An honor society for home-schoolers; Shut out of campus chapters, N. Texans may get own version soon

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Hey, kid, think you’re pretty smart?

Want to join the National Honor Society – a prestigious bunch that does good work and looks awfully nice on your college applications?

Well, if you’re a home-schooler, you’re out of luck. NHS won’t take you.

That’s why a group of Houston-area parents have started an honor society just for home-schoolers. They’re about to launch nationwide.

“I’m always amazed at some of the success stories in home-schooling,” said Joanne Juren, founder of Eta Sigma Alpha. “This is a way for those successes to be recognized by the outside world.”

Home-schooling parents say it’s another example of how they have to work a little harder to get recognition for their children.

The National Honor Society was founded in 1921 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Its members are chosen by faculty members on the basis of academic abilities, leadership skills and character. Once admitted, society members typically do community service.

But because the selection process typically involves seven or more faculty members, home-schoolers aren’t eligible.

“If our structure allowed it, we’d be happy to accept them, but it’s a school-based organization,” said David Cordts, the group’s associate director.

That didn’t sit well with Ms. Juren, a former public school teacher and assistant principal. She thought home-schooled kids should have an equivalent honor to show college admissions offices.

First came the name. Eta and sigma are the Greek letters for “h” and “s,” and alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The intended meaning: Eta Sigma Alpha is home-schooling’s first honor society.

To give the group validity, Ms. Juren set high entrance requirements for students. The National Honor Society requires a 3.0 grade-point average, although individual chapters can set higher bars.

To get into Eta Sigma Alpha, a student must have a 3.5 grade-point average – plus a high score on a standardized test. That could be a 1200 on the SAT, a 26 on the ACT, or a ranking in the 90th percentile on any of a number of other tests.

The testing requirement is meant to battle against one of the criticisms home-schoolers face – it’s tough to know how legitimate a grade-point average is when the student’s parent is doing the grading.

“I know my daughter does excellent work, but I know that in the future, people aren’t going to be able to judge her in the same way I do,” said Connie Brzowski, whose daughter Jenny is president of the Houston ESA chapter. “They’re going to need something to validate what I already know.”

Since the first chapter opened in 1999, nine other chapters have started, as far away as Oregon. There are no chapters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area – yet. In the last few weeks, at least five North Texas parents have contacted Ms. Juren about starting chapters.

“People need to know there are home-school children out there who are able to meet an exceptional challenge, who have a thirst for learning,” said Feyi Obamehinti, a Cedar Hill home-schooling parent who plans to launch a local chapter.

The group was recently featured in a prominent home-schooling national magazine, and a national home-schooling association is about to start promoting it to its members. “The national interest is really increasing,” Ms. Juren said.

The first chapter, in Houston, remains the largest chapter, with more than a dozen active members. They’ve spent time assembling DNA testing kits to give to parents worried about child abductions and are doing other community service activities. A day working at a local food bank is coming up.

“It’s an opportunity to be involved with other home-schoolers and meet some interesting people,” said Jenny Brzowski, the owner of a 1460 SAT score.

While she enjoys meeting her peers and doing good work, she’s also aware of perhaps ESA’s greatest benefit: “It’s an excellent thing to put on your transcript.”

“For a lot of kids in Eta Sigma Alpha, it opens doors into honors programs, scholarships, colleges,” Ms. Juren said. “Before, when they saw that National Honor Society line on another child’s record and our child had nothing, that gave the other child a plus. This has given us that same leg up.”

The National Honor Society doesn’t appear to be put upon by their new, smaller rival. “It’s separate turf,” Mr. Cordts said. “We’ve never said NHS should be the only method of recognizing students.”

In fact, he said he’s happy to know about Eta Sigma Alpha. Now he’ll have somewhere to direct the home-school parents who call his office, asking if their children can join NHS. He said he gets those calls several times a month.

Dropouts stump educators; Forum with state leader focuses on ways to keep students enrolled

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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RICHARDSON — Failing grades. Parents who aren’t involved. Feeling isolated from the rest of the school. Pregnancy.

