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July 2009
News from Houston A+ Challenge

215+ Teachers Make Workforce-Classroom Connections
More than 215 classroom teachers from 18 school districts spent June 8-12 in Houston-area offices and job sites, during Teacher Externship Week 2009 – a collaboration between Houston A+ Challenge and the Greater Houston Partnership.

"Our students are always asking us, 'Why do we have to know this?'" said Robyn Filipowsky, a teacher at Cypress Lakes High School who was one of 20 teachers placed at Shell for the week. "Now we have some great answers for them."

The seventh annual event attracted participation from 68 businesses from across the Houston region. Shell provided major sponsorship for the third year in a row.

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33 School Leaders Graduate from A+ New Visions Academy
Monthly network meetings, multi-day retreats, 360 reviews, book and research study, and peer support helped to hone the leadership skills of 33 local principals and assistant principals who graduated from Houston A+ Challenge's New Visions in Leadership Academy in June.

"Attending A+ meetings made me feel like a part of something bigger.  I truly believe that the diverse ideas and perspectives – from novice (leader) to veteran, across districts – drive the learning," said 2009 graduate Nelda Billescas, an assistant principal at Hastings High School in Alief ISD. "I've learned the importance of developing leaders among my students and my teachers. We've been given the tools to be more innovative and more successful."

In addition, 37 school leaders finished their first year in the program, and 50 school leaders began the two-year program in June.

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Schools Share 'Reflective Portraits' of Learning
Student artwork, teacher journals, classroom projects and school video projects filled a gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts in May, as Houston A+ Challenge held a special event spotlighting the diverse accomplishments and lessons learned at 20 Houston-area schools.

The multi-year Focused Impact initiative was aimed at helping schools transform campus culture, increase faculty capacity and impact student learning.

For Houston A+ Challenge, the successes of schools in this grant program point to several larger ideas in changing the educational landscape:

    • First, community partnerships work to make change.  Schools that effectively utilized local community partners with grant funds to support educational change made vast and lasting changes on their campuses. 
    • Second, schools need feedback.  Schools in the grant program made changes to programming and implementation based on feedback from A+ and network schools that turned into lasting, effective changes that would not have been available otherwise.
    • Third, financial support is the catalyst.  Schools in this grant program met success by changing their strategic intent and school-wide philosophy.  They then focused funds, resources, and energy in this shift in ideology.
    • Last, programming that entices students to think critically and collaboratively requires teachers to think critically and collaborate.  This cyclical approach leads to change in practice and student performance.

The Focused Impact initiative was made possible through support from The Brown Foundation and the Annenberg Foundation.

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Oct 13: Join us for 'The Power of the Network' Dinner
The Power of the Network: 2008 Annual Report, Houston A+ ChallengeSave the date for a very special evening benefiting Houston A+ Challenge, as we honor our Founding Board Chair, First Lady of Houston Andrea White, and our Founding Board Member, Maconda B. O'Connor.

The event will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at the River Oaks Country Club. Co-chairs for the event are Lesha and Tom Elsenbrook and Nancy and Bryan Ruez.

Guests will have the opportunity to learn more about Houston A+ Challenge's history and initiatives, and to meet some of the students, teachers and school leaders whose lives have been touched by 'the power of the network.'

To learn more about sponsorship opportunities for the event, contact Melissa Davis at mmdavis@houstonaplus.org or (713) 658-1881.

Our 2008 Annual Report, also titled 'The Power of the Network', also provides a glimpse into Houston A+ Challenge's recent work and long-term impact in our community. Click here to view or download a copy.

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New Faces at Houston A+ Challenge
Summertime brings new opportunities in the education community, and we are pleased to announce the following:

Mike Webster, a longtime program coordinator for Houston A+ Challenge's mathematics and Focused Impact initiatives, will take on a new role as Teacher Leadership Coach for A+. Mike will work to fill the very big shoes of Tim Martindell, who after six years leading Critical Friends Group and literacy work at Houston A+ Challenge, will return to school district service as Fort Bend ISD's coordinator for secondary English Language Arts.

