Interim Superintendent Kenneth Huewitt

I hope all of you had a chance to see the “Walk of Fame” outside – no one innovates like HISD. I’ve had the opportunity of working for Terry Grier for the past six years. One thing I can tell you about this man – he has a heart for children.

In the finance world, we talk a lot about the bottom line. For Terry, the bottom line has always been, and will always be, children . On behalf of Team HISD, thank you, Terry, for always putting children first.

I would also like to thank the Board of Education – and welcome new trustees Diana Dávila and Jolanda Jones. I know this board will continue to do what’s right for all children.

And I’d also like to thank a person very dear to me, for supporting this work and for supporting me – my wife, Pamela. Technically, we have two children together. But when you consider the scope of this work and the demands it can have, we really have 215,000 children – as it should be. Through Pam’s love and the deep faith we share, I’ve had the privilege of serving our district for the past 19 years.

There is no greater cause than education. Each and every one of us sitting here today plays a role in that cause. I want to thank our teachers and principals, for all the work they do and for giving so freely of their most precious commodity –time.

Thanks to the work of Team HISD, we have strong foundations in place to support our students.

First, we declared illiteracy as the “profound crisis” of our time, and we implemented Literacy By 3 with the support of our Board of Education. We trained our staff on a consistent method of teaching young students to read, and filled our elementary schools and classrooms with books custom-fit to a student’s reading ability.

Second, we recognized our students were not graduating prepared for college and the careers of the future, so we closed the digital divide – giving every high school student a take-home laptop.

Third, we partnered with business and industry, to expose students to different industries while still in high school.

If you’ve had a prescription filled at Walgreens, there’s a chance one of our high school students filled it while pursuing an associate’s degree in applied science.
While I’m here to share with you the progress we’ve made, I’m also here to level with you. There are some uncomfortable truths about the challenges that remain. We have students with PROFOUND NEED and even greater potential – but these students don’t have an advocate or a single person in their life who can help them. And these students are missing school, missing opportunities, and missing out on their only chance to escape poverty.

Houston is a can-do city – but we CAN NOT ignore the challenges these students face. Our state legislature has chosen to ignore this reality. More than ever, school districts are being held accountable. And more than ever, districts have fewer resources to do the job.
This is a crisis that has been years in the making.

Let’s talk about what’s correct versus what’s right.

It is correct that 76 percent of our students live with a label: “Low SES.” If you are labeled “low socioeconomic status,” it means your family struggles to put food on the table or a roof over your head. It also means you’re more likely to have poor health. To miss school. To miss the chance at a higher education. Ultimately, to miss the chance at a better life.
It is correct that two-thirds of our students live with the label “at risk.”
It is correct that if you’re African-American, you’re twice as likely to be suspended, but five times LESS likely than an Anglo child to be identified as gifted and talented.

And it is correct that students who enter the Vanguard gifted and talented program in kindergarten have access to elite schools and top-performing teachers. Other students, who are more likely to be black, remain in neighborhood schools with high teacher turnover rates that sometimes can’t even afford librarians, nurses and counselors.

It’s also correct that our district must pay millions to the state – $165 million to be exact – because of a broken school finance system.

These statements are correct, but they are not right.

As a district and a community, we need to do what’s right for all kids. I applaud our Board of Education and school leadership for recognizing that. We can’t change the labels our kids live with, but we CAN change what we do about it. As a district, we don’t want to be judged by how our top 10 percent perform, or by how our elite schools fare on national rankings. We want to be judged by how all children – no matter the label – benefit from our institution.

You all heard from Stanley today – he’s a phenomenal young man. And I know many of you were here when he spoke at State of the Schools in 2013. I remember him smiling – despite the fact his father had just lost his job.

If you spend time around our students, you’ll see many of them smile. Stanley smiled that day even though he wasn’t sure where he’d live , or whether he’d be able to continue at Long Academy. He smiled because, in spite of it all, he knew he wasn’t going to let this situation, this label, define him.

