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The Q&A: HD Chambers

In this week's Q&A, we interview HD Chambers, the superintendent of Alief ISD.

HD Chambers is superintendent of the Alief Independent School District.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

HD Chambers has 29 years of experience in public education in Texas and has served as superintendent of Alief ISD since 2011. He was a key player in the development and passage of House Bill 5, orchestrating communication efforts across the interest groups that had input in the development of the bill. Since the bill has become law, Chambers and his leadership team have traveled throughout the state to help both large and small districts develop strategies to implement the numerous implications of the bill.  Chambers was named Ambassador of the Year by the Friends of Texas Public Schools organization and was recently selected as the Region 4 Superintendent of the Year.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: With the new school year just around the corner, what is the latest on HB 5 implementation and where is your school district on that?

HD Chambers: I think the latest from a statewide perspective is positive, that there are many conversations taking place now between public school districts, higher ed entities and the business community that have not taken place in the past.

I also believe districts are beginning to realize that they are able to offer more endorsements than maybe what they previously thought as they have gotten to understand the bill and as they understand what the State Board of Education did in terms of the requirements for students meeting each endorsement.

One (challenge) is counselors, making sure that we are training and preparing our counselors to be able to have the time and resources necessary to truly advise our eighth graders who are going to be selecting endorsements in the spring of 2015.

In Alief, we feel really confident about where we are. One, because we were fortunate enough to be part of the creation of this concept and, ultimately, the bill. So we’ve been kind of familiar with what was going to be expected of us.

Our challenges and what we’re seeing is very positive. Our students — our eighth graders who are now going to be ninth graders this year — when they went through their endorsement decision process, we saw a large percent of our students choosing the STEM endorsement, the public services endorsement and the business and industries endorsement.

That tells us their counselors had a chance to visit with them about the advantages of those and that students know what they’re interested in and they’re not going to take the path of least resistance.

What we’re doing as a district is we’re reacting to those endorsement selections and making sure we have the appropriate staff, not just for this year but for the next two to three years.

Trib+Edu: The summer retests for the STAAR exam finished earlier this month. Do you have a sense as to how your students did and how do you incorporate this into planning for the new school year?

Chambers: Our students did fairly well. We still have pockets of student population that are struggling, particularly our economically disadvantaged population and our limited English proficiency population. Those students continue to struggle, particularly on the English language arts end of course exam.

But we’re making improvement. We take a look at the students, how they performed, and we begin making decisions — almost like individual education plans for students — so we address whatever areas in which the student demonstrates a shortcoming.

Obviously, we would like to have the resources and the time to drill down on individual students more than we are able to but our focus right now is trying to create a universal designed learning system that addresses each student and what it is they need.

Sometimes their struggles are demonstrated through a test, like the STAAR or the end of course. Sometimes their struggles are demonstrated through their inability to do well in the course itself. Sometimes their struggles are dependent on the language they speak. Almost 39 percent of our students are limited English proficient. That’s almost three times the state average. That’s a huge barrier to overcome.

Trib+Edu: You point to something really interesting. You have some unique challenges. If you could describe the single biggest thing you’d like others to understand about the challenges leading a fast growth, majority minority district, what would that be?

Chambers: The general public needs to understand a large, fast growth urban district that’s very diverse, there are three critical issues that impact us.

One is, first and foremost, their socioeconomic status. Almost 87 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. That makes a difference in a student’s ability to come to school prepared to learn and our ability to help them grow.

The second issue I would like people to understand is how much of a barrier language plays. We have so many students coming to us from, not just Spanish speaking countries, but Asian speaking countries and countries in the continent of Africa. So many students are coming to us every day who don’t speak the English language. And the challenge is to find adults who are either certified teachers or someone who speaks some of these languages that are very uncommon.

The third thing … is the mobility. In most large urban school districts, apartments are prevalent sources of housing. And when you have high occupancy in multifamily dwellings, apartment complexes, many times those families typically are moving from one apartment complex to another. Sometimes, it’s because of the rent. Sometimes, it’s because they find a better deal. And sometimes they move into an apartment as a staging area as they try to find a home.

The mobility of students means not having a consistent experience in school, and that does a lot of harm to our ability to help that student achieve and perform.

Trib+Edu: To flip the question and end on a different note, what are the opportunities you’d like others to know about?

Chambers: Our districts have gotten very effective at training our staff and teachers on how to address this diversity of population. … In Alief and in many districts, we can’t teach the students we used to have. In some cases, we can’t teach the students we think we have. We have to teach the students we actually have. We have to recognize who those students are and meet them and their families where they are. And don’t expect them to be where we want them to be because in many cases, they’re not going to be there.

Another opportunity is making sure that we take advantage of the flexibility that students have with HB 5 in terms of the courses or the plans of study that they have the opportunity to take.

I was the biggest supporter of HB 5 that there is. But I’m under no illusion that was the answer to everything. I do believe it was the beginning of allowing opportunities for students to engage in their own education as opposed to being told what they’re going to take, when they’re going to take it in a one size fits all curriculum for all students.

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