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 able to get this program up and running, and show such positive results so quickly, has stirred something like hope in the hearts of Houstonians—at least those who wondered whether anyone could manage, much less improve, a system as large and as complex as HISD. Grier, who is on his ninth district in 26 years, came to Houston a year ago after 18 combative months running the San Diego Unified School District, in California. He certainly speaks the language of a seasoned administrator. “We are serious about being the best school district in America,” he told me. “I want a quality principal in every school and a quality teacher in every classroom.” Cockeyed optimism aside, there is only one logical response to such a statement: Good luck with that.

Why so cynical? Because we’ve been here before. A troubled district hires a new superintendent who says all the right things and manages to push through a few programs, and then is either ground down or run out of town by the myriad competing interests at work in today’s schools. This is the story of nearly every urban district in the state, if not the country, and only time will tell whether Grier will be able to break the pattern here—whether he will be able to effect substantive, long-term change or whether, after a few early successes, he will become engulfed in a series of bitter controversies that will occupy him until his $300,000-a-year contract is up, in 2012.

The sixty-year-old Grier shows both the determination to do well and the ability to alienate potential friends, as well as the usual opponents. On and off the record, some school board members say he could be more diplomatic and more communicative, while others—some principals, teachers, union members, and parent organizations—have accused him of a “fire, aim, ready” management style. Grier makes it clear he didn’t come here to make friends. He is a tall man with a strong jaw, a piercing gaze, and a prominent widow’s peak, all of which give him an imposing bearing that doubtless comes in handy. Tact doesn’t seem to be an abiding interest. “This is about students,” he told me, describing his goal to raise the standards for teachers and principals. “We are not a jobs program for adults.” Educators who grouse that poor parenting is the cause of school failures get nowhere with him: “Too many people use it as an excuse for kids’ not learning,” Grier snapped, though he acknowledged that most HISD parents today “are not June and Ward Cleaver.”

In other words, Grier has the energy and passion of an evangelist, qualities he will need in abundance if he is to make a difference. HISD is the largest district in the state, with 202,773 students, and the largest employer in Houston, with a budget of $1.6 billion. Sixty-three percent of HISD’s students are now labeled “at risk,” and nearly 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning the district classifies them as “economically disadvantaged.” More than ninety languages are spoken by the students; nearly 70,000 cannot read at grade level. Twenty-two percent start out in one school but attend several others during the year. “They move ahead of the rent collector,” Grier explained.

For all these reasons and more, running HISD could be compared to running the politburo, a mental institution, and a Fortune 500 company combined, but with the futures of children—mostly poor and Hispanic—hanging in the balance. Of course, the stakes are even higher than that. As public schools continue to fail, the very future of Texas is in jeopardy. That HISD still compares favorably with other urban school districts across the country shouldn’t be a cause for celebration. As one former school board member put it bluntly, “It’s like wanting to be the tallest midget.”

The desire to do better is, hopefully, the reason the HISD board recruited Grier, the personification of a change agent, at least within the educational establishment. He is clearly the antithesis of his predecessor, Abelardo Saavedra, who was nothing if not cautious and reserved and accomplished little more than serving as Houston’s first Hispanic superintendent. To be fair, Saavedra may not have been able to do much more. Today’s school superintendents must confront a never-ending parade of special interests and political and financial pressures, from status-quo-favoring unions, vendors, and state government on the one hand to reformers and parents’ groups on the other, who believe schools are never doing enough. It’s nearly impossible to take a step in any direction without meeting a storm of opposition. If Saavedra alienated a great many people because, it was said, he did too little, Grier is now being hammered for doing too much.

In his first six months, for instance, Grier moved to once again centralize HISD operations after Saavedra had decentralized them; he did away with regional superintendents and instead organized the district around chiefs of high school, middle school, and elementary operations. Grier, who uses the word “standards” like a mantra, explained that HISD had “no standards around central expectations, or if there were standards, there were five different sets of standards.” By way of example, he told me the district had forty reading programs. There were also no benchmarks—at least in Grier’s opinion—for holding principals or teachers accountable.

As one might expect, war broke out almost immediately after Grier started moving to change the way teachers are evaluated and fired. (In essence, if test scores don’t reflect student growth, teachers get the boot.) Seven hundred and fifty furious teachers showed up at one particularly nasty school board meeting last February, and five principals eventually resigned—with more rumored to be leaving—to take jobs with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a leading network of charter schools. Then there was Grier’s attempt to clean up an administrative scandal over dropout records at two campuses, which prompted the Texas Education Agency to put the district’s accreditation on hold. Grier fired one principal and several other employees, but state senator Mario Gallegos Jr., who sits on the Senate Committee on Education, still launched a full-scale attack on the superintendent’s competence, even though the fraud had begun before Grier’s arrival. Gallegos accused Grier of job hopping and leaving disaster in his wake (in San Diego, for example, he ran afoul of not only the teachers’ union but also the school board), as well as using “gestapo tactics.” Even Grier’s move to serve breakfast in the classroom to all elementary and middle school students seemed to open an entirely new front in the culture wars.

It’s too early to tell whether Grier will be able to break the mold and enact true reform in Houston. “I don’t feel like an outsider here,” Grier said optimistically, adding that the staff, the school board, and business leaders have been welcoming. “Houston’s business community has not given up on public schools as they have in San Diego.” With the support of the board, Grier has launched another dramatic initiative, Apollo 20, a $20.2 million gamble designed to install a KIPP-style curriculum in four of the district’s lowest-performing high schools and five failing middle schools. Each school will get a new principal and new teachers, offer individualized tutoring and extended hours, and provide “data-driven instruction” (education-speak for using test scores to keep tabs on how much students learn).

If Apollo 20 succeeds, Grier will expand the program and be hailed a hero, the first in a long time. If he fails, the reasons will be complex and worthy of examination. That’s why I have decided that one column is not enough to understand Grier’s role. Instead I will follow him for the entire 2010—2011 school year for a feature story that will examine his impact over time; I want to determine whether anyone can move HISD forward at a moment when the need has never been greater. “I’m hard, but I can be fun,” Grier told me. Let’s hope he means it, on both counts.