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HISD Superintendent of Schools Terry B. Grier

Good afternoon. We’re not here today to simply discuss the state of our schools.  We’re here to discuss the future of our community and for that matter the future of education.  

This is bigger than where we are today as an individual school or as a school district.  This is about what IS and what can be for our city, our economy, our children, our future. I for one am honored that you are here.  You’re making a statement with your presence. You’re making a stand for all the individuals who make up HISD. We are ALL Houston and we represent the future of what can and what will be. 

We’re here today to see the beginning of the future of education. No longer can we think about education in the manner in which we experienced it.  It’s a whole new world and we are part of leading it. There is innovation in our classrooms, new thoughts in our approaches, and new ways to look at the future.  HISD has been at the forefront. We are where schools and communities across the U.S. look to for ideas. And yes, HISD will continue to be at the forefront of what is next.  We’re not afraid of what can be, or in some cases, what cannot be. Why? Because we know that our future will look very different. We know that what is needed and expected of our students and our district is far greater than at any time in our past. What HISD achieves has a direct link to the economic success of our city and region. No institution will have a more profound impact on our city’s quality of life and future than HISD. 

We have a lot for which to be proud. But, we have even more for which to be optimistic. We are not and will not be a system of status quo. We’re facing challenges and addressing them. The solutions are not always easy and change is rarely popular, but it is right and that is our commitment – to do the right things for our children, our students.

Our focus is on Becoming Great All Over. It’s a powerful mindset that’s being embedded in every facet of our district.  Becoming great all over is what’s happening with our teachers.   Becoming great all over isn’t about a few great schools, but a great school in every neighborhood.  Becoming great all over is about pushing our leadership to think bigger, bolder and then --to be held accountable at new and more demanding levels.  Becoming great all over is not about being comfortable; it’s about becoming something fundamentally better.  It’s about pushing the high performer. It’s about pulling up the lowest performers. It’s about meeting every student where they are and helping them reach their potential. We continue to do more for – and with our students – often with fewer resources.  But, there is more to be done. 

You heard from our students today and you can’t help but be moved to see their confidence and unshakeable belief that they will succeed.   That’s what becoming great all over means.  It’s about dreaming big and aiming high. It’s about nurturing the whole child. We must find, embrace and pull out the greatness that exists in every student. Make no mistake; great things are happening throughout our district.  Yet, that’s still not enough for our board, our administration, our teachers or our community.  We will demand more. It’s part of our promise for rigor, consistency and safety for every student.  We know that it’s not enough to have scattered islands of excellence.  We want every classroom in every school to offer rigorous instruction that stretches the minds of all our children. And we want them to be safe – in every one of our 276 schools.  

Now, I recognize that the new levels of accountability we expect haven’t always been the norm, but it is and will be our norm. We started with teachers – ensuring a great teacher in every classroom. We measure. We evaluate. We hold accountable.  Often, our efforts have been painful. We’re just beginning to see the impact of this.  We’re seeing teaching transformed --and our teachers recognize the impact they’re making.  More than 90 percent of our top teachers stay with HISD year after year.  HISD has become a national leader in establishing a pay-for-performance system that rewards teachers who facilitate high student academic growth.

There are others who don’t meet the grade – and we’ve placed 99 percent of the lowest performers on professional growth plans.  Those who cannot or will not meet our standards are being replaced.  No other district in the country is as committed to ensuring that every child is taught by a quality teacher.   We recognize that we cannot fire our way to greatness, but we can and do work to bring out greatness in our teachers with smart, professional development. We know a great teacher is our most important strategy to improve schools. 

We also know that the impact our teachers make to our community is not consistent with how they’re paid.  Hear me on this – this must change.  It’s time for the Texas Legislature to meet its constitutional obligation and adequately fund public education and the teachers who make our schools and more importantly, our kids great. 

We’re shifting our perspective at the district level.  We’re holding our administrative leadership to higher standards. We’re listening more to our customers.  And, we’re tearing down silos so that together we can better support and meet the needs of our schools.  If leadership isn’t setting the example at the district, then it’s difficult to drive greatness throughout our organization and culture. We’re making progress. Not as fast. Not as far. Not as complete, but progress is real.

Now, we often think of HISD in numbers – 203,000-plus students, 30,000 principals, teachers and staff.  We hear about historic decreases in dropouts in each of the past 5 years.  We talk about a graduation rate that continues to climb and is at an all time high. And, the number of HISD students meeting the state’s tougher graduation requirements is up by 2,000 compared to just five years ago. HISD students earned 45 percent more college credits in the past three years by passing tough Advanced Placement exams. More HISD seniors than ever are taking the SAT college entrance exam. And record numbers are scoring high enough to be considered ready for college. During the past three years, we have more than tripled the amount of scholarship dollars offered to HISD seniors from $52 million to $180 million.

