HISD Superintendent Terry Grier focuses on global education, higher education in 2015 State of the Schools address

Placing a strong emphasis on college attendance and completion, Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier on Wednesday unveiled plans to expand the district’s successful EMERGE program and double the number of college counselors available to high school students.

The district plans to use a $5.5 million grant provided by the Houston Endowment to expand EMERGE, which now serves 25 high schools, to all 45 high schools. A $3 million matching grant from the Houston Endowment will be used to deploy 28 new college counselors to campuses across the district as part of efforts to boost college attendance rates by 20 percent over the next three years.

Dr. Grier announced the grants while speaking to a sold-out crowd at the Hilton Americas Hotel during his sixth annual State of the Schools address. Hundreds of educators, administrators, community members and public school supporters attended the event.

“HISD has been awarded a pair of truly generous grants from the Houston Endowment that will transform the lives of scores of children who may not have attended college otherwise,” Dr. Grier said.

The EMERGE expansion will nearly double the size of the program, which aims to identify low-income, high potential students and help them gain admission to and graduate from Tier 1 and Ivy League colleges and universities. Students in the program participate in college admissions workshops, SAT boot camps and college tours designed to familiarize them with campus life.

“They’re real trailblazers, setting a tangible example for others in our under-served communities to follow,” Dr. Grier said, touting EMERGE students in his address. “They remind all of us that our children’s ability to succeed is driven by expectations. And those expectations are shaped by the adults who matter in their lives.”

The grant will fully fund EMERGE for the next three years, allowing HISD to dedicate district money to a 15-person team of college readiness experts tasked with providing direct support to all high school campuses with college-going efforts.

As a result, program officials will be able to work closely each year with 750 sophomores, juniors and seniors and support an additional 1,000 HISD EMERGE alumni in college. The expansion is expected to increase the number of HISD graduates who go on to attend top colleges from 100 this year to 250 annually over the next two years.

Among the many students that EMERGE has helped is Chavez High School graduate Felipe Guillén, who is now in his freshman year at Stanford University. Speaking to the packed ballroom on Wednesday, Guillén described his enrollment at the prestigious school as an achievement he never would have dreamed possible without EMERGE.

“I didn’t get to this place all on my own. It wasn’t just through hard work, or focusing on academics,” Guillén said, praising the support system provided by EMERGE. “This dream became my reality because of those who believed in me — people in my family, fellow classmates, and a lot of you in this room.  You supported me in this journey, and you believed I could attend a prestigious university like Stanford.”

Like the EMERGE grant, the college counselor grant also will dramatically increase the district’s capacity to focus on ensuring students are ready for college. It would more than double the number of dedicated, full-time college counselors available to high school students.

In addition to increasing college enrollment rates by 20 percent, the college counselor grant also is designed to increase overall college completion rates by 20 percent. The district also hopes to increase the number of HISD graduates attending a four-year college, the number of college students who complete their freshman year and return for their sophomore year, and the number of scholarship and financial aid applications and awards — all by the same percentage.

“Our focus this year is plain and simple. Boosting student academic achievement and being accountable in that task,” HISD Board of Education President Rhonda Skillern-Jones said, stressing the importance of student success as she addressed the crowd. “We must ensure all students are learning. We must ensure all students are maximizing their academic potential. We must ensure all students are graduating with the skills they need to succeed in whichever options they choose in life.”

Global Education & Dual Language

Throughout his speech, Dr. Grier focused on a recurring theme — the importance of increasing academic achievement for all students. Providing students with a global education not only ensures academic success, but also readies them to compete globally, he said.

To be truly successful in a 21st century global market, HISD graduates must be responsible decision makers, skilled communicators, strong leaders and critical thinkers. They also must be adaptable, productive and ready for college.

“In HISD, we have global expectations for our graduates,” Dr. Grier said. “These are not your grandparents’ schools. These are schools in which students are being placed on a path toward bilingualism and life skills.”

Bilingualism is a key component in a global education, the superintendent said, following up on a pledge he made last year to expand the district’s dual language program. By fall 2015, dual language programs will be offered at 52 schools, which is nearly double the current number.

Among the new dual language schools opening this fall will be the Arabic Immersion Magnet School, Dr. Grier said, noting that it was the first public school of its kind in Texas. And, he said, a Hindi dual language immersion school isn’t far off.

“Global education is about more than just being able to speak another language,” Dr. Grier said. “It’s about understanding and appreciating other cultures so that we can successfully work alongside those from different backgrounds.”

Student Equity

Despite the strong progress made throughout the district, there are still areas that must be addressed, Dr. Grier noted, pointing specifically to equitable representation in HISD’s gifted and talented program. In HISD, more than one-third of white students are labeled as gifted and talented, while just 14 percent of Hispanic students and seven percent of African American students receive the same designation.

Similarly, Dr. Grier said, students from wealthier families are more than twice as likely to be labeled as gifted and talented than their peers from poor families. The average number of gifted and talented students across the state is just eight percent, compared to 15 percent in HISD.

A gifted and talented label gives students — and the schools they attend — a clear financial advantage, which is why ensuring equity in the process is so important, the superintendent said. HISD’s gifted and talented students receive an extra $416 in annual funding, and those who attend Vanguard Magnet schools for gifted students receive another $410 on top of that. Dr. Grier called upon the district’s newly formed Equity Council to identify a solution that would ensure equitable access for all students.

“Fortunately, we know what it takes to make up for this inequity. With our school board’s help and support, we are doing something about it,” said Dr. Grier, who was recently named by the Council of the Great City Schools as its 2014 Urban Educator of the Year. “We will not rest until we can say that ZIP codes do not determine the quality of education a Houston child receives.”

Linked Learning

During his speech, Dr. Grier also pointed to the district’s efforts to implement Linked Learning — a philosophy that combines rigorous academics with exposure to real-world professions. Currently offered at eight of HISD’s high school feeder patterns, the Linked Learning approach aims to make classes more relevant and personalized for students while at the same time providing them with valuable training in high-demand, high-wage fields.

Dr. Grier announced Wednesday that the Linked Learning concept would be expanded to an additional 10 high schools next year, with the remaining balance of high schools coming on aboard the following year.

“I believe that the Houston Independent School District is on the verge of greatness. We are already the best urban school district in America,” Grier said, closing out his speech as he noted that students who had previously left for area charter and private schools were already returning to HISD. “With your help and our board and staff’s commitment, we can become the best school district in America.”

Other achievements highlighted include:

  • Last spring, more than 300 HISD students graduated having already earned an associate’s degree through the district’s community college partnership.
  • Last year, HISD students passed 8,248 college-level Advanced Placement exams, an 80 percent increase from 2007. That’s the equivalent of 25,000 college credits and a savings of $7.3 million in tuition.
  • Since 2007, HISD has doubled the number of students taking the SAT, resulting in an increase of 600 students — most of them Hispanic or African American — scoring at the college-ready level in math and an increase of 300 students scoring at the college-ready level in reading.
  • Last year, HISD seniors were offered $255 million in scholarships. That’s up from $51 million in 2009.
  • This year, North Early College High School was one of just 26 Texas schools nominated for a prestigious federal Blue Ribbon award.

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