Houston Story, Part 3 of 3

School turnarounds are hard.

I've had a small role in observing a whale of a new effort in Houston, called Apollo 20. It's a collaboration between the district and Roland Fryer's outfit called EdLabs. ABC story here.

I'm writing 3 blog posts about it.

Part 1 of the Houston Story was here.

I believe Houston’s Apollo 20 is the first-ever school district to try the MATCH Corps model. The high-dosage tutoring idea has spread a little over the 6 years since we started MATCH Corps, but not far.

Part 2 of the Houston Story I haven't finished writing yet! That's the blog about how we got involved.

But I had Part 3 ready, so I figured I'd run it out of order. This blog post is 2 short Q+As with women leading parts of the HISD turnaround effort.

Brandi Brevard, among other things, runs the Apollo 20 Math Tutoring Program (that's where the MATCH team helped in create/launch phase). In these 9 Houston turnaround schools, every 6th grader and 9th grader now gets an hour per day of math tutoring, in a ratio of 2 kids to 1 tutor. To do that, HISD hired 260 full-time Math Fellows.

Q: What was your first reaction, if you can recall it, to hearing about the creation of an Apollo 20 tutoring corps?

A: I thought it seemed like a great idea.

(But) I thought the idea of finding "good tutors" with a college degree to work full time for 20K per year was crazy. I still cannot believe that there are that many people that are really good with students and with math and we found them, sorry the "MATCH crew" found them. The fellows that we have working in our schools are amazing and I can not wait for the results (data) to show the success of the program.

Q: How long have you been with HISD? What did you do before A20?

A: I have been with HISD for 12 years. I was a Math instructional specialist for the Curriculum department for a year, and before that a math teacher for 6th-8th grade low performing and special ed students.

Q: Big picture -- how's tutoring going so far?

A: Great. It is a lot of work, but I am confident that EVERY student in the program will benefit. We have really stressed the idea of building relationships with the students and tracking progress to fill in all the gaps. I am creating the lesson plans and we have implemented a Basic Skills focus to ensure we get students on grade level.

Q: You had about 1,200 apply for the 260 slots. Do you think you ended up, by and large, with a strong cadre? Where there are weak points, what are they? Basic professionalism? Negativism? Knowledge of math? Being inconsistent with kids?

A: I think with have a very strong cadre. We do still have some fellows, I think that there are about 7, that we have identified right now that will be removed.

There are some issues with all of the above. We have addressed the professionalism, and are beginning to train the fellows in teaching math to improve on their skills. No real big issues at any of the schools, small things here and there that seem easy to fix.

Q: As you think about the next year's Fellows, what are are the key qualities you seek?

A: The ability to relate to kids, and strong math skills not just knowing, but being able to explain it.

Q: To define success, you said you're looking for kids to make "2 years of math gains" in one year. What would that look like in TAKS scores?

A: For 6th grade I think it is about 65 vertical points, or approximately 5-6 more questions correct. For 9th grade I would have to look up the vertical scale, but it is probably closer to 7-8 questions.

Q: What do math teachers think of the tutoring program?

A: So far I have heard that most are thankful for the support and assistance with their students and supportive of the program. Some teachers did not realize that the program had a set curriculum that will really help improve their students performance. It also has a basic skills component that will help students fill in gaps in their math foundation. Most teachers struggle to find time for basic skills intervention.

Q: What is your sense of kids' reaction to having an hour per day of math tutoring?

A: The majority of the kids LOVE math lab. I think most of these kids needed the attention and are really enjoying being able to learn.

Meanwhile, Summer works on the tutoring effort by helping kids who have special needs or don't speak English well.

But mostly she works on other parts of the turnaround effort: Reading Double Dose, Twilight Academies, Student Incentives, Secondary Literacy, College Completion and Readiness, Community Engagement, Teacher/Leader Recruitment, Saturday School.

Q+A with Summer:

Q: You were a teacher in TFA. Can you tell a bit about where you taught, and what?

A: When I was in TFA, I taught 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English Language Arts (ESL, mainstream, and Pre-AP). My experience in TFA is one of the most formative in my personal life and is the most formative experience of my career.

Being a teacher was difficult, not because of the long hours, the lesson planning, or the obsessive data tracking, but because of the personal responsibility I felt for my students. I was responsible for their success. If a student failed it was because I didn’t reach them.

Many of my students faced a number of challenges outside of the classroom, but once you discover who or what motivates each of your kids, they’re yours. I strongly believe that the relationship you build with students, one that in which you explicitly state and firmly abide by a standard of high expectations, any student, ANY student will open their mind to you.

Q: I'm guessing that around June or July you heard about this "Apollo 20 thing" and its full-time tutor program. What was your first reaction, if you can recall it? What made you interested in wanting to lead it?

A: My first reaction upon hearing about Apollo 20 was, “I have to be a part of this.”

I already had a job offer that I had planned to accept. I had a plane ticket scheduled to leave on a Wednesday (to accept the offer), but changed my flight for a Friday interview for a position on the Apollo 20 team.

I believe the Apollo 20 initiative will make a positive, long-term change in the educational experience for students who have not yet had the opportunity to be educated in an environment that is both academically challenging and supportive.

Also, The individuals leading this project are phenomenal and have records of designing and leading successful efforts to improve student achievement. With this caliber of leadership, there is no way that Apollo 20 is going to fail.

On my first day at work I reported to training for the full-time math tutors. I was surprised by the amount of people in the room who were willing to dedicate a year of their lives to support the success of students. That first day, I knew I made the right choice to join the Apollo 20 team.

Q: How will you measure if the turnaround program works, not just the math part?

A: The primary goal of Apollo 20 is to close the achievement gap. This goal will be measured primarily by the following expectations:

• 100% of students will perform on grade level

• 100% of students will graduate high school

• 100% of students will be accepted to a four-year college or university

Within three years of implementation of Apollo 20, we expect that our goal will be attained.

Q: What is early response, after a few weeks of the larger turnaround effort, from kids? Teachers? Principals? Parents? Tutors?

A: Overall, everyone is adjusting to the “newness” of the program.

Initially, I feel that the overall response from all audiences began with excitement about the changes on campus and their potential to improve student achievement. The excitement transitioned into frustration as everyone was navigating and deciding what these changes mean to their campus.

Now, as we enter Week 7 of school and Apollo 20 implementation, students, teachers, principals parents, and tutors beginning to understand what Apollo 20 looks like on their campus and are making a transition from feelings of frustration to understanding.

Q: What are the big challenges on your plate?

A: A major challenge is ensuring that every facet of this initiative adheres to the fidelity of the Apollo 20 tenets. All Apollo 20 programs are new, all Apollo 20 schools have new principals, and many of the principals hired a significant number of new staff and faculty. The only factor of the program that isn’t new is the kids.

Everyone involved, from the Superintendent to a school janitor, must believe and engage in actions that illustrate that every child walking the halls of an Apollo 20 school is capable of attaining academic excellence. Everyone involved has to believe it will work so that they will do whatever is in their power to ensure the success of the program.

Still, the greatest challenge is knowing that even if we were to operate with maximum efficiency at the district office, the power of change rests in the actions and efforts of those who see the kids every day and carry out the daily functions of Apollo 20.

How do we get teachers, tutors, parents, and the greater community, all of whom I consider to be the change-agents, to internalize and rally behind the initiative to ensure educational equity for all students?

That’s the guiding question for my work; it’s what keeps me focused.