Apollo 20 Picks Up 11 Elementaries, But Not Without a Fight

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It took three sets of votes, but in the end Houston ISD trustees in a 5-4 vote gave Superintendent Terry Grier the go-ahead on his proposal to expand the Apollo 20 program to 11 elementary schools next year.

The debate was long, with passionate arguments on either side, and had to be disheartening to parents and teachers there from Isaacs and Scarborough elementaries who appeared before the board to say they didn't want to be part of the Apollo project to turn around low-performing schools -- why should they need to be when they're already "recognized" schools by the state?

"Isaacs has been recognized for years and now the district says we're below standards," the Rev. Howard Sims told the board. "There are plenty of schools below Isaacs in math and reading," he said, referring to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. He and other speakers referred to the 44 schools that scored below Isaacs in reading and 40 in math and 20 schools total.

They were then told by the board in terms both kind and harsh, depending on whether it was trustee Harvin Moore and board president Paula Harris (both kinder) or Larry Marshall (channeling his inner Old Testament prophet persona), that being "recognized" by the Texas Education Agency really doesn't mean your school is doing a good job academically and that several of their test scores on national standardized tests were way too low.

Carol Galloway offered the first amendment, arguing that the district still doesn't have final test results from the nine middle and high schools that have been part of the project this year and asking that expansion approval be put off.

"We need to kind of slow down. What is the rush?" she said. She questioned moving ahead with Apollo when the first phase of the program still isn't fully funded ($5 million will have to come out of the General Fund if HISD is unable to raise the rest of the money privately) and why the district is expanding this at the same time it is talking about cutting teachers and other personnel next year to deal with a loss in state funds anticipated to be between $202 million and $348 million.

She was joined in her losing vote by trustees Anna Eastman, Michael Lunceford and Juliet Stipeche.

Then trustee Manual Rodriguez tried to split the baby by offering an amendment that would start Apollo in six of the elementaries, with five more on hold till the district gets some more testing results in.

That one went down in a 6-3 vote after Grier stepped into a back room and got on the phone to Dr. Roland Fryer, the Harvard researcher with EdLabs who has been working with HISD on its "transformation" project. Grier said Fryer told him halving the number of schools involved would render the experiment scientifically worthless. It needed to be all 11 or nothing.

In the end, Greg Meyers, Marshall, Harvin Moore, Paula Harris and Rodriguez voted to go ahead with the program. Meyers argued that it made no sense to wait to help the students at these schools, that there was a sense of urgency about getting them more resources.

"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," Meyers said.

HISD estimates the program at the elementaries will cost $1.6 million and it is getting the money from a $1.8 million reduction in its contract with Community Education Partners (also approved Thursday night), which operates a private alternative education program in Houston.

Unlike the Apollo programs at the middle and high school level, there won't be any extended days at the elementary schools. Grier said this would change if the district got private donations to enable them to do that, but for now the tutoring will be offered in the course of the regular school day and in Saturday tutorials.

Besides Isaacs and Scarborough, the other elementaries that will become Apollo 20 schools in the fall are Blackshear, Davila, Frost, Grimes, Highland Heights, Kelso, Robinson, Tinsley and Walnut Bend.

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