The launch of Houston ISD’s (HISD) Apollo 20 program has been a success, according to researchers from Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory. Their examination of the school turnaround program shows improved student performance in math, better attendance, and fewer suspensions in the nine schools selected to be part of the pilot.
From the outset, the district took an aggressive approach to changing the culture of the middle and high schools in the pilot, replacing all nine principals and 40 percent of the schools’ teachers. With the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the district created an effective teacher pipeline to entice top-performing teachers to transfer to pilot schools. Participating teachers receive an annual stipend of $10,000 for the first two years. It also hired 250 tutors to work with 6th- and 9th-graders on math.
School leaders also expect more of the students attending pilot schools. They spend an extra hour in class each day, will attend school for an extra week this year and two extra weeks next year, and can go to special tutoring sessions on Saturdays. The district provided the additional instructional time and “high-dosage” tutoring to give struggling students the help they need to make major strides in their academic performance. Students in 7th, 8th, and 10th through 12th grades whose work is below grade level attend a second math or reading class.
The extra efforts are paying off. The data collected by Harvard’s researchers indicates that math tutoring at the middle- and high-school level helped to improve student performance on diagnostic exams 20 to 40 percent. Attendance is up a couple of percentage points on average and discipline problems are on the decline, with suspensions decreasing in all schools, markedly in a few.
The initial reports are certainly promising, but there is room for improvement. Researchers say the instruction in many classrooms is too basic and boring and that teachers need additional support and training to make lessons harder.
Funding the program is also an issue. So far, most of the funding has come from state and federal grants. The district has set aside $7 million in local tax dollars in case it doesn’t raise enough grant money to cover the program’s cost. Donations from local corporations and individuals continue to come in, but the district may have to dip into the funds it has set aside to pay for the program this year, according to HISD’s chief financial officer Melinda Garrett.
In February, HISD’s school board voted 5 to 4 to continue with plans to expand the program to 11 elementary schools next year. The debate on the expansion was heated, with board members concerned about adding to an already expensive program at a time when the district might lose hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding. The expansion will bring the total program cost to around $29 million per year.
Grier urged the board to press on with the initiative despite the budget uncertainty ahead and proposed that the district pay for the expansion by scaling back a contract with a private company that runs the district’s program for students with discipline problems. “We can’t push a pause button on our children’s education during hard financial times,” Grier said.
Elementary students in the pilot won’t attend school for an extra hour each day but 4th graders will receive daily math tutoring and all students can attend Saturday morning tutoring sessions.
“Early results promising in Apollo 20 school reform effort,” by Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle, Jan. 29, 2011.
“HISD board OKs expansion of reform agenda,” by Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle, Feb. 10, 2011.