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Houston School Chief's 'Get Tough' Policy Will Send 40,000 to After-School Tutorials

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Beginning this month, nearly 40,000 students in the Houston Independent School District will be required to give up nearly two hours a week of their free time to attend tutorial sessions in subjects they have failed to master.

Under a policy approved last month by the Houston Board of Education, students who refuse to attend the twice-a-week tutorials will fail their related courses.

The mandatory tutoring, officially termed the Required Academic Proficiency program, will involve some 45 percent of the district's students in grades 6 through 12.

It is the most ambitious part of what Superintendent of Schools Joan Raymond describes as a new "get tough" policy--designed to address the fact that nearly half of the district's secondary-school students remain educationally at risk despite continuing intervention efforts.

"It seemed to me, in view of the fact that we have thousands of seniors who are at risk of not graduating this June, that we have a crisis here," Ms. Raymond said in an interview last week. The superintendent is promoting her "get tough" approach in a wide-ranging public-relations campaign that includes posters, leaflets, and 10-second radio and television announcements.

And on Sunday mornings, Ms. Raymond said, she presents her message to "as many churches as will have me."

The message, she said, is simple: "Students don't have the right to fail."

"A lot of people are working two and three jobs to pay their property taxes, and we're not going to allow students to waste it," she said.

"We know the schools can't do it alone," she added, "so we have asked for--and received--strong support from the entire community."

55-Minute Sessions

Both Ms. Raymond and state officials interviewed last week said they were not aware of other Texas districts that require students to attend tutoring sessions on their own time, with the exception of summer sessions.

The state's 1984 reform law requires districts to offer tutorials for certain students, but does not make attendance mandatory.

Houston's 55-minute tutorials will be offered both before and after school and on Saturdays.

According to Ms. Raymond, the district will provide transportation to and from school for the weekday sessions but not for Saturday classes, at least initially.

Students will be required to attend two tutorials per week in any subject they have failed, or in any subject in which they have not passed the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills test.

Students take the state tests in all odd-numbered grades and must pass the 11th-grade battery to receive a diploma.

"These students need to learn that part of their nonschool time is to be devoted to school as well, and they have not done it," Ms. Raymond said.

The superintendent said she decided to implement the rap program in response to concerns about both the effectiveness and logistics of the district's previous tutoring efforts.

Until the end of last semester, 30-minute tutoring sessions were offered during school hours.

After more then three years under such a program, the assessment was that "by and large it has not worked," said Ms. Raymond.

"Our staff was clearly unhappy with it, because it interrupted the school day," she said. "As a result, the overall program has tended to be weakened."

The superintendent said she was particularly concerned about the encroachment of tutoring sessions into homeroom periods.

The time spent in homeroom is valuable, she said, because "students today are just lost in our schools."

"They need to be attached to a professional adult who is responsible for their academic management and for their attendance, or lack thereof."

$1.2-Million Effort

The cost of the 1,500 tutors needed for the program is estimated at $1.25 million for the remainder of this school year.

The board of education allocated the funds last month from a district surplus.

The sessions will contain a maximum of 15 students and will be taught by teachers accredited in the appropriate subject, each of whom will receive a supplement for participating equal to 10 percent of his or her normal salary.

At this point, the district still needs about 100 more tutors, according to Ms. Raymond.

She said school officials are actively recruiting among retired teachers to make up the balance.

"We're also trying to get as many adult volunteers as we can, to show the students that this is a communitywide effort," she said.

In addition, several local colleges and universities have agreed to provide graduate students to assist the tutors.

Other components of the "gettough" policy include a teacher-led districtwide curriculum revision, a six-month retraining academy for administrators, citywide planning committees in all areas of the district's operations, a massive facilities review, and further decentralization of the district's administration.

"We're trying to get kids out of the shopping malls, off the streets, and into the schools," Ms. Raymond said. "We want to teach them that school is not a playground, it is a business, and their business is to pass."

"I'm working for a nice retirement," she added, "and these kids will support it."

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