By the students, for the students. We want to be relatable, and we want to accurately represent the students of HISD. Anyone can submit – see the sidebar to learn how. Powered by the HISD Student Congress.
Our former Speaker, Zaakir Tameez, had an up-close chat with HISD Superintendent himself, Terry Grier, discussing the role of students in education, counselors, dual-language programs, race relations, College Board, standardized testing, Dr. Grier’s background, and more. The first thirty minutes of this show aired on aired on 6/5/2015 on 90.1 FM KPFT.
Hosts: Zaakir Tameez
Guests: HISD Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier
Producer: Juliana Dunn
Here is the transcript for the interview because it’s very long. We colored cool topics red and marked each minute to help organize it. A huge thanks to Kate Ham, Amy Fan, Sara Ho, Autumn Caraway, and Andrea Jaime for transcribing!
Zaakir: Well, today on our show we have with us the Superintendent of HISD, Terry Grier. Thank you for being with us today.
Grier: It’s a pleasure. I feel honored to be here with you today.
Zaakir: So, as you know, I am in high school, most of our people are in high school as well, and I kind of wanted to get to know where you started from. So, what was it like for you to be in high school?
Grier: It was a lot of fun. I grew up in a very small community in North Carolina in the southeastern part… very rural tobacco town. It’s back in those days where the tobacco farmers brought their tobacco to town to sell. And, so it was small, got to know everyone… probably only 75 students in my graduating class, so really small. And so, as a result, you got to know all of your teachers, then you got to know not only the kids in your class, but you got know other kids in the school. So, it wasn’t very big.
Zaakir: So, what were you like in high school?
Grier: You know, I like to think I was a good person. I was an athlete. Athletics meant a lot to me, and it was very important to that community.
And so I was captain of the football team my senior year, and a four star athlete, and loved athletics, loved to compete, liked the teamwork, working together with people for a common goal. We had really good sports teams there, so I enjoyed it a lot. I was not a real strong student academically as much as I should have been, or would have liked to have been in that school, because of the size, I guess because of the expectations of the principal. Teachers there, for example did not offer advanced placement courses at that school.
So, in that school there were basically two tracks. There was a tack for kids who were going to college and one for the ones who were not; and, kind of the delineating course was agriculture. So, in the 9th grade, if you took [agriculture], they were usually the kids who had no interest in going to college.
If you didn’t, you were on some type of college track. You were going to take courses like Algebra I and Algebra II and French I, French II, and Chemistry – very basic kinds of courses. I enjoyed that.
One course that I took that my family insisted that I take was typing. My dad believed that that was a skill that if you learned, that you could always find a job because not everyone knew how to type. And they were just absolutely insistent that I take typing. It was a fun course. It was a great course. I sat beside this kid named Wesley Freeman, and we always competed with each other over who could type the fastest. Back in the day it was not an electronic typewriter. It was the old manual that had a leaver on it that you would push and it would make the carriage go over. So, sometimes just to mess with him, I would type real fast and just sling the carriage over just where he’d think I was faster than him, and of course I hadn’t finished the sentence.
He would sometimes rip his paper out, and it was a lot of fun. High school for me was a very enjoyable experience.
Zaakir: So you come from rural North Carolina as a captain of the football team, expert typist…
Grier: Expert typist – that is a good word.
Zaakir: …And at what point did you… there must have been a point in your life where you kind of resolved to go into education.
Grier: Well, you know, it was… I went to undergraduate school at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. It was a regional university a lot like the University of Houston- they are in the same conference now. Since I was there, it has grown. They now have a medical school, and it has become a much better university. It evolved from a teacher’s college. At one time it was East Carolina Teacher College for Women. It kind of had a humble beginning, and then it became East Carolina College, and then East Carolina University, and now it has the med school.
But, when I was there it was a regional school, a lot of kids went home on the weekends. In North Carolina, Interstate-95 runs north and south up the eastern part of that state. A lot of the kids who lived between that interstate and the ocean in North Carolina would go to East Carolina. So, I went there and I was very ill prepared as a freshman. I really struggled because I come to realize that there they didn’t care whether you played sports or not. In high school you got by a lot in that small high school if you were captain of the football team and a good athlete, but in college that did not matter at all. Not taking some of the rigorous course you guys have taken here at HISD, it was a struggle.