So let’s talk about that label, “low SES.” Does it mean a child can’t learn? Does it mean a parent or caregiver doesn’t support their child? Does it mean a child is destined for crime? Or a continuation of the cycle of poverty?

Absolutely not.

How do I know?

Because I am here today. I was one of them.

I stand before you proud and humbled to serve as the interim superintendent of this great school district.

When I accepted this opportunity, suddenly people wanted to know “my story.” You know, I’ve been here almost 20 years. But I guess I can’t hide anymore.

As a child, growing up in the military town of Killeen, Texas, I was considered “low SES.” Or to use a less fancy word — poor. The funny thing is, I didn’t even know it.

I had clean clothes to wear, shoes on my feet, and a roof over my head. But I was, like so many of our students, from a single-parent home. While my mom cleaned houses and worked odd jobs, I pulled the lawn mower behind me as I rode my bike to Fort Hood to earn money. At just 9 years old, I was the “man of the house.”

I was fortunate to have something money can’t buy – a few key people who, at critical moments in my life, showed me they cared. These weren’t people who were obligated to support me. These were people who chose to support me.

One of them was our neighbor, Mrs. Gilliam. We had a deal. On report card day if I got all As and Bs, I’d get an apple or an orange. Now, I know that doesn’t sound like much. It wasn’t a Play Station or an iPhone 6. But it meant so much to me to know that someone was paying attention to me and believed in me. Her motivations were completely selfless. She knew I couldn’t return her kindness, and she didn’t expect anything — except good grades.

Another was my college economics professor, Tommy Zwann, at what’s now known as Texas State University. I had the bright idea of taking an 8 a.m. class, and I was struggling to stay awake in the back row, exhausted from football practice and late-night “studies.”
Professor Zwann ordered me to the front row. What at first seemed like punishment ended up being a defining moment for me. From that day forward, Professor Zwann always made sure I was listening and learning, often wearing the most colorful ties he could find to keep my attention.

That I can be here today, standing before all of you, is a testament to the power of education, and the power of people. There is potential in everyone. Some folks just need a little help recognizing it.

When I go out and visit schools in our district, I see myself in these kids. They don’t know they’re poor. They are just trying to learn.

It was on one of these visits that I met Adeeb Barqawi at Kashmere High School. Adeeb was one of the most successful Advanced Placement physics teacher in Kashmere history. Of course, before we expanded access to those college-level courses at all high schools, I’m not sure anyone had ever taught AP physics at Kashmere.

Last year, Adeeb quit his teaching job to address even bigger gaps at Kashmere. He launched a non-profit called ProUnitas to bring much needed social services to Kashmere students. Quality meals. Counseling. Medical services.

Today, Kashmere is once again the community center it was decades ago, and the students are thriving.

We need to see more of this at schools throughout HISD.

Each child in the Houston Independent School District deserves a story like Stanley’s. Or a story like mine. But you have to give them a chance to have a story, and that’s why we are here.

As we consider the unfiltered truth of the challenges before us, beware of what some have described as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” We are not in this situation because of our socioeconomic status, or our labels. We do not have 58 schools designated by the state as “Improvement Required” because children from certain backgrounds or circumstances can’t learn.

We are in this situation because too many people have focused for far too long on labels, and accepted them at face value.

We must believe in our children. We must let them know we believe in them and we are committed to their success. And we must demonstrate that commitment by sending a clear message in the way we budget our resources. Here’s that message: Children. Come. First.

This fall, we poured more resources into our schools that aren’t meeting state standards, giving them the highest paid principals in all of HISD. We’re paying core teachers in those toughest schools an additional $5,000 stipend to take on the hard work, and we’re pairing those schools with higher-performing demonstration schools, so their staff can see what success looks like.

Many of you have known me for some time as the numbers guy – the Chief Financial Officer of a $1.8 billion operation known as the Houston Independent School District. In that role, I’ve scrutinized programs and resources that touch every student in this district.
When I look at these services and their price tags, I want to know a few things: How does this benefit our students? — How does it connect to the classroom? How does it impact student achievement? And most importantly, how do we know it’s working?

