Rewriting History: Apollo 20's Legacy as it is Now, Was Once and What it was Supposed to Be

Jennell Minor, coordinator of Apollo math tutoring at Attucks Middle School, oversees the work that Lerodrius McDowell is doing with a group of sixth graders.
Jennell Minor, coordinator of Apollo math tutoring at Attucks Middle School, oversees the work that Lerodrius McDowell is doing with a group of sixth graders.
Photo by Margaret Downing

As Jennell Minor weaves her way among the sixth-grade students divided into groups, each with its own tutor, she talks about the challenges she and other teachers face at Attucks Middle School.

It's tougher than usual this year because of the change in math objectives -- concepts that in previous years students didn't tackle till seventh grade, they're supposed to know in sixth now, she says. There's two math classes a day for sixth graders -- one in the traditional classroom setting and this one, in which up to three students are paired with a tutor. Small sessions are especially good for students who may be able to get to a solution but not as quickly as others, she says. "They have that time to process the infor-mation and come up with the answer," Minor explains.

Apollo Fellow tutors are one of the few visible legacies of the controversial Apollo 20 pilot project, designed to turn around some low-performing Houston Independent School District schools. By paying intensive attention to the children at these schools, the district hoped to raise test scores, decrease behavior problems and get more kids on grade level in their subjects. Apollo ended after the 2012-13 school year, leaving in its wake a reduced tutor program and an adoption of "best practices" at the remaining original Apollo schools and six more.

Next up: the reading class. Oh no, Minor says, Apollo is just math.

Come again?

In 2010, the Apollo 20 program started with four high schools and five middle schools (11 elementaries joined the next year). By the end of its three-year run, 19 of 20 principals had been replaced, many teachers were let go or moved to other schools, and parents and other increasingly concerned residents attended board meetings protesting the project. Apollo was supposed to build a new culture at these schools, with better teachers and principals, tutoring, and longer school days, in order to stop and reverse any downward slides.

People either embraced Apollo as an about-time recognition of the neglect allowed for too many years for some of the district's children or thought it was a high-priced dog and pony show. Critics were outraged by the cost and the fact that the program's benefits were restricted to just a few schools in the sprawling district. They questioned whether the district needed to spend millions of dollars to find out what most said they already knew: that tutoring and more time in class could pay off in increased student achievement.

But the program continued, buoyed by a mostly supportive school board, sizable private contributions and HISD Superintendent Terry Grier's considerable charismatic ability to talk to individuals and organizations with money and get them to join the crusade. Who wanted to be on the sidelines when something this important, remarkable and needed was happening?

There were some successes, some failures. Two of the freshman class -- Jones High and Ryan Middle -- are now repurposed. Apollo ended after three years and $60 million in expenditures -- most of which came from state and federal money, with $18 million of that total from private donations. Math scores went up in the Apollo years, dropped after, and reading scores remained static and low. In an October 2013 review of the project, Harvard economics professor Dr. Roland Fryer, who led the project for his company, EdLabs, admitted they hadn't made much progress with reading even with the extra help he said some students got in that subject.

Now, more than a year after the end, we're left with remnants of the former program. Longer school days continue at some schools. The school board voted to allocate $16 million this year for tutoring in the former Apollo schools as well as another $22 million for other low-performing schools. And there's a call for new reading initiatives.

And, astonishingly enough, a new contract with EdLabs, the same outside company that managed Apollo 20.

At the August 14, 2014, HISD board meeting, Manuel Rodriguez, who has been a strong supporter of Apollo 20, was one of only three trustees to vote against another contract with EdLabs, asking famously why Dr. Roland Fryer's company was getting more of the district's money "when they didn't complete the task in the three years they were here."

Ah, but excuses and revisionist history were the order of the day.

Trustee Greg Meyers argued for rehiring EdLabs and Fryer -- the first year of the contract will cost up to $306,000, with significantly higher costs if there's a second year -- this time to help a number of HISD schools adopt a management program dependent in large part on the book Leverage Leadership (the latest education buzz phrase that seems to involve constant checking, rechecking and documentation of just what those teachers are up to). Meyers declared that "Apollo 20 was never about reading. It was a math tutorial."

Trustee Paula Harris said, "He [Fryer] didn't have a reading assignment in the beginning." HISD Superintendent Terry Grier went further, saying: "The Apollo program never addressed reading. The goal there was to close and to address the achievement gap in math."

