Houston District Named First Two-Time Broad Prize Winner

Kelsey Sheehy

History repeated itself for Houston Independent School District, which won the Broad Prize for Urban Education a second time on Sept. 25. The district is the first two-time winner of the prize, which is awarded to large, urban school districts that make substantial gains in student achievement.

That achievement includes a 12-point increase in graduation rates at the district's high schools between 2006 and 2009 - double the average increase at the 75 urban districts eligible for the prize. The district also slashed the achievement gap between low-income and Hispanic students and their more affluent, white peers.

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Some of that success can be attributed to centralized standards, which Superintendent Tony Grier implemented shortly after joining the district in 2009. The standards change was prompted by focus groups in which students questioned whether the district believed in their ability.

"Some of the students would say to me, 'Do you think that we're not smart because we're kids of color?'" Grier says. "I would probe and ask 'Why?' and they'd say, 'Well, we don't have any Advanced Placement courses at our schools. We have to go to schools in the affluent neighborhoods to be able to take AP courses.'"

So the district mandated a set number of AP courses in all schools, starting with five and working their way up to 15 AP courses over three years.

Between 2009 and 2012, participation in AP exams among all students in the district - but particularly among Hispanic students - increased faster than any other urban district in the country.

"We were not going to let zip codes dictate the level of rigor and the quality of education that we were offering our students," Grier says.

The district also mandated curriculum in four core areas - math, science, social studies and language arts - for all low-performing schools and implemented a teacher evaluation system tied to student performance for all schools. High-performing teachers are rewarded with bonuses. Low performers are placed on improvement plans and mentored by top teachers.

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The hard work, and hard decisions - the district fired more than 900 low-performing teachers in the past two years - paid off. In addition to its "most improved" accolade, the district will receive $550,000 in college scholarships to dole out to high school students graduating in 2014.

"That's going to mean a lot to us," Grier says. "That's money our parents don't have to pay to send those kids to college."

Those scholarships carry added weight, since roughly 80 percent of the district's 203,354 students are considered low income. Sixty-three percent are Hispanic and 25 percent are African-American.

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With its win in 2002, the award's inaugural year, and finalist honors last year, the district has won $1.2 million in college scholarships for its students. Houston's continued gains speak volumes, says Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy for the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which awards the annual prize.

"Over the past decade, Houston has demonstrated its mission to improve student achievement, and the district's repeat win is a testament to the hard work and commitment of teachers, administrators, students, parents and the entire community," McGinity said in a statement Wednesday.

While Houston has come a long way, there is still a lot of work to be done, Grier says.

"Getting better is not enough," he says. "We have to get a lot better, a lot faster."

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