Archived 2019 photoThrough a unanimous vote, Harris County Department of Education’s Board of Trustees voted to lower the tax rate for a sixth consecutive year. The board adopted the recommended rate of $0.004993, a slight decrease from the current $.0050 tax rate. For a home valued at $200,000, the adopted rate of $0.004993 means the average Harris County homeowner would pay HCDE less than $10 a year in property taxes for education services. For a home valued at $150,000, the yearly taxes are $7.49. These calculations do not include a standard homestead exemption, which would lower the taxes.   Following the vote, HCDE Board President Eric Dick praised the move and support of his fellow board members. “This shows that we are being good stewards of the county’s money, especially during a pandemic,” he said.
HCDE provides wraparound services to both school districts and the general public through afterschool programs, school-based therapy services, adult education, Head Start and four specialty schools. Additional services such as a national purchasing cooperative give school districts buying power. Educators also benefit from professional development and leadership training supplied by HCDE. Superintendent James Colbert Jr. said creating a leaner budget allowed for the continuation of HCDE’s conservative adopted tax rate. “Our business model has allowed us to continue to reduce the tax rate,” County School Superintendent James Colbert Jr. said. “That’s a testament to the quality of services provided to our clients.” For more information about HCDE’s impact and local support of education, visit . (Photo from 2019 HCDE Archives) Source: HCDE
School Safety and Security Audits are routine work for Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools (CSSS). In addition to accessing factors like security, those audits now include COVID-19 precautionary measures. CSSS recently released a video which highlights some of the best practices put forth by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for school districts. Those include social distancing being aware of COVID-19 symptoms. They also include personal protective equipment like masks and desk shields for students and staff. View the video to learn more or email CSSS Director Julia Andrews, Source: HCDE
Supporting Harris County School Districts is the primary mission of the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE). In keeping with that goal, the Education Foundation of Harris County (EFHC), the philanthropic arm of HCDE, recently announced grant distributions of $207,013 to local school districts  focused on helping area districts cope with COVID-19 related resources. The “Partners in Education Project” grant awards range from $5,000 to $15,000 to assist school district with needs varying from technology to pandemic health products to school supplies. The grants were made possible by the HCDE Board of Trustees, who in April voted to appropriate $500,000 in funding to support Harris County districts during the 2020-2021 school year.
“The Harris County Department of Education prides itself on filling the gaps in public education in our county,” said County School Superintendent James Colbert Jr. “At the beginning of COVID-19 we saw the unprecedented needs of the school districts we serve. Our board took immediate action to ask the foundation to administer grants to provide additional resources to directly support these needs.”
The 16 districts receiving the initial disbursement of grant funding are:  Aldine, Alief, Channelview, Clear Creek, Crosby, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Houston, Humble, Katy La Porte, Pasadena, Sheldon, Spring, Spring Branch and Stafford. Applications were collected from district administration or the education foundation affiliated with each district. Pasadena Independent School District and its PISD Education Foundation was the first district to announce its Partners in Education Project grant award from HCDE through the EFHC. “Pasadena ISD is very appreciative of Harris County for its generous support of our students,” PISD Associate Superintendent Dr. Troy McCarley said. “This grant means more than just providing resources for our virtual learners. It also means helping many students to accomplish virtual instruction.” Pasadena’s grant project helps underserved students with MiFi devices and monthly Internet services so that students may complete virtual learning online assignments. HCDE Board of Trustee Amy Hinojosa shared the good news of the grant with PISD administrators. She supports PISD as HCDE’s Precinct 2 trustee and resident of Pasadena. HCDE Trustees serving on the EFHC Board include Hinojosa, Andrea Duhon and Michael Wolfe. Colbert noted the grants supplement HCDE’s other services to districts including four special schools, professional development for educators, school safety, teacher certification programs, Head Start, school-based therapy and adult education. “HCDE serves our districts in so many ways and we are thrilled to find yet another means of partnering with districts to support students and staff,” Colbert said. Source: HCDE
As cousins, CASE Debates team members Rodrigo Trujillo and Diego Castillo admit to being competitive, fueling one another on their Alief ISD team. After being selected this month to join the elite USA Debate and Development teams to compete in national and international arenas, the heat is officially on.
“It’s a big workload and we put a lot of hours into practice,” said Trujillo, a senior at Elsik high school. “Debate motivates me to learn more and gives me passion to improve constantly. It forces me to keep up with current events and builds this intrinsic motivation.”
The pair compete through World Schools Debate, one of two competitive debate formats. They have earned the unique honor of being the first two CASE Debates members selected for the National Speech and Debate Association teams. Only 15 students across the nation make the USA Development Team, which grooms student debaters for the USA Debate Team, an elite team of 12.

