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This was HISD’s week to shine in soccer, science, good taste, and test prep

2014 April 17
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by HISD Communications

This is one of those times I can’t just settle on one topic, so I’ll be the bearer of much good news from our campuses.

Let’s all send positive thoughts to our Lee High School soccer team, which earned itself a solid place in HISD history this week by becoming not only Lee’s first soccer squad to go to state but the first in the district. The team is playing in the semifinals Friday – and we hope in the finals on Saturday in Georgetown, near Austin.

Their athletic ability is impressive, but what really stands out about this team is its diversity, reflective of Lee’s multicultural student body and the international popularity of soccer. Team members not only come from the U.S., but Vietnam, the Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Iraq, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Cuba.

To most of us, Tuesday was “tax day,” but it had a much happier designation for one of our schools. Houston Mayor Annise Parker declared April 15 Kashmere Junior and Senior Day in Houston. The proclamation cited the performance by Teach for America second-year science instructor Adeeb Barqawi’s classes on the district-level assessment in physics.  His 84 students outperformed those at all other HISD schools in showing their mastery of that challenging science.

The good news for the rest of HISD high school students is that Kashmere’s STEM magnet, one of those in HISD funded by a $12 million federal grant, still has openings for next year. You can learn more by contacting Ogechi Uwaga at Kashmere, ouwaga@houstonisd.org.

Cooking competitions are a staple of television these days, and I was lucky enough to judge one last weekend involving culinary students from four of our high schools at a national event called Cooking Up Change at Rice University. Teams were challenged with coming up with school lunch items that met both federal nutritional guidelines and school cost constraints – and the demanding tastes of the judges.

The Westside HS team won out with a delectable Lonestar Chicken Chili Sub, served with grilled vegetables, and a parfait dessert. The item will be featured on HISD menus next year, and earned them a trip to Washington, D.C., where they’ll compete against teams from around the nation. It was a tough field with teams from Davis, Barbara Jordan, and Harper Alternative high schools showcasing everything from jerk chicken to chicken cacciatore to sweet potato hash and honey buffalo chicken flatbread.

While many face the STAAR exams with trepidation, we love what they did over at Marshall Middle School last weekend, combining fun, socializing, and – yes, hard work – to be ready for the important assessments.

The school had an overnight lock-in from Friday afternoon to Saturday morning with food, a talent show, a movie, a motivational talk from former NFL player Jay Barnett, and tutorials. Great idea.

Shout-outs are also in order for:

  • Lanier MS’s orchestras, which both earned UIL sweepstakes honors last weekend; and
  • Odyssey of the Mind teams from T.H. Rogers, Pin Oak, Oak Forest, Walnut Bend, Carnegie Vanguard and River Oaks who placed first in state competition Saturday and will be going to the World Finals Tournament in Iowa at the end of May.

Excellence from so many students from so many schools in fields from sports to science to food gives credence to our claim of being #greatallover.

High expectations are paying off for HISD’s high school students

2014 April 16
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by HISD Communications

You don’t have to look far to see evidence of the faith we have in our high school students at HISD, and how the increased rigor we’re requiring is reaping rewards

One major example of our high expectations is the arrival of another SAT School Day next Wednesday. HISD has made arrangements for all juniors to take the college entrance exam on their own campuses, and we pick up the registration free. This year, we’ve even added a highly regarded prep course that’s been available online for free over the past few weeks, that would have ordinarily cost $500.

We want this easy access to the SAT to signal to our students that we know they’re capable of going to college – and growing numbers are.

That brings me to an update of our EMERGE students – our high-performing, low-income seniors who have received special attention to awaken them to the possibilities of attending Tier One and Ivy League schools at no- or low-cost. At last count, we’re up to 58 acceptances at these top U.S. colleges and universities. Most EMERGE students will be the first in their families to attend college, and many never had higher education on their radar.

Finally, it’s rewarding to see how our emphasis making rigorous Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs more readily available in HISD has earned 32 of our 44 high schools a place on the Washington Post’s prestigious list of America’s Most Challenging High Schools. Carnegie Vanguard, in 11th place, Energized for STEM (32nd), the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (51st) and Challenge Early College (94th) all made it into the top 100 of the 2,050 schools that were ranked nationwide.

