More dual language programs in schools, increased diversity efforts including school staffing so that schools better reflect Houston as a whole, and a pilot program that would allow students whose parents move around a lot to name their home school and continue to attend it no matter what their new address is were some of the main initiatives announced at Houston ISD's State of the Schools event Wednesday.
With 2,000 guests in attendance in the fourth floor ballroom of the Hilton Americas Hotel, Superintendent Terry Grier in his fifth annual State of the Schools address continued to make his case that as head of Houston ISD he is charting a course of determination and innovation.
The Apollo 20 program that targeted - critics said stigmatized - certain low-performing schools was mentioned only in passing by Grier when he acknowledged that while they'd been able to narrow the academic equity gap in math using tutoring techniques at these schools, the same results weren't seen in reading scores (where there was no extra tutoring). This was a far cry from past years when Apollo was held up as a shining beacon for future success and millions of dollars were poured into its programs.
Now with the district contemplating closing at least one Apollo school - Jones High School - it seems the curtain is about to be drawn on that great experiment, although Grier did say in a brief post-lunch news conference that the lessons HISD learned (among other things:tutoring works) will be applied throughout the district.
Grier said he understands that people are upset about the proposed school closings but added that when only 450 students out of 2,200 eligible to do so attend their home school in the campuses up for closure, that there's not much the district can do. And he said, some of the critics of the closures could, but choose not to send their own children to these schools (three elementaries -- Dodson, Nathaniel Q. Henderson and Port Houston -- Fleming Middle School and Jones High School.)
A special effort of the district will be to improve student literacy with a goal of having all kids reading on grade level by the third grade, Grier said. As he has said before, Grier noted that this is a tough problem to solve, one that schools across the country are wrestling with. He also announced plans for "personalized student learning" in which teachers are not teaching to the class but to each individual student.
He called upon community and business leaders in the audience to donate time each week to come to a school and read to a student. He urged them to make the time and said "We're role models whether we want to be or not." He also said he'd like parents to commit to reading to their children for 20 minutes, seven days a week.
He called for an end to the practice of not allowing students to take books home in the fear that they'll lose them. "I'd rather lose a book than lose a child," he said.
New board President Juliet Stipeche said the district is "celebrating our successes and learning from our mistakes." The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Stipeche was valedictorian of her class at HISD's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice High School before going on to college and becoming the first lawyer in her family.
Emphasizing the need for 21st Century approaches in everything from how public schools are designed (Sterling High School known for its aviation program may be redesigned to look like students are walking into an airplane hangar) to the type of vocational courses offered for jobs of the future, Grier also discussed Power Up, the program that has put laptop computers in the hands of students at 11 high schools, with plans to do even more in coming years.
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As regards the new home school program which Grier called "Home Field Advantage," the superintendent pointed out that educators have known for years that when families move around a lot, even within the same district, it hurts the academic progress of students. Not only will students be able to select a home school, Grier said, but HISD will provide transportation to the schools for these children.
And he called for diversity education at every level of the schools.
"While we have incredible schools and programs that embrace the diversity that is our city and are truly preparing our students for the multicultural world they will face, we still have work to do," Grier said. "It is no longer enough for our students to be able to read, write and do math. They also must be able to interact with everyone around them -not just those who look like them."
As regards the expansion of the dual language effort. Grier referred to the launch of 14 new Spanish dual language programs as well as the possibility of one in Arabic. And he attempted a phrase in Arabic (thanks to the HISD press office for filling us in on exactly what it was) -- Al Aelm Noor -- predicting that next year, an HISD student can come to the State of the Schools luncheon and critique his pronunciation.