But a check of HISD's own historic literature shows otherwise. In July 2010 HISD issued an "Apollo 20 Project: Fact Sheet" in which it stated there would be "high dosage" tutoring "for students in grades 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12 who are below grade level, a double dose of math OR reading based on the subject in which they are most behind." On January 29, 2011, another HISD press release referred to the double time students were spending in English Language Arts and "Saturday school for [elementary] students who need the most help in math and/or reading."

There was no mention of "math only" in April 2011, when Grier called a press conference to announce the first round of state test scores for fifth and eighth graders at Apollo schools and presented both reading and math scores.

And in February 2011, it was none other than Greg Meyers himself who, during a debate over extending the Apollo program to the elementary schools in the second year, proclaimed: "I am not going to support delaying something that's going to make a difference in the lives of kids. We have children that are not reading on grade level, and that's an issue we have to get our arms around."

Guys and gals, this is your own work product. This is what you said. You may want to claim now that Apollo was only ever just about higher math scores, improved attendance rates and better behavior in the hallways -- goals you achieved -- but that's not what you were saying, writing or making speeches about in 2010 and 2011.

And how was a math-only approach going to turn around all these schools anyway? Whatever the gains made and lessons learned from Apollo 20 -- and make no mistake, there were some -- it seems as if there's some selective misremembering going on here. Which just clouds the issue about whether Apollo 20 was good for HISD, something that deserves reasoned study.


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'Apollo had its huge supporters and huge detractors. We just didn't seem to have anything in between," Grier says. "If you supported it, it was almost like you blindly supported it. If you opposed it, you were so passionate about opposing it that you wouldn't believe the evidence if the evidence was there."

Count as one of Grier's supporters the Council of Great City Schools, which a few weeks ago named him Urban Educator of the Year. A list of accomplishments included his work as leader of the Apollo 20 initiative, which according to an HISD press release generated remarkable results. Besides raising an extraordinary amount of money, Grier and HISD were applauded for creating a program that "helped [Apollo 20] students in these schools achieve academic gains on-par with the nation's top-performing charter schools."

It took weeks of repeated requests to find out from HISD which "top-performing charter schools" were used for comparison. Turns out they were charters from New York City where Fryer and his EdLabs could get the statistics, Grier said in a sit-down meeting with the Houston Press.

KIPP and Yes Prep here in Houston wouldn't give them the numbers, Grier explained. A follow-up inquiry to HISD about what national tests were used to compare Houston's Apollo 20 schools to New York charter schools yielded the following answer: "The analysis is using state test scores from the respective programs to analyze the change based on standard deviation and effect size. So rather than compare actual test scores to test scores, it compares the standard deviation and effect size of the change in the test scores for Apollo schools with the standard deviation and effect size of the change in the test scores for NYC charters."

Even someone who's not a psychometrician might have trouble with all the wiggle room there is in this equation.

Grier points repeatedly -- and with justification -- to the increase in math scores. Whether the progress was sustainable was another matter. An independent review of the Apollo 20 project by Rice University's Houston Education Research Consortium acknowledged the improved scores but noted that the first year's gains were much larger than the second's. Fryer opposed a third-party review, but Board President Juliet Stipeche insisted on it, saying it was ridiculous that Apollo's creator would be its sole evaluator.

Grier agrees math scores dipped after Apollo 20 ended, but points out there were drops in math scores around the district.

Throughout the Apollo 20 experiment, Grier and others stressed that the goal was to get all its students coming out of eighth grade to be on grade level, especially in reading and math, and to get them college ready.

That's something that Stipeche has discussed repeatedly, but there's no doubt she sees it differently from the way Grier does. She thinks there's too much emphasis on high-stakes testing and not enough on learning in HISD. She sees students being used as money generators for vendors offering books and programs that end up costing thousands and millions of dollars with little return on investment. She also voted against rehiring EdLabs for the next big HISD project.

The standards of any school district should be reasonable, reliable and effective, she says, and our current testing system is not reasonable ("too many tests") or reliable ("kids are graduating, but they are not set to succeed") or effective ("it's not effective; the whole system has undermined the intention to learn," she says).

