In his fifth, and possibly last, State of the Schools address, Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra talked about the accomplishments of the district in 2008, but he also focused on his goals for his remaining time at HISD, including improving dropout prevention and recovery, recruiting, retaining and rewarding employees through improvement in the district’s human capital programs and improving communications between the district and its stakeholders.
During Saavedra’s tenure, HISD established the first Reach out to Dropouts walk, which has been replicated in districts across the country, and hired ten dropout prevention specialists to locate dropouts and help them get back into school.
“Dropout prevention is an ongoing battle in which we are still losing too many young people and this will be the key issue that I will address in the months ahead,” said Saavedra. “While there are many reasons why students choose to drop out, ten years of data indicates that overage students comprise the highest subgroup of dropouts. In high school, overage students may have been retained in earlier grades, but nearly 30 percent of ninth graders do not earn enough credits to be classified as tenth graders. About 13 percent of twelfth graders have not earned enough credits to graduate or cannot pass the TAKS exit exam. This culminates in a high level of frustration among these students who eventually see no point in continuing if they can’t ever catch up. This has been an ongoing topic of discussion because our own promotion / retention practices may be pushing kids out of school. It’s time we take this issue on if we are serious about stemming the student dropout rate.”
HISD has, over the past three years, paid teachers and staff nearly 70-million dollars in performance pay, a program that has been controversial. Last month, more than 15,000 teachers and school staff were paid a record $31 million dollars in performance pay. The highest individual amount was $8,600. Next year, the top performance pay amount is expected to reach $10,000.
“It does not end there,” said Saavedra. “The next generation of ASPIRE is a performance management component for central and regional office employees and continues the transformation of HISD into a truly authentic performance-driven system. Our new Deputy Superintendent of Human Talent, Ann Best, is coordinating these efforts, using her leadership experience from Teach for America, one of the nation’s most successful teacher training programs. With 80 percent of the district’s resources dedicated to personnel, that level of investment must produce results. It requires a fundamental change in how we approach employee performance and compensation.”
Another of Saavedra’s remaining goals is to improve communications with the community.
“Our relationship with the community is determined by our communications,” said Saavedra. “We aspire to have consistent, open, and responsive communication at all levels of HISD. We’re not always successful, as you might know, but we are sincere in our efforts to improve.”
All of HISD’s communication functions have been consolidated into one cabinet-level office led by Lee Vela, a veteran communications professional in Houston.
“That means that we open up the dialogue to include all stakeholders in the conversation,” said Saavedra. “It means having more and different people speak on behalf of the district. It means actively reaching out to those who may not feel their input has been welcome. It means that we redefine our communications to truly make a two-way connection with the community we serve.”