Spotlight on Leadership: Houston's Hometown Hero

May 3, 2019

After chatting with Tony Cook, Superintendent of Houston City Schools and Mississippi’s 2018 - 2019 Superintendent of the Year, it’s clear that his belief in the power of education to revitalize a community led to his success! As a Houston, Mississippi native, Mr. Cook has seen his community both thrive and struggle. However, Mr. Cook’s passion for helping the community, paired with his support in providing a high-quality education for Houston students are proving powerful catalysts for positive change.

You returned to Houston City Schools after a long period away. How did you decide where to start and which goals you would set out to accomplish first?

At the time I returned, I had been gone from Houston for over 20 years. Even though I knew things had changed, you never lose that image of your hometown in your head. My first step was to begin looking through the previous ten years of data and gauge what our pulse was -- proficiency rates, tier interventions, graduation rates -- all of the metrics that usually indicate the health of a district.

Immediately, I noticed several red flags. Our graduation rate was in the 50% range and we had identifiable pockets of students that needed attention. For example, we had 86 students who were at least two years behind. Of those students, 54 were at the high-school level and many of them were repeating grades.

It’s one thing to identify the problem, but it’s another thing entirely to be able to look beyond it and see the solution.

Chronic absenteeism and low graduation rates don’t just manifest out of nowhere. There was this apathetic attitude plaguing the community and I knew my work wasn’t going to be limited to the walls of a school. I wanted to reignite the passion for learning in the community I grew up in.

You mentioned the importance of revitalizing the community, can you expand on that?

In the 1970s and 80s, Houston was a bustling town with a thriving manufacturing market. As that market dissolved throughout the 1990s, the community suffered. The loss of so many jobs so quickly is demoralizing for any community. Although we’re rich in diversity, the void left by the loss of jobs has left its mark, and we are still overcoming those effects today. One example would be an 86% free and reduced lunch rate. Despite the obstacles, this is an amazing town and the work we’re doing in education is boosting morale among students, families, and the greater community.

Houston City Schools has always had a mix of high and low performing students, but we haven’t traditionally had a huge cohort of the mid-range. With the help of programs like Classworks, we’re starting to move students from that low range towards the middle and high ranges. We’ve also increased our number of AP and dual-credit courses.

Our community is home to people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. It’s encouraging to see so many ambitious young people with an appetite for success. It’s in their eyes. They are determined to revitalize their community, maybe not with manufacturing, but with STEM.

What steps did you take to transform teaching practices in your schools?

After we looked at the historical data, it was all about prioritization. We didn’t just want to go in and slap a band-aid on the problem. We wanted to focus on the key issues and offer a comprehensive solution. Our team identified strengths and weaknesses in the curriculum and in our processes for supporting struggling students using the student data we had available. By honing in on the important data points, we could take action.

Professional learning was a tremendous push for us, districtwide. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) were established in each building to meet multiple times per week based on grade level, content area, department, and so on.

It was imperative to create a collaborative atmosphere that would foster ownership.

What positive results have you seen by fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and ownership with teachers and principals?

We expunged the “your kids vs. my kids” attitude and started focusing on “our kids.” In just a short time, we’ve come a long way to inspire ownership amongst educators as a team.

We’ve also made a big effort for literacy initiatives across our curricula. Our literacy teachers work with those in other subject areas to pull content to supplement those areas. If students are learning about World War II or Earth Science, literacy teachers pull articles on those topics; it’s holistic. Collaborative forums have increased the appetite for cross-curricular content as a whole. In response, all teachers work together to keep subject matter consistent across the school. They gather two or three times per week during common planning periods. Weekly, an administrator facilitates the discussion to help keep the dialogue meaningful and actionable.

Peer observations happen every nine weeks. These are assigned by the principal, and help our teachers share best practices among each other. Productive collaboration is a real key to success for us.

Technology has helped us maximize our professional learning, too. Swivl cameras are a game-changer for our classrooms. They’ve allowed us to share great practices from incredible educators. Teachers can elect to have their classroom lessons filmed to share, and provide and receive coaching. I’ve been coaching all my life. Coaches watch videos of their plays to keep improving -- it’s the same mentality.