Yes, success is about Effective Teachers and Principals, about 21st century technology and facilities. But it’s also about setting the bar high, about letting our students know we believe in their ability to succeed.

Remembering Chip Zullinger – with renewed commitment, not sadness

2014 April 3
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by HISD Communications

His given name at birth 63 years ago was Sidney, but nobody called him anything but “Chip.” We also called him friend, mentor, a true gentleman, a champion for all children, a man of integrity, a great cook, approachable, colorful, genuinely kind, funny, and passionate.

Sidney "Chip" Zullinger

Chip Zullinger, our chief elementary school officer, died Tuesday following a heart attack.

I knew him over the years as a leader of school districts, both rural and urban, and as a creative force in project-based learning. I couldn’t wait to make him part of Team HISD four years ago. Chip had the daunting job of connecting with 147 school communities educating more than 100,000 of our children. Stop to consider that scope for just a few seconds.

Yet in this rough-and-tumble, high-pressure environment of budgets, mandates, and metrics, Chip never lost sight of the children and those educators who supported them.

Some of the pain of Chip’s passing has been eased by reading the comments on our website today:

“He was at Park Place Elementary on Monday and he was very radiant. He always had such a sweet spirit with a beautiful smile! Everyone always had such positive things to say about him. He was a great leader and will be missed by many.”

Chip was a true gentleman, passionate about student achievement, and doing what is best for kids. Losing him creates a huge void in the hearts of many people here in HISD.”

“He was a great man and always had children’s best interest at the forefront. I learned much from him and will continue to do my best to make him proud. This is a terrible loss.”

Chip was an amazing man – a true leader, a passionate educator, a great storyteller, and a warm and caring colleague.”

There’s one thing I hope you’ll consider to honor Chip’s life: Let us each rededicate ourselves to his high expectations for every one of our students to learn and succeed.

We’re trimming our HISD staff – in the best possible way

2014 March 27
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by HISD Communications

Our benefits department is about to pay out $80,000 in bonuses to our employees and is prepared to fork over a lot more over the next three months. We couldn’t be happier.

That money represents a terrific concept by that department and a spirited commitment by more than 5,500 of our employees to lose weight and get healthier. It’s called the HealthyWage Challenge, and in its first month, more than 2,000 of those employees had made their goal of a four-pound weight loss, with a total of 14,400 pounds melting away.

For that hard work, they’ll see an extra $40 in their April 9 paychecks – and we know they won’t be using it to splurge on a few pints of Blue Bell chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

Employees signed up individually or in teams for a four-month challenge that could earn them a total of $160 for a 16-pound loss. They haven’t just been practicing smarter eating habits – exercise and fitness has become part of the equation. It’s been fun looking out the windows at Hattie Mae White during lunchtime the past few weeks and seeing individuals and groups walking vigorously or gathering near the Delmar athletic complex for exercises.

The potential payout is worth it. Unhealthy employees are far more costly in lost time and rising benefits rates. Healthy employees feel better, and that translates into clearer thinking and generally happier workers. The ripple effects of 2,000-5,000 employees improving their health will be felt by co-workers, students, parents, those who do business with HISD, and extended school communities.

HISD has a strong reputation for its concern about the well-being of employees. Once again this year, the Houston Business Journal has named us one of its top healthiest employers for those efforts. Our healthcare options are supportive of our staff, and for four years, we’ve operated two Employee Health & Wellness Centers – clinics that offer no-cost basic health care to employees in those healthcare plans and their covered dependents 5 years and older.

HISD’s philosophy is simple: Healthy employees help create a healthy district. And thanks to all our employees who are eating right and exercising regularly, we’re getting healthier every day.

Week off provides break from the routine, opportunity to build for the future

2014 March 13
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by HISD Communications

For HISD students, families, educators, and support staff, Spring Break provides a welcome respite before the final push toward STAAR and SAT testing, grade promotions, and graduation.

But the break is also a perfect time to set aside life’s daily demands and focus time and energy on investing in your future.