The first year it was summer school, and the second year it was summer school. It took a while for me to be able to do well academically.
Zaakir: So when did you get interested in teaching or becoming a superintendent? How did that process go?
Grier: Education is interesting. It traditionally, over the years, has a workflow where people become teachers. Then you teach for a while, and then you go into school administration, usually as an assistant principal, and then you move up to the principal’s job. You work there for a while, and then you get a chance to move into the central office like here [Hattie Mae White]. Then you may work here as an assistant superintendent, or you may be in charge of a particular program. Then you get a chance to apply and become a school superintendent, and interview with school boards. If they offer you a job, you take that job, and sometimes you work there for two or three years, and then another job comes along.
After a while you feel like a Methodist minister, moving from town to town to town, and you are dragging your kids and your family all over the place. You follow a career path where you move from a small district to a medium sized district to a little larger district. The next thing you know you wake up one day, and you are in Houston, Texas; and you are in the seventh largest school district in the country. You look back, I look back a lot, and reflect back a lot at my time in education.
Probably my happiest days where when I really enjoyed being a school principal, and working directly in schools with kids. It felt like you could make a real difference by working with teachers to help them improve their trade, improve their skill set, to be better at teaching.
I like what I do here. It is very politically challenging, and it is very hard work. It is very lonely work. I have found over my career that the higher you go in education, from a career path prospective, the lonelier it becomes. You have fewer and fewer friends.
When you become a school superintendent, that sometimes is compounded.
I know even now, when my wife and I go out socially, it’s very seldom that we go out that it doesn’t almost always turn back to education and to the district, and to something someone read in the paper, or heard on TV, or saw on the Internet. There are times where you would just like to be a regular person. Here, when I go out- most of the time if I go out to eat- you can see people kind of give you that look. If you’ve been here long enough, if you’ve been on TV enough, been in the paper enough, many people recognize you and know who you are.
Zaakir: I think that sometimes people forget that you are a regular person too.
Grier: I am, and I sometimes wonder if they ever even knew that, or thought about it, much less even forget about it. You are; you have feelings. I know, in my job, people once…
I remember an interview question once when someone said, “If you had a preference, would you prefer people to like you or respect you?” I think it is an interesting question. As I reflected on it, my answer was, “Well, I want them to like and respect me.” In my job I think people often think that you don’t want to be liked because you have to make such hard decisions. You have to make employment decisions, to terminate people. Sometimes the decisions you make, you are not going to make all the people happy. Sometimes it is hard to make half of the people happy. But, you start thinking about what is in the best interests of all children, particularly poor children, children that are disenfranchised, the kids that may not have the support at home where they are going to have a vocal advocate.
That is what I love so much about what you guys are doing. I love this Student Congress idea where you guys have a voice, and you can speak up.
I’ve said forever that if you really want to know what is going on in a school, particularly a middle school or a high school, and an elementary to a smaller degree, go in and ask the kids or ask the school secretary. Between the school secretary and the students, I guarantee you, you can find out really what’s happening there.
Zaakir: You know, in HISD, as you’re saying, looking back, if you could do things differently, what would you do?
Grier: You know, money’s not always the answer. And I promise you that. I wish we had had more money to pay our teachers more. I think all of the reform initiatives that you have in education starts and stops with human capital. It’s about the quality of principal you have, it’s about the quality of teacher you have in the classroom. And, you know, as I look back, I wish we could have paid teachers more. I wish we had done a better job recruiting high quality teachers into the school district.
You know, I believe very strongly in accountability. I’m not opposed to high stakes testing. I think we test too much. I think that our teachers sometimes spend too much time in some of our schools with test prep. To me, I think you should just teach kids. And then when it comes time to take the test, you have to have a confidence that if you’ve done a good enough job teaching, they’ll do fine on the test. And I worry sometimes, as I reflect back, that we should have been more, maybe I should have been more aggressive in trying to address how much test prep we did in the district.
Zaakir: So, one thing that’s big in the news a lot these days is the opt-out movement. You know, pulling out of the tests, pulling your students out. Recently, it’s become an issue in Houston. Could you talk about that a little bit for our listeners, what it is?
