Op-Ed: 3 Reasons to be Thankful for HISD this Thanksgiving

Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed in Thesis Magazine opinion pieces are those of the author and should not be seen to represent the publication as a whole.

Have you ever taken a moment just to think about all of the opportunities Houston provides for top-notch K-12 education? For lifelong Houstonians, it may not be obvious just how great Houston’s K-12 options are when compared to the options in other cities. But having moved to Houston just four years ago, I am constantly amazed by the excellence of K-12 education in Houston, and I’d like to tell you some of the reasons why.

Of course, this city has its share of elite private schools – when talking about quality education in Houston, I’d be remiss not to mention that. But it’s generally not surprising when elite private schools turn out to be, well, elite. Public schools and school districts, on the other hand, are generally very hit-or-miss, so the strong points of Houston’s public schools should not be taken for granted. Accordingly, what follows is a brief explanation of three things that HISD has which many public school districts lack.

1. Many and varied magnet school choices.

114 HISD schools – about a third of the schools in the district – offer magnet programming. A number of them offer multiple magnet programs – like Harvard Elementary, which has schoolwide IB as well as a special program for fine arts – and others offer different specializations within a single program, like the five possible concentrations in Westside High‘s integrated technology magnet.

The sheer number of magnet schools in HISD allows for a range of variation that would be impossible in any but the largest metropolitan public school districts. Houston’s magnet programs support above-level fine arts and STEM learning from the earliest grades on, provide access to specialized curricula like IB and Montessori, and prepare students for careers in everything from cooking to healthcare. And that’s not to mention the Gifted and Talented opportunities for bright students and the world language programs which can support immigrant students’ native-language learning and teach English-speaking students new languages through immersion. Only a handful of other large urban districts, like Los Angeles Unified School District, can claim the same range of choices. (And even Los Angeles doesn’t have an Arabic immersion program!)

It’s also worth mentioning that even without considering their variety, HISD magnets are worth being thankful for just by virtue of their existing. There are only about 4,000 magnet schools in the US, many of them concentrated in metropolitan areas. In many school districts nationwide, magnet schools simply aren’t an available option.

2. District policy designed to improve education for all students.

Magnet programs provide wonderful opportunities to the students they serve. But what about the rest? All too often, school districts tout the successes of their highest-performing schools while failing to address systemic problems in their lowest-performing schools.

Realistically, opportunity is never distributed evenly across all schools in a district. Administrators vary in their responses to this reality, and responses vary in effectiveness. In HISD, a significant part of the response consists of the Apollo 20 program, an initiative designed to drastically improve 20 of Houston’s lowest-performing schools. Apollo 20 is funded by community and other donations (to the tune of $16.8 million), and its strategies are based on best practices research from sources like Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, which is partnering actively with HISD on the Apollo 20 project.

And so far, it seems to be working. On average, Apollo 20 students have made gains in reading and particularly in math, and 2013 research projected an end to the racial achievement gap in math in Apollo 20 schools by as early as 2016 for elementary students. While complete parity is still a long way off, the Apollo 20 program is significantly improving the outlook for students who would not otherwise have the resources to compete.

Of course, it’s not just Apollo 20 schools that are making gains – districtwide, dropout rates are down 44% and AP exam passing rates are up 74% since 2009. HISD’s policies are making a measurable difference in the quality of education for all students. Tragically, many school districts nationwide cannot say the same.

3. The Power-Up Initiative.

If you’ve heard of the Power-Up Initiative, you’ve probably heard that it’s the HISD administration’s plan to achieve a one-to-one student-laptop ratio in all district high schools by 2016. This is the most ambitious part of initiative, and it’s certainly a step towards the future – only one in six students in America has access to a school-issued laptop or tablet, but the demand for personal computing devices for students is growing considerably with the proliferation of apps and strategies for incorporating them into classwork and homework to improve the overall educational experience.

The one-to-one laptop plan is all the more impressive when considered in the context of American public schools as a whole. As President Obama recently pointed out while promoting his ConnectED initiative, fewer than 40% of schools even have high-speed wireless internet. HISD schools are, of course, among those that do, thanks to the 2012 bond. Between the wi-fi and the laptops, HISD is definitely ahead of the game on K-12 ed tech.


What  are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Let us know in the comments!

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