Jefferson Sanchez, a Texas A&M sophomore and political science major, is the product of two Apollo schools and had a varying experience and mixed feelings about how effective the program was. At Lee High School, he says, he felt he was "treated as another student who was doing bad things all the time," but at the same time he keeps in touch with some teachers there.

He transferred to Sharpstown for his junior and senior years. There were the same longer hours -- he wasn't a fan -- but there were other things he did appreciate. "There was more order in the hallways. The Sharpstown principal shook his hand on the first day -- something that never happened at Lee. He got involved in school, got his grades up and formed an ecology club on campus that distributed recycling bins around the school.

Sanchez says he never had a problem with TAKS (the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the immediate precursor to STAAR), but thinks there was too much emphasis on testing. He got a lot of help in English his junior and sophomore years, although after one teacher left halfway through the year, "I didn't learn anything after that."

And then he hit A&M and it was tough. He sat in an English class and was one of only a very few students who hadn't read a book that all the other kids had read in high school English. "I don't think we ever read that much in high school." He is still working hard to keep up, he says.

"The last two years of my high school were the best," he says. But when weighing the benefits of Apollo and its cost, he says, "In my experience, it is not worth it."

Terry Grier, a superintendent who has never been afraid to think big, insists that Apollo 20 was a far better alternative than letting the state come in and take over the district's low-performing schools. Apollo did much better by its students than methods employed in cities such as New Orleans, Denver, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, he said.

Near the end of that August 14 board meeting, an obviously weary Grier told board members arguing over the EdLabs contract that Apollo did benefit the district. "We got good results. I still say we did, still believe we did."

In a separate meeting with the Press, Grier followed this up, saying that one of the biggest mistakes the district made with Apollo was that it didn't define from the beginning what success would be. "The original success for me early on was not for these schools to become Bellaire [High]. The success was trying to get them off this [state watch] list. The success was trying to get out-of-school suspensions down. The success to me was trying to have safe schools."

The schools they were working with (Jones, Sharpstown, Kashmere and Lee highs; Ryan, Attucks, Dowling, Fondren and Key middle schools; and Highland, Kelso, Robinson, Scarborough, Tinsley, Walnut Bend, Young, Blackshear, Davila, Frost and Isaacs elementary schools) were in most cases bleeding students. In a district of choice, the top students at many of these schools were going elsewhere, leaving behind a higher percentage of special-needs students, which made the turnaround even more difficult, Grier said.

"In our failing schools there's truly a third of our kids who opted to jump ship," Grier said. "We recruited like crazy to try to find those turn-around principals and within two years, we'd replaced about 40 to 45 percent of them, which I think tells you how hard those jobs are," Grier said.

Other lessons Grier says HISD learned: • Tutors made a "non-academic" difference and helped with the significant drop in disciplinary cases at the Apollo schools. • The district should adopt the charter model of adding one grade at a time, not trying to take over and change an entire school all at once. • Teachers should be evaluated using data-driven instruction; in fact, even more measurements should be used in assessing teachers (the next EdLabs-aided program).

Asked if he would have done anything different with Apollo 20, Grier says, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd replace every teacher, every adult in the building." It wasn't that the teachers they kept weren't good, he says, but to effect a change in culture at one school, teachers needed to be moved to another. And that's what HISD did when it took over the North Forest district, he said.

Grier points with pride to successes with Apollo. Two thirds of Apollo secondary schools came off the "Academically Unacceptable" list. College scholarship offers to students at Apollo High Schools skyrocketed from $3.74 million before Apollo 20 to $9.03 million in 2013. The number of students who applied to college from Apollo schools went from 62.3 percent in 2011 to 91.3 percent in 2013. There was an increase in the number of kids who score above 500 on their SATs.

He said too that if he had to go back to the city's leaders to ask for more money for a new program, he would have good chances of getting it. Apollo's mixed results did not spoil any future chances, he said.

Credit Grier for coming to Houston and disrupting the status quo, the assumption that because some schools were sad and sorry, they and the students stuck in them deserved nothing better.

There's no doubt Grier is aware that however Apollo 20 is finally judged will affect how he goes down in superintendent history. Showing off his good numbers is understandable. Implementing approaches from lessons learned is nothing but good.

But efforts by Grier and some board members to rewrite history, saying Apollo was math only, are not. Retooling the program's stated objectives four years later to match what was achieved in a way only diminishes the value of any real gains that were made by a lot of hardworking HISD employees -- including Terry Grier.

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