Grier: Parents are opposed to testing. They’re opposed to high stakes testing. So, as a way of protest, they are simply saying, “You’re not going to test my child. We don’t care what the state says, we don’t care about what the government says, my kid’s not going to school that day to take that test.” You know, to me, I’ve always loved, what I’ve loved about being an American is here, you have the freedom of expression. You can take a stance and you can stand on that. You can express how you feel. And one way of doing that is protest. And you say, “I’m not going to participate in that.” Now, that’s one side of the nickel. The other side is, you’ve got a state and a federal government that tells us that you have to give these tests. So, you ask and you see, you sit and you look at it from one angle, and you’ve got a handful of kids protesting and a handful of parents opting out.
Okay, maybe you say “Well, here’s what the state law says, but if you choose to do that, just know what you’re doing.” But what happens if everyone starts opting out? And how do you handle that when the money you receive from the state and the federal government is tied to an accountability model? And so that’s the dilemma. We aren’t there yet. You think through it, and you could eventually end up there.
Zaakir: So what would you say if you could say one thing to parents and students who choose to opt out?
Grier: So I, number one, I respect your opinion. And one of the other pieces I would say is that you know, don’t you want to know how your children are doing? Don’t you want to know? And so I think that as I’ve said to the board, the key I think is a balance. How much testing is enough testing. And this whole idea around test prep drives me crazy. Of course, I don’t think you should be spending any time prepping kids for tests.
Zaakir: So on a note of testing, you know, one thing that HISD has done a great job of doing is giving free AP classes and free SATs and PSATs and services that are provided to students that they don’t have to pay themselves. And it is something I think a lot of neighboring school districts are lacking. So could you speak maybe on how’d you get this accomplished so quickly and how’d you work with College Board to get this done?
Grier: You know, it’s to me, when you think about access to rigor, I think zip codes should not identify your access to rigor. When I first came to work here, my very first week on the job, I spent almost all of my time visiting high schools and taking to high school students. And I remember like it was yesterday, I was at Madison High School, and I was talking to a group of students. There were three freshmen, three sophomores, three juniors, and three seniors. So I go out and talk to them, and we’re sitting around. I think I brought some chocolate chip cookies in and some Coke and stuff. And we were sitting around, having cookies and talking.
And so, about halfway through, this young woman said to me, “Do you think we’re stupid?” And it just startled me and I said “Well, young lady, I don’t know enough about you to sit here and make any kind of judgment about you, and I would never think anyone stupid.” And she said, “Well, someone thinks we’re stupid because my school doesn’t offer any AP classes. We have to get on a bus and we have to go to other schools if we want to take AP classes. We can’t take AP classes here.” And so, that afternoon, when I came back to the office, I met with some of the staff down here and I asked, “How many of our schools offer AP courses? How many courses do they offer? How many exams do the kids take?” And as we started finding out more and more and more, we quickly realized that only about four of our high schools offered five or more AP courses. And that even if you took the AP course, you didn’t have to take the exam.
And if you took the exam, you had to pay for it.
Now, If your parents are middle income or high income, they have no problem coming up easily with $72 to take one AP test. But suppose you’re poor, and you’re on free and reduced lunch. No one’s going to have the money to pay the $72, and what if you’re taking three AP classes? Or two? That just compounds your dilemma. And so, we immediately thought about where we were, where we wanted to be. I wanted all kids to have access to those rigorous college level type courses.
So, I convinced the school board that we should offer more AP courses at all schools, that we should put in place a practice that if children or students took an AP class, they should be required to take the AP exam. And, we should pay for it. It should just be a part of school.
You don’t have to pay if you’re going to play in the band. You don’t have to pay if you’re going to be on the soccer team. So to me, this was just part of an experience that I thought that parents and students in a district where we had as many children that were on free and reduced lunch as we had, should not have to, is an expense they should not have to bear.
So the next year, we said that all schools were going to offer at least ten AP courses. And the next year, the first year, next year was five. And then two years later, it was ten. And then it went to fifteen. And we had a lot of people that said no. That these kids are going to drop out. ‘You don’t know who these kids are, and you don’t know how bad some of these schools are.’ And we found, again, that wasn’t the case. A lot of our schools where kids had never taken an AP course not only took these courses, they scored 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s and got college credit for it. We did some cool things on Saturday with tutoring and helping them get ready for the AP exams,
And we changed AP curriculum around some, but we’ve moved from about 8,000 exams being offered annually at HISD to about 26,000, which in five years is quite a big jump. And then we did the same thing with SAT. We said you can take the SAT–or ACT, you pick–and we’ll pay for the cost of the exam for you.