We use a lot of acronyms in public education. To me, the most important one is ROI – return on investment. If you can’t show it, we shouldn’t fund it.

So what should we fund? Programs and initiatives that will help ALL students succeed. And literacy is at the very top of that list.

Since the launch of Literacy By 3 in May of 2014, more than 5,000 teachers have been trained in a high-impact approach to reading instruction. And this approach centers on one thing, and one thing only: the student.

Students are grouped by reading level, and the teacher serves as the guide on the side, focusing on the students who need the most attention.

Community volunteers also play a role, through Read Houston Read, Real Men Read, and grass-roots efforts like Books Between Kids, which gives children books to take home. In low-income neighborhoods, there’s one book for every 300 children. This is a community problem that needs a community solution.

The good news is, we’re already seeing a return on our investment. This year, our third-grade reading scores went up.

They rose two percentage points — outpacing the overall gain made by the state. That means we’re narrowing the gap between HISD and Texas.

I’ve seen firsthand how our teachers are getting it done. And it’s not by seating students in neat rows to do worksheets.

Miss Zakiya Martin at Mading Elementary School has a passion for teaching, and you can hear it in her voice. She is absolutely magnetic.

But to the untrained eye, Miss Martin’s classroom looks … a little chaotic. Primarily because the students – a bunch of 6-year-olds – are in charge of their learning. While they sit in small groups on beanbag chairs and sprawled out on the floor, grouped by reading level, Miss Martin works the room, giving a gentle nudge or a word of encouragement just when it’s needed.

Today, I’m happy to report that four of every five students in her class have made significant reading progress this school year.

Thanks to teachers like Miss Martin and principals like Nicole Haskins, Mading is now filled with confident young readers.

This work is happening in classrooms across HISD. I’d like to recognize our 2015 Teachers of the Year: Robert Uzick, from Cunningham Elementary, and Vladimir Lopez, from East Early College High School.

I am convinced, more than ever, that at many of our schools, all the right ingredients are in the pot. And as any good cook will tell you – and I’m a good cook – there comes a time when you have to trust your tried-and-true recipe and let the pot simmer without throwing anything else in.

When our students graduate today, they are entering a global marketplace. Competition is fierce, especially in a city as large and diverse as Houston.
Our students must be global graduates in the truest sense. They must be able to lead and communicate, think critically and make decisions. They must be adaptable and productive, and able to understand and succeed in the world around them.

A key component of a global education is being bilingual and biliterate. Houston is the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America, and we want our students to enter higher education and the workforce fluent in a second language. We now have more than 50 dual language campuses in HISD.

This year HISD welcomed the inaugural class of the nation's first Arabic Immersion Magnet School, and it is filled with students as diverse as Houston itself. More than three students applied for each available seat, and they come from every corner of our city.
Of course, it’s not enough to just know another language. When our students graduate, we want them to be ready to take on the world around them – whether that’s college or the workforce.

Technology is a key component of that. On January 20th of this year, we hit a milestone in our PowerUp initative: all of our 65,000 high school students now have laptops.

The way students learn using these laptops reflects the modern work environment, which prizes critical thinking, collaboration, and the ability to problem-solve.

So many occupations are critical to Houston’s future, and our students get to experience them first-hand. One of the world’s busiest ports is just south of us – the Port of Houston. More than ONE MILLION jobs throughout Texas are Ship Channel related.

And our very own Austin High School is the first comprehensive high school in the nation to have a ship bridge simulator that re-creates the conditions of a vessel. Our students practice with the simulator, then take field trips to the Port of Houston.

Over at Chavez High School, engineering students are getting face time with astronauts at the International Space Station. Imagine being in high school and getting to work with NASA.

These are just a few examples of how schools and industry partners can work together to help students visualize the possibilities.

And those possibilities also include Tier One universities. Our EMERGE program links promising students with the college-savvy mentors they need to get them over the admissions hump. Students in this program get one-on-one help with college applications and SAT preparation. They even tour Ivy League campuses. And many of them receive full-ride scholarships to Yale, Harvard, Columbia – their choice of the top 100 colleges in the nation.