It wasn’t hard for the educators at Wednesday’s dropout prevention forum to say why some kids quit school. Figuring out how to keep them in class – that has proved harder.

“The dropout issue is something we’ll have to take care of by design, not by chance,” said Ted Moore, McKinney ISD’s deputy superintendent.

About 100 Dallas-area teachers, principals, administrators and parents met at the Richardson Civic Center to discuss what they’ve tried to prevent dropouts. The focus groups were led by Paul Cruz, the state’s new “dropout czar,” who is leading similar sessions around the state.

“Our intent is to get out to the community and see what’s working and what’s not,” said Dr. Cruz, the former Laredo superintendent who was appointed the Texas Education Agency’s deputy commissioner for dropout prevention and initiatives this summer.

The educators broke into small groups and were charged with answering two questions: Why do kids drop out? And what can be done to keep them in school?

Some ideas: better mentoring programs for troubled children. Better identification of learning problems at an early age. Smaller classes and smaller schools. More flexible schedules for students who have to work. Training programs for parents to get them more involved.

“We need to ask the kids who have dropped out what it was that led them that way,” said Evelio Flores, a youth counselor who works with Communities in Schools, a nonprofit organization. “They’re the ones who know.”

If there was a consensus in the group, it was that at-risk students needed to feel a stronger personal connection to their schools. That could mean being on the football team or in a play; it could also mean a teacher or counselor taking an interest.

“Someone needs to care about each student,” said Noelle DeMarest, a Richardson parent who said her younger sister dropped out of school, despite being part of an upper-middle class family in Plano. “You’d hope it would be the parents, but it won’t always be.”

“When you get to a high school with 2,000 kids or 4,000 kids, it’s so easy to lose kids in the mix, even with the most caring people,” Dr. Cruz said.

“We have to have a high level of urgency.”

The state’s official dropout statistics wouldn’t seem to support such urgency. According to the Texas Education Agency, only 1 percent of Texas students in grades 7 to 12 dropped out in 2000-01, the most recent year available.

But a variety of sources have indicated that the problem is significantly larger than what the state reports.

In 2000-01, Texas had 360,000 high school freshmen, but only 220,000 seniors.

A study last year by the education research group Just for the Kids estimated that 20 percent of students who entered Texas high schools in 1994 did not graduate within five years.

Federal data released in August said that Texas’ annual dropout rate was almost four times as large as the state’s estimate.

1 in 6 area third-graders may be at risk on TAKS; Figures may provide ‘wake-up call’ on new reading test, official says

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Nearly 10,000 North Texas third-graders – about one in six – are at risk of failing the state’s new reading test, according to a Dallas Morning News survey of area school districts.

If they can’t pass the test, new rules could keep some of those 9-year-olds from advancing to the fourth grade.

But districts are having significant difficulty identifying who might fail the test – in part because they don’t yet know what score will be required to pass.

“It’s a tough issue because of all the unknowns,” said Brad Lancaster, assistant superintendent for learner services in Allen. “The panic is that this is a harder test, and we don’t know what it takes to pass.”

This year marks the debut of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the tougher state standardized exam. The test packs a special punch for third-graders: For the first time, a passing score will be required to advance to fourth grade.

Because of the high stakes involved, state regulations require districts to identify students who are at risk of failing and alert their parents. But each district is allowed to use its own method of picking out those weaker students.

In the 27 Dallas-Fort Worth area districts surveyed by The News, 9,941 students have been declared at risk. That’s about 17 percent of those districts’ 59,526 total third-graders.

If that percentage were applied to the state as a whole, more than 50,000 Texas third-graders would be at risk of failing.

“It may be a wake-up call to communities,” said Cloyd Hastings, director of assessment and accountability in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district. “It may be, ‘Gee, we did very well before and didn’t have large numbers failing. But things might be different on this new test.'”

