Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Texas Scholars: Investing in the Future

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Texas Scholars: Investing in the Future

Article excerpt

The Texas Scholars Program, a joint business/education venture, has succeeded in making a more rigorous high school curriculum attractive to students who would not ordinarily choose such a path.

The Texas Scholars program has demonstrated its value over the last nine years as a low-cost, high-impact program that motivates the "forgotten majority' - middle- and lower-ranked high school students - to complete a rigorous academic curriculum that prepares them for the labor market or for postsecondary education. The program serves as a model for those seeking an immediate step that educators and their communities can take together to improve their schools.

The Texas Scholars Program was started in 1989 by Joe Randolph, a Longview, Texas, school board member and manager of the Training Department for the Texas Eastman Division of the Eastman Chemical Company. The Texas Eastman Division occupies a 5,800-acre site outside Longview and employs nearly 3,000 people. In his previous position as personnel director of the company, Randolph had been challenged to locate high school graduates who were qualified for Eastman's craft-type jobs.

A communitywide Business/Education Summit in Longview in 1989 changed all that. Randolph and Mary Alice Schmitz, principal of Longview's Forest Park Middle School, were named co-chairs of the curriculum committee of the Greater Longview Organization of Business and Education.

The two subsequently led an effort to develop a pilot program, the Texas Scholars, which was implemented for Longview high school students during the 1990-91 school year. From the start, the program stressed the importance of good communication skills as well as the benefits of taking academically challenging math and science courses. Adopted in 1992 by the Texas Business and Education Coalition, the Texas Scholars Program was unanimously endorsed that same year by the state board of education.

During most of 1993, Randolph pushed tirelessly to use the Texas Scholars' curriculum as a springboard to a new statewide curriculum for all Texas high-schoolers. In November 1993, the "Recommended High School Program" was passed by the state board of education, and the Texas Scholars Program became the prime vehicle statewide for students to complete that curriculum.

The 24-credit curriculum includes four years of English, algebra I and II, geometry, precalculus or trigonometry/elementary analysis, world history, world geography, U.S. history, and government/economics. Students must take three science courses from a list of seven, ranging from physical science to physics II. The program also includes course requirements in foreign language, fine arts, health, physical education, computer science, and speech - along with tech-prep or college-prep electives.

Though intended for all students, the Texas Scholars Program targets especially those youngsters who rank in the lower half of their high school classes. Many of these youngsters are minorities, and most of them previously had little hope of receiving any kind of academic recognition. Though they do not need a C average for admission to the program, participants are required to earn a grade of C or better in each course after admission.

Students are welcome to enter the program at any time during their high school careers. Realistically, though, students entering later than the start of the junior year would be hard pressed to complete the program. The best time to commit to the Texas Scholars Program is during the spring semester of eighth grade, when students are signing up for their freshman courses.

Students who enter the program are encouraged, but not required, to sign contracts. Approximately one-third of the 149 Texas school districts that have adopted the program ask both students and their parents to sign an "I Promise Document" declaring that students will enroll in the specified core courses, will earn grades of 70% or better (an increasing number of schools have adopted 75% as the minimum), and will stay with the program. If a student earns a grade below 70%, he or she can retake the course.

Business leaders in participating communities introduce eighth-grade students to the Texas Scholars Program by means of a slide presentation just prior to registration for freshman courses. Occasionally, business leaders make a similar presentation to parents. The important thing is that business-people come into the schools and tell eighth-graders what life is really like in the outside world.

These business leaders talk to the students about economic issues, particularly global competition. They strongly urge students to complete a rigorous academic curriculum so that they are prepared for further education and for the work force. They show students how much it costs to live and demonstrate how difficult it is to get by on a minimum wage. They tell students that "there are no good jobs for dummies anymore."

These 50-minute presentations by local leaders of business and industry emphasize the relationship between education and the ability to succeed in college or in the work force. Students expect teachers to tell them that math and science are important. But when they hear that same message from business leaders, who don't pull any punches about the relationship between completing such courses and landing good jobs, it puts schoolwork in a different light.

Besides making presentations to eighth-graders, business leaders can be involved in the Texas Scholars Program by contributing financially or by serving on committees that deal with implementing the program. The program does not require a major financial investment. In most communities, the annual budget is less than $10,000. Some businesses may choose to provide human resources for any of the several committees that support the program, rather than to provide financial assistance.

