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TX: Good management and high expectations make a difference at this turn-around school

 

Students get help with college applications in the GO Center at Sam Houston High School for Science, Math and Technology in Houston.

Summary: This school was ordered by the state to close and implement a complete make-over. Armed with a new principal and many new staff members it not only survived its turn-around mandate, in just one year scores in core subjects were sufficient to chart this school as meeting state standards. The school has also has achieved success in a variety of other areas as well. Read more to learn how they "turned around".


On the first day of school in August 2008, the newly reconstituted Sam Houston High School for Science, Math, and Technology opened its doors to a flurry of television trucks and reporters. The media were looking for changes in a school that had not met state standards for six years running, a school that had been closed by the state and forced to go through a makeover.

Here was new principal Jane Crump, who—armed with signing bonuses—had replaced fifty-five teachers with a fresh, energetic crop, many new to Houston, some even new to the teaching profession. Crump now required science teachers to plan together, and math teachers to plan together, every day. They consulted about lesson plans, about test data. But mostly they talked about specific students and who needed intervention to succeed.

District characteristics
Name: Sam Houston High School
State: Texas
Type: Suburban
Grades: 9–12
Enrollment: 2,479
Students per teacher: 14.1

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 88.2%
English language learners: 16.1%
Students with disabilities: 11.4%
White: 2.1%
Black: 4.9%
Hispanic: 92.8%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 0.2%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0%
Other: n.a.
Source:  SchoolMatters.com

Rookie Algebra II teacher Vy Van was one of the new crop. Van had inherited a group of students at Sam Houston who were “four to five years behind in math,” he recalls. “Some were still counting on their fingers. There was a lot of remedial work needed as well as Algebra II.” The year before, a dismal 33 percent of his group had passed the state-required math test. Van began to hold tutorials before school, after school, and on Saturday. “For some, I had to start with middle school math,” he says, to build the missing skills and to “give them success and confidence early.” He built relationships with the kids, asking them to put their dreams on his bulletin board —“I want to be an architect, a doctor.”

Knowing students learn in different ways, Van even made up songs to help them remember complicated math formulas. As he was singing one catchy tune about how to find the length of an arc, Van’s students recorded him—and later posted the clip on YouTube.

When the 2009 test scores came out, Van’s students passed Algebra II with an 86 percent rate

Schoolwide, scores were 67 percent in math and 63 percent in science. In just one year, the results were strong enough to chart Sam Houston as “acceptable” by state standards.

In the new school, expectations were more clear, and higher—not just for teachers, but for students, too. All sophomores were now required to take a double block of math every day—one period to build math fundamentals, and one for actual coursework in algebra or geometry. Attendance was more closely monitored, and rates rose.

On that first day of school in 2008, parent Marina Mendoza took off work to come in and assist as she had done for years. In the past, she says, “There would have been 400 kids hanging around in the auditorium, waiting to clear up problems with their schedules.” But this time, she was astonished to find no one at all in the auditorium. The scheduling snafus of earlier years had already been addressed and prevented.

Lessons learned: What does it take to begin to turn a school around?
  • The commitment, experience, and high expectations of new leaders are critical. When the superintendent first approached Jane Crump about taking over as principal of Sam Houston, “Everybody thought I was crazy,” she recalls. “They thought I was burying my career.” She came anyway because “I thought I could make a difference for these kids.”
  • Hiring a new team of teachers is an opportunity to create the kind of culture that students need. Almost half of the Sam Houston’s new teachers were new to the Houston district and many were new to the profession. Several came from the Teach for America program, which sends recent college grads into needy schools. When interviewing teachers, Crump recalls, “What I was looking for was that they were in it for the right reasons. I paid a lot of attention to how they talked about kids.”
  • New teachers still need mentoring and support when they hit challenges. In Sam Houston’s case, both the district and the dean of instruction helped with such mentoring.
  • When a new principal takes charge of a changeover situation, it helps to have seasoned staff come along. “I was able to bring two strong people with me from Stevenson [her former school],” says Crump, the dean of instruction and her business manager.
  • Having strong partnerships helps, such as Sam Houston’s technology and career links with DeVry University and dual credit arrangements with Houston Community College. In 2007–2008, only seven students got dual credit because of taking courses at HCC. At the end of 2008–2009, more than 110 kids did.
  • Relationships are critical—with kids, with the community, and with parents. Principal Crump has Friday coffee sessions with parents (average attendance is about 60) as a way to listen to concerns. As in many schools, “Parental support is one of the challenges,” says biology teacher Mariana Maldonado. “Lots of the parents have no English, no education, they don’t know what to do. We are working on that.”
  • Support from the district and other resources can bring a boost. Sam Houston got extra help from Houston ISD (such as the services of a math specialist) and the district also helped strengthen college and career prep. District employees monitored grades and attendance and continued to support Project Grad, a program put in place earlier to get kids excited about and prepared for college. The school also worked with consultants from the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Good management and high expectations make a difference. Expectations mean keeping class schedules on track so a first day runs smoothly, or communicating to students that that they will apply to college—it’s not a matter of if, but where they will attend.

