UPDATED: HISD: Will Apollo 20 Become Apollo 60?

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Update:Hair Balls needs to clarify that when Trustee Anna Eastman was talking about endorsing a longer school day and year in HISD, she was talking about schools both in and out of the Apollo 20 program. And, after listening to more of yesterday's Senate session, we've added comments from some other senators about what HISD is proposing to do. See the end of the story for details. Further Update:The bill was voted out of committee today with only Senator Mario Gallegos voting no. It goes onto the general calendar and not the local and uncontested calendar, which means it has been deemed "controversial" and will have to be brought up on the floor.

Under a bill proposed by Texas Senator Rodney Ellis, the Houston ISD could open up its Apollo 20 program for low-performing schools to some 60 campuses or about 20 percent of all the district's schools, extending school days and school years beyond what's called for by the state.

Hair Balls started getting calls about this from Austin Tuesday morning right after hearings began on the proposed legislation and the callers were concerned about three things: the number 60 (which Hair Balls cannot recall hearing mentioned at any school board meetings), the fact that the bill calls for this expansion to be paid for with local funds (general revenue?) and that, according to Senator Mario Gallegos, the HISD board was not consulted about this piece of legislation.

But Trustee Anna Eastman, contacted in Houston, said the board was consulted about this and that there had just been a snafu in communications over last week's spring break about when the bill would be presented. She endorsed expanding the program and doing so legislatively so that the district doesn't have to keep asking for waivers.

Critics of Apollo 20 are concerned that the district -- already facing a severe funding shortage in the next year -- is concentrating its energies on a relative few of its students rather than addressing needs across the district. They have also complained that while HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said several times that no general revenue funds were used to fund the first schools in Apollo 20 this year, that actually they were taken from a reduction in the district's contract with Community Education partners, which runs private alternative school facilities in Houston.

Eastman said the program wouldn't have to encompass 60 schools, but it does give the district that flexibility. "The way the bill is written, the state won't give us extra money," she said. "We would have to figure out how to pay for it. We wouldn't get funded for those extra days." She said the money could come from private donations or general revenue funding.

Ellis and Gallegos took turns wacking at each other (Gallegos, who frequently attends HISD board meetings, wanted to know how long it's been since Ellis sat in on one) while Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro tried to keep order.

Grier testified that the entire HISD school board had unanimously signed off on the measure last November. Gallegos challenged this, saying that the trustee from his district (Juliet Stipeche) had no idea the superintendent and board president Paula Harris would be appearing before the committee to advocate this. Ellis then asked when Stipeche came on the board, which he suggested would have been after the November board vote.

But it was unclear how many board members knew about Tuesday's trip to Austin or whether the board ever signed off on the number 60 or the funding process, or whether -- last November -- it had just signed off on asking for waivers to extend the school day and year as is done with the Apollo schools.

Grier said he did not notify school board members about the particulars of Ellis's bill, saying it "is not my role."

This school year, nine middle and high schools have been in the Apollo program. After lengthy debate and several votes, the board voted to extend the program to 11 elementaries next year, once again finding money in further reductions in the CEP contract for the 2011-12 year.

Ellis called Apollo 20 "groundbreaking" and said its extension would help turn around failing schools and give more kids a chance. He said that any schools in the expanded program would have to be undergoing "comprehensive reform" to qualify for the program.

"This is not a model that we plan to replicate across the district," Grier told the room, adding that it is one that he believes will work for the "most needy schools."

UPDATE: Anna Eastman, in further discussion with Hair Balls, says she believes in general that most kids would do better to have a more continuous school year, not just in Apollo schools but in any of the district's schools.

And some other senators' comments Tuesday:

"All of you [HISD] should be commended for what you're doing. We spend half of our budget in the state of Texas on education and here is a shining light in a program. This is a dynamic program." -- Senator Dan Patrick, R-Houston

"Every standard that you mentioned that have caused your success is exactly what we read about in every research paper. Every element that you mentioned is essential to graduating and having students be successful in the classroom. There is no silver bullet. It must be done and we must be doing it in every school district in Texas, if it's necessary." -- Senator Shapiro, R-Plano

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