HISD Apollo 20 schools start school year early

Students in the Apollo 20 program head back to class today
August 15, 2011 3:30:16 PM PDT
Summer has ended a week early for students at nine Houston Independent School District schools. Classes started Monday for the district's Apollo 20 schools, and for at least one of them, it appears HISD still has a long way to go in educating its students.

Apollo 20 is a 3-year school turnaround program that provides intensive tutoring and $1,000 more per student. It's designed to raise test scores. The program started last year for nine campuses with a $20 million price tag.

But HISD has four campuses in its Apollo 20 program that have been rated 'unacceptable' by the Texas Education Agency and one of those campuses has received the low rating for three years in a row -- Kashmere High School.

The new school year brings new optimism for freshman Mercedes Bell.

"To make almost straight A's," said Bell.

She's on her way to Kashmere High School. The school year started Monday and is already facing academic challenges.

The campus was designated last year as an Apollo 20 school, meaning specialized instruction was made available to help improve test scores at low-performing schools like Kashmere.

Yet, despite the extra resources such as math tutors, Kashmere was rated unacceptable by the TEA last month -- not the grade HISD had hoped for.

"We didn't think we would turn it around in year one, but we made progress. We didn't advance as much as we wanted, but we made progress. This is a big year at Kashmere," said Dr. Terry Grier, HISD Superintendent.

It's a big year because after three years in a row as being rated unacceptable, Kashmere could face state sanctions if test scores don't improve this year. Part of the solution, says Dr. Grier, is with the teaching staff.

"We had teachers who struggled and we were not getting in those classes on a regular basis and we weren't helping those teachers get better," said Dr. Grier.

It's a goal parents are depending on. Many consider the 63-year-old school a point of pride in northeast Houston.

"Because generation after generation have graduated from here and we're in 2011 and it's still open regardless of the odds," said parent Rominthia Phillips.

There are a couple of big changes since last year. Kashmere received a new principal last year and nearly 50 percent of its teaching staff is new this year. HISD says those should help to make a big difference.

Jones High also rated 'unacceptable,' started Monday

Summer is already over for some kids in HISD. On Monday, a select number of schools reopened and students started off another school year.

Jones High School is one of the Apollo schools where millions of dollars have been spent in the district's effort to improve performance. They started Monday instead of next week when the other HISD students head back.

At one time there were more than 1,000 students at Jones; now there are just 550.

"He wanted to take the engineering, so that will help him," said parent Teresa Vidrine.

Marlon Whiting came to Jones because of another bonus -- $4 million given to the school for a science, math, and engineering magnet program. It's one of five schools benefitting from an $11.4 million federal grant.

"I want to make good grades and move on to the next grade; to pass the class and make it to college," said student Marlon Whiting.

According to HISD, the students in these schools showed academic gains in math, the subject for which all sixth and ninth-grade Apollo 20 students received intensive tutoring. The percentage of Apollo 20 ninth-graders passing the TAKS math exam increased 16 points last school year, compared to a 2-point increase district-wide.

Among sixth-graders, the increase in the TAKS math passing rate was 22 percentage points in Apollo 20 schools, compared to just 2 points across the district.

But HISD still faces big challenges at four of the Apollo 20 schools. Kashmere, Jones, Attucks and Ryan are all starting the year with an 'unacceptable' rating.

"They didn't get in this kind of academic shape overnight, and you won't improve them overnight," said Dr. Terry Grier, HISD Superintendent.

This year, two Apollo 20 principals have been replaced. The principal of Jones High is in her second year, and feels she now has the tools to turn the school around.

"We're starting with engineering and technology. We've got everything from a 3D printer to brand new computers and laptops," said Jones High School Principal Tracey Lewis.

The schools in HISD's Apollo 20 program that started classes Monday morning include Kashmere, Jones, Lee and Sharpstown High schools, as well as Dowling, Ryan, Attucks, Fondren and Key Middle school.

Eleven elementary schools will join the program this school year, but they will start on August 22 along with the rest of the school district.

If you have any back to school questions about anything from enrollment to immunizations to transportation schedules, you can call 713-556-8900 anytime from 9am to 4pm. The hotline will operate Monday through Friday and then again on August 22 and 23.


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