Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier on Thursday announced his decision to end his six-year tenure as the leader of Texas’ largest school district, effective March 1, 2016. Dr. Grier assumed the superintendency with unanimous school board approval in September 2009, promising to improve student academic achievement, slash the dropout rate, and re-establish HISD as the best urban school district in America.
Through student-centered innovation and an unwavering focus on equity, Dr. Grier opened doors for students that had previously been closed: to Ivy League schools, advanced coursework, project-based learning, and millions of dollars in scholarships.
Since Dr. Grier’s arrival, HISD’s dropout rate declined more than 3 percentage points, scholarship offers to graduates increased five-fold to $265 million, and the number of college credits earned by students on Advanced Placement exams nearly doubled. HISD was named a finalist in 2012 for the most prestigious, and valuable award in big-city public education – the Broad Prize for Urban Education. That same year, nearly 70 percent of Houston voters approved the largest school building bond program in Texas history, a $1.89 billion plan that will give the city the most modern collection of high schools of any urban school district in the United States.
In 2013, HISD won the Broad Prize and received national acclaim as the best urban school district in America as well as $550,000 in scholarships for students.
“I’ve never been one to look backward, but as I consider all that we on Team HISD – our students, parents, teachers, principals, staff, and community – accomplished these past six years, I am very humbled and honored to have been part of it,” Dr. Grier said. “By committing to always do what’s right for our children and our city, and putting adult problems aside, we have positioned HISD to continue showing the rest of the nation how public education can drive a city’s prosperity. Thank you for entrusting Houston’s most valuable resource – your children – to our team.”
Dr. Grier, who is the longest-tenured big-city superintendent in Texas, said he chose to announce his decision now so that the Board of Education will have ample time to identify and prepare his successor. Dr. Grier said he has not yet decided on his next career move, but added that he is not retiring.
Accolades and accomplishments
Dr. Grier was the 2014 winner of the Council of the Great City Schools Urban Educator of the Year Green-Garner Award. Earlier this year, he was named a 2015 Children’s Defense Fund “Champion of Children” for his work to provide every HISD student with free breakfast and eyeglasses for those who need them. In 2013, Dr. Grier was the Texas nominee for the American Association of School Administrators’ National Superintendent of the Year Award. Earlier this year, Dr. Grier was given the National School Public Relations Association’s Bob Grossman Leadership in School Communications Award. During Dr. Grier’s time in Houston, 10 HISD employees have been recruited away to become superintendents in other school districts.
Since Dr. Grier’s arrival in 2009:
- The dropout rate has dropped 3.2 percentage points, and the graduation rate is up 8.6 points.
- The percentage of graduates taking the SAT college entrance exam has increased from barely half to 90 percent.
- The number of students scoring at the college-ready level on the SAT is up 19 percent in reading and 31 percent in math.
- The number of students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement courses has more than doubled. Meanwhile, those students passed 3,849 more AP exams this year, an 87 percent increase.
- Scholarship offers to graduating seniors hit a record $265 million in 2015, compared to $51 million in 2009.
- Out-of-school disciplinary suspensions are down 14 percent.
- HISD has maintained the lowest property tax rate among the two dozen school districts in Harris County.
A Strategic Direction
One of Dr. Grier’s first efforts in HISD was leading a community-wide conversation that sought to identify the core initiatives that would drive future decisions for Houston schools. After several public hearings conducted in schools across the district, HISD had the feedback it needed to draft a Strategic Direction founded on five core initiatives:
- An effective teacher in every classroom
- An effective principal in every school
- Rigorous instructional standards and supports
- Data-driven decision making
- A culture of trust through action
Those initiatives propelled HISD through a period of rapid, purposeful innovation. More importantly, student academic achievement among all racial and ethnic groups steadily grew by almost every important measure, and public confidence in Houston schools swelled.
When Dr. Grier arrived in HISD, he inherited a handful of troubled schools that had failed to meet the state’s minimum academic standards for several consecutive years. Faced with the possibility that the state would step in and take over those chronically failing schools, Dr. Grier conceptualized what came to be known as the Apollo 20 school turnaround program. He then personally convinced private donors to give $16.8 million to help fund a plan to infuse the practices of America’s most successful charter schools into HISD’s struggling neighborhood schools. After three years, students in those 20 schools demonstrated academic gains on par with their charter school counterparts. Those Apollo 20 strategies, including intensive tutoring, data-driven instruction, and more class time with effective teachers in core subject areas, have now been infused in schools across HISD.
