Apollo 20 Pluses and Minuses at Mid-Year

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During Saturday's tutoring session for 6th to 8th graders at Ryan Middle School, students were first asked to fill out a multiplication grid table going from 1 times 1 on up. Claudia J. "Coach" Sylvester told them it was "not cheating" because they were creating it themselves. It would remove the stress later on, she said, when they had to look for an answer quickly while doing their word problems.

But as enthusiastic and involved as most of the kids were, the sight of 12- to-15-year-olds having to fill out a multiplication table chart -- with review for the group ("Has everyone got their sixes?" Sylvester called out) seemed to underline the questions raised by EdLabs, the Harvard think tank, about the intellectual rigor of the Apollo 20 program now in its first year at nine schools.

"Teachers need additional support and training to increase instructional quality, academic rigor and student achievement," the EdLabs report stated. "In many classrooms, students are either engaged in low-level worksheets and activities or sit listening to teacher-centered instruction."

"Students are often asked to complete assignments and activities that are below grade level expectations." the report said.

"I already know this stuff," said Brenda Soto, 13, who just moved from Pasadena in time for this semester. Te'Kevion Peters, 15, said he likes the tutoring sessions and thinks they'll help him pass his TAKS and other standardized tests. The other main benefit he sees to Apollo 20 is that his school is safer. "There's more attendance, less fights, discipline is much better," the eighth grader who attended Ryan last year said.

Upstairs in the Ryan school library, Superintendent Terry Grier echoed Peters's observations about safety as he touted the improvements that have been made at the nine Apollo 20 schools to Houston ISD trustees during the second day of their annual retreat.

As Grier and the EdLabs report noted: The attendance rate at all the schools (Attucks, Dowling, Fondren, Key and Ryan middles and Jones, Kashmere, Lee and Sharpstown highs) has increased. Ryan, for instance, has increased from 91.7 percent to 93.8 percent. Attendance at the high school level is still not where it should be, Grier said -- Lee has the best attendance at 92.6 percent, but all have improved from the previous year. Higher attendance means more money for the district.

Trustee Harvin Moore did question whether the comparison of the entire 2009-10 school year against the school year so far would hold up given the end-of-year drop-off in attendance some schools experience. Grier said he didn't think that was the case and what had hurt attendance the year before was the widespread flu that hit mid-year.

There has been a sharp decrease in suspensions (again comparing the entire last year to half of this year) in all the schools except Dowling. Grier said there had "been some issues with leadership at Dowling."

Students are being repeatedly tested and the results of those tutorial test scores show dramatic gains between the two years. Moore and trustee Anna Eastman questioned what these scores mean, as in how they correlate to standardized testing, and were told by Grier that the district wouldn't know that till the TAKS results come in at the end of the year.

In a press release sent out about the Apollo 20, Grier said, "The early indications from our Apollo 20 schools show that all students can achieve great academic gains when they attend schools with strong principals and excellent teachers who are willing to put in the extra work. It's too early to declare Apollo 20 a success, but I can't help but be excited about the early student performance data we're seeing so far from these students."

Trustees questioned what to do with students not only in Apollo 20 but across the district when limited or no money is available for tutorials. Grier said Apollo 20 was never meant to be scalable to the entire district, and there are other interventions such as summer school that can be made to help students.

Apollo 20 is still not fully funded, although Grier has proposed expanding the program to 11 elementary schools in the 2011-12 school year.

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