The Super

Can a hard-charging veteran superintendent with a knack for making enemies and alienating friends really improve the state’s largest school district? And if he can’t, who can?

A tiny miracle is visible to anyone who cares to visit one particular classroom at Houston’s Sharpstown High School. In this small, windowless room, complete with fluorescent lights and a burgundy shag rug, about twenty at-risk students, mostly from black, Hispanic, and Asian families, are listening to iPods, cadging snacks, and tapping away on laptops. As participants in a “credit recovery” program called Grad Lab, they are finishing course work that puts them on track for graduation, a prospect that until recently seemed unlikely. The brainchild of Houston Independent School District superintendent Terry Grier, this initiative was launched in January with computer labs at 46 of the district’s 298 campuses to improve HISD’s appalling 18.7 percent dropout rate. In the past, when students dropped out of school, administrators and community leaders scheduled home visits to encourage them to come back. That fell short, largely because students returned to the same situation that had failed them in the first place. In contrast, Grad Lab provides “graduation coaches” for the students and allows them to work at their own pace and take only the classes they need to graduate, instead of repeating entire semesters, as had been required in the past.

In six short months, more than six hundred kids have received their diplomas because of this approach, students like Jerrick, who was jailed during the school year for a crime he did not commit; Claudia, who had lost credits when she moved from California; and Valerie, who told me that she had spent virtually all of her young life in “relatives’ houses, emergency shelters, juvenile detention centers, residential treatment facilities, group homes, hospitals, and a couple of foster homes as well.” Then there is Albert, who failed a single course with a grade of 64 and now walks two miles every day to school, just so he can earn his diploma. “You don’t retake what you already know,” said Albert, who comes from a family of ten. “And it’s quiet and I get my own time.”

That Grier was

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