I don’t want your station in life; I don’t want your family income to get in the way of your future. It’s tough. We wanted to take that off the table. We wanted our kids to know that we believed in them, and our teachers as well.
Zaakir: So, did you work with College Board in any way in setting this up?
Grier: We did, we did. Yeah, I’m very lucky I’m on the board of trustees of the College Board.
Grier: And I’ve been in that position for four years. This year I rotate off the board. There are like four-year appointments to that board. You don’t get paid anything for being on it. It’s one of those volunteer kind of things.
But, you know, to be honest with you, I’ve used that position to encourage them to do some things with Houston that they had not done before with other school districts. And using the PSAT to help us determine which AP courses we should offer at each school was novel; it was something that no one else had ever done. And that was something I feel good about. And making sure that our teachers could go through the AP training and become AP exam readers was two of the steps we were able to work with the College Board to provide to our students and teachers here in Houston.
Zaakir: How was your experience there?
Grier: I enjoyed it. It’s like being a part of any other board. It’s like you being a part of the [HISD Student] Congress.
It’s not just about you. It’s about everyone else. And so, if you want to get things done, you have to get them done through people. And so, it’s about relationships. And so, you can go in and you can have a position, but in expressing that position, if you alienate everyone, and if you don’t have the capacity to help people to see the benefit and the greater good, you’re not going to have much success. And so, being able to go there, to get to meet people, to get to know people, to get to listen to their concerns, to their priorities, and help them accomplish some of what they want to accomplish, and in exchange for them working with you, it’s that type of give and take, which a lot of people call politics, that we got involved in to try to get the [College] Board to help us here in Houston.
Zaakir: I think that’s one of the biggest issues in Houston is. It just feels like there’s so much tension sometimes.
Zaakir: And the question is often, why? You know, why can’t we just work together and try to move to a common goal?
Grier: It’s hard. My job is one of the most political positions you’ve ever seen because it is so much push and pull. A lot of take, not a lot of give sometimes. And it’s too often more about–for so many people–about me and mine and what I want versus what’s the collective good, of the city, of the school district, of the organization. And, you know, we have to think about that, think about it hard.
You look at race relations in Houston, and they’re not nearly as good as people want to pretend they are, and it’s something a lot of people don’t want to talk about. But it’s something I see everyday, because I deal with it every day. And I also see it as the underlying tensions that you just discussed that are going on across the city. And, you know, as we become more diverse in Houston, that won’t go away.
That’s something that the city and the city leaders and the people who live here are going to have to confront and come to terms with.
Zaakir: Yeah. You’ve been very supportive of the Student Congress, and I think it does a lot of what you’re saying, trying to… A lot of times in schools, the only time you see each other from other high schools is when you’re competing against them. You know, like when you’re in football and you’re trying to get the other kid out. But here we’re trying to collaborate and work together. And, our listeners might not know this, you agreed to meet with us after we spoke at a board meeting, and we also have meetings with you scheduled for next year every month. And so, what kind of input should students have in our education, and especially here in Houston?
Grier: I just think it should be tremendous. I’m just telling you, you know what kind of courses we offer. I think–some people don’t agree with this–I think students ought to be eight and give us input about the kind of job they think their teachers are doing. I really do believe that. You know about them. I promise you that each one of you in the school you go to–and you all go to very good schools and I know where you go to school–and I promise you if I ask you right now, could you name me the five best teachers in your school?, you could do it.
And if I ask you to name me the five weakest teachers in your school you could do it. You know. I mean, you know your own self. When I was a student in school, in high school and in college, I could still tell you who my very best teachers were and who my weaker teachers were: teachers who were not as prepared, teachers who were not as engaging, people that I felt–they really knew how to teach, and I learned a lot when I was in that class. You guys know that. You’re nodding your head and smiling you know that! And I’m not trying to maybe use you to beat up on teachers, but I do think that you all have a say about what goes on in your school. The discipline and how you deal with discipline well in your school makes a big difference.
