Houston ISD: Did You Know?

By Marye Audet

Houston Independent School District is the largest in the state of Texas; in fact, it’s the seventh largest district in the entire United States. There are 283 schools providing an education to over 200,000 students from a variety of cultural backgrounds. With nearly 100 different languages spoken and 80.4 percent of the students considered economically disadvantaged, the district has its work cut out for it. Assistant Superintendent Carla Stevens feels that HISD can more than meet the challenge.

Chief Academic Officer Dan Gohl’s Three Priorities for 2015

Chief Academic Officer Dan Gohl says he is focusing on three priorities as HISD looks toward the Spring 2015 semester. These priorities are:

  1. raised literary performance;
  2. expansion of dual language offerings such as Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic; and
  3. Raised performance on high school end-of-course exams.

Literacy by 3

The Literacy by 3 movement is HISD’s program that focuses on ending the literacy crisis in Houston. Ultimately, the goal is to have each child reading and writing fluently by the end of third grade. That isn’t the sum total of the scope, however. Literacy by 3 aims to reach every student at every level who might be struggling with reading. Identifying nearly 300 first-grade classrooms where children are in need of an adult to mentor them in reading, Read Houston Read is a volunteer program that is making a huge difference in literacy among children in Houston. 

Expansion of Dual Language Offerings

One of the major challenges the district faces are the more than 3,000 unaccompanied minor children enrolled in Houston schools. The estimated cost to taxpayers will be over $9,500 per student because of the increased need for bilingual special-education teachers.

Houston is meeting this crisis head-on. HISD has a track record for establishing highly successful dual language immersion schools. In addition to the district’s two full-campus Spanish language schools, there is a Mandarin Chinese language immersion magnet school that opened in 2012.

Recently the HISD Board of Education approved a measure to open the district’s first Arabic language immersion magnet in the fall of 2015. It will begin with two kindergarten and two pre-kindergarten classes, and a new grade level will be added each year through the fifth grade.

Not only does speaking more than one language fluently make students more valuable in their chosen careers, but it also helps them to gain an understanding of and empathy for other cultures. It also improves analytical skills.

Raise Performance on High School End-of-Course Exams

End-of-course exams measure students’ mastery of a course, as well as their college and career readiness. There are a number of ways that HISD prepares students to achieve that readiness. The Futures Academy program, for example, allows students to get valuable industry training while still in high school. The program also allows them to earn an associates degree while they are still in high school.

Other Important Considerations for HISD

Those are not the only areas that HISD is focusing on. Houston Independent School District is seeking to provide not only a strong academic environment for students, but also one of safety, responsibility and creativity.

Houston’s Cultural Mix

Houston is a city with a diverse culture, largely due to the significant amount of international business in the area. With so many languages commonly spoken, there is a push for students to be bilingual to enable them to achieve success in their future endeavors. To this end, HISD is proposing an Arabic immersion school that would give children as young as four the opportunity to learn the language, an important skill for a future in the oil and gas industry.

Beyond English the top ten languages spoken in the Houston area are: Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese, Nepali, Swahili, French, Urdu, Amharic, and Tigrinya.

Houston ISD supports multilingual programs that encourage students to learn English while retaining fluency in their native languages. At the same time, English-speaking students are encouraged to become fluent in a second language.

61.9 percent of students enrolled in HISD are Hispanic. Because of this, there is an increased interest in providing a more culturally diverse curriculum that would include the creation of a statewide Mexican American studies course for Texas public high schools. This course would expose the students to the significant impact that Mexican Americans have had on Texas, according to HISD Superintendent Terry Grier.

The state board of education voted in favor of adding the elective course and asking publishers to create textbooks that would cover not only Mexican American history, but also African American, Asian American and Native American histories, too. This focus on the impact of minorities on the culture and history of Texas is one of the things that sets Houston Independent School District apart from many other districts.

Preparing Students for the Future

Preparing students for their future success is imperative. Houston has implemented the VirtualJobShadow program, which allows students to follow real people in real jobs from any computer or tablet. Students can watch exclusive career profile videos and get in-depth career information to help them understand the specifics of various careers and how jobs are accomplished in real time. Students see the importance of their classes when they see how the things that they are learning are used in the workplace. The program also allows students to make more informed, focused decisions about their college and career choices.

Another way the district is getting students ready for the future is through the magnet schools at each level. While many districts have magnet campuses that focus on specific interests in the upper grades, HISD has specialized education from the earliest grade levels. Technology, health sciences, multilingual, Montessori and other specialized magnets are available at the elementary level. Engineering, foreign languages and college prep are some of the magnets available at the middle school level. High schoolers can choose from 40 different programs that include law enforcement, culinary and dual credit programs that allow students to achieve an Associates degree within months after high school graduation.

There is virtually a school for every career interest a student might have.

Fine Arts for Every Student

The state of Texas requires that every student have instruction in art, theater, dance and music in each grade level. The curriculum standards are spelled out in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and require that high schools must cover two of the four areas. Districts have the freedom to decide how to meet the mandates, however.

A recent survey by a nonprofit found that 30 percent of HISD elementary and middle schools did not have a full-time certified fine arts teacher. Area principals stated that lack of funding was a large part of the problem. Although any teacher can provide fine arts education in the early grades, the district’s fine arts manager, Walter Smith Jr., stated that he suspects that some schools aren’t meeting the fine arts requirement. He’s since sent out a memo requiring corrective action by the principles to ensure that these requirements are met. District officials are also developing a ten-year plan to improve fine arts instruction that includes partnerships with outside groups and training for staff on how to integrate the arts into the classroom.