In addition, Houston A+ Challenge welcomes Lachanda Landry as our newest Faculty Coach for leadership programs. Lachanda replaces Shundra Cannon and Rena Ramirez, who left A+ in June for other opportunities. Biographies of all A+ staff members can be found here.

Houston A+ Challenge also salutes our summer interns, who join us from a variety of schools: Nekeia Bedford (Lamar University), Bernice Burrell, Shannyn Piper (Duke University), Haley Richardson (University of Wisconsin), Jasmine Williams (Prairie View A&M University), Helen Villareal (Texas Southern University) and Victor Vu (Brown University). Thanks for all of your hard work and dedication!

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School News

Local Student, Schools Win National Annenberg Awards
One Houston-area high school junior and two local elementary schools are among a handful of scholarship and grant recipients nationwide through the 2009 Leonore Annenberg Scholarship and School Funds.

Two local schools nominated by Houston A+ Challenge -- Spring Branch Elementary School (Spring Branch ISD) and David G. Burnet Elementary School (Houston ISD) -- have been awarded grants from the Leonore Annenberg Fund for Schools. Burnet plans to use its grant to enhance the school's multimedia technology, and Spring Branch will use its grant to build out an interactive science laboratory for students.

In addition, Juan Hernandez, a rising senior at Houston ISD's Reagan High School in Houston ISD, is one of five students to win a full ride scholarship to the four-year college of his choice. The scholarship committee noted that Juan is a gifted writer whose tremendous work ethic fuels both his academic achievement and his dedication to volunteering to help local homeless individuals and children at risk of dropping out of school.

Now in its second year, the scholarship program reflects the late Leonore Annenberg's lifelong commitment to public service, education and the arts, and her unparalleled efforts to improve the lives of the nation’s youth.

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Fast Times with Advanced Placement Courses
While the number of students taking AP classes has increased by 45% from 2004 to 2008, according a recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, more than half of Advanced Placement (AP) teachers believe that the effectiveness of AP courses is being diminished due to loose restrictions. In 2008, some 1.6 million students took AP courses, up from 1.1 million in 2004. However, AP teachers surveyed for the study attributed much of the increase to "more students who want their college applications to look better" rather than more students wanting "to be challenged at a higher academic level." The study also noted a belief that administrators are expanding AP courses "to improve their school's ranking and reputation in the community." For more information about the study and video presentation, click here.

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'Diplomas Count' 2009: Graduation Rates on the Rise
Most school systems posted gains in graduation rates over the past decade, with the pace of change most rapid in large, high-poverty, and big-city schools districts, according to a new report by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

Between 1996 and 2006, the national graduation rate made slow, steady progress, rising by 2.8 percent to 69 percent. Texas improved by 6 percent to chart a 65 percent graduation rate during this time.

Also of note: Cypress-Fairbanks ISD charted the top graduation rate (80.7 percent) among the nation's 50 largest districts, based on data from the Class of 2006. The district is the nation's 35th largest.

For a full overview of the study and methodology to calculate the graduation rate, click here.

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In Focus with ... Preparing to Dream

Susana Velis, andAs the first in her family to attend and graduate from college, Susana Velis has a special understanding of the students she counsels at Aldine and Nimitz high schools.

"My parents arrived in the U.S. with sixth grade educations," says Velis. "When it came time to apply for college, they couldn't help.
I just struggled through it."

According to a 2008 survey, 70 percent of high school students in Aldine would be the first in their families to attend college – that is, if they manage to successfully navigate the maze of required classes, applications and essays, scholarship opportunities and financial aid forms. Yet traditional school counselors in Aldine Independent School District, as in many districts nationwide, have case loads of up to 400 students.

Through the Preparing to Dream initiative – a joint project with Houston A+ Challenge and the National College Access Network – Aldine ISD is piloting a model to help more students find their way along the path to college.