Districts use the at-risk numbers to help determine which students need extra help before the test is given. Weaker students generally receive small-group reading training each day at school. In some cases, they were asked to attend summer school classes.

Since the accountability system began in 1994, the third-grade Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) has served as students’ first exposure to state testing. Passing rates on the reading test steadily improved over the years, from 76 percent in 1994 to 87 percent in 2002. Last year, about 34,000 third-graders failed the TAAS reading test.

How much tougher?

State officials promise that the new TAKS test will be tougher. The question is how much tougher.

Less than five months before the test is to be given, the State Board of Education still has not determined what score will be required to pass. The vast majority of teachers still have not even seen a complete TAKS test.

“I know it’s frustrating for educators not to know what the target is,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Some teachers said not knowing the passing standard has led to confusion over what to expect from students. “Children tend to perform up to the expectations you have for them,” said Sharon Metcalfe, a third-grade teacher at Carlisle Elementary in Plano. “But we need to know where to set them.”

District standards differ

The confusion is evident in the wide disparities between how districts identify which students are in TAKS trouble.

Take Allen and McKinney, neighboring districts in Collin County. They’re similar demographically, although McKinney is slightly more diverse and less wealthy. Both had passing rates on the TAAS reading test of more than 97 percent.

But Allen says that 19 percent of its third-graders are at risk of failing the test, while McKinney says less than 3 percent are.

That doesn’t mean Allen’s kids are worse-prepared than McKinney’s. It’s partially a signal that no one’s sure what to expect.

“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” Allen’s Dr. Lancaster said. “We’re casting a wider net than we normally would because of the uncertainty.”

On last year’s reading TAAS, Garland schools had a passing rate 11 points higher than Dallas schools. But Dallas says only 19 percent of its third-graders are at risk of failing the TAKS. Garland says 31 percent are.

“It makes me nervous that they haven’t sorted this out yet,” said Ruth Joseph, whose son, Harrison, is in third grade at Plano’s Haun Elementary. “They’ve been telling us our children would have to pass this test to go to the next grade since they were in kindergarten. You’d think they could have figured it out by now.”

Because of the different standards used, district results are not comparable to one another. Most use student results on the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, a test of students’ early reading skills, to make judgments. But districts are free to use student grades or other standardized test results as well.

Educators can expect some clarity to arrive Nov. 15, when the State Board of Education votes to determine the passing standard. The most commonly rumored standard is 70 percent, the same that the TAAS used.

But Ms. Ratcliffe said the board could make a more complex decision than setting a single cutoff. The board could set different passing standards for different grades or subjects. It could also decide to set the passing standard in third grade lower then in other grades because of the higher stakes.

Possibilities to advance

But even if students fail the TAKS test, they could still avoid repeating third grade. As soon as test results are back, failing students will be given intense reading instruction and then another chance to take the TAKS. If they fail again, they’ll be expected to attend summer school.

After that, they’ll get one final chance to pass the TAKS or a similar state-approved test in July. Fail that, and the child’s fate goes to a special committee composed of his or her parent, teacher and principal. If all three agree, the child can be pushed ahead to fourth grade.

“I really expect that by the time the child has had a number of opportunities to be successful on the test, you’ll see very few retentions,” Dr. Hastings said.

Houston hailed as nation’s best urban school district; $500,000 Broad Prize awarded for reforms that boosted test scores

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

The Houston schools were good enough to get Superintendent Rod Paige a promotion to Washington. Now they’re good enough to be called the best in the country.

The district is the first recipient of the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which aims to recognize the best large urban school system in the nation. District officials received the award in a Washington ceremony Wednesday alongside Dr. Paige, now the U.S. secretary of education.

“We are absolutely thrilled beyond belief,” said Kaye Stripling, Houston’s superintendent since 2001. “We’re so honored that our work has been recognized.”

The prize – the largest in public education – is funded by the Broad Foundation, created in 1999 by billionaire Eli Broad. Mr. Broad is chairman of Sun America Inc., a Los Angeles-based financial services company.

