Guy Sconzo wanted more than just "acceptable" for the students he led in the Humble (Texas) Independent School District. Since 2001, Sconzo has been superintendent of this suburban district, just outside Houston. As student enrollment rose by up to 1,200 students per year, in part due to business and affordable housing, the district continued to meet standards on the annual Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test. Under the four-tier rating of the Texas Accountability Rating System, HISD was in the "acceptable" range, which meant that at least 70 percent of tested students met standards in reading, writing and social studies, and 60 percent met math standards. He wanted to be at least "recognized" (at least 80 percent of tested students have met each standard in the core subjects). "We were encountering more hurdles given the very fast student growth—the dramatic changes demographically and socioeconomically," he recalls. "It was a great 'average' district. But we have an unbelievably supportive community, and expectations are high."
At 4,500 students and 3,800 students, HISD's two high schools were very large. So in 2002, the district board of education created a High School for the Future task force—comprised of professionals, architects and community members—to research the idea of setting up small learning communities for high school students. SLCs were developed to personalize the students' education, according to Associate Superintendent Paula Almond, who has been in the district for 36 years. Elementary and middle schools were and still are relatively small, Almond says.
After months of planning and designing, voters passed bonds in 2002 and again in 2005, totaling nearly $243 million, to build two new high schools, Atascocita High and Summer Creek High, according to the educational specifications that came from the task force, and to redesign and renovate the two existing high schools. A fifth school was converted to a high school with SLCs. All the high schools divide the students into 400-member SLCs, or "houses." Each house has an assistant principal, secretary and counselor. "The houses really facilitate personalization," Sconzo says. "You're going to monitor the students daily and have personal relationships with their parents, and to me, that's fundamental so that the high academic performance can be realized."
Each house includes science labs, computer labs and a small teacher theater, similar to a college lecture hall, that can be used for guest lectures or faculty and parent meetings. In the center of each house is a "flex learning area," which has caf? tables and chairs where students can collaborate. "The flex space is like their living room, and you see your group of kids and you feel related to them," says Irene Nigaglioni, a partner at PBK Architects who helped design the schools. She notes also that every classroom has "plenty of natural light, which has been known to be critical to instruction." Meanwhile, students can also take specialty classes, such as AP classes, that are offered within the school building but not necessarily in their house. And students within each large school benefit from the diverse offerings of extracurricular activities and athletics.
After the 2010-2011 TAKS test, every Humble high school was "recognized" under the state accountability system. "More than 80 percent of the students [in grades 9 through 12] are meeting state standards" in English, math, social studies and science, Sconzo says. And when scores are disaggregated by minority groups of students, including African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, economically disadvantaged students and limited English proficient students, they, too, are meeting state standards, he adds.
Nationwide, such SLCs have been growing by 5 to 10 percent annually, Nigaglioni says. "We're not saying these small learning communities are a panacea," Sconzo cautions. "It's worked for us, and we're committed to it." He emphasizes the importance of prep work. "It's taken years of planning and trying to develop a culture that would enable this approach to be successful."
Angela Pascopella is senior editor.