The 50-minute State of the Schools address given by Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier Wednesday reached its in-your-face moment just before the 17-minute mark when he told the sold-out room at the Hilton Americas Hotel that "We should support our strong magnet schools. But you know we really can't deny this reality of the underbelly of school choice."
"We have a handful of the nation's academically elite public schools," Grier said as he waded once again into the issue of HISD's school choice program, saying that if the best students abandon neighborhood schools for magnet schools, they often leave behind a depleted student body. "Yet we have scores of children in neighborhood schools that need extra help, a lot of it."
"The truth is, the list of Houston schools that most of us in this room would refuse to send our own children to is longer than the list of schools we consider acceptable for our own children. And folks that can't, that will not stand in HISD," said Grier to applause.
And while this was in a lot of ways an incredibly brave thing for Grier to say and resolve to change, it also rather significantly undermines his contention that HISD is a great school district and a master of innovation (a theme he returned to several times.)
And while the applause sounded genuine, as Grier has discovered -- along with his predecessors in the superintendent seat -- any changes in the magnet program or school choice tend to result in public outcry and intense opposition from parents and schools afraid they'll lose their programs, which come complete with extra money.
Overall, Grier's address was one of battles won. Often comparing this past year to 2009, the year he arrived in HISD, he said more students are finishing high school, scholarships to graduating seniors are up significantly, campus crime is down 60 percent from five years ago, more kids are in Advanced Placement courses and taking the SAT and the number of low-income kids accepted to Ivy League and Tier I schools has skyrocketed as part of Assistant Superintendent Rick Cruz's EMERGE program.
Grier also announced two new grants: a $5.5 million grant from the Houston Endowment that will allow EMERGE to expand from 25 to 45 schools and another $3 million matching grant to add 28 new college counselors to schools throughout HISD. The goal is to increase college attendance by 20 percent over the next three years.
Also looking to the future, Grier stressed that HISD needs to get its students and teachers thinking about a global education in which graduates will be college ready, able to work well with others on a team, be able to communicate effectively and to think critically.
Bilingualism and bi-literacy are crucial to these efforts, Grier said. "When students return to school next fall, they'll find we've almost doubled the number of dual language schools to 52 and we're not finished." Among those schools, he said, "will be Texas's first public Arabic dual language program and up next, our first and Texas's first Hindi dual language school."
Returning to the less successful topic, Grier noted the racial disparity among students in the district's gifted and talented program. Although HISD is a minority-dominant district, more than one-third of white students are labeled GT, while just 14 percent of Hispanic students and 7 percent of African American students have that designation. And just as magnet students receive extra funds, so do GT students.
He asked the district's newly formed Equity Council to tackle this issue and propose a solution.
HISD successfully absorbed the failed North Forest ISD when no one else would and did so without complaints once the takeover started, Grier said. "So how did we do it? It's simple, We applied the lessons we learned from our Apollo 20 school turnaround plan that had school districts from all over America coming to Houston on a regular basis to see how we did it. When they show up here I always tell them the same thing. No silver bullet. No magic formula. It's hard work. It requires the political will to do what's right even when critics cling to the status quo and push back. And I promise you they push back."
The school board meets this Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Hattie Mae White Administration Building.
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