A few years ago, when I was superintendent in North Carolina, we started these, what we called, “middle-college high schools,” and it was a very novel idea. It was a small school of nearly 150 students.
Now, we have two in Houston that we started since I’ve been here that people don’t even know about. They’re located on community college or college campuses. They’re for kids that are disengaged; they’re for kids that are not on the football team, not on the annual staff, not in Student Congress They feel like square pegs trying to fit into the round hole of high school; they don’t want to come to school, and when they come to school, you know, they are non-conformist, not at all. I don’t want to generalize too much, but some, quite frankly, may have purple hair, some may dress quite differently, some may look like you guys, but for whatever reason, the concept of high school as they’re designed in America today, they don’t fit for them. You put them on a college campus, you put them in small class sizes of fifteen-to-one, you give them second-chance teachers that can talk to them about some of the emotional issues that they have.
And all of the sudden those kids start flourishing and end up not only graduating from high school but they can go on and go to college.
And, you know, we started programs like that after listening to kids and letting kids tell us that the schools they were in did not fit them, and they were dropping out, they weren’t coming. And so the kinds of programs you offer, the kind of discipline you have, is different. In those particular schools for example, those kids can wear hats in class, they wear hats in the hallway; these kids can have a soda, a coke, or a pack of peanuts or crackers in their classroom. They act like college kids because they are on a college campus and go by the college rules. If you were in regular school, you couldn’t do those things. But those kids decided, we want to follow the college rules, and we listened, we said okay.
Now, in those classrooms it’s not a great big to do. When a kid finishes drinking a can of coke, he gets up and goes to put the empty can in the trash can; he doesn’t throw it, he just puts it in there calmly. He goes back and sits down, and there’s no drama and no fights. You know, there’s no being disrespectful to teachers because the kids help design the rules there. I’ve gone to those schools even right here in Houston, and I would say to kids, ok if a white kid did ‘x’ and a black kid did ‘x’, would they be treated the same from a disciplinary perspective, would they receive the same kind of punishment? And, what’s the answer that I get?
Grier: ‘No’. And it doesn’t matter whether or not the adult that is disciplining them happens to be white, or African-American, or Asian, or Latino, the answer is ‘no’.
And when I go to gung some schools, and I would say, if a latino kid and a black kid behaves the same, they violated a school rule, and they are facing similar punishment, are they treated the same? And again, what I get most times is ‘no’. And so my question always is, why? Why if you have rules and regulations, why aren’t they consistent in their reinforcement, and why is it not consistent with punishment if there has to be punishment when you have kids violate those rules and regulations? You listen to students and you can hear things like that. And so, students, I believe, need to have a say around how they dress in school, they need to have a say around what type of courses that you offer, they need to have a say around teacher quality.
I’ve had kids tell me one time, why does our high school start at 7 o’clock [AM] every day, or at 7:30 [AM]?
When all the brain research says that teenagers, their brains don’t really come awake until 9 or 9:30 [AM]?
So why do we have to come to school at 7, 7:15, 7:30? Well the truth is if you really start asking people is usually because kids work in the afternoon or because of athletics but not everyone works or not everyone plays sports. So I often I ask school principals, if you listen to your kids, why don’t you have multiple start/stop times? When you go to college–you go to University of Virginia– you’re going to find all your classes are not at 8 o’clock every morning. You may have a 8 o’clock class on Monday and Wednesday but on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday first class may not be until 10 o’clock and you’re class schedule she can be quite different.
So on high schools, high school not for some kids start at 7:30? Why would you also not also start another part of the day at 9 o’clock? Kids could come in at 9 o’clock and the ones who start at 8 could go home at 2:30 or 3 and the ones who come in at 9 go home at 4 o’clock or 4:30 if they wanted. I’ve had high schools in districts where I’ve worked that start at 11 o’clock and finish at 6, so why would–you just ‘wow’; I can tell that intrigues you, doesn’t it?
Zaakir: We actually have an article for our listeners on our blog called DearHISD.org and a student submitted a post about how we should have schools start later because of the research your mentioning, and there is a national organization called Start Schools Later and they actually took this article and put it in their website as an example of students supporting.
Grier: Why would some schools don’t start at 7:30 for the kids who want to come? Why would another school not start at 9 or 9:30 for another group who wants to come? You simply need to work with teachers.