“If you can’t get a handle on management, you can’t get a handle on instruction,” says dean of instruction Khalilah Campbell, who had worked closely with Crump before at Stevenson Middle School, and who made the move to Sam Houston with her.

When Sam Houston was reconstituted, it was divided into two new schools (sophomores through seniors in the original building, and freshman on their own, separate campus). Ninth graders benefitted from a longer school day, 7:30 until 4:00 p.m., and beefed-up college and career programs. Kids called the tenth through twelfth grade campus “Big Sam” and the ninth grade campus “Little Sam.”

In the early days, Big Sam principal Crump visited classrooms a lot—“I wanted kids to see me.” And she started reaching out to parents. “The community was behind the change—they were fed up,” says Crump, a 23-year veteran educator. “Trust came because the things we said would happen did happen.” Like wireless Internet availability and updating the science labs with new gas lines. Headphones were provided for simultaneous translation with Hispanic parents in meetings. But mostly, teachers were hired who could inspire and connect with kids and make the content stick.

Of Sam Houston’s students, about 88 percent are eligible for free- and reduced- lunch, a measure of poverty. Almost 93 percent are Hispanic, though only 16 percent are classified as limited English proficient. In an area where more than 3,000 students are zoned to Sam Houston, only about 1,500 actually come. (The others go elsewhere, such as to magnets.)

Crump and Campbell took all that in stride, entreating and supporting students to aim higher, such as taking dual courses for both high school and credit at Houston Community College. In 2007–2008, only seven students got such dual credit. At the end of 2008–2009, more than 110 students did.

Responding to the higher expectations, students’ visits to colleges have increased. The number of college acceptances has risen and scholarships have doubled from 2008 to 2009.

Teacher Rene Cavazos, who spent thirty years working in corporate America before becoming a social studies teacher, says he “did a lot with middle-of-the-road kids, who needed extra encouragement to go to college.” Cavazos says his message “was not IF you go to college, but where.” He got his students used to writing essays, practicing test-taking skills, and boning up on PSAT vocabulary words.

“We’re making them apply to at least three colleges,” says Crump. “These kids have been beat up for so long, that they don’t think they can do it. Then when they get the [acceptance] letter, they start to believe that that they can.”

Cavazos says Crump is “very visible, very approachable. She has established herself and every kid feels like they can talk to her.”

That view is echoed by Dr. Molly Cordeaux, a management team member from the Texas Education Agency who visited classes often. “The principal made a big difference on this campus,” says Cordeaux. “She brought the staff together to make them a team.”

While Crump and other school leaders know they have continued challenges ahead, the 2009 results breathed hope and new energy into the school. And not just in academics.

Where the old Sam used to have no drill team and a band that was more like an ensemble, now such after-school activities have blossomed, including student council, honor society, and almost every sports team. Sam hadn’t won a football game in years, but in 2009, the junior varsity posted its first victory. After all, they had a stronger lineup—more players who now kept their grades up and stayed eligible to play.

Contact:

Jane Crump, Principal
9400 Irvington
Houston, TX 77076-5224
Phone: 713-696-0200
Fax: 713-696-8984


This story was written by Elaine Furlow, a freelance writer living in Arlington, VA.

Posted: February 26, 2010

©2010 Center for Public Education

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