Education News

How One Houston School Says It’s Changing Course

Progress at Kashmere Gardens Elementary could teach other struggling schools some lessons on how to improve, and help the district escape the risk of a state take-over.

Shundra Mosley is the instructional specialist at Kashmere Gardens Elementary. In the school's "war room," they use a data board to see how students are doing in different subjects.
Shundra Mosley is the instructional specialist at Kashmere Gardens Elementary. In the school’s “war room,” they use a data board to see how students are doing in different subjects.

At Kashmere Gardens Elementary, principal Reginald Bush finishes up a coat of primer on classroom doors, just one of many things on his to-do list to for back-to-school.

He and his team are gearing up for the new year with extra enthusiasm and pride. They believe they’ve figured out how to beat the odds — and change the state’s rating for their campus from “improvement required” to “met standards.”

“What it means for us — I’m more excited for the kids, you know, to be coming back to school, knowing that they’re coming back to a school that’s not considered in the media as a ‘low-performing school,'” Bush said. “And if it’s still in the media, the kids here at Kashmere are wired to beat the odds. That’s how we program our students.”

The stakes are high not only for his students, but for the entire Houston Independent School District, with more than 200,000 students and the biggest in the state.

HISD is at risk of losing its elected school board and getting a state-appointed board of managers in their place if the district has even one chronically low-performing school in 2018.

It’s one of dozens of Texas districts that could face a state take-over as early as next year, because of tougher sanctions passed by state lawmakers in 2015.

Progress at Kashmere Gardens Elementary could show other struggling schools some lessons on how to improve.

The campus in Northeast Houston, where 88 percent of children are economically disadvantaged, has missed state standards for the last four years.

Bush said that their in-house data indicates that the school will get a passing grade when the Texas Education Agency releases the 2017 ratings this week.

The difference, Bush said, is that this past year, they focused on making sure all students had their social and emotional needs – say counseling or medication – in addition to high academic expectations.

And that has been the missing link for campuses like his, Bush said.

“When you make a comparison, a school with the services versus the school without, one is going to be a higher-performing school, one is going to be a lower-performing school,” Bush said. “And every time when you can address all the needs of children — and this middle section of social expectations is the one that never gets addressed and it got addressed this past year.”

Bush said that his most vulnerable students – the ones who struggle with poverty and mental health issues – received the most social support services this past year. And they’re the ones who made the most progress in class.

teachers on what they control, so that they can help students grow and be creative.
Principal Reggie Bush and assistant principal Marques Collins said that they coach teachers on what they control, so that they can help students grow and be creative.

The way his student got that support is through a recent partnership with a nonprofit called ProUnitas.

Former HISD teacher Adeeb Barqawi launched that nonprofit after his own experience teaching physics at Kashmere High School, just a mile and half down the road from Kashmere Gardens.

He recounted how one student, Anayah, would keep her head down all day.

“And so I approached Anayah and I asked her what’s wrong and she said that my mom died and, you know, I came to school to eat and I don’t really know where I’m going to go today,” Barqawi said.

Barqawi said that he felt prepared to teach, but didn’t know how to deal with crises like  death, hunger, homelessness. And the help he did find felt “haphazard.” Barqawi started to wonder.

“What if I had a system? Like, what if there was a blueprint or a framework for me to access when such situations happen?” he said.

“What if we use data that is available to us to easily visualize and proactively use when students need support. And how does that look within an academic setting?”

After teaching at Kashmere High School for three years, Adeeb Barqawi launched a nonprofit, called ProUnitas, to link students with more wrap-around social services on campus.
After teaching at Kashmere High School for three years, Adeeb Barqawi launched a nonprofit, called ProUnitas, to link students with more wrap-around social services on campus.

Fast forward five years and his nonprofit does just that at Kashmere Gardens Elementary and six other schools in the neighborhood. The nonprofit has received funding from  groups like the Menninger Clinic.

ProUnitas uses data to catch early warning signs, like when kids start missing school. It displays it on a color-coded dashboard: green for on-track, yellow for needs attention and red for crisis.

Plus it has a personal touch. A ProUnitas case manager works on campus at Kashmere Gardens and connects kids with dozens of outside agencies, like counselors, and meets with teachers so kids can catch up in class.

Barqawi is quick to note that ProUnitas is not meant to replace teachers or be a “turnaround” agency itself.

“It does not substitute for great teaching and school design. It is that piece of how do we support our students beyond that academic piece or the wheel house of a teacher, within a school setting and in an institution,” he said.

Even so, leaders at Kashmere Gardens credit the ProUnitas system with making a huge difference this past year.

“All, A-L-L, it made all the difference in the world because teachers were able to now teach. They were able to plan. They had systems in place how to address particular students,” Bush said.

Shundra Mosley, the school’s instructional specialist, echoed that, comparing the elementary school to a “hospital.”

“You know these kids lives are in our hands,” she said. “So we have to carefully prescribe the right prescription for their learning. We have to look at the social emotional and make sure we are prescribing them the right medicine. You don’t give a cancer patient diabetes medicine. And that takes careful planning.”

HISD’s plan for its struggling schools, called Achieve 180, includes some social supports.

However, Kashmere Gardens Elementary’s official turnaround plan submitted to the state focuses on teacher quality.

HISD Trustee Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who represents the Kashmere feeder pattern, said that social support has often been overlooked for struggling schools in HISD.

“We know that the primary function for the school district is to educate our kids in their core curriculum and extracurricular services and activities,” Skillern-Jones said. “But we can’t ignore the fact that kids that come from poverty situations bring to school a lot of baggage with them that prevents them from learning. And so until we address those barriers individually with kids – because they’re not all the same – then that’s going to be a hindrance to their achievement. And so if we’re going to do the job correctly we have to deal with the whole child.”

 

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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