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Apollo 20 and the rugged landscape for school reform in Houston, Texas

Today, I finally received a copy of the parent-student handbook for Lee High School, one of the schools in the Houston Independent School District's highly publicized Apollo 20 reform experiment. I had ordered it several weeks ago in order to compare it to the YES Prep handbook.

To my dismay, the Lee High policy guide was a few pages long, and contained none of the innovative rules and guiding philosophy I found in the YES Prep handbook. Perhaps, Apollo 20 is a catch-up program as some people have told me, rather than a new and improved model for challenged neighborhood schools.

There is nothing wrong with that, and only good can come from providing more students with Math tutors, longer school days and an extra class period.

The problem will come when people expect some miraculous results from Apollo 20, and the progress will likely be more moderate. Even if you tried to replicate YES Prep's brilliant strategy of asking all stakeholders--teachers, parents and students--to shoulder a greater burden, choosing the worst schools in the district to begin the experiment would be a fool's errand.

So, if Apollo 20 is a brave and laudable stopgap measure, where and when are we going to begin reform within the Houston Independent School District in earnest.  What models will we deploy in neighborhood schools rated satisfactory which nonetheless provide a fairly mediocre education for students outside the magnet programs?

Reading through the YES Prep handbook, and visiting their schools, it was clear that some group of bright educators made a great personal investment of time and care to state a philosophy of effective schooling-holding all stakeholders accountable, and not just teachers--and to establish policies bringing that philosophy to life.

Can HISD find teams of individuals--teachers as well as administrators--that will take that level of personal responsibility to fight for good schooling? At the Rice University forum with Diane Ravitch, Mike Feinberg said one thing I agreed with--that people have to make the difference.

In my fifteen years, I have met numerous successful, ambitious teachers who wanted to make a difference. One went to YES Prep, another went on to run MIchelle Rhee's Human Resources Department, another left for the suburbs, and a fourth cannot wait to retire after this year. These were four of the five great teachers I have known.

There is nothing stopping Mr. Harvin Moore, a KIPP board member, or Anna Eastman and Mike Lunceford, who were elected on a school reform ticket, or Ms. Paula Harris, an eloquent advocate of change, from saying, hey, let's try something new and create some schools on the KIPP model within our neighborhood middle schools.

Give parents more of a choice--RECRUIT, and then build those models up into the high schools, exactly the way KIPP has done. KIPP started within HISD, and it's model began with HISD teachers and students. Let's bring it back home.

If you had fifteen schools on that model, they would constitute a political bloc capable of defending themselves within the bureaucracy--just as Carnegie parents were able to beat the system and win their own high school--they would not be forced to leave to survive as Mr. Feinberg apparently was.

Reformers, isolated within the school district, will either leave education, or chose to do what Mike Feinberg and Chris Barbic have done: secede and start their own enterprises. Thus far, the space for reform within the public school system has been cramped. It's only representatives have been folks like Michelle Rhee and The New Teacher Project who focus on attacking teachers, rather than holistic reform on the model of KIPP and YES Prep. Blaming teachers, and ignoring everything else, is just distracting for real reform.

Given the political support behind private charter expansion, and the distractions like conflict over the teacher evaluation instrument--which is good for union recruitment and rewarding for The New Teacher Project--and given HISD's focus on catching up the worst of the worst, it may be the reality is the opposite of the rhetoric: that Houston is the last place real urban school reform will be given a chance.

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