Post By: Michael Williams – January 15, 2015 – Michael Williams is the state education commissioner.
Last month, I had the opportunity to visit North Forest High School. My last trip to that campus had been in 2012, before I made the decision to annex all North Forest schools into the Houston Independent School District.
Closing a school district is never an easy decision for an education commissioner. But in making that move, I had confidence that wholesale transformation could take place for the children of North Forest under the leadership of HISD. My December visit confirmed that hope.
The North Forest High School campus looked remarkable. Outside, a new electronic marquee welcomed me to the school. The grounds were neatly manicured. The building was freshly painted. A new, iron security fence had been installed.
But more than just the structural improvements, the campus culture has changed. As I walked through the halls and peered into math classes, tutoring sessions and graduation labs, I found students and teachers actively engaged in learning.
Attendance above 90 percent
The student academic achievement data from North Forest schools tell the true story. When comparing the current fall semester with the previous one, HISD reports attendance is up and discipline issues are down across the board. Every school in the North Forest community has an average attendance rate above 90 percent, and four of them – Shadydale, Marshall, Hilliard and Elmore elementaries – have attendance rates of roughly 95 percent or higher.
Students are not only attending school but also actively participating in the classroom. That’s not easy in schools where the level of academic rigor has increased substantially. Rather than fear the challenge, students and teachers have embraced it. Meeting with all seven North Forest neighborhood school principals, I could see the passion and high expectations they share for every student.
In talking with North Forest High School students, they feel as though their teachers (as well as every adult working on campus) care about them and want them to do well. They are challenged in the classroom – and they like it.
One student told me about being so overwhelmed last year in a college-level Advanced Placement class that she nearly gave up. Buoyed by the school’s support, she worked hard and ultimately mastered the concepts. Now a senior, she’s on track to graduate in the spring and head to college in the fall.
She wasn’t the only success story I encountered. Every senior I spoke with not only had plans to attend college, but already had secured a spot. What a great accomplishment for these students.
HISD has made major investments in the North Forest community since assuming responsibility for its schools in July 2013. Both the school day and the school year have been lengthened, allowing for additional instruction time. Sign-on and retention bonuses were offered to teachers and principals in an effort to hire and retain the very best educators. Reading and math instructional specialists have been assigned to every school, while additional social workers, assistant principals and police officers were assigned to middle and high school campuses.
Hard work and dedication
The district will be the first to acknowledge that the transformation is not complete, nor did it occur overnight. It has required hard work, dedication and a strong belief that every student deserves the chance to succeed. All you have to do is take a moment to talk to North Forest students and parents to see that the efforts are already paying dividends and will benefit this important area of our state in the years ahead.
I have full confidence that HISD, under the leadership of its board of trustees and Superintendent Terry Grier, will continue building upon the momentum already witnessed within the North Forest community. So much has already been achieved in such a short time. I have no doubt that there are even better things yet to come.
Michael Williams is the state education commissioner.