Around the time Dr. Terry Grier began overseeing the Houston Independent School District in 2009, roughly half of Houston's graduates were being accepted into college.
Too few graduates were arriving on university campuses in the fall having earned credits through Advanced Placement exams and only 15 percent eventually earned a college degree.
"Parents were saying our curriculum wasn't hard enough," Grier said. "Kids had to take remedial classes (to reach college standards). Something had to be done."
Two years later, the number of Houston ISD 2011 graduates accepted into college now stands at 85 percent. At the same time, the number of AP exams scored high enough to earn college credit now stands at 6,855, a 39 percent increase since 2009.
How did HISD boost the level of academic rigor in a district where 80 percent of students come from low-income families in such a short period of time?
"We believe AP classes and exams are for the prepared, not the elite," Grier said. "Two years ago, some HISD schools offered an enviable array of AP courses, while others offered few, if any. Last year, we required every high school to offer at least 10 AP exams, and when schools opened this fall we ratcheted that number up to a minimum of 15 AP classes. In addition, HISD requires every student enrolled in AP classes to take the exams, and we pay the fee. That's how important we believe AP is to students' future success."
HISD is creating a culture of high expectations that reaches all the way into pre-kindergarten classrooms and is designed to put even the youngest students on a path toward college.
The next step in HISD's effort to expand access to the most rigorous classes involves reaching students earlier, in middle school. This is where SpringBoard, a pre-AP college preparatory curriculum provided by the College Board, comes in.
"The greatest benefit is a curriculum that we can use across the schools, with academic rigor, and the ability to prepare the students for college," Grier said.
Grier, who has seen great results from SpringBoard while leading other U.S. school districts, believes the largest school system in Texas will see similar success with the program. A group of 10 HISD administrators visited Hillsborough County, Fla., in 2010 to see first-hand how a large and diverse school district is using SpringBoard. Principals and teachers were then asked if they wanted the program in their schools. The result: this summer, more than 700 teachers took a one-week SpringBoard training course.
For the 2011-2012 school year, 26 middle schools will implement Spring- Board Math, and 42 middle schools and 26 high schools will implement SpringBoard English Language Arts. Grier explained that the SpringBoard curriculum is very organized and regimented, with more focus than other programs. Its instructional methods train students to better utilize the materials they learn. SpringBoard's value is not just what is taught, but how, he stressed.
"It's more about helping students learn how to think critically," he said.
Though middle school students will surely benefit from the early exposure to this style of teaching, SpringBoard certainly hasn't come too late for Houston's upperclassmen. All students in schools that adopt the SpringBoard approach will receive pre-AP instruction. Implementing SpringBoard will facilitate the district reaching its goal of growing the number of students who earn college credits through AP.
Grier reported that 85 percent of Class of 2011 graduates were accepted by a two- or four-year college this fall—far above the national average—and the dollar amount of scholarships they received jumped from $97 million to $126 million in just one year. Numbers to be proud of, for sure, but Grier knows they can be deceiving. He still worries about how this group will fare in college, but thanks to SpringBoard's focus on rigor, these students' odds of success are better than ever.