These are not simply numbers and accomplishments, folks. They are people.  Real people with real stories and even brighter futures.  What our students will be is yet to be decided. HOW they will get there is being decided every day across the district.  Our students will one day guide our state. Drive our economy. They will lead and create medical breakthroughs. It’s not about their socioeconomic place today; it is about their place in the future.  And, we’re doing our part to ensure their future is different and better than their today. 

Yet, even with all the accomplishments and record numbers HISD is experiencing, we must continue to change for, and with, both our children and our community.  In many ways it’s unimaginable to see HISD and recognize it from even a few years ago. But, what will and what should HISD look like tomorrow? 

For the next few moments, I ask you to remove yourself from the here and now and imagine two scenarios.  In one scenario, desks are lined up in rows with a teacher lecturing in the front of the room.  In the other, you’ll see teams of children huddled together working on a project, solving a problem, and having discussions more commonly heard in college.   These students may be meeting together outside of the traditional classroom or school.  Their teacher may be located in another school, state, or country.  In one scenario, there are just a few students who have access to technology during the school day.  In the other, every student has a laptop that can be taken home so learning doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  

Now  -- recalibrate your thinking. Because much of what you just imagined will become a reality in HISD.  We’re embarking on the most ambitious construction project in Texas history and we have the residents of this great city to thank. We’re honored to be joined today by two outstanding leaders of Houston’s philanthropic community --  Phoebe and Bobby Tudor.  I want to thank the Tudors for leading the campaign that resulted in nearly 70 percent of our voters passing an historic bond that will enable us to do things in Houston that have never been dreamed. 

We’re responding with a commitment to transparency -- and partnerships with the brightest minds and companies in the world. And, a willingness to look far and wide for the best, most futuristic and appropriate ideas to transform our buildings and teaching spaces.  The campus of tomorrow will look and function very differently from today.  And, when we’re finished building, Houston will be the only urban school district in America in which every neighborhood high school is less than 20 years old. 

When you combine these state-of-the-art buildings with great educators, we’ll have schools primed for greatness.  Classroom spaces designed to encourage collaboration and creativity, with teachers facilitating not just lecturing.  But our students also need the right tools to succeed in this hyperconnected world.  I’m proud today to announce that we are working on a far-reaching plan that will close the digital divide that exists in our schools and community.  A concept that, hopefully, over time, will provide every child in grades 3 through 12 in HISD with a laptop they can use in school and at home.  This plan is not simply giving students a computer or just trying to keep with the Jones of other school districts.  It’s a plan that will capitalize on how students learn and will transform what we teach and how teachers teach. We are working on an implementation plan for grades 9-12 next year.  It will be driven by our ability to provide needed infrastructure, staff training, and funding.  With anytime-anywhere learning our students will have the world at their fingertips.  We’ll make sure they learn the skills that complement technology so they aren’t replaced by technology.   

Imagine just how transformative this can be for our teachers, our students and even, their families.  In today’s world, spending 180 days in a classroom to earn course credit is ‘out.’  Earning credit based on seat time versus course mastery delivered by distance and/or blended learning is ‘in.’  You see, the tools of technology are no longer a luxury, they are a necessity if HISD is going to do its part in ensuring that Houston has the fuel to drive its economic engine.  Fortunately, we live in a city with leaders who recognize this.  The HISD Foundation has recently committed to working with us to find the funds necessary to support this goal.  It’s my plan to include more details about this proposal in our recommended 2013-14 district budget. 

The Foundation raised millions in support of Apollo 20 and we thank them for standing with us to accomplish this ambitious goal. I’m proud to say that the investment in Apollo 20 is paying off. We knew status quo wouldn’t change our 20 most underperforming schools. We came to our community with a bold solution to take these schools back and give these children a chance in life.  And, it worked.  It worked because our community supported this 3-year initiative with more than $16.8 million in funds.  The idea of Apollo is basic – the implementation revolutionary. Today, test scores are up, dropout rates are down and graduation rates are climbing.  But more importantly, schools all across the district are benefitting from the lessons we learned in these 20 schools.  They are now hiring tutors to help students during the school day and are intensifying their efforts to retain the best teachers and exit low performers. A culture of high expectations is spreading through schools across the district.  Apollo has served as a solution for the troubled school and an incubator for solutions to schools all over.  Apollo works because it’s about saving children.