Rodrigo Trujillo

CASE Debates is a four-year-old, afterschool debates program created by the Center for Afterschool, Summer and Enrichment for Kids (CASE for Kids). It is funded with a budgeted $238,000 in the 2020-2021 school year by Harris County Department of Education (HCDE). CASE for Kids, a division of HCDE, collaborates with local school districts and charter schools through a model provided by the Houston Urban Debate League (HUDL) a nonprofit promoting academic and advocacy skills among urban teens through debate. Last year, 18 high schools in Harris County participated in CASE Debates, a program with no cost to the district, school, teacher or student. Stipends and training are awarded to teachers like Elsik High debate coach Ashley Freeman, who signed up to coach CASE Debates teams for the past four years and has navigated her team to several championships. Students participate in local and state debate competitions which have lately switched to virtual platforms. “A key advantage to participating in CASE Debates is that the program provides guided lessons for both the students and teachers to train them in the fundaments of debate,” CASE for Kids Director Dr. Lisa Thompson-Caruthers said. Toni Candis, coordinator of the HCDE CASE Debates program, credits debate as a way for students to foster skills learned in public speaking, analysis, organization, research, teamwork and critical thinking. “Debate is also proven to improve student’s grade point average and literacy scores while increasing the likelihood of attendance, high school graduation and college matriculation,” Candis said. Trujillo, 17, says debate opportunity might not have been possible without CASE Debates. Lower socioeconomic communities typically can’t support costly programs which are more common in affluent communities. “CASE Debates pushes students to learn about things that they aren’t taught in the typical academic classroom,” he said. “It provides a foundation for meaningful learning, not just algebra–but also government and social affairs.” Trujillo is thinking of going into politics and believes having experience in debate and a spot on the USA Debate Team can only help his college and scholarship applications. To Castillo, the newfound privilege gives him access to work with national-level coaches and learn advanced debate strategies.
Diego Castillo

Diego Castillo

With four years of debate behind him, he thinks of the year his school competed against an affluent suburban school with USA Debate Team members.
“We got absolutely destroyed,” he said, remembering the significance of the loss. “I thought, I’m going to be that good someday.”
So far this school year, CASE Debates is serving the following school districts: Alief, Galena Park, Harmony Public Schools, Humble, Katy, KIPP Texas Public Schools, Pasadena, Sheldon, Spring Branch, Spring and YES Prep Public Schools. Schools are urged to join CASE Debates this fall through application submittals. For information about CASE Debates, email Source: HCDE

Chase Coulter

High school history teacher Chase Coulter completed a six-week, self-paced online instructor’s course offered by Harris County Department of Education after the onset of COVID-19. During the summer he was given the opportunity to create online history curriculum for his employer, Conroe Independent School District. The course also helped him establish best practices in his virtual classes this fall.
“I’m very grateful I took the course,” the nine-year teacher said. “It helped prepare me, and I believe it will open more doors in the future because I have that experience.”
HCDE began offering the course half-price this summer because of a growing demand for online teaching strategies as many districts shift back and forth to virtual instruction during the pandemic. The course is sectioned into six modules, can be completed in six weeks and is recognized as a three-year certificate from the Texas Education Agency. Through Oct. 31, HCDE is offering the course for 50 percent off at $250 to support teachers new to the virtual classroom. Many districts are picking up the tab to help teachers with online teaching techniques. “Everything in the course is self-paced,” Dr. Colina Poullard said. Poullard serves as curriculum director for HCDE’s Digital Education and Innovation and is one of several experienced curriculum directors who are available to help guide teachers through the online course.

