School Starts Early for Students in HISD's Apollo 20 Project

While most kids are still enjoying what's left of their summer vacation, students at nine Houston-area schools are kicking off the academic year a week early. The schools are part of the Apollo 20 Initiative which aims to raise low-performing schools to new and improved heights. Wendy Siegle has more.
Dr. Grier: "So what grade you guys in?" "Eighth..."

Superintendent Terry Grier made the rounds to all nine schools on this sultry summer day to throw his support behind the students, teachers, principals, and tutors taking part in the Apollo 20 Project. Four high schools and five middle schools are participating in the project this school-year. Eleven more will be added next year, which will bring the total to 20 schools. Dr. Grier:

"All of these nine Apollo 20 schools were schools that were either failing or schools that were rated as unsatisfactory by the state of Texas, and we knew we had to take drastic action to turn these schools around."

That desire for "drastic action" came to fruition when HISD partnered with Harvard University's education research laboratory, EdLabs, to design a program that would improve academic performance in under-achieving schools. The research identified a number of key strategies for the Apollo 20 schools to implement in an effort to reform them. Grier says that means students will be spending more of their time in school.

"We've added ten days to the school year; we've added an hour to each day; we've hired a lot of new teachers, all new principals and assistant principals; we've established a culture of no excuses. We're excited."

There are 8,000 students enrolled across the nine schools, and each and every one of them now has access to extra tutoring in both math and reading if their grades reflect a need for it. Grier says the math component is important.

"All sixth grade students are getting tutored everyday in math, during the school day-one tutor per two children-and the same thing for ninth graders in those high schools."

Students in other grades can get in-school tutoring if they're falling behind. Fondren Middle School principal Charles Foust says most parents are on-board with the new schedule, but some, he says, have mixed feelings. Not all Fondren's students showed up for school today. Foust says those students' parents may think the semester doesn't start until next week, but he's working on a plan to get all Fondren's students in classrooms this week.

"We have a lot of our kids here today. And then we're gonna form teams to go recruit the ones who are supposed to be here and who are not here today."

At a time when only 69 percent of HISD students graduate from high school, and only 15 out of 100 attain a post-high school degree, educators are scrambling to work out the formula for academic success. They hope the Apollo 20 Project is one that works.

Wendy Siegle, KUHF News.