Middle school math teacher Mario Hernandez knows that no child will emerge academically unscathed from the coronavirus pandemic.
But if any group of children is well positioned to ride out the effects, Hernandez believes it’s the 500 students at Amigos Por Vida – Friends For Life Public Charter School. The Gulfton-area campus routinely ranks among the highest-performing in Houston, which Hernandez attributes to a strong work culture, dedicated staff and invested parents.
“We are struggling because of all the differences, but our kids were able to adjust quick,” said Hernandez, an 11th-year teacher at the campus. “I have 100 percent attendance on almost a daily basis. If my students don’t show up here, they’re online. And in reality, they have the choice not to, if they wanted.”
Amid a pandemic that figures to set back millions of children, the Houston education advocacy and research nonprofit Children At Risk argues that the region’s consistently top-scoring schools, such as Amigos Por Vida – Friends For Life, are best-positioned to minimize the damage to students.
With that theory in mind, this year’s annual Children At Risk school rankings and letter grades rely on three years’ worth of past student performance, aiming to highlight campuses and districts showing strong year-after-year results.
“Because of the pandemic, we have really delved into this idea of consistency,” Children At Risk President and CEO Bob Sanborn said. “We know with the pandemic that especially for low-income kids, who represent the majority of kids across Houston and Texas, there’s going to be a significant learning lag. The idea of going to a school that’s been consistently good is really the best shot for some kids getting up to speed.”
Children At Risk traditionally calculates annual rankings and grades for all Texas public schools, primarily relying on state standardized math and reading test scores, as well as high school achievement data, from the previous school year.
The nonprofit takes into account student demographics by filtering the data through three lenses — raw achievement, year-over-year growth and performance relative to poverty levels — for all schools and a college readiness measure for high schools. Children At Risk added another factor this year, designed to account for racial equity.
However, the cancellation of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, commonly known as STAAR, due to the pandemic this past spring forced Children At Risk to adjust. The nonprofit ultimately decided to use standardized test data and high school metrics from 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, plus college readiness data from 2020, to analyze performance over time.
The change produced relatively little movement at the top of Houston’s rankings.
Five high schools routinely ranked among the region’s highest-performing led the pack: Houston ISD’s DeBakey High School for Health Professionals, Eastwood Academy and Carnegie Vanguard High School, along with Alief ISD’s Early College and Kerr high schools.
HISD’s T.H. Rogers School, a fixture near the top of Children At Risk’s rankings, earned the top spot for both elementary and middle schools. The gifted-and-talented magnet campus edged out Tomball ISD’s Creekside Forest Elementary School and Spring Branch ISD’s Cornerstone Academy.
However, the rankings brought a new feature reflective of the times.
Children At Risk highlighted 32 schools scoring A or B grades under the three-year model that also reported at least 75 percent of enrolled students were considered “economically disadvantaged” by the state. The nonprofit’s leaders surmised that the campuses are more likely to navigate the pandemic well, given their track record.
HISD schools nabbed half of the 32 spots, while seven charter campuses and two each from Lamar CISD and Pasadena ISD helped filled out the list.
PISD’s Miller Intermediate School earned one of 10 middle school designations after scoring three straight B-level grades in recent years. Despite reporting one of the district’s least-experienced teaching staffs — about two-thirds had five or fewer years in the classroom, according to state data — Miller Intermediate students routinely showed well above-average progress on STAAR in recent years.
Miller Intermediate Principal Mikie Escamilla said his staff spent much of March through May addressing students’ non-academic needs, particularly those with parents facing health or employment challenges. As the 2020-21 school year has restarted, Escamilla said employees are making more room for academics, relying on the strong campus systems and culture.
“If we don’t go back to the culture of high expectations, the gaps in learning that our kids are going to experience are going to follow them and be detrimental to their educational experience not just now, but for years down the road,” Escamilla said.
At Cy-Fair ISD’s Hairgrove Elementary School, another of the 32 honorees, Principal Michelle Lee has sought to create a family atmosphere while also participating in the national No Excuses University network of nearly 200 campuses. Amid the pandemic, Hairgrove teachers continue to rely on student assessment data, worried about the impact that the spring layoff and tech-heavy fall instruction will have on lower-income children of color.
“At Hairgrove, we jumped right into assessing our students at the beginning of the year to determine where our students were performing in reading, writing, and math,” Lee said. “We are using this data to develop a year-long plan to fill in these gaps.”
It remains unclear whether the Children At Risk rankings will need another adjustment in 2021.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, a proponent of standardized testing, has not formally committed to plans for administering or canceling STAAR in the spring.
A near-majority of the Texas House of Representatives asked Morath earlier this month to nix the exams, while several superintendents representing large school districts and leaders of regional chambers of commerce urged him to keep tests on the schedule. Both groups said the state should not issue A-through-F letter grades that are largely based on STAAR scores.
“Penalizing a district or school because its kids are falling behind, at this point, is ridiculous,” Sanborn said. “This has been a disaster for the world, so we can’t do business as usual. But we do need to see how kids are doing and how they’re improving, so we can get back on the road.”
Originally published on https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/education/article/Children-At-Risk-rankings-Consistency-rewarded-15760514.php