This is my last blog entry as superintendent of schools, and frankly, the moment is bittersweet. As I’ve told people ever since announcing my intent to step down last fall, it’s been a blessing for me to work in HISD, and I’m not even going to pretend I’m not going to miss it.
There are so many talented professionals here, all of whom care deeply about Houston’s children. Preparing our students for success in college and the workforce has always been a shared priority, and during my last board meeting, I was able to share some fantastic news with trustees on that front:
- I announced PowerUp at a State of the Schools address in 2013, and I am pleased to report that Phase 3 of the laptop distribution is now complete. All 65,000 high-school students have laptops that they can use at school or at home for anytime learning. HISD is the only large, major, urban school district that can say that, and we ought to be very proud.
- The opening of a new wing at Grady Middle School recently marked the first completed project of the 2012 bond program, and you can see evidence of other new buildings all over the city. When these projects are finished, HISD will have the most modern portfolio of high school buildings of any major school district in the country. And that is absolutely fabulous.
- The number of seniors who have submitted college applications this year has already outpaced our figures for all of 2015, and the number of college applicants at Austin, Chávez, Davis, Jones, Lee, Madison, Milby, and North Forest high schools has doubled from a year ago. I think that is a direct result of the district’s focus on college readiness, and a tribute to the hard work of our counselors, parents, students, and teachers. We also have an exciting new program that helps aspiring educators attend college tuition-free if they commit to teach in HISD for four years after graduation.
My last day as superintendent is Monday, Feb. 29, so this may well be the last time I get to share great news with you in this format. Still, it won’t be the last time you’ll hear me talk about HISD. Houston is a special place that I really love, and this district has an extremely bright future. It has been an honor and a privilege to work here. Thank you for seven great years.
At HISD, our goal is to prepare each and every student for college and careers. Our schools are the launching point for Global Graduates, who stand ready to contribute to the workforce and economy straight out of high school.
To give these young people a head start on their plans for higher education, our College Readiness Department is promoting four different college fairs this month. College fairs are a great place for students to learn more about the schools and degree plans that interest them. Representatives are usually on hand from dozens of institutions, with details on everything from scholarships and admissions requirements to fraternal organizations and campus life. But two of the biggest advantages these events offer families are a bit more intangible: options and information.
Without information on the many financial aid packages available, some students might think that college is just a dream. But knowing just how much assistance is out there can open their eyes to possibilities they may not have considered — and the realization that they have options — because higher education is absolutely within their reach.
Last year, HISD’s senior class received a record-breaking $265 million in scholarship offers. I am confident that the Class of 2016 can do just as well, if not better.
In 2013, we committed to providing laptops to every high school student through our PowerUp initiative. To make the most of this opportunity, we partnered with the University of San Diego’s Mobile Technology Learning Center to evaluate our work and give us feedback on the best ways to support and develop teachers, and to transform teaching and learning.
As I reflect on this work, here are three lessons I learned:
- Purpose and vision must be aligned with student goals: It was critical that PowerUp — a major district initiative — not be an “additional” initiative, existing in isolation. To address this challenge, we created a profile of the HISD Global Graduate with the assistance of diverse stakeholders. This profile defines the knowledge, skills, and characteristics we believe are critical for student success. With this foundation, all the district’s initiatives, including PowerUp, are aligned with the goals represented by the Global Graduate profile.
- Challenging traditional systems can spur innovation: Early on in the PowerUp initiative, we found we needed to work together in ways not previously part of our culture. PowerUp pushed us to collaborate more to better support schools and teachers. We also reorganized our district teams so that professional learning experiences integrated curriculum, instruction, and technology — all with the goal of improving teaching and learning.
- It is not about the tool, it’s about powerful learning: Thanks to the PowerUp initiative, we understand more than ever the power of technology to create opportunities. Our students now have access to diverse ideas, content, and people to personalize their learning experiences. We are working together to use technology so that our classrooms remain student-centered and students become critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and leaders — all traits of the Global Graduate.
Partnering with the University of San Diego team has helped us become more aware of the needs of our district and understand how to move forward and make changes based on what we’ve learned. This work is just the beginning. Now that all of our high school students have their laptops, we’re continuing to explore ways that technology can improve achievement.
One of the things people often ask me is what I am the proudest of, having worked in public education for so long.
Usually, I tell them I am proudest of my principals, because without good leadership, you can’t have success. But when it comes to HISD, one of the achievements that stands out in my mind is the way we have tackled inequities. A lot of what we do here is to fight inequity, because so many of our students face significant challenges. Whether it’s not speaking English, having trouble at home, or coming from a family that struggles to make ends meet, all of these factors affect students’ ability to learn.
The one thing I never wanted was for kids’ education to be determined by their zip code. That’s why all of our high schools now offer Advanced Placement courses, why we have adjusted the funding structure of magnet schools, and why the EMERGE program is helping ever-higher numbers of traditionally underserved students gain admission — and often full scholarships — to top-tier colleges and universities across the nation.
All of our children count, and that means making sure all students get the same opportunities, and have the same quality of teachers and rigor of courses in their classrooms.