Last year, we announced an $8.5 million grant from the Houston Endowment. Today, we have expanded our EMERGE program to ALL high schools, and we deployed 28 college advisers to campuses across the district.

Because of that work, we already have more college applicants so far this year than we did during the entire previous school year.

The number of students taking Advanced Placement classes has also hit an all-time district record. So has the number of students scoring high enough on AP exams to earn college credit. The number of students taking the SAT also has reached an all-time high — and math, reading and composite scores have risen, bucking a downward state trend.
You know I’m a numbers guy, and I find this figure to be quite impressive: Last year, our seniors were offered a staggering $265 million in scholarships.

That is a 227 percent increase from 2007. And, the number of scholars named under the College Board’s National Hispanic Recognition Program has tripled in the past year.

We know the environment our children learn in is just as important as what and how they learn. That's why, with the support of our board and the community that voted in favor of a $1.89 billion dollar bond program, we are rebuilding or renovating 40 schools across the district. At this very moment, we have more construction happening than at any time in our history. Drive by Milby, North Early College, Sterling, Condit, the Mandarin school, South Early College and Worthing. See for yourself. In four years, HISD will have the most modern portfolio of high schools in the nation.

We have done this with input from the students, parents and stakeholders by holding multiple community meetings on every project. We've also been able to mitigate the impact of rising construction costs and keep our promises to the voters and the city of Houston.

As you can see, we have many things to be thankful for here in HISD.

Now, remember those uncomfortable truths I was going to tell you about?

Despite our student demographics, HISD has been declared by the state as a property wealthy school district. And because of that designation – even though 4 out of 5 of our students come from low-income communities – we must send a portion of our tax revenue back to the state.

This year, that portion is $165 million. We are able to cover about $58 million of that. But that leaves us with a $107 million shortfall as we go into the 2016-2017 school year. That’s a lot of money and it will require significant cuts.

I want to stress this again: HISD is having to send millions of your tax dollars back to the state rather than using it to educate our neediest students. We have 58 schools across the district that are not meeting state standards. These schools are home to our most disadvantaged students. Those with the labels we talked about earlier — At risk. Low socioeconomic status. And the state is taking money away from them.

That isn’t right.

We must continue to meet the needs of all students… from all backgrounds, all communities, all ZIP codes. But our immediate challenge is in our schools that are falling behind.

If you don’t help these children, the consequences are dire. According to state law, schools with multiple years of failure can be turned over to a state-appointed board of managers or even face closure.

Those are not acceptable solutions. Everyone in our community deserves equal access to a high-quality education. And we will be the district that provides it. …

We live in HOUSTON, a city of no excuses. And as a city, we must reaffirm our belief that every child’s education matters. I applaud our mayor, Sylvester Turner, for calling attention to the broken school finance system and urging the legislature to address it. He said schools should not be forced to “balance their budgets on the backs of our most precious resource: children.”

As a district, we have difficult decisions ahead of us, and the potential for divisiveness is great. Today, I’m here to urge us to be better than that, for our children’s sake.

Yes, historical and institutional inequities remain, and they must be addressed. But I’ve lived here long enough to know this city’s heart, and it is a good one. We give each other the benefit of the doubt. We understand that raising up our struggling brothers and sisters doesn’t require knocking others down. Houston stands together.

We stand together, committed to the 215,000 lives our district is shaping and the 29,000 employees who dedicate their lives to this cause.

We have solid systems in place, and the best team of teachers, principals, administrators and support staff in the nation.

We will celebrate our children’s victories, and we will try new things. But we will also learn from our mistakes and adjust our course – always, always making sure children are our north star.

We will do whatever it takes, because we are committed to our city, whose future rests on our ability to prepare children for the real world. All of us in this room – and all people who love this city and what it stands for – WE are HISD.

I appreciate all of you being here today to show your support for public education and the great work being done every day in the Houston Independent School District.

God bless all of you, and God bless HISD.