New HISD super works to lower dropout rate

October 9, 2009 5:11:27 PM PDT
We've looked this week at what's working to keep students in school in Houston and it's not an easy job. The dropout rate, while improved, still sits at 19 percent. In Focus reporter Ted Oberg spoke with the new head of the Houston Independent School District to see how he will face the challenge.

In his last job, Dr. Terry Grier lowered the dropout rate in San Diego by nine points in 2008. He was helped by a change in California rules, but a drop is a drop. The job will be harder here in Houston. He likes some of what he sees addressing dropouts in Houston, but not everything, and he's not satisfied enough is being done.

Dr. Terry Grier hasn't been here long. Friday was his 29th day as HISD Superintendent, but he knows why he is here and he is making big promises about reducing the number of kids who quit school.

"I want to see that 18 percent rate go down to at least 12 percent, hopefully 10 percent," said Dr. Terry Grier, new HISD Superintendent.

In one year?

"Oh, yeah," said Dr. Grier.

If he can do that, it will be something that hasn't been done in a long time.

"The dropout rate is almost 19 percent. That's like telling one out of five freshmen, you aren't going to make it. In a district our size, it's like having two complete high schools that are full of kids on day one, and at the end of the year there's no one there but the adults," said Dr. Grier.

So where does he go first?

"It's about relationships. You've gotta start," Dr. Grier said.

If you look at the ideas he brings with him from San Diego and Greensboro, North Carolina, most involve more one-on-one contact with at-risk kids.

In his first week in Houston, Dr. Grier went on HISD's annual Dropout Walk, knocking on dropout's doors convincing them to come back to school. A good start, but he says it's not enough.

"What doesn't work is when you go out and do the walk and you convince a child to come right back into the same environment that they failed before and nothing has changed," said Dr. Grier.

He tells us HISD's Eagle Academy, an after-hours, computer-based program, is well-intentioned and he may expand it. In San Diego, Dr. Grier installed graduation coaches in every high school to work intensely with kids who need to make up classes. He says Houston likely needs something similar.

"I found over 3,000 students that were in our high schools last year in the 9th grade who failed three or more courses as 9th graders. Those children are going to struggle to graduate from high school in HISD," Dr. Grier said. "Dropping out of school, I promise you, is a very painful decision for children. Giving up on your education is not an easy thing to do."

He seems to be hard on himself.

"I hold myself accountable. That's where it starts," Dr. Grier.

But he also expects students to give him a shot.

"I expect them not to give up. I expect them to want us to do our part. I expect them to give us another chance," said Dr. Grier.

Another idea which may come to HISD is a program Dr. Grier developed in San Diego to allow students who failed classes to repeat them faster online instead of in class. It had critics, but students made up more than 4,500 classes in one school year.

We put Dr. Grier's entire interview online here if you want to hear more.

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