Written by Patricia Hawke for www.schoolsk-12.com

School systems across the country have just a couple of things on their plate: charter schools, budgets, magnet schools, pension plans, pre-K and dropout rates- to name a few.  Houston Schools are no different, and Magnet and Early Childhood programs appear to be at the top of the list.
The cream of the Houston School system’s crop are the Gifted and Talented students.  Currently, 25,000 students are identified as gifted and talented.  Beginning next school year (’07-’08), students identified as such will all attend “Vanguard” programs.  The programs themselves will not change, but the name will consolidate programs throughout Houston Schools.  Houston Schools identify students for Vanguard programs by using an “identification matrix”.  This includes test scores from the Stanford/Aprenza exam and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test.  Report-card points and teacher recommendations are also taken into account.  Houston Schools’ students who have limited English proficiency, are enrolled in special education, have low socioeconomic status are also considered. Vanguard schools are continuously monitored to help ensure that high-quality; more-rigorous instruction is provided in all classrooms. Students are expected to score above grade-level on the Stanford test. In addition, any of Houston Schools’ high-school students who are enrolled in a Vanguard school are required to take a minimum of two advanced-academic courses (ex: Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual-credit). “I am excited about the improvements in the Vanguard programs,” said Superintendent of Houston Schools Abelardo Saavedra.  “It means more students will benefit from the rigor and high expectations of the programs, and it helps in our efforts to create a college-bound culture.” The Houston Schools’ system has 20 Vanguard magnet schools that enroll gifted/talented students from all over the district. All students may apply to Vanguard schools, regardless of their sub districts, of which there are 10.  Students who are zoned to a school that is a Vanguard magnet will automatically get to attend that school; they will no longer have their names put into the magnet lottery system.
Another program that Houston Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Saavedra are committed to expanding is the district’s Early Childhood programs.  Early childhood education has been recognized as extremely important to future academic success. Houston Schools now offers prekindergarten to all students on a tuition basis, and some students can attend for free.  To qualify for free PreK at Houston Schools, a student must meet one or more of the following criteria:  unable to speak and comprehend the English language, economically disadvantaged, homeless, a child of an active-duty member of the armed forces, or a child of an armed-forces member who was injured, killed, or missing-in-action while serving on active duty.  Beginning with the ’07-’08 school year, parents may enroll their four-year-old child (who turned four on or before September 1, 2007) in a full-day, 10-month program at participating Houston Schools for a state-set fee of $405 per month.  16 elementaries in the Houston Schools offer PreK, one of which is also a Montessori magnet.