Some teachers could start to work earlier and go home and someone come in later and go home later, and you might find it that would be cool with some teachers because they might like to sleep in too. So the question is, why do we think that we always have to to get into a situation where everything has to be the same way it always has been versus listening to our kids and see what it is they think a good school would look like.
Zaakir: So I think the people who may be listening might be asking, so if this is the case why don’t you do this, why don’t you set this up?
Grier: Oh I think this is a great, I think the Student Congress is a great platform to have these kinds of conversations. Don’t you?
Zaakir: Yeah definitely.
Zaakir: Would your support putting a students on shared decision-making committees?
Grier: Oh, absolutely I’ve worked on districts and know districts who do have student school board members.
Zaakir: Would you support having students in the school board?
Grier: Oh, absolutely it wouldn’t bother me a bit. The key is, you know school board members in Texas are elected and, so there’s state laws around how they’re elected, but I’ve worked in districts where we’ve had Student Advisors that couldn’t vote, couldn’t decide but they can listen and offer their opinion.
Zaakir: So what are tangible ways that we could have Student Congress work with HISD?
Grier: When you think through the whole concept of Student Congress, I think, don’t you think sky’s the limit? You know I worked in San Diego where we had had a group of students that, for example, served as advisers and–you may not like this but–they were advisers for our food service department. And so they would come in to give us feedback on the kind of food we were serving in the cafeteria, and someone was not very good, you know, the kids wouldn’t eat it. Kids would come in and they’d have their ideas, and so as a result of that, we completely modified and changed our menus and we even changed how we started serving food to students, and for example in some of our schools, we started having a fish taco stands because of the kids really like fish tacos.
And then we would had other stands, some fish tacos, we even had a burrito stand; we had a chicken fingers buffet and a salad bar, and so you’d think you were more in the food court in the mall than you would be in a traditional high school cafeteria. And all that came about as a result of a student involvement, student feedback.
Zaakir: Well, we are setting up a committee just like you said next week, so that’ll be exciting
Grier: I think it would be too. Good luck to you.
Zaakir: Thank you.
Zaakir: Another issue that I hear a lot is that one thing they could really–and it’s surprising when I first heard it–but one thing they wanted to see in schools was having more counselors. And it’s college counselors, but also psychological, emotional counselors. Because a lot of students, they go through a lot in homes, or lack thereof, and you know, they feel like they need someone to talk to as an adult, and sometimes, they feel like there isn’t anyone there.
Grier: You know, in Houston, many years ago, the school board decided that they were going to decentralize decision making here. And what that basically means is to give school principals a great deal of authority. So, we give principals–if all three of you were school principals–we’d give all of you a budget and then they decide that budget and how they spend it.
So you make the decision as a principal about whether you have a counselor or how many counselors you have. And you have some principals say, ‘I don’t want counselors, because the counselors I had, they were not very effective, they didn’t listen to kids, and you know, and they wanted to do more administrative work,’ and I’ve heard that. I’m not sure it’s true. I love counselors; I think that, you know, I’m like you. I think that you need strong counselors to have good schools. But here we give principals that type of decision-making authority. So in some schools versus having counselors, they’ll have deans. But we’ve let the principal make that decision here and if that changes that has to be a change that the board of education decides to make.
I’ve worked in other districts where they’ve used other models. I saw a district once where they had a model: You took the number of students and you divided it by the number of adults. And that meant that every adult in the school had 8-11 students. We’re talking about principals, assistant principals, teachers, coaches; we’re talking about all the adults.
And so the way that model worked was, much like the way the model worked, when I was a coach in HS, see, my kids that I coached, I kept up with my kids. Every day when the attendance record came out, I knew if my kids were in school or not. If they were not in school during my study period, I would go down to the office and I would call them and find out where they were, if you were sick, or why weren’t you in school.
I kept up with my kids and I had an agreement with all of their teachers, that if one of them got in trouble, before they got sent to the office, where would they have to send the kid? To see me. Because if you played sports for me, and you got in trouble with your teacher, you were in big trouble. Because when practice came, you had to run laps, you had to do sit-ups, you just didn’t want to get in trouble. You knew that if you were in trouble, you wouldn’t get to play, because I wouldn’t let you play if you were in trouble in school. I was in an agreement with your teacher that if you were not doing well academically, to let me know and I would help get you a tutor. The tutor might be another student, the tutor might be another one of my players, because I knew that academically, if you got behind, then you might not be able to play, and if you were good, I wanted you to be able to play at the next level.
