HISD interim superintendent calls for school finance reform as district aims to build on literacy gains

HISD Board President Manuel Rodriguez announces district’s first-place win of prestigious Magna Award for literacy efforts

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Speaking before a packed ballroom, HISD Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt urged the community to rally around its most struggling schools, while Board of Education President Manuel Rodriguez announced the district has won a national Magna Award for its literacy efforts.

Both Huewitt and Rodriguez delivered their messages while speaking Thursday to a sold-out crowd at the Hilton Americas-Houston during the district’s 2016 State of the Schools address.

In his first address since assuming leadership of the district earlier this week, Huewitt urged the crowd to never lose sight of the district’s driving force — children. All students — no matter their background or personal circumstances — can learn, he said, but they must have the resources they need to be successful and people in their lives who believe in them and are committed to their success.

Critical to that success, Huewitt said, are the district’s programs devoted to literacy, college preparation and career development — and adequate funding from the state Legislature.

“We have students with profound need and even greater potential, but these students don’t have an advocate or a single person in their life who can help them. These students are missing school, missing opportunities, and missing out on their only chance to escape poverty,” Huewitt said. “Houston is a can-do city, but we cannot ignore the challenges these students face.”

Two thousand educators, administrators, community members and public school supporters attended the event, which highlighted students, teachers and schools from across the district. Among those participating were the Crockett Elementary School Orchestra, Elmore Elementary School Drum Line, Davis High School Orchestra and Mariachi, Bellaire High School JROTC, Futures Academy of Pharmacy Technology at Jane Long Academy and the Arabic Immersion Magnet School.

Also on the agenda were remarks from Board President Rodriguez, former Superintendent Terry Grier, and Houston’s first Youth Poet Laureate Andrew White, who is a student at HISD’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Rodriguez told the crowd there was much to be proud of at HISD, the latest of which is the district’s first-place Magna Award. Presented by the National Association of School Boards, Magna Awards are designed to recognize school boards that take bold and innovative steps to advance student learning. HISD trustees received the first-place win for Literacy by 3, an initiative that aims to have 100 percent of third-graders reading at or above grade level by 2019.

“Literacy is the foundation for all learning,” Rodriguez said. “Thank you to my fellow board members and Team HISD for believing in this work.”

The school board president touted the district’s dual language program, which is once again expanding. By the start of the 2016-2017 school year, one-third of all HISD elementary schools will have dual language programs, giving students the opportunity to learn in Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and, beginning this fall, French.

He also noted the importance of making sure students graduate with the skills needed to be successful both in college and the workforce.

“HISD is focused on producing global graduates — young men and women who are ready for the world, who have the skills they need to be successful in college and to compete in the global workforce,” Rodriguez said. “All of us on the Board of Education are committed to that goal.”

Rodriguez told the audience that this year would be one of great change for HISD. The board has two new members — Trustees Jolanda Jones and Diana Dávila — and is in the process of searching for a new leader to replace former Superintendent Grier, whose last official day was Feb. 29.

“Change is difficult, but we get through it by pulling together,” Rodriguez said, encouraging community members to attend superintendent search meetings and provide the district with feedback. “Now more than ever we need to hear from you, so we hope you’ll take part in our community meetings.”

Huewitt, who assumed the role of interim superintendent on March 1, echoed similar sentiments as he encouraged the community to come together and rally around the district’s most struggling students.

HISD has 58 schools across the district that currently aren’t meeting state standards. According to state law, schools that don’t meet state standards for multiple years can be turned over to a state-appointed board of managers or even face closure.

At the same time, HISD is facing a $107 million shortfall for the 2016-2017 school year as a result of the state’s school funding structure, which requires property-wealthy districts to send local tax dollars back to the state. Though nearly 80 percent of HISD students come from low-income communities, the district is considered property wealthy because of rising property values throughout the city.

“These schools are home to our most disadvantaged students. Those with the labels we talked about earlier — at-risk, low socioeconomic status. And the state is taking money away from them,” Huewitt said. “That isn’t right.”

All students deserve access to a high-quality education, Huewitt said, noting that it’s been his job as deputy superintendent and chief financial officer to scrutinize district programs and ensure the district is only funding those that truly benefit students and boost achievement.

“As a district and a community, we need to do what’s right for all kids,” Huewitt said. “I applaud our Board of Education and school leadership for recognizing that. We can’t change the labels our kids live with, but we can change what we do about it.”

Huewitt said he places a strong emphasis on programs that help all students succeed — and literacy is at the top of that list.

Since the launch of Literacy by 3 in May 2014, more than 5,000 teachers have been trained in a high-impact, consistent approach to reading instruction that has revamped the way reading is taught in HISD classrooms. Additionally, classrooms have been filled with books on varying reading levels and community volunteers are being actively recruited to read to and mentor children.

The district already is seeing a return on its investment, Huewitt said, noting that third-grade reading scores rose this year by two percentage points, outpacing the overall gain made by the state.

Equally important is college preparation and career development, Huewitt said, explaining that students must graduate ready to succeed in college or the workforce. Technology plays a key role in that development, he said, noting that all 65,000 HISD high school students now have access to take-home laptops. Making sure students are bilingual and biliterate also is important, he said, echoing Board President Rodriguez’s sentiments about the importance of the district’s dual language programs.

“Our students must be global graduates in the truest sense,” Huewitt said. “They must be able to lead and communicate, think critically and make decisions. They must be adaptable and productive, and able to understand and succeed in the world around them.”

Huewitt pointed to the Port of Houston Authority as he talked about the importance of business and industry partnerships, which are vital to ensuring students get first-hand, real-world experience in occupations that are critical to the future success of the city.

Austin High School, he said, is the first comprehensive high school in the nation to offer students access to a ship bridge simulator, which re-creates the conditions of a vessel at sea. Students practice on the simulator and then take field trips to the Port, giving them valuable industry training and experience — and a leg up upon graduation.

Partnerships aren’t limited to career development, Huewitt said. The district also has placed a strong emphasis on preparing students for college. Thanks to an $8.5 million grant from the Houston Endowment, HISD was able to deploy 28 college advisors to campuses across the district and expand the EMERGE program to all high schools. EMERGE connects high-performing students from low-income communities with the resources needed to apply, attend, and graduate from the nation’s top-tier colleges and universities.

Because of these college preparation efforts, Huewitt said more seniors had applied for college by winter break of the current school year than had during the entire previous school year.

“We stand together, committed to the 215,000 lives our district is shaping and the 29,000 employees who dedicate their lives to this cause,” Huewitt said. “We will celebrate our children’s victories, and we will try new things. But we will also learn from our mistakes and adjust our course — always, always making sure children are our North Star.”

Other achievements highlighted include:

  • This year, HISD welcomed the inaugural class of the nation’s first Arabic Immersion Magnet School. The school received more than three applications for every available seat, and it is now filled with a diverse group of students who come from every corner of the city. This fall, HISD will open the doors of the new Mark White Elementary School, which will house the French Immersion Program, the first of its kind in public education.
  • The number of students taking Advanced Placement classes has hit an all-time district record, as has the number of students scoring high enough on AP exams to earn college credit.
  • The number of students taking the SAT has reached an all-time high — and math, reading and composite scores have risen, bucking a downward state trend.
  • Last year, our seniors were offered a staggering $265 million in scholarships. That is a 227 percent increase from 2007.
  • The number of scholars named under the College Board’s National Hispanic Recognition Program has tripled in the past year.
  • Thanks to continued work as part of the 2012 Bond, we have more construction happening now than at any time in district history. In four years, HISD will have the most modern portfolio of high schools in the nation.