Still, HISD has one of the most intensive fine arts programs in the state. Whether a students are interested in choir, orchestra, drama, visual arts or dance they can pursue their dreams at one of the many magnet schools as early as pre-K. Much of the success of the fine arts program is due to teachers like Lucretia Copeland who are dedicated to inspiring their students whether the budget is there or not. Some years, Ms. Copeland has spent $500 of her own funds to ensure that her students have the art supplies that they need.

Students interested in a culinary arts degree are in luck. Houston Independent School District is partnering with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to provide students with a dual-credit program that will allow them to earn their first semester of CIA credit during their junior and senior years beginning in 2015. Not only will the students save money by skipping a semester of culinary school, but they will also automatically be eligible for CIA merit scholarships.

Unique Physical Fitness Programs

Texas law requires 135 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity for elementary school students, four semesters in middle school, and two semesters in high school.

Physical education provides opportunities for students to develop a variety of skills from physical to social. Not only do young students develop gross and fine motor skills, but the instruction in physical fitness also gives them the foundation for a healthy lifestyle that will last their entire lives. Students develop teamwork and social skills as well.

The activity can take many forms. Physical fitness is an important part of the curriculum, but if you are imagining gym suits and dodge ball or rope climbing then you need a more 21st -century view. Twelve of the schools in the district have introduced yoga to the curriculum, thanks to California-based Sonima Foundation. The nonprofit donated over $360,000 for the program.

In some schools the yoga classes are in addition to regular phys ed classes, while in others the yoga classes replace the regular classes.

The United States Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) is another alternative to the classic physical education program. It was established in the Houston Independent School District in 1926 and is a citizenship program devoted to encouraging strong moral values, physical conditioning and a focus on education among students.

If your child is interested in a sport and your school doesn’t offer it, you have options. According to HISD’s athletics department, students and parents can ask for a sport to be added to the campus. This is how Lamar High School ended up with lacrosse and Carnegie Vanguard got a volleyball team. There are no minimum requirements for a special sport to be added—it depends on the sport and the participants that would be needed to play. The time to have your request approved or denied can vary, so be prepared to wait. In order to request a sport all you need to do is send your name, phone number, school, and the sport, you are interested in to the HISD Athletics director, currently Marmion Dambrino, 4400 W. 18th St., Houston, Texas, 77092.

Transportation Safety and Sustainability

HISD has been named a District of Distinction by District Administration magazine in recognition of its recent innovative transportation initiatives. The programs have been developed to improve the operational efficiency and safety of HISD buses and drivers through increased safety education for its drivers and an eco-friendly bus fleet. It’s the only district in the nation to have received this award.

The School Bus Tracker Program was implemented in 2012 and works in conjunction with the GPS on each bus to convey if the bus is delayed. It keeps everyone in the loop, knowing where a bus is at all times. Drivers also are trained to handle emergency situations by through courses in crisis prevention, American Red Cross first aid, CPR and training in emergency evacuation. Parents and students are able to watch a safety video created by the Transportation Department. It communicates bus safety rules to both children and parents effectively. As a result of all of this training, the number of student incidents has dropped “considerably,” according to HISD officials.

Is HISD the Golden Child of Texas School Districts?

Nothing is perfect. With all of the wonderful things that HISD is implementing there are still areas that need to be examined, considered and improved.

Graduation Rate

One of the top concerns is the graduation rate for Houston high school students. About 74.4 of Houston ISD students graduate, compared to a statewide average of 80.4 percent.

Illiteracy among Students

Certainly illiteracy is related to the high dropout rate. One principal reports that up to 80 percent of incoming ninth graders are unable to read at grade level. These students are reading at a fourth grade level even though they’ve passed all of the required state tests to that point. The problem isn’t that they can’t read the words but instead lies in comprehension and vocabulary.

A 2011 – 2013 Stanford Diagnostic reading test was conducted by Unlimited Access Educational Systems, Inc. This test revealed that reading scores have declined in the middle and elementary grades when compared to scores from two years ago. Just 29.6 percent of middle school students read above grade level.

Bullying — It’s Not What You Think

Every school has some problem with bullying but HISD is plagued with a unique sort—bullying of teachers by administration. Some examples cited were: yelling, disrespect, disrespect in front of students, and intimidation.

Teacher Turnover

The teacher turnover rate in Houston is one of the highest in Texas. The state average is 15.3 percent, while Houston has an 18.7 percent turnover rate. There are a variety of reasons given, but one common reason stated is mistreatment of faculty by administration.

Another problem that contributes to the turnover is the method of evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. If students’ scores are not high enough on the STAAR Test and other criteria a teacher can be fired. Most other school districts use these evaluations as guideposts to assess overall performance rather than directives for dismissal.

HISD Is a Mixed Bag

Nothing is perfect, least of all a school district. Houston ISD has successes to boast about and challenges to overcome like any other district. It’s important for residents to hold the district accountable for its performance and support positive change. Still, Houston Independent School District continues to come up with new, innovative ways to provide students with a strong education in a safe, eco-friendly environment—and that’s good for everyone.