Charter School Strategies Help Houston Schools Take a Giant Leap Forward

Named after the mission that first landed Americans on the moon, district schools in Houston, Texas have adapted a program that infuses principles of the best charter schools in the nation to reform some of their lowest-performing schools.

“Apollo 20” was born from a partnership between the Houston School District and Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory. The $19.3 million invested in the project has “proved its worth, though it is still a work in progress,” according to the Houston Superintendent, Terry B. Grier. (article by Christina A. Samuels, in Education Week, March 5, 2012)

Pulling from the successful innovations of charter school projects like Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Youth Engaged in Service (YES), Houston began the Apollo 20 project in nine of its lowest-performing middle and high schools, affecting more than 200,000 students. Key Middle School alone had 500 students – 97 percent are minorities, and 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Yet according to the article, Key Middle School has shown “the strongest academic growth of all the Apollo schools,” particularly in math. The passing rate for the Texas standardized test in math went from 40 percent to 66 percent in one year.

Data used to implement Apollo 20 came largely from research conducted by a Harvard economist, Roland G. Fryer. Five factors replicated from successful charter schools in New York were adopted; increased instructional time, better teachers and administrators, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, and a “culture of high expectations.”

Money for the Apollo 20 project came from federal School Improvement Grants, district money earmarked for low-performing schools and private donors. Most funds are used on increases in instructional time by expanding the school year and the weekly hours in school. All schools in the project also added 70 minutes a day for personalized tutoring.

LaKeysha Boleware, an Apollo 20 math tutor, described her experience with one student who was struggling the previous year after she announced that she had finally passed the state exam; “She had tears in her eyes. I started crying along with her.”

Other factors that teachers and administrators correlate with the successes are complete changes in staffing based on “the rightest of values,” and replacing the disproportionate focus on discipline problems with a culture of high expectations. Teachers who blamed external factors like the child’s poverty or home life for their poor academic performance did not demonstrate the values desired, and were either moved to other schools or were not contractually renewed, as the article explains.

The challenge in Houston now is to find ways to sustain and grow the results, and educational leaders are looking for additional ways to fund is expansion.

Click here to read the full article in EdWeek.