HISD plan would pay kids $60 a month for Saturday lessons
By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
June 3, 2010
Students at nine of the worst-performing middle and high schools in HISD would get paid $60 a month to attend class on Saturdays as part of Superintendent Terry Grier's effort to boost achievement.
His reform plan for those campuses, detailed to the school board Thursday, also includes replacing most of the principals, ousting ineffective teachers, extending the school year and day, and offering a double dose of math and English to students below grade level.
School districts nationwide have experimented with paying students for good grades and doling out prizes for perfect attendance, but paying them to show up for tutoring is less chartered territory.
“So many of the students in these particular schools have to work to support themselves and/or their families,” Grier said, explaining that the idea is to treat Saturday tutoring like their job.
Students behind academically would be asked to attend two Saturday sessions a month for three hours each. They would earn $30 a day, plus free breakfast and lunch.
The reform plan includes other unorthodox approaches. It mandates more formal attire for teachers — ties for the men and business wear for the women. Also, parents and students will be asked to sign contracts promising to put in the extra work, a strategy already in use by the city's most successful charter schools, including KIPP and YES Prep.
Board members didn't raise any serious concerns about the overall plan.
‘Not a bad idea'
Research by Roland Fryer, a Harvard University economics professor who is consulting with HISD, has shown that incentives work best when students have control over the activity. For example, telling students they'll get cash if they earn good grades was less effective than paying them to read books — which ultimately resulted in them getting better grades.
“It's not a bad idea at all,” Ermias Emahazion, a 2010 Lee High School graduate, said of Saturday class. “The students who want to learn and who have a passion for learning would come. The students who do not like learning, maybe the money would kind of make them come.”
HISD spokesman Norm Uhl said he doesn't expect that students will be counted absent if they skip the Saturday tutoring sessions, but they will be required to attend five more days of school during the week next year and 10 more the following year — assuming HISD gets the state's permission to revise the calendar.
The high schools involved in Grier's reform plan are Sharpstown, Lee, Jones and Kashmere. The middle schools are Ryan, Fondren, Dowling, Attucks and Key. The district plans to add 11 unnamed elementary campuses the following year.
The schools, dubbed the “Apollo 20,” are targeted because they have earned the state's “academically unacceptable” rating for multiple years or because of poor student performance.
Although some of the schools are expected to shed their low rating this year, they still aren't up to par — with a large percentage of their students reading below grade level, said HISD's chief academic officer, Chuck Morris.
The entire plan is estimated to cost as much as $28.5 million a year for five years. The district is applying for a state grant to cover the cost of the high schools, and the administration plans, with Fryer's help, to seek private donations for the rest.
Finding top principals
Besides funding, another challenge could be securing top-notch principals. The district is conducting a national search and is offering unspecified bonuses, but Morris and Grier acknowledge they haven't found the right people yet — and the clock is ticking. The extended school year would start Aug. 9 for staff and Aug. 16 for students.
“We're looking for the very best,” Morris said. “We've interviewed some good principals. They weren't great principals.”
The administration also is reviewing the teachers at the targeted schools and could force out the poor performers.
Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon said the ousted teachers would be guaranteed a paycheck because they are under contract.
Superintendent Grier's ACTION PLAN
Key elements of HISD Superintendent Terry Grier's plan to turn around nine struggling schools:
• • Replace most principals and ineffective teachers
• • Pay students $60 a month to attend Saturday classes
• • Longer school days: 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays. Classes end at 3:30 p.m. on Fridays.
• • A “double dose” of math and English classes for students below grade level in those subjects
• • Male teachers must wear ties; female teachers must wear business attire
• • Participating schools are Sharpstown, Lee, Jones and Kashmere high schools; and Ryan, Fondren, Dowling, Attucks and Key middle schools.