So I wanted you to be able to play in college, for example. So, I kept up with my kids, I checked with them, I checked on them. They knew I cared about them. And I checked with them from the time they were in the ninth grade, all the way until they were what, seniors.
So in this particular model in the school system where I worked in that high school, we had a program where, if I had 9-11 students and they were kids I checked on and I stayed with, I check on them in the ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, twelfth grade, the next year I’d flip around and pick right back up. 9-11 juniors. And so those were my kids. And my goal was for those kids to graduate from high school, and I wanted them to graduate from high school with a skill set where they could get a really good job or where they could go to school. And that was every one of those kids. They knew. They knew that I cared.
And you see, if kids know that you’ll listen to them–I love what you said: Sometimes kids just need someone to talk to. Kids have big, big, big, big, burdens that they carry. We have over 6500 kids here in Houston that are homeless. And people don’t realize that. That young woman I gave that college scholarship to today–she’s homeless. And has been homeless for a number of years. But she didn’t give up. And she had people in her life. Who supported her and tried to help. And teachers–if you’re really connect to and care about kids, if you have high expectations, most of the time they will rise to that level of expectation.
Zaakir: That brings up a point that you mentioned–tutoring and mentoring and keeping up with students–that reminds me of Apollo. Can you talk a bit about that?
Grier: Well Apollo was a program that we still have here in the district and it was in some of our schools that had done poorly in the past, that were called “dropout factories” and we basically went into those schools and replaced all the principals, a good number of the teachers.
We added an hour to the school day, we hired tutors to tutor the kids every day in math, and in three years, we cut the achievement gap in half in our secondary schools and we eliminated it in our elementary schools.
Still we had some people who didn’t like it. And I understand why you didn’t like it. If you were a teacher in one of those schools, and you lost your job, you didn’t like it. But we also infused into those schools high expectations. And you go into those schools, even today, on a teacher’s door you will see a college pennant of where they went to college, where the teacher went to college. And there’s constant talking about going to college, and college bound cultures, and what you need to get in and how hard you need to study and the kind of work you need to do. And we retooled the kind of courses they offered in those schools so that we wanted kids to take more rigorous courses so they would be ready to go to college if that’s what they decided they wanted to do.
Zaakir: That’s something that I think HISD has done a fantastic job of doing.
Grier: Yeah, we’re all excited about that. That, and our EMERGE program.
Zaakir: Yeah, so what about reading? Was there a reading component to it?
Grier: Reading is the hardest nut to crack right now in this country. Reading scores in America have been flat or have been regressive for the last 15 years. It’s fascinating because if you look at particularly Central America, scores are increasing–There’s a professor at Stanford that’s done some research around that, and you know, it’s on my to-do list this summer, to spend time and go out visiting and talking with him, around why he thinks that’s the case. But what we see here in our school district where we have a lot of disadvantaged kids, reading is what’s really dragging our scores down, and every year we see–I know in the last 5 years, we have grown by over 16,500 students.
But the percentage of at-risk students has instead by over 7.5 percent. Which means that almost all of those 16500 students were very much at risk of failure, of dropping out of school. And so when you couple that increase in numbers with that many at risk kids, you immediately think, what about reading? What about reading?
And we’ve implemented a new reading program here in the district. We’ve trained our teachers, we’ve really focused on kindergarten to second grade this year; next year we’re going to focus on K-5. One of things we’ve done is we’ve bought libraries for each classroom that have grade-level appropriate materials. For example, in an elementary school, there’s four of us here, you might find that even though it’s the fourth grade, she’s reading at a first grade level, you’re reading on the 6th grade level, and she’s at the fourth grade level, I’m at the second grade level.
