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For Houston ISD, The Talent Pipeline Flows Both Ways

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By Dr. Terry B. Grier

Superintendent, Houston Independent School District

Initiatives are successful at attracting - and retaining - effective leaders and teachers

In Houston, we're finishing one massive bond program and already deep into another - the largest in Texas history -- that are creating dazzling 21 st century schools with a technological infrastructure that will allow us to personalize learning and prepare our students for higher education and careers as never before.

But the most important building that has been going on in HISD's ecosystem is in developing our human capital. We know that our 21st century campuses are only as good as the principals who lead them and the teachers who create magic in each classroom. For that reason, we've enacted bold initiatives to hire - and hold onto - the most effective educators possible.

In the past three years, the number of applicants for teaching jobs in HISD has nearly doubled to more than 10,000. Why? We have a national reputation for innovation in tackling the complex problems of a diverse urban district. We're the only two-time Broad Prize winner, and recently received $30 million from the U.S. Department of Education for a model to link rigorous academics to preparation for higher education and the workforce.

We're capitalizing on those assets to recruit actively in top college teaching programs, have a strong relationship with Teach for America, and we're making sure our principals are filling vacancies early to be able to skim the cream of the crop in a highly competitive market locally and nationwide.

Our most experienced and skilled HISD teachers who want to stay in the classroom don't have to move into administration to find leadership opportunities and higher salaries. We support 223 teacher leaders on 63 campuses who provide specialized support in instructional practice, intervention, data tracking and analysis, campus induction, instructional technology, and STEM focus.

That kind of support - combined with performance bonuses that totaled $136 million from 2008-2012 - have helped our teacher retention rate swell to 90 percent.

With 211,000 students at 282 schools, and more than 28,000 employees supporting their learning, our ecosystem is vast and complex. A talent pipeline with a one-way, unimpeded flow into our schools is essential to our success.

Reinventing 'vocational' education creates flow of prepared students to support local workforce

Too many school systems continue to operate in a vacuum when it comes to preparing students for rewarding, enduring careers that will support and enrich the local, regional, and global job markets.

Houston ISD, though, partners with local employers, businesses, and industries - medicine, energy, computer technology, space, arts and humanities, Tier One educational and research institutions - in a reinvention of elementary through secondary education that blends academic rigor with preparation for higher education and career. After all, the skills needed to fill today's jobs are strikingly similar to those needed to be successful in college.

We've forged strong collaborations to create unique schools that provide youngsters with challenging and relevant courses that include professional development with experts. A sample:

  • A new middle school with Baylor College of Medicine that leads to our exemplary DeBakey High School for the Health Professions and readies students for medical and research careers;
  • The only Energy Institute High School in the U.S., created with and supported by the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Houston-area energy companies;
  • Our longtime High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice and High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, both relocating to central Houston sites that will strengthen their professional partnerships.

The other part of our approach addresses the critical need for workers in the middle skills - skills that require education beyond what high schools but traditionally offer, but not necessarily a traditional four-year degree. About two million jobs go unfilled across the U.S. because we're not preparing students properly. Domestic and multinational corporations move their jobs overseas, while school systems turn out students who frequently face unemployment or underemployment.

HISD's Futures Academies are innovative high schools that forge direct, industry-based, career-themed pathways in high-demand, high-growth fields - logistics, engineering, biomedical and health science, energy, business and industry -- that both meet job market demands and provide students with a real-world application for what they're learning. There are benefits to HISD, too, in addressing the dropout rate, improving achievement levels, and closing performance gaps. Relevant education that includes consistent workplace experiences makes students want to stay in school, set challenging goals, and meet the academic rigor needed to succeed.

These academies feature blended learning programs that lead to industry certification or a two-year associate's degree from a local community college, earned in high school, at the student's own campus. Futures graduates leave high school with options, both college- and career-ready.

This wasn't just guesswork. We utilized data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, projections from our local workforce board, and employer research from the Greater Houston Partnership to identify middle skills occupations in the Houston area where current demands exist and will for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

If educators aren't making those important local connections, you may not know how preparation for the workforce is changing and how your schools can be helping strengthen the local economy with skilled workers. Here in Houston, we learned that a career as a chemical plant process operator in a chemical refinery that once required a Ph.D. now can be attained with an associate's degree.

Jobs in process technology pay $60,000 a year and upward - and can be attained with two years of college - yet the local labor pool was small and workers were being recruited from across the U.S. We're helping to change that.

Arming students with a strong academic foundation, solid skills in viable occupational fields, along with workplace skills such as teamwork and flexible thinking are essential. Houston is arguably the most culturally and socially diverse community ecosystem in the U.S., and public education plays a key role in whether it struggles or flourishes.

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America's great cities. We're writing a book about what we're learning-- and you can help.

Under Terry Grier 's watch, in 2013, HISD became the first district in America to win the Broad Award a second time! HISD received high marks for its progress in decreasing the achievement gap and increasing the number of minority students taking advanced placement test and scoring three or higher on the exam. He is currently leading the district through the nation's largest digital conversion, PowerUp, which provides all ninth through twelfth graders with a laptop computer to use in school and at home.

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