We’re committed to continuing our role in providing quality school choice to Houston families and retaining our position as the district of choice in Houston.  We will continue to provide support and funding to our exemplary magnet schools.  We’re also exploring expanding magnet options by creating a middle school version of HSPVA and establishing the district’s first small magnet high school for energy and technology.    We’re opening as many doors as possible for our students, giving them options and opportunities.  Whether students choose a path to college or a career, we’re making sure that they’re prepared. We know that 80 percent of all jobs in the future will require some form of post secondary education and we’re strengthening our career and technical education offerings to meet these higher standards.  As you heard earlier, students in the career academies at six neighborhood schools will graduate high school with an associate’s degree from Houston Community College -- relevant job training -- and professional certifications.  

Moving forward, we hope to expand this approach to campuses all over HISD.  These programs will evolve along with Houston’s economy.  Students should expect that the professional certifications they receive from our schools will match employers’ needs – today and tomorrow.  Employers should expect HISD graduates to have the skill sets and attitudes to meet their standards.  When we rebuild the Barbara Jordan High School for Careers, it will set a national standard for modern career and technical education, serving as a city-wide hub for this initiative.  In short, career and tech programs will be about expanding options, not limiting them. 

We’re also making the path to college a little easier by launching a new program that’s aimed at getting low-income students into Ivy League and other elite universities.  The program is called EMERGE and even in its infancy, it has helped students get admitted to top colleges with full scholarships. One of the founders, HISD teacher Rick Cruz, teaches fifth-grade bilingual students.   I’m pleased to announce that we’re promoting Rick to join our district team so he can expand the program to more schools and devote his energies to it full-time.  Our goal is to significantly increase the number of HISD graduates enrolled in and graduating from top tier colleges.  Rick is driven because he genuinely cares about his students and has high expectations for them.   

We see that same drive and passion in other great teachers across the district.  To give you a perspective about teaching and greatness, I share a story about a student named, John.

John attends Las Americas Newcomers School, a school that specializes in helping immigrant children transition into our country.  A native of Tanzania, John was angry and disruptive in his class.  Yet, his teachers, skilled at connecting with students like him, were undeterred. No matter what they tried, his defiance grew stronger. Until, his teachers collectively convened a heart to heart meeting with John. They told him they believed in him. At the end of the meeting, John shook their hands and promised to do better.  Then, as he turned to leave, a teacher said: “We care about you and we want the best for you like your parents would.” Then John began to cry.  You see, John is an orphan living with his grandmother.  He said,  “My father was a math teacher in my country and they killed him. He was teaching and they just came in and killed him.” His teachers embraced John as one told him: “If your dad was a teacher, then he is our brother. That makes you part of our family.”

I’m proud to tell you John is thriving in school today. John’s case is an example of the great things that can happen when educators meet the unique needs of each student, when they build trusting, respectful, and safe connections with their students, and when they understand the emotional and academic hurdles standing in the way of the greatness inside each student. 

Students like John are in every class. Not the same story. Not the same challenge. But the same outcome. And, behind every success story is a Team HISD member committed to greatness. Can every educator please stand and be recognized? We must never forget the power of a simple thank you.  Our principals and teachers and support staff need to be thanked every day for what they do and for how they do it.  They are real life heroes instilling in our children a love of learning and a hope for a different and better future. 

I’d like to give a special shout-out to our Board of Education. Under their leadership, we now have clearer performance measures that drive our work to ensure rigor, consistency, and safety and we have a new ethics policy to guide how we do business as an organization.  Trustees are unpaid, elected officials who give and give, and I am grateful for their leadership.

Please join me in thanking them for setting the bold direction for our district.  We share a bond and we’re united in our resolve to do whatever it takes to Become Great All Over.  

And, many thanks to all of you – a community that recognizes that great cities start with a great education.   Our partnership with parents, community, faith-based, and business leaders is invaluable. We want and need you to be with us and for us.  Times are not easy, nor with the budget challenges nationally and statewide will they get any better quickly.  But that does not deter what we must become – it simply encourages new pathways and solutions.  

Houston is truly a great city.  Yet still, we see too many of our children giving up on their dreams of greatness because they believe we have given up on them.  We have shown the nation what can happen when the people of a great city come together with a common goal.  Being one of four finalists for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education was a testament to our efforts.

HISD is moving in the direction of Becoming Great All Over, and we’re moving fast.  I am confident that with the continued strong support of our school board, parents, and community, we will transform education and make Houston an international example of what IS possible.  That’s what it will take to Become Great All Over.

Thank you.