HISD Kicks Off Its Apollo 20 Program For Troubled Schools

As if surrendering your long, lazy summer to the start of another tedious school year is not hard enough, students from five HISD middle schools and four high schools are making that plunge an entire week earlier, with the start of the Apollo 20 project Monday. In addition, HISD is pushing up their daily start time to 7:45 a.m., adding on extra class time and tutoring services, all aimed at improving student performance.

"We lengthened the school year, lengthened the school day, and added tutoring during the day for all sixth and ninth graders in math," HISD superintendent Terry Grier told Hair Balls. "Seventh through twelfth grade students are getting an extra class of reading or math, depending on how far behind they are in each subject. We've replaced all the principals, some of the assistant principals, and a lot of the teachers in these schools. We're creating a culture of no excuses here."

The four high schools: Jones, Kashmere, Lee, and Sharpstown, were identified as what the state calls "failing schools" Grier said, and the five middle schools (Attucks, Dowling, Fondren, Key, and Ryan), were identified as "unsatisfactory."

"The national Stanford 10 tests showed that a significant number of our students are not on grade level in reading, math and science...districtwide there are nearly 70,000 students who are below grade level in reading," Grier has said in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.

According to HISD, a little over half of all HISD ninth graders will go on to college, and only 15 percent of those students will go on to attain a postsecondary degree within 4.5 years.

HISD had to do something drastic in terms of turning the schools around, Grier said, or the state was going to come in and take them over.

A partnership between HISD and EDLabs at Harvard University, the Apollo 20 project is an academic offensive that seeks to improve student achievement by following academic strategies that EDLabs' research shows enhances school performance.

The project employs more than 230 Apollo 20 Math Fellows, each working with two students for 60 to 80 minutes every day for the entire school year, HISD said.

A total of five additional school days in 2010-2011, and 10 additional school days in 2011-2012 increases instructional time, as well as access to teachers and the high-dosage tutoring services now being offered.

Sharpstown High School Junior Darnell Anderson told Hair Balls that he welcomes the change, and feels like the student body has been energized by it.

"We're looking forward to working, the atmosphere is better," Anderson said. "The students and teachers this year are excited about being here, and are willing and motivated to do the work...teachers and tutors have made it clear that they will be here as early or as late as necessary to help us improve."

To make this successful the students need to be willing to work with the teachers, and be willing to show the same level of dedication that they do, Anderson said, just be committed.

Anderson has no doubt that the program will benefit students.

"If this would have happened two years ago, I would have done better. My weakest subject right now is math, and it would have helped to boost my test scores, not just my TAKS scores, but my level of math and problem solving skills as well," he said.

HISD wants to see math, reading, science and social studies scores in these schools go up by double digits, Grier said, to see the graduation rate at the high schools increase to 100 percent, the drop out rate to be zero, and each student prepared to enter college or a good career. HISD wants all of the students coming out of eight grade to be on grade level, particularly in reading and math.

"We want to create schools of success," Grier said. "It can be done, it has been done elsewhere, it's just never been attempted on this scale before anywhere in the country."

Next year the plan is to add 11 more schools to the current nine, Grier said, completing the Apollo 20, which will have kids in kindergarten through twelfth involved in this kind of structure and support.

The excitement level is unprecedented, HISD Board of Education President Greg Meyers told Hair Balls.

"We know that we need to do some unique things to get better results," Meyers said. "Those minimum standards are just not enough to prepare our kids for where they need to be...we know we're going to be successful, and what we want to do is use this as springboard -- with what works here, there's no reason why we can't replicate it at other schools and districts in the country.

"At the end of this year and for years to come, we're going to see some progress, but years out we are going to see some really tremendous progress, and you're going to see Houston ISD at the launch pad."

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