In 2008, Velis was hired as the district's first full-time, campus-based College Access Coordinator, to augment the work of traditional counselors. In addition, 34 high school students and six classroom teachers were selected and trained to serve on "The Dream Team" – providing peer-to-peer and classroom-level assistance with motivation, application forms and follow-through.

"Everything we do is meant to show our classmates they're not alone in this journey," says Carlos De La Torre, a senior who hopes to attend Georgetown University and become the first college student in his family. "Some people just need a little push."

Aldine ISD's Director of Guidance Services, Dr. Charlotte Davis, says early results are positive – more than 1,200 students and parents attended the district's College Night in 2008, up 33 percent from the
previous year.

"It's a total transition," Davis says. "Eventually we want to see this culture spread district-wide, to where everyone from the front office, to the bus drivers, to the custodial staff are talking about college."

Aldine ISD is one of five school districts participating in the Preparing to Dream initiative, funded generously by Houston Endowment and TG, the state’s guarantor of student loans.

Teams of school leaders, teachers, parents and students from Cypress-Fairbanks, Goose Creek, Houston and Spring Branch also developed innovative pilot projects based on a comprehensive analysis of student achievement data, college-going rates and trends, district demographics and current college access programs.

Teams began implementing their plans in Fall 2008, assisted by nationally recognized data coaches and core team coaches of Texas educational leaders. Benchmarking data will be used to chart progress in improving student outcomes, and to fine-tune strategies during the three-year initiatives. Project details for all districts are online at: www.preparingtodream.org.

This story was first published in Houston A+ Challenge's 2008 Annual Report.

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On The Bookshelf

Four experts on education leadership propose a new professional learning model called instructional rounds -- an approach Michael Fullan says "redefines the teaching profession."

Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning targets educators who want to improve instructional delivery and its support, based on the medical-rounds model used in the medical field.

Co-author Elizabeth City is Director of Instructional Strategy at Harvard University's Executive Leadership Program for Educators and a faculty member at Boston's School Leadership Institute; Richard Elmore is a Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at Harvard; Sarah Fiarman is an interim principal at Martin Luther King, Jr. School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Lee Teitel is a faculty senior associate at Harvard's Executive Leadership Program for Educators.

The following is from Harvard Education Press:

"Walk into any school in America and you will see adults who care deeply about their students and are doing the best they can every day to help students learn. But you will also see a high degree of variability among classrooms—much higher than in most other industrialized countries. Today we are asking schools to do something they have never done before—educate all students to high levels—yet we don’t know how to do that in every classroom for every child.

This book is intended to help education leaders and practitioners develop a shared understanding of what high-quality instruction looks like and what schools and districts need to do to support it. Inspired by the medical-rounds model used by physicians, the authors have pioneered a new form of professional learning known as instructional rounds networks. Through this process, educators develop a shared practice of observing, discussing, and analyzing learning and teaching.

"Listen up! Instructional Rounds redefines the teaching profession. There is no other book on school improvement like it. This is a powerful, specific, accessible treatment of what it means to get in the classroom in order to make a difference in the daily lives of teachers and their students." —Michael Fullan, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

"At last, we have a book that moves school and district leaders closer to the classroom. The authors challenge the myth of leadership as an isolated, hierarchical exercise focused on grand plans and visions and bring us back where we belong—amid the complex reality of students' and teachers' daily lives. Full of practical, specific, and compelling evidence, Instructional Rounds in Education will have a profound influence on educational leaders who are willing to invest the time to observe, listen, and learn." —Douglas B. Reeves, founder, The Leadership and Learning Center.

Also on the Bookshelf:

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2010 Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy
The Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy is a cool summer camp just for teachers. At the Academy, teachers do lots of fun math and science experiments to share with you in the classroom. The experiments seem like games, but really they help everyone learn about math and science. The Academy was started by pro golfer Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy. They worked with ExxonMobil to create a special learning environment for teachers. Maximum Award: Expenses. Eligibility: The program is open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia who are of legal age in their jurisdiction of residence (and at least 18), who are currently third, fourth or fifth grade teachers or district coordinators at an accredited school, are in good standing at their school, and have successfully completed any state teaching certifications. Click here for more information. Deadline: October 31, 2009.