So we have all these different reading levels, but we have the fourth grade reading book. And to you it’s boring, and your reading doesn’t get any better, unless you’re doing a lot of reading outside of school. To her, it’s just right. But the two of us, it’s so hard we can’t make heads or tails of what the material is saying. We’ve put Lexile-appropriate books in all the classrooms. They’re color coded, the jackets on the books are color coded, and everyone knows that the green book is on the sixth grade level, yellow book’s on the fourth grade level, and the blue book is on the first grade level, and the green book’s on the second grade level. So we can all now progress in our readiness level. We also now have–the teachers now have 20 minutes–kids have to read aloud every day, and our reading classes have been expanded to 90 minutes. Because what we have found is that we weren’t providing enough time.
When kids are born–I mean I’m talking about very young–it’s very important for parents to read to their kids. And it’s very important that as kids learn that parents let their kids read to them every If a kid doesn’t know how to read by the third grade, many times, after third and fourth grade, you learn by reading. And if you can’t read. It’s very, very, very difficult to learn. But it has been of the most difficult challenges for educators all over America. And if I could have one wish in Houston, if I could make anything, if I could change anything, if somehow magically we could have all of our third graders reading on grade level by the time they left the third grade, that would change Houston and Houston’s future.
Zaakir: So what do you see as your legacy here in Houston?
Grier: I don’t know it’s a hear some people with my legacy will be thank goodness he’s gone you know when he leaves, that will be a lot of folks but in a week we passed the largest bond in the history of Houston we’re going to rebuild all of our high schools will be the only major city in America for all of its high schools have been completely renovated and rebuilt since 2000. That’s huge. With what we’re doing with our EMERGE program and in the numbers are low income kids getting scholarships to Ivy League schools, top tier one schools like the University of Virginia, that’s huge. We’ve been able to do with our AP courses going from eight-thousand to a thousand twenty six thousand AP exams taken every year; that’s something I’m very proud of. You know there’s something else that we’re quietly beginning to do that I’m equally proud off. When I first came here, we had three schools that offer dual language programs where you would talk and one language half the day and in English the other half.
Next year we will have 56 that are dual language English-Spanish schools. We will have a Chinese dual language school. We will have two countries first Arabic dual language school. In the following year we plan to open the Hindi language school, and I just think is as international and cosmopolitan as Houston is ,as diverse as we are, how wonderful it would be if every one of her students who graduated high school could speak two languages fluently, one fluently and one proficiently.
Zaakir: Especially when we are one of most diverse cities in the the country.
Grier: Oh it just to me just give me chills when I think about it. And you still have some people to fight against that I could show you some blogs where you know people are accusing me of being an ISIS sympathiser and plan to offer Arabic. You know it’s almost too disappointing.
Zaakir: That was a hot topic at the board meeting.
Grier: You saw the people came and stand, and you certainly respect their opinion but what if that were the attitude of people in China: they never learn English.
And what if that was the attitude of Central America and Mexico and South: they would never learn English. And you go all over the world and people are speaking two and three languages except you come to this country, and we’re arrogant to just speak English. And I get it; look, I know English has become the international language. I mean that started back when England was conquering the world way back when. But you know, if you just speak a second language proficiently, think about your job market in your future looks like.
Grier: Think about the advantages you’re going to have that the other kids that you’re competing with won’t have. So to me it really am excited about this whole concept of a dual language.
And then we get we get push back from some communities. They don’t learn Spanish or Chinese or Arabic or German or French, not even all the languages that our children already speak in HISD as their first language.
Zaakir: What do you think about other programs like Mexican American Studies and African American Studies and stuff like that?
Grier: Those are cool. You know when we put a Mexican American Studies in, then new people come in and say, well how about African American Studies and how about Chinese American Studies, you know how about these studies and those studies? And it to me, again, you can’t offer everything in high school. So I think what you have to do is get feedback from your students you listen to the kinds of courses that kids would like to take. I think you would have to offer that.
Zaakir: Well thank you so much for being in out show.
Grier: I can talk with you guys all day long I really do mean it when I say that I’m just so impressed with all of you.
I am just wildly excited about Student Congress and maybe we can make this thing take off and maybe that can the legacy.
Zaakir: Well thank you treating us like equals and working with us and trying to make education better for all us.
Grier: I have great respect for what you guys do I really do. And just don’t let people tell you what you can’t do; dream big, dream big and work hard and acquire the skills to be able to turn those dreams and reality. I’m proud of you, you’re going to so great at that University of Virginia; you’re going to make a great Cavalier. Good to see you guys. Thank you for having me.
Zaakir: Thank you.