“In large cities, the public is truly down on their public schools,” Mr. Broad said. “The idea of the prize is to spotlight the successes of urban districts and hopefully have their practices emulated by others.”

Houston earned the prize by doing the best job of raising test scores and closing gaps between the performance of well-off white students and poor minority students.

“What’s most impressive is that this movement is real,” said James McSwain, principal of Houston’s Lamar High School. “These are real results. We’re seeing kids who have many obstacles in their way making it to graduation and performing well. I’m seeing better-prepared students coming into high school than we used to. It really is a success story.”

The Houston reform program began in the early 1990s and gained speed with Dr. Paige’s appointment as superintendent in 1994. Some of the reforms that Houston officials credited for their successes:

* Removing politics from the school board. “Several years ago, our board decided to depoliticize the way they operated and let the educators run the district,” said Dr. McSwain, a former president of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals. “They avoid the finger-pointing. They let the schools be managed professionally.”

* Tougher promotion standards. “Very early on, we decided we didn’t want to push kids along to the next grade if they weren’t ready,” Dr. Stripling said. “We make certain that all of our kids can read by the start of second grade.” They’re better prepared for later success with a stronger early foundation, she said.

* Using data. Schools analyze test scores to identify weak teachers or where students are struggling. Principals then have a better idea where to target resources.

* Decentralizing authority. “We’ve tried to decentralize not only the funding but also the authority,” Dr. Stripling said. “We let the people closest to the situation make the decisions on how to solve a problem.” School-based teams handle decisions that, in some other districts, are handled by the superintendent or board of trustees.

* Keeping schools highly accountable. With greater authority comes greater responsibility. Principals in Houston are given annual goals to meet by the superintendent, in everything from standardized test scores to the dropout rate. Their contracts are signed by the superintendent, not the school board, so weak performers can be removed with relative ease.

“Each year, it’s ‘Whatever you did last year, that’s great, that’s wonderful – now do better,'” Dr. McSwain said.

Dr. Stripling, who has worked in Houston schools since 1964, said the district’s improved reputation has led to increased community support.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen such a dramatic increase,” she said. “It’s nice to see a city that truly supports its public schools.”

Adrienne Moreno, Lamar’s student body president, agreed: “We’ve got so many supporters now. Everyone’s connected and tied together for the schools.”

The selection process for the Broad (rhymes with road) prize began in the spring, when about 100 districts across the country were named as potential candidates, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Garland.

That group was narrowed to five: Houston, Atlanta, Boston, and Long Beach and Garden Grove, Calif. Each district was visited by Broad Foundation representatives.

The winner was chosen by an all-star jury, including former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman, two former secretaries of education and two governors.

Aside from the honor, Houston schools will also receive an influx of cash. The $500,000 prize is to be used for college scholarships for this year’s Houston seniors, such as Miss Moreno, who hopes to study international business at Boston University. The other four finalist districts will each receive $125,000 in scholarship money, putting the total prize commitment at $1 million.

The prize, which is to be given annually, had a Texas flavor even before its winner was announced. Dallas lawyer Tom Luce serves as the prize’s managing director. Data for the selection process was gathered by the Austin-based National Center for Educational Accountability. Donald McAdams, a former Houston school board president and the district’s pre-eminent evangelist, leads the Broad Institute for School Boards, a related project.

While the prize is privately funded, it has been promoted by several federal education leaders. Eight senators and 10 congressional representatives were at Wednesday’s ceremony.

They’ll win some, they’ll ooze some

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Texas-Oklahoma it ain’t.

But the University of Texas at Dallas promises the start of a brand-new athletic rivalry during this month’s homecoming celebrations. The chosen sport: oozeball, a sort of volleyball played in knee-deep mud.

In case you’re wondering, no, UTD doesn’t have a football team.

On Oct. 23, UTD will sponsor an intramural oozeball tournament. Then, at 6 p.m., UTD’s champions will take on a squad from the hated University of Texas at Arlington.

No word yet on the early Vegas line.

— Joshua Benton