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Good Reason Houston aims for 60K more students in top-rated schools

March 8, 2019

Good Reason Houston, an education nonprofit backed by some of Houston’s most prominent business and philanthropic leaders, unveiled an audacious goal Thursday: 60,000 more seats in highly-rated schools across the region by 2025.

The announcement, disclosed at a gathering of about 300 Houston-area education and community officials, marked the biggest public step to date in the unfurling of Good Reason Houston following more than a year of quiet planning.

Good Reason Houston expects to work directly with administrators at several urban independent and charter districts, using data-driven practices to help them to develop staff, increase equitable access to high-quality classrooms and engage school communities.

The nonprofit’s arrival comes as business leaders and legislators are voicing greater concern about education trends in Texas, where nearly half of high school graduates are not considered ready for college, a career or the military, according to criteria established by the Texas Education Agency.

“The first role of Good Reason is to put forth the big vision,” said Alex Hales Elizondo, the nonprofit’s founding CEO and former executive director of Teach For America Dallas-Fort Worth. “The intention is for us to play a role in connecting districts with strategies, whether it’s best practices or innovative approaches, that are successful throughout the country or state.”

Good Reason Houston is supported by $8.4 million in grants from the Houston Endowment and Kinder Foundation, with hopes of garnering additional financial support. Its leaders have coordinated with several superintendents, higher education chancellors and business leaders to hone its mission, while also surveying several hundred parents and district staffers.

Ann Stern, Good Reason Houston’s board chair and the Houston Endowment’s president and CEO, said the nonprofit aims to energize and improve regional efforts to increase high-quality educational opportunities for children, similar to work done by nonprofits in Dallas, Denver and New Orleans. The organization employs 11 staffers with expertise in education policy, human resources development and data analysis. Most have prior experience working with Teach For America, traditional public school districts or charter schools.

“There are other places that have really made progress in this work, so we felt like it was really important to establish a community-wide mission and goal, with all the right people at the table,” Stern said.

Good Reason Houston is targeting nine traditional school districts in Greater Houston — including Aldine, Alief, Houston, Pasadena, Spring and Spring Branch ISDs — and several charter school districts. At least 70 percent of students in each district are considered economically disadvantaged by the state, with the exception of Spring Branch ISD.

Good Reason Houston’s goal is increase the region’s share of schools rated “A” or “B” by the Texas Education Agency, which judges campuses largely based on raw performance and growth on state standardized tests. About 220,000 students attended “A”- or “B”-rated campuses last year in Good Reason Houston’s targeted districts, or roughly 43 percent of students.

The group envisions serving a consultant-like role, partnering with districts in areas where their desires align with the nonprofit’s values. While Good Reason Houston does not plan to dictate strategies to districts, its leaders hold certain practices in high regard.

Some educational efforts embraced by Good Reason Houston likely will garner widespread support, such as pre-kindergarten enrollment drives, campaigns to increase completion of financial aid forms and heightened recruiting of teachers. Aldine ISD already has coordinated with Good Reason Houston to help organize a pre-kindergarten enrollment festival in the district, with plans to expand their alliance.

“Having a partnership with an entity that’s seen and been exposed to highly effective schools, that knows what’s working not only in our area but in Texas and across the nation, that’s powerful,” Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney said. “In Aldine, we don’t have a lot of disposable money to throw at additional positions, so having an external partner is valuable.”

Some of Good Reason Houston’s favored practices, however, have drawn more divided support.

For example, Good Reason Houston leaders herald Dallas ISD’s Accelerating Campus Excellence program, which emphasizes methods that include placing highly-rated principals and teachers in the district’s lowest-performing schools. Many state political leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott and TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, have lauded Dallas ISD’s efforts, citing significantly improved academic performance at the district’s lowest-rated schools. The Dallas area’s largest teachers union, however, has expressed skepticism about the program, questioning its reliance on teacher evaluations that incorporate standardized test scores and student surveys.

Good Reason Houston also plans to work with KIPP Texas, YES Prep Public Schools and IDEA Public Schools — three of the state’s most prominent charter school networks — and could promote public-private partnerships at campuses. Some advocates and educators are highly critical of charters and private influences on public schools, arguing they are less accountable to voters and siphon resources from traditional districts, among other complaints.

Stern said Good Reason Houston “is not about us going in and telling people what they should be doing,” but rather “working with districts that are seeking improvement.”

“We’re really looking for districts where the opportunity is ripe to really support them and do the things that are going to improve the quality of their schools,” Stern said. “We’re open to how we can support them on what’s important for their organization. We can’t say what that will be in the future, but we’re deeply committed to this work.”

jacob.carpenter@chron.com

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