Annette Enriquez works on a jet engine. Annette completed her bachelor's degree from Embry-Riddle University, she'll be pursuing her masters with no college debt. Photo courtesy of Alamo Academies.
Annette Enriquez works on a jet engine. Annette completed her bachelor's degree from Embry-Riddle University, she'll be pursuing her masters with no college debt. Photo courtesy of Alamo Academies.

Education reform in Texas has a new friend in high places. Newly-elected Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was one of the original authors of House Bill 5 (HB-5), along with state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R- Kileen). The bill, which was passed in 2013, brings serious changes to current public school curriculum, campus and district accountability, and testing requirements.

On February 4, UTSA held a superintendent’s symposium to discuss HB-5 and what it means for San Antonio’s public education system and the students it serves.

The keynote speaker for the event was Susan Simpson Hull, superintendent of Grand Prairie ISD in the Dallas area. As the leader of a portfolio school district, she made the clear connection between HB-5 and school choice, an issue that Patrick heavily champions.

HB-5 does not drastically change the status of charters or magnet schools, as school choice advocates would like, but Hull is glad to see the conversation expanded beyond vouchers and charters. 

For those like Hull who believe that choice gives students a greater stake in the education and therefore a higher likelihood of graduating (she has the statistics to back that up), HB-5 is a crucial piece of the school choice puzzle.

“(HB-5) gives us the backing to encourage students to make choices earlier,” said Hull.

Dr. Susan Simpson Hull, courtesy photo
Susan Simpson Hull, courtesy photo

HB-5’s coursework reforms are aimed at career readiness for more students, instead of universal college-prep.

The symposium’s title “The Promise and the Hope of House Bill 5” set a positive tone for the symposium, though some on the panel had concerns about unintended consequences of major structural changes to graduation requirements.

The most enthusiastic support for the reforms come from those who have called for greater alignment between industry and education. Many have voiced concern that as career training programs were dropped from public education, American schools were not producing the educated workforce necessary to lead the world in an increasingly technical manufacturing sector.

John Dewey, board chairman for Alamo Academies, was a panelist at the symposium.

J Dewey Photo

Alamo Aerospace Academy students. Courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Alamo Aerospace Academy students. Courtesy of Alamo Colleges.

He has already seen evidence that the alignment is working. HB-5 mandates that school counselors inform all 9th graders and their families about regional job opportunities. Industry leaders can then work with teachers to develop curriculum that prepares students for the available jobs.

San Antonio has brought industry, education and government into collaboration in the quest for a homegrown educated workforce.

“San Antonio is probably two to five years ahead of the rest of the country in terms of finding solutions,” said Dewey.

According to Dewey, applications to Alamo Academies have doubled since counselors began informing students of regional job opportunities.

Panelist Janna Hawkins, associate superintendent for Instruction and Technology Services/CIO for North East ISD sees a lot of work ahead of the districts, especially when it comes to staffing.

Moderator John Folks, former superintendent of Northside ISD and 42-year veteran educator, is one of those who is reserving his enthusiasm until he sees how student populations respond to the bill. He’s concerned that the bill’s drastic reduction in the number of end-of-course tests (from 15 to five) required for high school graduation removes too many essential competencies. Meanwhile, elementary and middle school children are still shouldering the same heavy standardized test burden. But he acknowledges that the testing issue is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

“There will continue to be arguments about how much testing there should be,” said Folks.

He is likely right, especially in a state that led the nation in reliance on standardized tests for student advancement, campus evaluation, and district accountability. It’s a reliance that President George W. Bush took with him to Washington DC in the form of No Child Left Behind

Folks is also skeptical of the new endorsement system, which replaced the single-focus college-preparatory course. He worries that asking students to, in essence, declare a major as early as the second semester of 8th grade is too soon.

Dr. John Folks, courtesy photo.
John Folks, courtesy photo.

Hull sees it differently. Rather than asking 14-year-olds to set a fixed course for the rest of their lives, she simply wants them to consider their future. She sees HB-5  encouraging kids to take soft steps of commitment toward a life goal, with the option to change endorsements along the way.

Dewey agrees, believing that the ability to get information about career opportunities in front of kids early, will only encourage them to consider what they might be passionate about.

Folks’ concerns are based on the endorsement system’s similarity to tracking, which divides students according to their academic aptitude. The endorsements tailor a student’s education to the interests rather than aptitude, but Folks and others are concerned that the result will be similar without uniform rigor.

Hull says that it is up to the districts to implement HB-5 in such a way that they can increase rigor in courses that are filled with students who chose to be there.

HB-5 is not supposed to interfere with college readiness. The multidisciplinary endorsement will allow for customized courses as well as AP and dual credit classes across a variety of subjects, similar to the former recommended and distinguished courses.

Dewey is not worried that vocational training options will lead more students to forgo college. Alamo Academies, which offers a more intensive version of the endorsements, has a 90% success rate of students continuing on to further vocational certification, military service, or college education.

“Once they find something they are happy with it creates a thirst for knowledge to move up along that career ladder,” said Dewey.

One thing is certain: HB-5 marks a major opportunity for school districts to create competitive, innovative programs. Those who rise to the challenge could see graduation rates soar, and partnerships with regional industry leading to increased opportunities for those graduates.

For those not well-versed in education jargon, the bill is a bit difficult to read. Helpful summaries divide HB-5 into three areas of reform: coursework, assessment, and accountability. Aycock’s office provides the following summary of the changes enacted by HB-5.

COURSEWORK

Provides flexibility for students to develop their talents and purse their interests:

  • Creates one diploma that affords all students a variety of postsecondary opportunities.
  • Students may earn an additional endorsement in one of four areas: STEM, Business and Industry, Public Services, and Arts and Humanities.
  • Greatly expands course options and allows individual students more flexibility
  • Allows districts to partner with community colleges and industry to develop rigorous courses that address workforce needs, provide technical training and count towards graduation.
  • Eliminates the requirement that all students must pass Algebra II and ELA III to receive a high school diploma,
  • Grants current ninth and tenth grade students the benefits of the new structure.
  • Allows all high school graduates to be eligible for automatic admission to Texas public four-year universities because all student graduate under the same diploma.

ASSESSMENT

Reduces over-reliance on standardized testing to evaluate student performance:

  • Reduces the number of end-of-course assessments from fifteen to five.
  • Allows students to meet their graduation assessment requirement by passing ELA II (reading and writing), Algebra I, biology and US History.
  • Eliminates the requirement that the end-of-course assessments determine fifteen percent of a student’s course grade.
  • Establishes clear graduation requirements for students and parents by eliminating the cumulative score requirement.
  • Encourages college readiness by allowing satisfactory performance on Advanced Placement exams, SAT exams and the ACT to satisfy graduation requirements.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Provides for meaningful and informative school ratings:

  • Evaluates schools on more measures than state standardized assessment.
  • Establishes a new three category rating system that evaluates schools on academic performance, financial performance and community and student engagement employing understandable labels of A, B, C, D and F.
  • Directs the agency and districts to release all three ratings at the same time to provide a clearer understanding of overall school performance.
  • Allows local communities to engage in the accountability process by requiring districts to set goals and evaluate performance locally in addition to state ratings.

*Featured/top image: Annette Enriquez works on a jet engine. Annette completed her bachelor’s degree from Embry-Riddle University, she’ll be pursuing her masters with no college debt. Photo courtesy of Alamo Academies.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.