Recognizing the need to equip HISD’s students, most of whom live in low-income households, with the technology they need to keep pace with their peers in more affluent homes, Dr. Grier launched the PowerUp initiative in 2013. The program began with intensive training for all teachers on how to effectively incorporate technology in their daily lessons. A three-year phase in project, PowerUp will be fully deployed by the end of this school year, putting a laptop computer in every high school student’s hands and virtually eliminating the need for traditional text books. The initiative earned Dr. Grier recognition from Ed Week magazine as a “Leader to Learn From” in 2015.
During Dr. Grier’s tenure, HISD won more than $150 million in competitive grants that fueled more innovation for Houston schools. In 2013, HISD won a $12 million federal grant to launch six new magnet schools focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). That same year, HISD was the only urban school district in American to be awarded a federal Race to the Top grant. The $30 million grant funded HISD’s linked learning initiative that connects students’ learning to college and careers in high-demand fields.
Earlier this year, HISD won an $8.5 million grant from the Houston Endowment to significantly expand the reach of the district’s highly successful EMERGE program. Begun under Dr. Grier’s watch, EMERGE identifies high-potential students from low-income families, helps them gain admission into America’s most elite colleges and universities, and – most importantly – prepares them to succeed once they arrive on campus. Ninety-eight of the district’s most talented but poorest graduates in 2015 have enrolled in the nation’s top colleges and universities. That number is expected to approach 150 next year.
When Dr. Grier arrived in Houston, only three schools offered a dual-language instructional model in which students spend half of their day learning in English and half of the day speaking a foreign language. Today, that number stands at 52. The dual language emphasis meshes with the district’s commitment to preparing globally competitive graduates with the skills they need to thrive in today’s economy.
This year, 23 HISD schools with 14,000 students are following an innovative wellness program using yoga-based exercises, mindfulness practices and nutrition education to improve students’ health and reduce their stress.
Strengthening school choice
HISD’s portfolio of school choice options expanded greatly under Dr. Grier’s leadership. New magnet schools launched in the past six years include:
- Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men
- Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy
- Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan
- Energy Institute High School
- Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion School
- Arabic Language Immersion School
- Middle College High School-Gulfton
- Middle College High School-Felix Fraga
- High School Ahead Academy
A commitment to highly effective teaching
In 2011, the HISD Board of Education approved a new system for appraising and developing teachers that was among the first in the nation to give real weight to student academic achievement. Designed in partnership with teachers, HISD’s teacher appraisal and development system earned accolades from U.S. Education Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said: “Houston is providing a model for the state and other districts to follow.”
While HISD teachers earned more than $100 million in performance awards under Dr. Grier’s leadership, teachers have also seen significant increases in base pay. In 2009, a starting HISD teacher earned a base pay of $44,027 per year. Today, first-year HISD teachers earn $51,500, a 17-percent increase.
A call to serve Houston’s North Forest community
In early 2013, Dr. Grier received a call from Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams informing him he planned to announce that HISD would be annexing the troubled North Forest school district and its 6,700 students that summer. Dr. Grier embraced the challenge and set a tone from the top that HISD would welcome North Forest into the family. A fleet of yellow HISD maintenance trucks was dispatched to repair and spruce up the North Forest campuses. A new team of principals and teachers were recruited to partner with the community to turn those schools around, utilizing key Apollo 20 practices. When Commissioner Williams returned a year later to personally inspect the North Forest schools, he described the improvements in both their appearance and in the quality of instruction happening inside as “remarkable.”
Striving for equity
Throughout his time in HISD, Dr. Grier has been a champion for ensuring that all students have equitable access to the resources they need to thrive academically.
In 2012, Dr. Grier asked the Board of Education to seek voter approval for a $1.89 billion bond referendum to rebuild high schools in neighborhoods across HISD. The most ambitious bond proposal in Texas history, the measure garnered approval from 69 percent of voters, and construction is now underway on campuses across the city. Once completed, the bond program will provide neighborhoods across Houston with modern, 21st century classrooms.
Dr. Grier directed the district to remove unnecessary barriers that have historically made it difficult for less affluent students to apply for admission to HISD’s prestigious magnet schools. After implementation of a universal, online application, participation among Hispanic and African American students has increased and applications are at an all-time high. At the same time, Dr. Grier’s proposal for a district-wide magnet funding formula designed to increase equity and transparency was approved by the Board of Education.
In the coming months, the HISD Board of Education will be presented with a proposal to address inequitable student representation in the district’s program for gifted and talented children.
“Together, we have accomplished much for our great city,” Dr. Grier said. “I am most proud that our students consistently meet the challenges we put before them. When our actions show children that we believe in each and every one of them, no matter what obstacles they may face at home, our students always justify our faith.”