Foreign Language Assistance Program
The federal Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) provides grants to local educational agencies (LEAs) for innovative model programs providing for the establishment, improvement, or expansion of foreign language study for elementary and secondary school students. The 5-year grants will be awarded to LEAs to work in partnership with one or more institutions of higher education (IHEs) to establish or expand articulated programs of study in languages critical to United States national security in order to enable successful students to achieve a superior level of proficiency in those languages. In addition, an LEA that receives a grant under this program must use the funds to support programs that show promise of being continued beyond the grant period and demonstrate approaches that can be disseminated to and duplicated in other LEAs. Projects supported under this program may also include a professional development component. Maximum Award: $100,000-$300,000. Eligibility: LEAs, including charter schools that are considered LEAs under State law, in partnership with one or more institutions of higher education. Deadline: October 31, 2009.

ePals, Inc.: Free In2Books Curriculum
In2Books, the curriculum-based e-mentoring program from ePals, Inc., will be offered for free to some Title I schools. Students participating in In2Books select and read age-appropriate, high-quality books from a list compiled by a team of children's literature experts. The students are matched with carefully screened adult pen pals who read the same books as the students. After reading each book, students and their pen pals exchange thoughts about the important issues in the book via online letters. Teachers reinforce these activities in the classroom with related lessons and discussion. Maximum award: The online program, books and professional development (valued at more than $500). Eligibility: All 3rd-5th grade classrooms in Title I schools from any one district. Deadline: N/A.

C-SPAN: Video Archive Grants
C-SPAN Archives Grants give teachers videotapes from the extensive collection in the C-SPAN Archives for creative proposals that use the network's programming in the classroom or in research projects. Eligibility: Middle and high school teachers and college/university professors. Maximum award: Use of archive tapes. Deadline: N/A.

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October 13
'The Power of the Network' Dinner, benefiting Houston A+ Challenge
6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
River Oaks Country Club

Statistic of the Month

In 2009, more than 133,000 Texas students failed to graduate high school with their classmates -- the second largest number of any state in the nation. Nearly 7,200 students are lost each day from American schools.

Source: Education Week, "Diplomas Count" 2009

Houston A+ Challenge

2700 Southwest Freeway, Suite B
Houston, TX 77098-4607

Board of Trustees

Maconda B. O'Connor
Founding Board Member

Ann Friedman

J. Victor Samuels

Thomas L. Elsenbrook

Susan A. Bischoff

Bill Crouch
Jonathan Day
Joe B. Foster
Roberto Gonzalez
Karol Musher
Maconda B. O'Connor
Harry Reasoner
Yava D. Scott
Bobby Tudor
Andrea White
Rosie Zamora

Advisory Board
Leonel Castillo
Michael Dee
H. Devon Graham, Jr.
Jenard M. Gross

Houston A+ Staff

Scott Van Beck
Executive Director

Sheri Miller-Williams
Director, Leadership

Catherine Reed

Director, Finance

Melissa Milios Davis
Director, Communications & Development

Alejandro Morúa
Director, Partnerships & Innovations

Betsy Broyles Breier
Program Coordinator

Angela Prince
Curriculum Specialist

Mike Webster
Teacher Leadership Coach

Principal Leadership Coaches
Marshal Dupas
Debbie Emery
Lachanda Landry
Lawrence Kohn
Bonnie Roberts

Terrie Roberts

Events Coordinator

Administrative Assistants
Imelda Cardoza
Donna O'Neil
Lisa Stein

Tuan Amith

Summer Interns
Nekeia Bedford
Bernice Burrell
Shannyn Piper
Haley Richardson
Jasmine Williams
Helen Villareal
Victor Vu