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Houston ISD named nation's top urban district

Houston Students Shine

Houston Independent School District (HISD) students' record of success garnered national recognition in October 2002 when the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation awarded the district its inaugural Prize for Urban Education.

Philanthropist Eli Broad created the foundation in 1999 to help improve the nation's public educational system and has committed more than $400 million for grants and educational innovations in the country's largest urban school districts. The prize honors innovative urban school districts that dramatically improve student performance.

What's right in education
"Houston ISD is a wonderful example of what is right in public education," says Melissa Bonney Ratcliff, the foundation's director of communications. "In the newspapers, we often see reports of what is wrong in public education, but we wanted to shine a bright light on what is working in public education.

"Houston ISD is increasing student achievement at a rapid rate and closing achievement gaps across ethnic groups and between high- and low-income groups. It has a strong leadership team that is making a clear and remarkable difference in the lives of children."

At publication time, the Broad Foundation was unable to provide the specific achievement statistics on which it based the award, but HISD's Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) results show that in 2001, 75.3 percent of all students in the district passed the TAAS, compared with 64.3 percent in 1999, and 71.8 percent of the district's economically disadvantaged students passed the TAAS, compared with 56.8 percent in 1999.

Ingredients for success
"The first thing that helped our district was our board of education put in place an accountability system early on for the district, and then we were lucky to be in Texas, which has an accountability system that holds districts accountable for all students," says Robert Stockwell, HISD's chief academic officer. "We track performance of all students, not just the high-performing ones."

Stockwell says the board created student promotion standards for grades one through eight that require students to pass all courses as well as the state's achievement test and to perform near grade level on nationwide tests. The district also developed a standardized curriculum based on the knowledge and skills the state requires public schools to teach.

"We also linked our staff development to the curriculum to ensure that our teachers understand what students need to be successful, and taught that material effectively," says Stockwell. "We thought it only fair that students were taught what they would be tested on."

Stockwell says HISD identified schools that were struggling and provided those schools assistance to help them improve. Schools could choose to shift or add funds, hire extra teachers or hold Saturday tutoring sessions.

The district also awarded annual financial bonuses to teachers and principals based on a school's student performance, a practice Stockwell says is relatively new but gaining popularity in Texas school districts.

HISD has an online information system that teachers and administrators can use to track the performance of any student, teacher or school.

"We started a districtwide program of benchmark testing during the 1999-2000 school year where we track children's progress in the curriculum throughout the year so we can identify any problem areas that need attention," Stockwell says.

The Broad Foundation gave $500,000 in scholarships to HISD and $125,000 each to the four finalist districts, which included Atlanta Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, Garden Grove Unified School District in Orange County, Calif. and Long Beach Unified School District.

Pam Wagner