By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE | Houston Chronicle
Feb. 8, 2009
The embarrassing high school dropout problem that HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra inherited and that he fought to rectify will almost certainly be passed along to his successor, the outgoing schools chief acknowledges.
In a one-on-one interview after last week’s surprise announcement that he will step down by spring 2010, Saavedra claimed significant victories in raising test scores, narrowing the achievement gap and installing an aggressive performance pay system for teachers. But Saavedra also acknowledged that his inability to stem Houston’s dropout problem after nearly five years on the job is his biggest disappointment.
“We’ve saved a lot, but the flow is so great, we’re barely make a dent,” Saavedra said Friday, two days after he announced his plan to resign. “That’s probably the major regret I would have.”
Saavedra’s first major initiative as interim superintendent in 2004 aimed to coax dropouts back to campus. He spearheaded the now annual and highly publicized Reach Out to Dropouts Walk. He hired 10 specialists who work full time convincing students that they should stay in school.
Still, as many as 40 percent of Houston Independent School District freshmen don’t graduate on time.
School board President Larry Marshall agreed that HISD’s next superintendent needs to make major strides at its high schools.
“We have go to refocus at the secondary level,” he said. “We need a new vision for the district. He gave it a shot. He gave us five years, and five years is a long time.”
As he works until the school board finds his replacement, Saavedra said he will look for ways to help struggling students keep up with their peers.
The most common characteristic shared by HISD dropouts is that they’re older than their classmates by an average of 1.6 years. Rather than making fifth-graders who failed math repeat all subject areas, Saavedra suggested, HISD needs to offer such children extra help in math while promoting them to the next grade level with their peers.
The district’s push to create a college-bound culture may have impeded progress with dropouts, he said.
“It’s a question of so many hours in the day and what you can do,” said Saavedra, who admits to regularly clocking 14-hour workdays.
Saavedra contends that dropout prevention and college-readiness efforts compliment one another. He has emphasized programs that allow students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit and encouraged the creation of several unique high schools, including a campus for new immigrants and an international school.
“When you lift the ceiling, the floor comes up with it,” Saavedra said.
HISD leaders tout huge increases in the number of students who are considered college-ready based on their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores.
In 2008, 38 percent of students scored high enough on both the reading and math tests to earn that designation, up from 17 percent in 2006.
Parents express thanks
In many cases, HISD’s black and Hispanic students pulled ahead of their peers statewide.
That progress hasn’t gone unnoticed by parents and community members.
“Dr. Saavedra and actually the school board of the last five or 10 years deserve thanks from the Houston community because of the academic achievement in HISD,” said West University parent Burt Ballanfant.
Saavedra aggressively expanded full-day prekindergarten and beefed up science instruction at elementary schools with an emphasis on teacher training and by installing science labs at every elementary school. He trimmed the district’s mid-level management and reorganized HISD’s career and technology department.
Like administrators across the nation, though, Saavedra has struggled with high school reform.
“From the ages of 4 to 11, over the last five years, the Houston Independent School District has not only held their own, but probably moved forward to be competitive with like districts,” said Scott Van Beck, a former Westside High School principal and regional superintendent who now heads a non-profit school reform group called Houston A+ Challenge. “From ages 12 and forward, I think that is for the next superintendent the big challenge.”
Legacy of bonus pay
Van Beck and others expect incentive pay to become Saavedra’s legacy. Last month, HISD paid out a record $31.4 million in bonuses, including awards of up to $8,580 to teachers who improved student test scores.
While HISD leaders credit incentive pay with increasing student achievement and fostering a college-bound culture, Van Beck said there is no definitive proof that scores wouldn’t have risen without such a pay plan in place.
Districts nationwide, however, are following HISD’s lead to reward teacher performance.
“It’s an incomplete puzzle,” Van Beck said. “But at least he has started that conversation. I think that’s where his legacy is going to be.”
University of Houston professor Augustina Reyes, a former HISD board member, credited Saavedra for taking the heat as details of the controversial performance pay plan were hammered out and as he championed an $805 million bond that was strongly opposed by the black community.
“This is probably the first superintendent that I know in Houston ISD who sees kids first,” she said. “He brought HISD out of the dark ages and out of the dark ages where all we did was play games with how you hide the scores, how you hide the dropout rates.”
When Saavedra took over, HISD was still reeling from a national embarrassment caused by the disclosure that previous administrators had manipulated figures to make the dropout rate appear much lower than it really was.
Saavedra said that aside from his lack of progress on the dropout rate, he has few regrets. He doubts he’d even change how he handled a number of proposals — including tax-rate increases, the bond, school closures and magnet school cuts — that upset trustees and community members.
“There is a balance in the urgency of change and better opportunities for kids with how long you take to get buy in,” he said. “I erred on the side of getting results as quickly as possible.”
Saavedra said he knows without a doubt that his next job will not be in politics. Meanwhile, he remains focused on the task at hand: lowering the dropout rate.
“Frankly, it’s not over,” he said. “I’ve got a year left. That will be one of the things I really will focus on.”
SAAVEDRA’S TRACK RECORD
Here are some of the highlights from Saavedra’s four years as superintendent:
SAT: The percentage of students taking the test increased from 65 percent in 2004 to 74 percent in 2007. The mean score increased from 934 to 953 in that span.
Community : $16.9 million was raised from community partners since 2004
Four-year high school completion rate: HISD’s rate fell from 75.8 percent in 2004 to 64.3 percent in 2007.
Sources: HISD and Texas Education Agency