College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

How Houston Is Re-Imagining College Success

By Terry B. Grier — June 02, 2015 6 min read

When I became its superintendent six years ago, the Houston Independent School District proudly brandished this slogan: “College-Bound Culture.” In reality, though, the culture I encountered was preparing pitifully few of its students for college—which, sadly, isn’t uncommon in large urban school systems. Too many still rely on “counselors” and old-school methodology that approaches the college-application process as a junior- and senior-year activity for high-performing students—one that mainly involves filling out applications, reporting grades and test scores, writing essays, and seeking recommendation letters.

Six years later, the district has created a culture that lives up to its slogan, fully preparing students, in more profound ways, for higher education and training—and, ultimately, for well-paying, high-demand professions. How we did it is a story that may help other districts seeking to raise the horizons of all their students. Here are some highlights.

We stopped thinking about mere college counseling and started thinking about how to facilitate, throughout our students’ schooling, their eventual college access and success. Before, opportunities for academic rigor in the district, such as Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate programs, were limited to just a few of our schools. A relative handful of our students were taking PSAT and SAT exams, and many of those were performing at levels that wouldn’t get a second look from college-admissions officers.

We exemplified some of the worst qualities of a large urban school district that set the bar too low for many of its students—qualities that include:

• Nurturing certain students as college material, while stereotyping others as bound most likely for low-paying, dead-end jobs;

• Widening achievement and performance gaps; and

• Considering socioeconomic and multicultural diversity as liabilities rather than assets.

In short, we burdened our lowest-income students with the lowest imaginable expectations for their success. The first steps in our new direction would be to raise expectations, deepen rigor, and broaden access to college-admissions tools. The strategy soon produced results.

This year, for the fifth straight year, approximately 12,000, or 91 percent, of our high school juniors took the SAT—for free—on their own campuses. And they were better prepared than ever because of a $500 test-prep course we provided online at no cost, and because all juniors had been able for three years to take the Practice SAT test, for free, at their schools.

We’ve made at least 15 Advanced Placement classes available at each high school and now require (and pay for) the end-of-course exam—resulting in a 64 percent increase in students passing those exams. One of our high schools is now an Advanced Placement high school, where taking a minimum of five AP courses is required. Studying hard in AP classes and scoring well on those tests offer students a huge head start in college and may save thousands of dollars in tuition.

Just as important as advice about course plans, grades, tests, and other college prep is imparting to students the belief that each and every one of them has the capacity for great things."

We’ve expanded International Baccalaureate programs to 17 schools at both the elementary and secondary levels, so that more students can take advantage of this broad, rigorous education that prepares them for success in an ever-shrinking world.

As a result of such changes, our graduation rates have increased, and achievement rates among minorities have soared. Our seniors are receiving more admissions offers and scholarships (from $51 million offered in 2009, to more than $254 million in 2014), and are staying in college to receive degrees.

What galvanized all our rethinking and changed policy into a new philosophy, though, was the creation of what we call the EMERGE program. It has shown how high expectations, backed by rigorous support, can turn low-income, high-potential students—those who, six years ago, probably wouldn’t have been considered “college material"—into successes at some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities. These institutions are clamoring for bright, engaged young students who have had to work hard for their success, and they’re willing to provide them with the support systems to succeed and the money to make a priceless education free or affordable.

To qualify for EMERGE, students complete an application that includes a series of questions and an essay. Students also may be nominated by their teachers or counselors and go through an interview process. While I don’t want to oversimplify the program, its basics are the following. EMERGE students participate in after-school and weekend tutoring, focused SAT preparation, and advisory sessions. Rising seniors attend an EMERGE college-admissions summer boot camp and tour Ivy League as well as other tier-one colleges and universities.

The EMERGE program’s founder, Rick Cruz, is a Yale graduate and a former 5th grade Teach For America instructor whom I appointed to be the HISD’s assistant superintendent of college readiness. He and his team do an amazing job. All of the 64 EMERGE fellows in the class of 2014 now attend colleges that are among the nation’s most elite, on more than $10 million in scholarships, with more than $20 million offered.

In the class of 2015, 98 EMERGE seniors already have been accepted into at least one top-tier college, including six each to Rice University and Brandeis, four to Pomona College, and others to schools including Amherst, Barnard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Smith, Stanford, Swarthmore, the University of Virginia, and Yale. All are expected to receive full scholarships. Next year, we are expanding the program to more than 150 HISD seniors.

Research shows that students like those in EMERGE have a much higher chance of staying in top-tier schools and earning degrees than those who stay closer to home and have to juggle family responsibilities, work, and other distractions.

In guiding EMERGE students, we also take into account a college’s level of persistence (how many students stay for a second year) and its graduation rate. The worst thing we could do is send a stream of our most prepared graduates to a school that isn’t supportive of their success.

EMERGE alumni continue to be an integral part of the program, both through our follow-through work, and by acting as agents of change in their families, their alma maters, and their communities through example. They become heroes to many because they have defied the odds, given up summers and vacations to put in the extra work required to succeed, and gained the courage to leave close-knit families, traditions, and community to venture to distant, challenging places. (EMERGE fellows contribute to a blog, aimed at helping first-generation students reach and survive college.)

The program’s brief but compelling record of success has led the Houston Endowment to award two grants to the district—a $5.5 million, three-year grant to place EMERGE in all 45 HISD high schools, and a $3 million matching grant that will allow us to spread the program’s best practices by deploying a team across the district.

Make no mistake. This isn’t your mama’s college counseling. We will more than double the number of college-access coordinators and college-success advisers and managers to coach, mentor, and hand-hold. They start by engaging 9th and 10th graders, and go into high gear with juniors and seniors.

Just as important as advice about course plans, grades, tests, and other college prep, however, is imparting to students the belief that each and every one of them has the capacity for great things—academic success, career fulfillment, and a productive and rewarding life. We are saying to them: It doesn’t matter whether you started life in a working-class family or as a refugee. It doesn’t matter whether your family has two parents, or your parents are still in a foreign country and you live with a guardian. It doesn’t matter if you have to hold down a job and help take care of younger brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter whether no one in your family has ever finished high school or gone to college.

What matters is our students’ desire and belief that they can and will emerge from their own particular circumstances and succeed in higher education. And with our guidance and support, they are doing just that in growing numbers.

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Creating a College-Bound Culture In an Urban School District


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