The major program expenses are for brochures and for certificates and other incentives for student participants. For example, in many Texas communities, students who fulfill program requirements by earning passing grades in specified subjects receive discount cards that are honored by dozens of local merchants. Meanwhile, students who stay with the program through their senior year are honored at an annual senior banquet and ceremony. A directory of Texas Scholars is also distributed to local businesses each year, encouraging them to hire these graduates for summer, part-time, or full-time jobs. Throughout the school year, student participants are frequently featured in newspaper articles and at ceremonies that recognize their hard work in tough courses.

Parents of program participants augment the contributions of business leaders by supporting and encouraging their children. They communicate and cooperate with their children's teachers and often serve on one or more committees that support the Texas Scholars Program.

Meanwhile, educators provide guidance to students and their parents as the students decide which courses they will take each year. Educators are responsible for determining whether students are meeting the requirements of the program; they are also responsible for designating those seniors who receive the honor of being labeled a "Texas Scholar." Encouragement and support from educators play a vital role in the success of the program.

A counselor on each campus monitors the students' grades to ensure that they are performing at a level that allows them to remain in the program. School counselors are the official custodians of the rules for the program. A relatively new development in several of the participating communities is a Texas Scholars Tracking Committee, composed of educators (selected high school faculty) and businesspeople. That committee monitors the Scholars' scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the American College Testing (ACT) program, and the SAT and compares those scores to the scores of students who are not participating in the program.

As of October 1997, the Texas Scholars Program had spread to 149 school districts in 63 communities representing virtually every major region of the state. Finding average students enrolled in advanced math and science courses is no longer unusual in these communities. Enrollments in such courses as chemistry, computer science, and trigonometry have grown dramatically.

Just one year after the Texas Scholars Program got under way, 60% of the junior class at Pine Tree High School enrolled in chemistry, Hallsville High School had added a math teacher and a science teacher to its faculty, and Spring Hill High School had added an algebra teacher. Meanwhile, White Oak High School had added courses in algebra I and chemistry II and was making plans to add a calculus course. At Longview High School, 67% more students were registered for physics, and 36% more seniors had signed up for precalculus, calculus, and trigonometry. And the changes weren't expensive, because, as math and science teachers were hired, demand for other courses declined.

The increased student demand for a solid academic program is causing Texas high school officials not only to add courses but also to institute block scheduling, to lengthen the school day, and to make other changes to strengthen their schools' academic offerings. To prepare students for the Recommended High School Program, districts are also improving instruction at the elementary and middle school levels. And the bottom-line results are encouraging. Early studies show that students in the Texas Scholars Program score higher - in many cases, significantly higher than other students on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the ACT, and the SAT.

Schmitz, the principal of Forest Park Middle School in Longview and a co-founder of the Texas Scholars Program, describes the program's success as "overwhelming." Former Forest Park students who now attend Longview High School report that they are doubling up on math courses so that they can take calculus before they graduate. "And many of our minority students have set higher expectations for themselves academically," Schmitz notes.

Meanwhile, employers across the state are actively seeking high school graduates with the "Texas Scholar" designation on their resumes. Juniors and seniors who are participating in the program are also being hired for summer jobs. And Texas Scholars are being picked to fill the more lucrative job openings. The list of corporate sponsors is growing rapidly. The Texas Scholars Program has succeeded in bringing business and education together to work toward the common goal of preparing high school graduates for a better future.

The Texas Scholars Program not only makes students winners in the classroom and gets them started on the road to success, but it also reaches teens who might otherwise never have opened the door to a more challenging academic program. Today, thousands of "regular" students in Texas - youngsters who previously planned to complete only the minimum graduation requirements - are aiming to become Texas Scholars by studying rigorous courses in science, math, and language arts (including foreign language).

Meanwhile, Joe Randolph, who has traveled thousands of miles to make presentations to business and education coalitions throughout the state of Texas, had his volunteer activities recognized in November 1994. He was designated by the Texas State Board of Education as the co-recipient of the Hero for Children Award, given for the first time in 1994 by the board in recognition of excellence in advocacy for Texas schoolchildren.

Perhaps Lionel "Skip" Meno, former commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, said it best when he noted that the Texas Scholars/Recommended High School Program initiative has caused more change in Texas schools than any other reform introduced in recent years. The program is "not a fix-all," Meno said. "No program is. But it is an excellent first step to building community support for world-class schools."

WILLIAM JOHNSON is vice president for corporate development, Digital Documentation Systems, Hawkins, Tex. ANNABEL M. JOHNSON is a consultant and writer based in Big Sandy, Tex. JOE RANDOLPH is manager of the Training Department, Texas Eastman Division, Eastman Chemical Company, Longview, Tex, where MARY ALICE SCHMITZ is principal of Forest Park Middle School.

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