This week, I had the opportunity to visit several schools and observe a few of our leaders in action. At HISD, we are blessed to have courageous principals who go beyond “keeping school” – they are improving school, supporting teachers, and setting high standards for all students.
New Principal Nancy Blackwell, a veteran Houston-area high school principal, is determined to improve academics through a culture of high expectations at Kashmere High School.
I saw active student involvement in lessons at Hogg Middle School, which is led by our 2015 PTA State Principal of the Year, Angela Sugarek. (One teacher, Mr. Wright, had every student in the class actively engaged in learning!) Ms. Sugarek and her administrators were in the midst of a calibration exercise – observing classrooms together, and then sharing what they saw.
Dr. Carlos Phillips, principal of Washington High School, is moving his campus toward higher academic achievement, working to meet the needs of his students.
And Memorial Elementary School Principal Maria Garcia, like many principals in our district, is starting the year with a few more students than she previously had. Our enrollment numbers are up from this time last year – and we’re excited to see the growth.
Schools can’t succeed without a great principal, and principals need our support. I’m very proud of the work being done across our district as we wrap up our second week of school.
I ignored the pain in my knees as long as I could – probably longer. I stopped taking the stairs at work. I avoided sitting in low chairs because getting back up without wincing became impossible. But then, reality set in. I scheduled the first of two knee replacement surgeries that my doctor has been urging me to get for years. On Monday, the first day of school, it will have been three weeks since my surgery. The recovery has been rough, and it looks like I won’t be able to walk the halls with principals as they welcome our scholars to the 2015–2016 school year.
But that’s okay. I know that with hard work, and the support of my family, friends, and caregivers, I will soon be stronger than before. I know that with this temporary pain comes great long-term gain. It’s the same way with running a school district. If we want things to get better, we have to be willing to endure some short-term hardship.
A few days after I went under the knife, we learned that HISD had earned an overall rating of “Met Standard” from the Texas Education Agency and 29 of our schools had earned the maximum number of distinction designations for their top performance throughout the 2014–2015 school year. We also learned that students in too many of our schools are struggling to meet the high expectations we have for all of our children.
This marks the start of my seventh school year in HISD, and I am proud of the hard work we have put in to make sure every student graduates equipped to succeed in life. We’ve made tough decisions and we aren’t afraid to endure short-term pain for our children’s sake. In Houston, we know that ignoring problems won’t make them go away.
On Monday, when our students take their next steps along the road to academic improvement, they won’t be alone. The dedicated principals, teachers, and support staff that make up Team HISD will be right there with them, giving them an encouraging boost any time they stumble. Like those students, let’s all keep our eyes focused on that day in May when we’ll walk across the graduation stage on legs made stronger through a little bit of pain.
HISD received some great news earlier this month — this year’s senior class surpassed last year’s in the amount of scholarships and other financial aid offers received by a whopping $10 million.
That figure is a real tribute to our counselors, college access coordinators, and other College Readiness team members, who work so hard throughout the year to keep graduating seniors focused on the very important tasks of completing applications and meeting deadlines.
Building awareness of existing opportunities is half the battle, so it’s exciting to hear about the innovative ways our staff are finding to motivate their students, and the determination our seniors show in applying for every possible funding source available to them.
Hearing their stories makes it easy to see why some of our schools have boosted their totals so significantly from last year to this one. Our college-readiness efforts are paying off, and I applaud Team HISD for this year’s achievement and look forward to seeing what we will accomplish together in 2016.
Last week, we recognized nine employees for helping to spread the word about HISD’s new Service Excellence initiative. Launched last year, it was designed to give everyone working under the Business Operations umbrella a clearer understanding of why their daily interactions with people matter — and how they can make those encounters even more positive.
So far, more than 5,200 employees have been trained on the initiative from the Police, Transportation, Nutrition Services, and Business Assistance departments, and our goal is to have the remaining 1,800 (most of whom are in Construction & Facility Services) trained by the end of the year.
One of the most exciting aspects of this initiative is the sense of connectedness it builds. The training reminds participants that no matter whom they come into contact with — whether it’s a fellow employee, a parent, or a member of the community — when it comes to the business of educating children, we are all on the same team. And everyone deserves kind, courteous, and respectful treatment.
Another academic year has come and gone in HISD, but that doesn’t mean our work takes a vacation.
Summer school has been in session since early June, and that means thousands of students are still in class learning every day, and hundreds of educators, campus employees, and the other support staff who teach those children and keep their schools clean and comfortable have been on the job as well.
Many of our teachers are also back in the classroom as students, expanding their knowledge base by completing professional development courses on districtwide initiatives such as the PowerUp HUB or Literacy By 3. Others are taking trips to faraway lands through programs like Fund For Teachers, such as Bellaire High School English teacher Matthew Olsen, who is exploring Vietnam to enrich his lessons on a war memoir set in that country.
Construction projects are also moving forward all across the district, and even our police force took time out this month to develop its officers’ skill sets, by offering a Law Enforcement Summit at one of our high schools. Many members of Team HISD take time off during the summer months, and I wish them safe and happy holidays. But I am also excited to see the many preparations under way, and I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in the coming school year.
