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Former Teacher Lashes out at HISD Apollo 20 Program

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

At it's launch it was called every bit as critical to Houston's future as "putting a man on the moon".

This week the radical school turn-around program called Apollo 20 will complete it's third year, time enough, according to some experts, to tell whether HISD Superintendent Terry Grier's controversial program has achieved any or all of it's lofty ambitions.

Fox 26's begins a review of the program through the eyes of a former teacher pushed aside in the rush to Apollo.

If you walked into Attucks Middle School chances are you'd struggle to find an educator whose spent more than three years on the campus.

That's no accident.

A key component of HISD'S Apollo program was the systematic purge of veteran teachers on campuses deemed "underperforming".

"It just looked like they wanted to gut the faculty and bring in their own people," said Thomas Iocca, a former teacher at Attucks.

In June of 2010, Iocca, a three time teacher of the year was abruptly informed his nearly three decade career on the campus was finished.

Iocca was told he just wasn't "a good fit" for Apollo, even though 91 percent of his mostly minority, mostly low income English students had just passed the state's standardized writing test.

"With Dr. Grier's pronouncement, 'A quality teacher in every classroom'

by implication he was saying we were not good teachers and the people who worked in schools knew that to be an untruth," said Iocca.

"They were usually older teachers, they were teachers on continuing contracts and in a lot of cases they were teachers whose students had just achieved some of the highest TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) scores the school had ever enjoyed," he added.

At Attucks, Iocca says he and others were replaced with mostly inexperienced instructors from the organization Teach For America - part of an Apollo formula that includes a longer school day and heavy doses of tutoring.

"The first year of Apollo Attucks' test scores went down in all five subject areas,

reading, writing, math, science and social studies and the principal resigned at the end of the year," said Iocca.

 

Apollo critics blame the slide on a vacuum of the practical guidance frequently delivered by veteran teachers to new arrivals.

"They threw these young Teach for America people to the wolves and they suffered for it and the kids suffered for it," said Iocca.

Six months after HISD removed him, Iocca received an $8,400 bonus, a reward for exceptional growth in his students test scores during the previous year.

In a letter to Superintendent Grier, Iocca asked, "Do you really think I am the only quality educator caught up in this Apollo mess?"

"If they had kept our staff and given us the support they give Apollo schools now, math tutors where the student teacher ratio is two or three to one, the teachers we already had in place would have taken that and run with it," said Iocca.

That opinion can never be proven. What can and was measured was Attucks' performance after it's second full year in the Apollo program.

 

According to State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test results analyzed by Schooldigger.com Attucks in 2012 ranked in the bottom 8 percent of Texas Middle Schools, 1752 of 1891 rated.

Perhaps more significant, Attucks ranking has fallen better than 5 percent when compared with it's last pre-Apollo performance.

To his longtime employer HISD, Iocca offers a single question.

"You promised you were going to make these schools better and it looks like people are leaving these schools rather than running towards them and there's got to be a reason for that, why?," asked Iocca.

Meantime, Attuck's current principal Dierdre Sharkey believes her campus has turned the corner citing it's recent state designation as a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy.

"We are seeing results in more than student academic performance. We are seeing results in student behavior. We are seeing results in student attendance. I don't believe our student scores and student achievement has been sacrificed because we have new teachers on staff," said Sharkey.

Attucks is just one campus and only part of the Apollo 20 performance. Terry Grier's program still has many supporters who see genuine return on investment.

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