We’ve talked here before about two major changes that are transforming the way we’re thinking about and structuring HISD, pre-K through graduation. Both the new House Bill 5 state requirements and our own Linked Learning model are combining career awareness with academics from the earliest level to make students ready for seamless entry into higher education and in-demand jobs.

If you’re a family, this is a perfect time to visit colleges and universities.

Parents who can’t get away from work could introduce their children or their youngsters’ friends to their job. Let them spend a few hours shadowing you, explaining what you do and the education, training, and skills required.

If you’re in middle school or high school – especially if you’re a junior or senior – browse college websites, and send off for information from those that interest you.  Explore the FAFSA.ed.gov website for the ins-and-outs of financial aid, and apply online, if you’re a senior who hasn’t already.  More than a thousand families already did during our Houston FAFSA Day at every HISD campus, but it’s not too late.

And we now have dozens of scholarship opportunities, posted this week to our HISD website at http://houstonisd.org/Page/110473, that can provide money for college tuition, books and other expenses. A few hours filling out forms and providing collateral material could earn you thousands of dollars. Some of them have deadlines over our week off, so don’t delay.

It’s nice to be the bearer of good news

2014 March 6
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by HISD Communications

Writing this blog is fun when I can’t just pick one topic but have several “good news” items to share. This is one of those times.

Most important is the excitement over our first meetings about what’s known commonly by the bureaucratic-sounding name, “House Bill 5.” Here at HISD, we’re calling this “Plan Your Path” because it creates remarkable new, individualized opportunities for our students in high school and beyond.

Parents of current eighth-graders, who will be the first to graduate under this new system that personalizes learning with educational and career goals, will start learning about the ins-and-outs Monday. We’ve set the first two of 10 meetings from 6-7:30 p.m. at Reagan and Washington high schools. You can follow our @HoustonISD twitter that night to be among the first to know what’s being shared.

There’s a meeting in each trustee district and one at HISD headquarters (see the full schedule at www.houstonisd.org/planyourpath), and while attendance is a must for parents of the class of 2018, anyone is welcome.

***

Shout-outs are in order for two of our five early college high schools – those programs where you can earn both your high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.
Our Houston Academy for International Studies learned it’s in the running to be a U.S. Blue Ribbon School, after being tapped by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). This unique school with a global perspective includes field trips, international travel and local internships.

And TEA informed our South Early College High School that it’s received an official “early college” designation. South is the only of our early college programs with a focus in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)

***

Kudos to our College Readiness Department and to our high schools for staging an awesome Houston FAFSA Day on Feb. 20. We heard back from the U.S. Department of Education that 1,601 federal financial aid applications were received from HISD – that’s an increase of 159 percent over last year.

North Forest HS increased their applications by 400 percent, and the East Early College High School saw an increase of more than 1,000 percent.

College Readiness is still working to make sure every student who needs financial aid applies – which will mean more of our students going to college and more scholarship and financial aid offers.

***

It’s likely that by the time you read this, the Yates High School boys basketball squad will know the outcome of its state semifinal game in Austin, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, and whether they’ll be competing for the state title Saturday.

That outcome isn’t really important because team members are already champions in every sense of the word that matters. They’ve shown persistence and class and have helped galvanize their school behind them.

Yates’ consistency at reaching state is amazing, given the vagaries of high school sports with academic requirements and graduations. The squad made the finals in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013, winning back-to-back state crowns in 2009 and 2010.

Yates, you make us proud. Over and over again.

State of the Schools and Go Texan Day: honoring partners and ‘pardners’

2014 February 27
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by HISD Communications

Choosing the best part of our annual State of the Schools luncheon is challenging – a bit like selecting a favorite child.

There’s the reward in connecting faces, smiles, and warm handshakes to the business, professional, and corporate entities and civic leaders who are so supportive of our everyday activities in HISD and who make such a difference to our children. Looking out at a ballroom packed with 2,000-plus fully engaged stakeholders who want to hear about HISD’s progress – and learn how they can continue to help – is deeply moving.