HISD has had many literacy victories to celebrate recently—and that’s due in no small part to our community partners. First, hundreds of students across the district got to meet their virtual mentors in person just before classes ended, during Read Houston Read reveal parties like this one held at Paige Elementary School.
And thanks to a grant won by Library Services from the U.S. Department of Education, HISD’s new bookmobile hit the streets last Friday. It will be working to create a culture of reading in two traditionally underserved communities through Aug. 7.
Finally, summer reading is off to a great start, with two online resources that are completely free for students. One of them, called myON, just recognized its fourth—and final—“Reader Leader” for the 2014–2015 school year, and the company will continue to offer prizes such as gift cards, iPad minis, and other incentives to keep children reading over the next few months.
It’s good to see all of the ways we are partnering with individuals and organizations to get children excited about reading, and I commend everyone involved for ensuring that “fun” remains a part of these activities. Making reading a pleasure is what will eventually make it a habit—and that’s exactly what we want for our students.
Last week, HISD and several other local school districts had to cancel class due to torrential rains in the Bayou City. But while many Houstonians were staying put and waiting for the floodwaters to recede, some members of Team HISD were taking decisive action by helping others and getting creative.
Senior Jay Mondkar was just days away from graduating from Carnegie Vanguard High School, but he spent his time putting together a powerful video about a trip to his campus in the rain and the storm’s aftermath.
Kolter Elementary School Principal Steven Shetzer, meanwhile, was organizing a clothing drive and making plans to open up his campus over the weekend, so that parents would have a safe place to leave their children while they cleaned out flooded homes. Lyons Elementary School music teacher Steven Shannon even helped save a woman from drowning by pulling her out of a sinking car. (Read more about them here.)
Over at Liberty High School, maintenance crews and school staff spent all of last week repairing the damage caused by two feet of water, so that students could return this week to take their finals.
HISD’s greatest strength has always been its people—whether it’s the passionate teachers who keep students learning or the dedicated corps of support staff who keep systems running. And I could not be prouder of how the members of Team HISD have handled themselves during this natural disaster.
In HISD, we have a lot to celebrate at this time of year.
The Class of 2015 has received more than $226 million in scholarship offers to date, and the Leland and Young Women’s College Preparatory academies are graduating their very first classes this spring. Thousands more seniors will be collecting their diplomas this weekend. That accomplishment is particularly impressive when you consider that many of those students came to the district not speaking English as their first language.
A recent news article noted that 40 percent of this year’s valedictorians and salutatorians were once considered English Language Learners. Their success is a testament to the value of HISD’s dual language and multilingual programs—and a tribute to the high quality of educators we have working with those students.
I want to extend my thanks to everyone in the HISD family who helped these young people get where they are today. Whether you are a teacher, parent, custodian, cafeteria attendant, or bus driver, what you do every day contributes to the success of our students. I congratulate you on a job well done, and wish you a summer (at least partially) filled with rest, relaxation, and a chance to refresh yourself before the new school year starts on Aug. 24.
When we talk about diversity in HISD, our homeless student population of about 6,000 doesn’t always come to mind — but it has certainly attracted attention recently. That is both well-deserved and heartwarming.
This week, I had the honor — twice — of seeing a remarkable young homeless woman from Bellaire HS receive funds to make her college dream come true. Graduating senior Alisa Hamilton persists to succeed in school and to set and meet high goals — despite unspeakable circumstances that have left her to fend for herself without parents or a home.
I awarded her the $10,000 scholarship that came when the Council of the Great City Schools honored me last October, and Thursday, she received another $5,000 from the Children’s Defense Fund as one of five Beat the Odds scholars in the Houston area.
Last week on her broadcast, Ellen DeGeneres awarded $100,000 to Peck Elementary School and its principal, Carlotta Brown, who hosts HISD’s Homeless Education Office on her campus. The award — perhaps the largest in the show’s history — came via Target’s Thanks a Billion program and honored how Peck, Brown, and HISD offer sanctuary to homeless students.
By finding a home with us, they learn that — if they apply themselves — their circumstances are no obstacle to success. We inspire them, and they inspire us in return.
We’ve already held our salutes to student valedictorians and salutatorians and to our EMERGE seniors, going off to the best colleges in the U.S. This coming Sunday, at the fifth annual Cool To Be Smart celebration, seniors who have braved the most rigorous academic path will have a chance to win a new Toyota Corolla (generously donated by Smart Financial Credit Union) and other prizes.
The end of the school year is also when we take time to acknowledge those who make student successes possible. Friday night, HISD will hold its annual Celebration of Excellence to honor Teachers and Principals of the Year and Employees of the Month for the past year. It’s an opportunity to treat the best of our front-line staff to a red carpet evening.
I especially like the story of Jose Saenz, who will be one of the night’s honorees. He came up through the HISD teaching program at Austin HS, returned to teach history at the school, and is now Austin’s Teacher of the Year.
Others on Team HISD have been tapped for outside honors, like Bellaire HS teacher Michael Clark. He won $25,000 for his school and another $25,000 for himself when H-E-B gave him its lifetime achievement award. He used a chunk of that money to buy gift cards for his colleagues.
That really speaks to the collaborative nature of what we do. Each award recipient has colleagues and families who contribute to his or her success — and ultimately, to student success. Let’s give them all a round of applause.