For our administrators, I call upon that same coaching expertise. Every four weeks, I sit down with my principals for a data meeting, and every quarter we have a much bigger data meeting. All meetings are coachable opportunities. I don’t focus on complicated, intimidating evaluations. Instead, I have a productive dialogue about what’s working and what isn’t. A relaxed environment allows me to share the great things I’m seeing from teachers across the district and helps my administrators to be more open with me as well.

What types of community-based education initiatives have you encouraged in Houston?

I’m from this community; I graduated here in 1982. I know what it’s like for Houstonians and they don’t see me as an outsider. They trust me and they know I understand where they’re coming from. I know what this place once was and I know what it can be again. Our team has been really great about sparking that conversation to get us back on track.

Because we aren’t a wealthy district, I sought out some help with deploying incentive initiatives. The result was a partnership with a group called PACE -- Partners in Achieving Community Excellence. They have been absolutely pivotal for us to incentivize student success.

We like to reward our students for academic achievement as well as good behavioral practices, such as attendance.

The incentives they provide can be monetary, technological, pizza parties, anything you can think of! It has definitely changed the student’s attitudes about learning. Now, they’re helping us build out some incentives for our hardworking educators.

During the summertime, many of our students don’t really have much to do, so we have established a two-month long reading camp for them. This has had a mutually beneficial effect for both students and teachers. Students are excited to come to camp, see their friends, and read great books. On the other hand, this has greatly cut down on the “summer lag” that affects students while on the long break. Our community has really bought into this and their support has been monumental.

You mentioned STEM as a vehicle for success in your schools. How is Houston City incorporating technology into teaching and learning?

Technology is mixed into classrooms in a number of ways. A lot of our title funds went to supplying Chromebooks for the district. We are 1:1, and we encourage students to bring their own devices. Our BYOD policy is something that I feel strongly encourages the adoption rate amongst students and it was a priority for me during my first year as superintendent.

In addition, instructional technology has helped to increase teacher capacity in our schools. One of the issues we identified immediately is that teachers feel inundated with data. We have a lot of really great data from our diagnostic assessments, but it can be difficult for teachers to apply that data in a meaningful way for classes of 30 students at a time.

Classworks has had a tremendous effect on the way we handle intervention and even acceleration. Right now we use it for Kindergarten through grade eight, and even some in high school. Thanks to Classworks, we can now instantly provide lessons using our assessment data. Our students are getting to work on the skills they are ready for or need to work on. Teachers feel like they have the time to teach what they need to with the confidence that the individual needs of their students are being met.

Your district has achieved its highest performance grade in history. In addition to the professional learning and community involvement, what other positive changes are contributing to Houston City’s increase from a low C to a B?

Over the course of two years, our graduation and proficiency metrics have increased substantially. We’re now celebrating an 89% graduation rate. We want to use the momentum we’ve built to thrust us forward, while making sure we’re doing right by the students.

Having Classworks do the heavy-lifting has been monumental for our teachers’ remediation processes. And, because students are receiving instruction at the right level, our enrichment program has benefitted as well.

I think next year we have a definite shot at being an A-district, and I know for sure that Classworks is helping us get there.

What advice would you give to anyone trying to accomplish a similar goal in another corner of the country?

Success is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight.

Step one is definitely to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and your biggest priority should always be doing what’s best for all students. Our philosophy is that “all” means all, and our mission statement reflects that principle. Have high expectations for your students, but make sure that they’re attainable by setting goals and periodic benchmarks. We don’t focus on being an A-district or on a certain test score. It’s more so about the day-to-day operations and making sure all students are safe and their needs areaccounted for. If you do all the little things right, it will be easier to handle the big things.

Don’t overwhelm your students and staff with a lot of brand new initiatives that deride from your key district goals. You must give them the space to grow into things and ensure they have the resources they need in order to be successful. We limited our major initiatives and built on them year over year.

As long as you take the time to have those conversations, and prioritize what’s best for your district, anyone can replicate what we’ve done here.

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