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HISD Board Approves Sam Houston Makeover: Plan to Split Troubled Campus Brings Both Praise and Warnings From National Experts

June 13, 2008

By Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle

Jun. 13–The Houston school board unanimously approved a $3.4 million makeover Thursday of troubled Sam Houston High School — a reform that’s won cautious praise from several national experts who say success will depend on staffing, support and leadership.

Under state order, the plan will split the northside campus into two schools: one serving freshmen and the other for grades 10-12. The school for upperclassmen would emphasize math and science — Sam Houston’s weaknesses — with a focus on preparing students for careers in engineering, information technology and the automotive industry.

HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra now will seek approval from state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who last week closed Sam Houston for failing to meet minimum academic standards for six straight years. Scott, though, said HISD could apply for the chance to reinvent the school.

The Houston Independent School District would not be breaking new ground by creating a separate ninth-grade school and starting career-focused programs. Similar efforts at high schools nationwide have shown some success, improving student test scores and lowering dropout rates in certain cases.

“There is this hope that you’re going to change the structure and something magic is going to happen,” said Corinne Herlihy, a senior associate at MDRC, a New York-based research group. “You can’t just do a structural change. It really needs to be paired with an instructional change to meet the needs of the students you’re serving.”

Ninth grade crucial Herlihy, who has studied ninth-grade centers and career academies, said teachers must receive effective training, instruction must change and struggling students must get extra attention. Ninth grade is considered the crucial year.

HISD plans to encourage incoming freshmen to attend a special summer program while ninth-graders who are behind in math would get extra instruction.

All freshmen also would take a reading comprehension course and would stay in school an additional hour daily.

Some popular charter schools such as KIPP and YES Prep Public Schools, which have had success with low-income and minority children, both mandate summer school and longer school days for all students.

Sam Houston serves about 2,500 mostly poor and Hispanic students.

“There’s some of this that isn’t rocket science — more time on task with people who know how to grow kids is the answer, all day, everyday,” said Natasha Kamrani, the HISD trustee over Sam Houston who also is married to Chris Barbic, the founder of YES Prep.

Anna Mendez, whose daughter will be a sophomore at Sam Houston next year, said she would give HISD another shot at improving the school, even though it has failed for five years to get more than half of the students to pass the state-mandated math exam.

The passing rate in math has grown from 41 percent in 2004.

“It can work if they just have a little more discipline,” Mendez said after attending a parent meeting this week.

Other changes to Sam Houston are unlikely to be as drastic as initially thought.

State rules require that at least 50 percent of the students “previously served by the closed campus are reassigned to other campuses.” HISD officials think they can meet that requirement because last year’s seniors won’t be returning and ninth-graders will be in their own school (though still housed on the Sam Houston campus).

The campus also must have a new name, though HISD officials contend “Sam Houston” can remain in the title. The district is temporarily calling the schools the Sam Houston Center for Math, Science and Technology and the Ninth-Grade Preparatory Academy.

A more significant name change could be beneficial, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C.

“We have found that to be helpful because it gives an impression that you’re going to start anew,” he said.

Replacing staff

The biggest difference likely will be the staff at the new schools. HISD already has named a new principal for the upper campus. The state also requires at least 75 percent of the instructional staff to be replaced.

Sam Houston has about 170 teachers and 25 other professional staffers.

Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she has heard from about 35 Sam Houston employees who plan to request transfers to other campuses or to leave HISD this summer.

To recruit teachers, the district will offer signing bonuses of $2,500 or $5,000 to those with a track record of raising test scores.

Joseph Harris, director of the National High School Center, said the district must support teachers.

“It runs the risk of burning out teachers who are getting more engaged with students,” he said. “That takes time and energy, both physical and emotional.”

ericka.mellon@chron.com

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