Dozens of families move to Houston every week, inspired by our welcoming reputation, but one family this week, sadly, had to slip into the city.
Four daughters and their parents – Syrians, who had met our government’s strict requirements and scrutiny as refugees – were spirited into Houston because of fears for how they would be received. We can only imagine that now they must be feeling some of the same fears in their new “home” that drove them from their old one.
Just a year ago, many in this nation were shamefully refusing to accept an influx of Central American refugee children, who were warehoused in centers after being “caught” trying to make a better life for themselves, often risking their young lives to be reunited with parents.
I said it then, and I say it again today: HISD’s arms are open to refugee families from any location. Our job is to educate children. All children.
HISD’s Las Americas campus for middle school-age refugee children is a model of how these children and families should be embraced – and what happens to traumatized youngsters when they are shown understanding and encouragement. These families value education. Their children are eager to learn English, to make friends, and to dim the memories of their terrifying childhoods. Children from warring nations become best friends, as they realize how much they have in common.
In recent weeks, as the cry against allowing Syrian refugees onto our shores has swelled, I keep remembering a young Syrian boy I met last year at Las Americas. He had a loving family, a wonderful home, and was receiving a good education when the civil war changed all that. With tearful eyes, he talked about learning how to position himself at night to avoid being hit by the gunfire popping right outside his bedroom. He told a harrowing tale of his family’s journey away from everything they had held dear.
Although rebuilding a life is not easy, he treasures everything he has found here in Houston – most of all, the sense of well-being that his family has recovered.
I am determined that this boy – and any others like him who may come our way – will continue to feel that security.
Sometimes, times of social tumult can provide the most meaningful learning opportunities for our youngsters, as well as the challenge of teaching by example. This is one of those times.
We cannot let fear change who we are and what we believe. Simply for political expediency, we cannot undermine the principles of this nation for which millions – including immigrants – have fought and died.
And we absolutely cannot and will not, as a school district and as a caring community, ever turn away a child and a family looking to pursue the fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Community partnerships are vital to the success of any school district — and one of the partnerships I’m proudest of is the one we formed with the Sonima Foundation two years ago. Through it, about 25,000 students in 51 of our schools now participate in yoga-style classes that involve stretching exercises, relaxation techniques, and lessons about nutrition.
As a result of this program, participating principals have already been reporting positive changes on their campuses, including higher attendance, lower suspensions, fewer students dropping out, and more students earning their diplomas.
The curriculum is designed to minimize stress, reduce bullying and violence, and improve academic performance, but a side benefit is that students also build skills that they can use all their lives — such as self-control and conflict resolution —to overcome whatever obstacles they might encounter.
As a district, our goal is to reach about 97 percent (or 210,000) of our students with this program by the 2018–2019 school year. I am thrilled with the preliminary results of this partnership and look forward to seeing how it will continue to transform our students’ lives.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about HISD’s bond program and its need for additional funds to complete various construction projects.
The fact is that building new schools in today’s construction market costs much more than we — or any other school district in America — predicted in 2012. I explain why in an op-ed piece that appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Oct. 25. You can click here to read it.
As educators, one of our biggest challenges is getting students — particularly first-generation high school graduates — to think of higher education as an achievable dream.
One of the ways we do that is by opening their eyes to the possibilities through events like our Top-Tier College Night, which took place last week. I was excited to see many students take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about what some of the country’s most prestigious schools have to offer them, and how they could get there with the help of scholarships and other financial aid packages.
Students in the top 15 percent of their classes will have another chance to explore in-state options in a few weeks. Texas College Night is scheduled for Oct. 28 at the University of Houston, and I sincerely hope that all of our eligible seniors will attend. There’s a common misconception that for college to be accessible and affordable, you have to stick close to home, but that is often not the case. Many great schools offer academic and financial incentives to deserving students. But you’ll never get there if you don’t apply.
Being a school principal is simultaneously one of the most difficult — and the most rewarding — jobs an educator can have. As a former principal, I can attest to that. As campus leaders, they are charged not only with providing support to teachers and high-quality instruction to students, but also with managing budgets, handling discipline, overseeing staff, and representing their schools in the larger community.
Balancing all of these tasks can be quite a challenge, but we have 283 principals who do it every day. I am grateful to each and every one of them for their commitment to HISD, and for setting the tone of excellence that continues to inspire our students and teachers to reach for greatness.
Each fall, the governor of Texas designates October as “Principals Month,” in recognition of the critical role that these dedicated individuals play in our students’ success. This year was no exception, and I want to encourage everyone to take some time out before Halloween to say thank-you to the principals in their lives. It only takes a moment to express appreciation for a job well done, but the satisfaction of being noticed and validated for the hard work they do is something principals can carry with them always.
This week the HISD family faced an unimaginable loss. Two students — Janiecia Chatman, 14, and Mariya Johnson, 17 — died in a tragic bus accident on the morning of Sept. 15, and two other students and a driver were injured.
Dealing with death is never easy, and that is even truer when young people are involved. Nothing can prepare you for a shock of that magnitude. It is, quite simply, devastating.
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the students who perished, and we ask you to keep them in your thoughts and prayers as they move through the grieving process.