Donors Step up to Fund Apollo 20 School Turnaround Effort

Contributions benefitting HISD’s innovative effort to transform 20 struggling schools total $16.8 million

The most ambitious private fund raising effort in HISD history has successfully concluded with the recent $1 million donation from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to the district’s Apollo 20 school turnaround program.  This donation brings the total amount given to Apollo 20 by the rodeo to $2 million.

“The Apollo 20 Program is in line with the goals of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo™,” said Jennifer Hazelton, chief financial officer of the Show. “We are proud to be able to support the Houston Independent School District in their efforts of benefiting our local children.”

Private funds raised through the non-profit HISD Foundation for Apollo 20 now stand at $16.8 million, making it possible to meet all financial commitments for the program that was launched in partnership with Harvard EdLabs during the 2010-2011 school year.  Now in its third year, Apollo 20 seeks to permanently turn around HISD’s persistently low-performing schools using a five-point approach that has proven successful at America’s best charter schools.  The five Apollo 20 tenets are:

  • Extended learning time – The school day at the nine Apollo 20 secondary schools was lengthened by one hour four days a week and the school year was lengthened by 10 days. Elementary schools offered Saturday school and after-school tutorials.
  • Human capital – Schools were staffed with principals and teachers who possessed values and beliefs consistent with the “no excuses” philosophy and, wherever possible, a demonstrated track record of improving student achievement.
  • High-dosage tutoring – HISD hired hundreds of college-educated math tutors, called Math Fellows, to work with students for an hour during each school day. Other students who are struggling in math or reading received an additional daily hour of instruction in that subject.
  • Data-driven instruction – Schools analyze each student’s performance regularly, and then used that data to tailor lessons to address their individual needs.
  • Culture of high expectations for all – Clear expectations were set for school leaders and families were asked to sign contracts committing to the program. Student achievement performance goals were set for each school and principals were held accountable for meeting them.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said the philanthropic community’s response to the call for partners to help address needs in Houston’s struggling schools was overwhelming.

“We launched Apollo 20 as a leap of faith that this city’s leaders would step up and join us in this unprecedented effort to find real solutions to problems that have persisted in these schools for years,” Dr. Grier said.  “On behalf of the thousands of children who now have a better chance of achieving their dreams because of our donors’ generosity, I offer my deepest gratitude.  We should all be proud to call Houston home.”

Apollo 20 began with nine secondary schools: Kashmere, Lee, Jones, and Sharpstown high schools; and Attucks, Dowling, Fondren, Key, and Ryan middle schools.  After one year, students in those schools posted academic gains that were on par with their peers in the most prestigious charter schools, according to an analysis conducted by Harvard Economist Dr. Roland Fryer.  Dr. Fryer’s research also found that the cost of the Apollo 20 treatment is cheaper and more effective than reducing class, or paying teachers more to work in hard-to-staff schools.

Despite the early success, particularly in math achievement, Apollo 20 schools are still struggling to address the same problems that also persist at the top charter schools.  Although student achievement in reading has shown some progress, the gains have been inconsistent.  This finding led HISD to launch an intensive district-wide literacy initiative at all schools this year.

In 2011-2012, HISD added 11 elementary schools to the Apollo 20 program: Blackshear, Davila, Frost, Highland Heights, Isaacs, Kelso, Robinson, Scarborough, Tinsley, Walnut Bend and Young.  Apollo 20 elementary schools use the same methods as the secondary schools, without the extended school year and longer school day.

Contributors to the HISD Foundation’s Apollo 20 fund raising effort are:

Bank of America

The Brown Foundation


The Cullen Foundation

El Paso Energy

The Fondren Foundation

Michael Holthouse

The Houston Endowment

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

JPMorgan Chase

Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson

Rockwell Fund

The Simmons Foundation


Texas High School Project

Wells Fargo


  The total three-year cost of the Apollo 20 is now an estimated $59.1 million.  This is $10 million less than the original estimate, and reduced the need for private funding from the original estimate of $20 million.  In addition to donated funds, the program was financed using government grants totaling $32.5 million and $9.9 million in district general fund dollars.