by Jessica Calefati

Aldine school district won the Broad Prize for its innovative education methods

After digging his cleats into the grass and planting his fingertips on the line of scrimmage, 17-year-old defensive tackle Jay Guy propels his 300-pound, 6-foot frame toward his opponent. Most would just see this as a football player doing his job, but Guy sees something else: an application of the geometry he learned at Eisenhower Senior High School.

Football alone could have carried Guy to college: He has been recruited to play for more than 30 universities. But he chose not to rely on his athletic abilities alone. Guy worked hard to achieve an academic rank in the top 5 percent of his senior class because he knew what his future might look like if his football career ended in injury or if he dropped out of high school. "Drug dealers live down the street from my house, and someone even kicked one [dealer's] door down and shot him last week," says Guy, whose family lives in an impoverished, crime-ridden section of Aldine, Texas, known as Acres Homes. "Every day, my mom sees someone she went to high school with, and now they are on drugs, out of work, and struggling."

College readiness is a top priority at each of the Aldine Independent School District's high schools, and Guy's academic success is one example of the districtwide achievement that led Aldine to win this year's Broad Prize for Urban Education, an honor bestowed annually on the most improved urban school district. The prize, which is $1 million in scholarship money for seniors in the district, is given by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, whose mission is to "advance entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science, and the arts." Aldine made it to the finals three times in recent years before winning this round. Superintendent Wanda Bamberg says the district's recent success is linked not to any particular program but rather to its structure, which is built upon carefully crafted academic standards, comprehensive analysis of student achievement data, and flexibility when working with struggling students.

Located 15 miles north of downtown Houston, Aldine sits in an industrial corner of Harris County, where scrap metal depots, auto service centers, and fast-food restaurants dot many of the city's main thoroughfares. When Bamberg began working for Aldine as an English teacher nearly 30 years ago, the district served mostly white, relatively affluent students. Today, 80 percent of the district's 60,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, 64 percent are Hispanic, and 31 percent are not native English speakers. Just 4 percent of Aldine's students are white.

To understand the challenges Aldine students face in the classroom, Eisenhower Ninth Grade School Principal Ike McGowen says it's important to first understand their home lives. Some students come from dysfunctional, single-parent homes or families with one or more members incarcerated. "These circumstances cause some students to come to school angry and apathetic toward learning," McGowen says. "Oftentimes, we have a lot to do with kids emotionally before we can start teaching them content, and this reality is one of our biggest battles."

Wide gap.

When Texas implemented a new statewide achievement exam in the mid-'90s, Aldine administrators learned that their at-risk students were performing below average, according to a report published by the Learning First Alliance. In fact, Aldine students' scores ranked among the lowest in the state, and a significant achievement gap was visible between the district's waning white student population and its growing black and Hispanic student groups.

Aldine responded with a districtwide reform effort. The first step was to tailor its curriculum to Texas's standards for each grade level. Administrators used the state standards to determine what skills students needed to learn at each grade level and wrote corresponding curricula. Though individual schools have some leeway to alter a particular grade's coursework, students typically learn the same skills as their grade-level peers throughout the district, and to some extent the state, at about the same time.

This degree of curricular similarity ensures that students miss as little instruction as possible when their families move into, out of, or around the district. Frequent moves are common for impoverished families, Bamberg says. "If we were not teaching the same skills in the same order, we would have children missing out on huge skill sets," she added.

In 2002, Aldine began using Triand, a Web-based clearinghouse for state standards, district curricula, and teacher lesson plans, as well as student achievement data at the state and district level going back as far as eight years. Teachers can administer a quiz, upload students' responses to Triand, and see aggregated quiz results in five minutes, says Richard Blair, Aldine's executive director of research and evaluation. Teachers who have three sections of a particular class can use Triand to tell if one section's quiz scores are chronically worse than the others. They can then look at achievement levels for individual students in the low-performing section to determine where certain students went off track and plan what it might take to get them up to speed, Blair added.

Data analysis at the high school level can help teachers easily identify students whose grades put them at risk of failing or dropping out, but it is also crucial at the elementary school level because teachers can address a problem while they still have time to fix it, says Raymond Stubblefield, who is principal at Stephens Elementary School. Half of the children at Stephens are not native English speakers, yet 98 percent of all students at the school passed the state assessment for reading, 98 percent passed the state assessment for math, and 97 percent passed the state assessment for writing. Stubblefield traces the success to one-on-one meetings with every student who is learning English as a second language. In these meetings, a faculty member reads with and speaks to a student for 30 minutes each week to evaluate his or her English proficiency. "We have no nonreaders," Stubblefield says. "Our literacy probes ensure that none of our children fall through the cracks."

Though it's a challenge to schedule the language sessions, Stubblefield says school data prove that its efforts are working.

Flexibility when dealing with at-risk students is evident throughout Aldine, Bamberg says. If a student fails his first semester of algebra, Aldine teachers work with him one-on-one to get him caught up instead of forcing him to repeat the entire semester. Bamberg also says that Aldine allows students to retake tests if they fail on the first try. "We're not trying to see how many kids we can catch [failing]. We're trying to see how many kids we can catch up," Bamberg says.

"See me."

Janice Johnson, a recent Eisenhower Senior High School graduate, is one of many Aldine students the district has caught before they could follow through on plans to drop out. Raised by their grandmother, Johnson and her six brothers and sisters grew up poor. She was jealous of classmates who had nicer clothes, more to eat, and mothers and fathers to go home to, she says. Johnson's mother lost custody of her when she was young; her father was killed during a hurricane.

At Eisenhower, Johnson completed an autobiographical assignment in which she revealed her difficult past and her depression. Teacher Frances Carter wrote "See me" on Johnson's paper. Those two words sparked a transformation. Johnson opened up about her feelings, recommitted herself to school, and with the help of a second teacher with ties to a publishing company, realized a dream of publishing her poetry.

Johnson, now 18, is pursuing a degree in psychology at Houston Community College so that she can help others deal with what she went through. She says that without her teachers' help, she would have dropped out.

Like other Aldine teachers, Carter insists she was put here to help students like Johnson succeed. "As a teacher, you may not get the big accolades," says Carter. "But you know you're making a difference."

Education: Catching Students Before They Fall Behind

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