk about their program in 80 schools and six states that reportedly helps underperforming high schools to develop supportive and academically rigorous classes.
Grier said he's concerned that the district's lowest performing schools might be pushed into having to be reconstituted, as is what happened with Sam Houston
High (closed and reorganized), and he wants to intervene.
"We've got to take action. We need to take action at three to four of our lowest performing high schools. We can't just be repackaging what we have," Grier said.
In the ISA model, starting with the ninth grade in a school, students are separated into groups of no more than 400 kids. All the students in one group will have the same teachers in their core subjects (English, math, science and social studies) and the teachers are expected to plan in collaboration and talk not only about the curriculum but the kids when they meet. It's a cluster model that a lot of middle schools use. In the ISA plan, a school starts with the ninth grade, then adds on the 10th grade the next year -- each year transforming the school from a comprehensive high school to a collection of smaller schools.
House, who was named National Superintendent of the Year in 1999 for her work in the Memphis school system, stressed, however, that it's just not enough to go small and that teachers be caring. There has to be a higher standard of learning that emphasizes "the inquiry approach, not rote learning."
Not everyone was buying in completely. Larry Marshall, who just finished his term as board president and clearly is having some trouble letting go of his running-the-meeting duties, wanted to know why the district was looking at a company that works with schools so far away - New York city, Detroit and Atlanta for example -- when Aldine ISD is just down the road and has recently won the prestigious Broad Prize.
"We probably need to look at several models," Marshall said.
Trustee Diana Davila echoed this saying that the district has bought into outside programs before and sometimes "it didn't work out."
While complimenting House on her work and her program and the issues it raises, Marshall also pointed out that talking about cluster teachers meant they needed a common planning time "which has very strong financial implications."
House said that the New York schools are financially strapped. She said teachers there had been able to meet three times a week and make the program work. Marshall said he thought asking teachers to volunteer their extra time for meetings was going to be "a pretty hard sell."
Marshall, who'd already urged new school board president Greg Meyers to start the agenda meeting promptly at 7:30 a.m. without Grier who came in a couple minutes late, told the superintendent he should study the history of HISD before he makes program proposals. What set Marshall off was a remark by Grier saying he'd heard about a program not working out well at Reagan High School in the past.
"The superintendent needs to check his source," Marshall said. He went on to say that what the ISA group is proposing about small learning communities within a larger school already has been tried in some schools in HISD and referenced the 1979 campus of Booker T. Washington High School.
"Somebody needs to do an inventory of what we have in place, what works and what doesn't work," Marshall said. Trustee Paula Harris noted that she knew Marshall liked ninth-grade campuses and that she knew Grier did not.
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Grier explained: "I have found a few that worked because of the principal and the teacher." But once they left the extra caring attention of the specialized ninth grade to enter the general population of tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders, "it turns out to be one more transition for kids to make," he said. And the result, he said, is another point where kids tend to drop out of school.
Schools that operate only a ninth-grade campus, separate from the other years, often can't sustain their initial results as students move to the higher grades, House said.
House also discussed the importance of school counselors not just to schedule and help with college applications but to know the students.
Grier said principals are given a lump sum of money and decide how to distribute that. Some opt for deans or assistant principals at their schools rather than counselors. "We find this out when there are tragedies at a school, and they call us for a crisis team," Grier said.