You could make a case for the role our teachers play. This year, it was a technological show-of-force by a group of our PowerUp teacher leaders, and an enthusiastic speech by Adrian Acosta, who teaches at the Young Men’s College Preparatory Academy. Adrian shared how wholeheartedly his students are embracing this tool that reinvents the classroom: He said that by having their laptops with them, his students did schoolwork from home during our recent “ice days.” Talk about anywhere-anytime learning.

The audience was in awe of Kaleigh Davis, a smart, spunky freshman from our new Energy Institute High School (and you can count me in her fan club). She dazzled with her poised explanation of this unique program that’s preparing her for a career in energy fields she didn’t know existed and which are now becoming her passion. She explained how EIHS students will give 150 professional presentations on projects they’ve completed during their four years at the school. Kaleigh has that skill mastered already.

Our JROTC youngsters from Westbury HS and North Forest HS were crisp and polished, and student musicians from Lanier, Marshall, and Johnston middle schools showcased enormous talent — certifiably. A subgroup of the Lanier orchestra just placed third in a statewide polka contest for high schools, the only middle schoolers to compete. And the Johnston Sinfonia has earned an invitation to play at Carnegie Hall April 14.

And there were the behind-the-scenes workers from Team HISD who spent months pulling it all together – the folks in Strategic Partnerships who build our strong relationships in the community, and the communications team who created a day to remember.

Every single person who appeared in or contributed to the State of the Schools event deserves credit for reminding our stakeholders of our quality and class. No way could I pick a “favorite child” out of this impressive group.

***

Another enduring relationship that HISD enjoys is with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. For more than a half-century, our students have benefited from generous scholarships and earned honors for everything from their prize animals to their artwork.

As the trailrides converge on Houston, many of our schools have been celebrating our unique Texas culture with programs all week. Friday is Go Texan Day, and we’ll honor the coming of the rodeo and everything it provides to our region and our district by coming to work and school in our best western duds. So while you’re having fun showing off your boots, jeans, and bandannas, remember that you’re also honoring a great community “pardner.”

New term (and new standards) for your HISD lexicon: learn all about ‘HB 5’

2014 February 20
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by HISD Communications

This may be the first time you’ve heard of “HB 5,” but I can assure you that it won’t be the last.

House Bill 5 is a package of education regulations passed by the Texas Legislature in its last session. We’ve seen some changes already this year – mainly affecting STAAR testing requirements that reduce the number of end-of-course exams needed to graduate from 15 to five. But it’s starting this spring that eighth-graders (the Class of 2018, for the record) will have to start considering some interesting decisions about their paths to graduation.

Simply put, HB 5 will require each incoming ninth-grader to select an academic plan, as well as “endorsements” – areas of focus. Those are business and industry, arts and humanities, public service; science, technology, engineering, and math; and a multidisciplinary option.

It’s only been a couple weeks since final details came down from the State Board of Education – and even now, some matters remain to be worked out. But HISD was prepared.

Just this week, the Board of Education was presented with a thorough plan from the administration, along with recommendations – to which the board is very receptive – that when districts are allowed choices between rigor and an easier pathway, HISD will choose rigor.

That means the “default” graduation plan will require a “Distinguished Level of Achievement” that includes the basic Foundation Plan of 22 academic credits, along with at least one endorsement which will add four credits. We’re also recommending four math credits, which must include Algebra II, and four science credits, which must include one advanced course. Students who struggle have a chance – with their parents’ approval – to opt out and get on the Foundation plan after their sophomore year.

You have an easy opportunity to start getting acquainted with HB 5 and to ask questions by visiting our new “Plan Your Path” website for parents and students at http://www.houstonisd.org/planyourpath.You’ll want to bookmark this and refer back often, since HB 5 is still something of a work-in-progress.

And there’s more. Parents of eighth-graders will receive an extensive mailer by the end of this month. We’ve also developed a multimedia toolkit and training for our principals, and parent leaders to be held soon, as well as a series of community meetings – one in each trustee district and one at HISD headquarters – that will be held in March.

Individual high schools will have information on their websites about their “endorsements” and specific courses in time for youngsters and their families to make decisions about where would be the best fit for their academic and career goals.

Most of the work in evaluating and choosing pathways will be performed online through Naviance, and you’ll be made aware by your campus of when that is activated.

I’m proud of the way Team HISD has pulled together to make this daunting transition as painless – and exciting – as possible. While HB 5 may be a tough transition for some school systems, our vast school choice options and move toward Linked Learning – uniting academic and career readiness – make HB 5 a logical fit for HISD.

Houston FAFSA Day will help you tap into vast college financial aid resources

2014 February 13
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by HISD Communications

The cost of attending college these days can be staggering. We’ve all heard the tales of crushing student loan debt being incurred by those seeking higher learning. You may know young people who have put their educations on hold to work and save money to move forward. Paying for school can be tough going.

What’s surprising is how many students don’t know about the vast amounts of financial aid available to them – the largest being the U.S. government. It gives out more than $150 billion each year in the form of outright grants, loans, and money for work-study programs that allow student to make money while still making an education their top priority.

We at HISD are making sure our students and their families know about these resources by having every high school participate in Houston FAFSA Day next Thursday, Feb. 20. FAFSA stands for “Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” and during the day, each campus will have special programs to create awareness of how filling out this one simple application can make going to college a reality.

That evening, from 6-8 p.m. at each school, staff and volunteers will be on hand to help seniors and parents complete the form. You’ll need to come prepared, and by going to http://houstonfafsaday.org/, you can find out the information and documents you should bring.

Three hints:
• Nowhere on the FAFSA are you asked for your grade point average, SAT score, or other academic measurement. That’s because they aren’t used in determining your eligibility for financial aid – only factors such as family income and any other resources are evaluated.
• Even though the FAFSA is for seniors, it’s not too early for any high school student and family to think ahead to how they’re going to pay for college. Some of our schools will be providing financial planning, and you can always go to the FAFSA4caster at https://fafsa.ed.gov/FAFSA/app/f4cForm?execution=e1s1 to estimate your eligibility for financial aid and to get tips on paying for college.
• Many colleges and universities use the FAFSA to determine their own financial aid awards. Once you’ve submitted it, they can access it with your permission, and you won’t have to worry about more applications.

Seeking financial aid can be a little daunting, to be sure, but we’re sure your campus FAFSA Day will help demystify the process and make you see how a college education is possible.

Career & Education Day was ahead of its time

2014 February 6
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by HISD Communications

When the Houston Hispanic Forum created the first Career and Education Day (CED) 28 years ago, its focus was on keeping minority students in school by offering them an inspiring glimpse into the world of professions and higher learning.

Although the audience and purpose have long since broadened, perhaps at no time in its more than quarter-century of existence has the CED been more relevant to young people, their families, and to Houston’s continued economic strength in energy, health, technology, and the arts.

In its last session, the Texas Legislature mandated that school districts require high school students to create Personal Graduation Plans that establish their educational and career pathways.

Even before that, HISD was steadily increasing its emphasis on combining college readiness with career awareness. Next year, thanks to a $30 million award in the federal “Race to the Top,” we will embark on an ambitious and innovative “Linked Learning” model that will transform the way we teach from kindergarten through high school. While meeting the growing academic rigor required to succeed in our global economy, students will learn about career possibilities from the youngest age. At each level, they will broaden their explorations of professions, and in high school will choose a personalized path with dazzling opportunities for focused study that will transport them into college and career.

The Career and Education Day is a one-stop location for families to expose their children of all ages to dozens of colleges and universities, as well as local businesses and corporations – complete with willing educators, students, and professionals who are anxious to share their excitement about higher education and careers. The event runs from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

HISD’s College and Career Readiness Department – and our remarkable EMERGE program for low-income, high-achieving high school students – will also be on hand to provide information about college, testing, interviewing, and financial aid. You may walk away with all kinds of ideas about where you can get a quarter-million-dollar education at no cost, with a college who wants you and is prepared to offer you the support needed to earn your degree.

The event is free, so the investment involves only time. The chance to set youngsters’ dreams for the future in motion – as they say in the commercial – is priceless.