Dr. Colina Poullard

The six modules span subjects like ensuring student achievement; promoting student collaboration and engagement; using best practices and strategies in online learning; teaching in an online classroom; and understanding copyright law and fair use requirements. Teachers will be introduced to online course activities like blogs, forums, wikis and discussion boards along with learning platforms and apps. Poullard emphasizes the importance of establishing norms and structures in any virtual learning environment. That includes doing activities at a specific time like watching a video or saying the pledge. “You should also model what you are going to be doing with your students,” she said. When using the chat box or a new app, she suggests modeling first. Tell them the “why” and give them opportunity to practice with the device before the lesson begins. Finally, Poullard urges teachers to provide lessons in small bites as students progress virtually. A student should be able to give feedback after each piece.
“It’s extremely important for students to feel connected to their teacher,” Poullard said.
Poullard said the course is beneficial to teachers across the country, as well as locally in Texas. For more information about enrolling in the Online Instructor’s Course through HCDE, access or email Source: HCDE
Clovis Ali, 11 and his father Ndikumana arrive at school to pick up a computer for the beginning of an online school experience. The vibe is positive as Clovis greets the principal and waits for his father to complete his registration packet. Clovis attends Harris County Department of Education’s Academic and Behavior School West, a school for children with intellectual and behavioral disabilities. His father feels positive about the 2020-2021 school year, even though there are plenty unknowns. “I see him moving in the right direction here,” his father said. “A lot of stuff—his writing, his speech, his behavior and his attitude. He has really grown academically.” ABS West Principal Dr. Victor Keys says only 35-40 percent of students are going to be in-person learners as school kicks off virtually Aug. 24 and in-person on Sept. 8. Seventeen school districts contract with HCDE, sending students with autism and other disabilities to the brand-new campus in southwest Houston this year.
“It’s changing constantly, but we are using the learning model that each district has implemented,” Keys said. “These are challenging times, but I want to say that we use every tool in our toolbox to help our students.”
Next in the line of drive-by student registrants is Dayshun Pickett, 13 and Dennis, his father. Pickett had a sample of virtual learning last spring as the pandemic hit. “Routine is really hard,” his father said. “That is what he misses most about this school. When his behavior is under control, he can do almost anything you ask him to do. “He really excels at talking,” Dennis quipped, glancing at his son whose masks crinkles up with a smile. At home, the Pickett family had six family members sharing two computers for the past four months. Four of them were students. Routine, Dennis said, is important. The family wakes at 6:30 a.m., and kids are ready for virtual school by 7:30 a.m. “The only thing missing is the bus coming by,” Dayshun’s father said. A little after noon, mom Claudia Alvarez comes by with son Yusef Perez, 18. Perez has attended ABS West for four years and is treating the occasion like a socially distanced family reunion. Yusef waves to a teacher assistant who is handing out the computers and takes a quick tour of the new school’s sensory room. Virtual learning will be hard for her son because he travels to work with her and learns from her office. His attention span is limited, Alvarez says. “He does understand what is going on with the pandemic,” Alvarez said. “He’s washing his hands and wearing masks all the time. The school staff calls me all the time to see how we are doing. In addition to teachers and teacher aides, a cadre of counselors, and a behavior specialist work with the Alvarezes and other families.
“We are going to try it (virtual learning),” Mom said. “We will see.”
Principal Keys says his staff continues to be busy in the new virtual learning world as spring turned to summer school and now the fall semester begins. The challenges will be to keep students with emotional and intellectual disabilities engaged in instruction. Frequent breaks are built in because of short attention spans. Behavior must be reinforced, and the counselors will be checking in on the welfare of the students and their families. “Many parents are having a hard time too,” Keys acknowledged. Staff are finding solutions for families without Internet. Work packets are being mailed to some families who don’t want to use computers. “Like I said, these are challenging times, but we’re working as a team and making things happen,” Keys said. Source: HCDE
Image of SEIU members with HCDE.

Sara Gonzalez

Housekeeper Sara Gonzalez tired of not being able to communicate with her boss. Two years ago, her relative told her about an English as a second language (ESL) and workforce development partnership between Harris County Department of Education and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Texas. Today she converses with her employer and is readying to begin GED classes so she can advance to become a medical assistant. Although COVID-19 required HCDE Adult Education to make a move to virtual teaching, she is patient with her progress.
“I understand that COVID-19 makes it hard to be in the in-person classes,” the 55-year-old student said. “I learned to study my lessons on my computer for two hours a day.”
HCDE’s Adult Education provides classes in ESL, GED, adult basic education and workforce development and partners with nonprofits and companies for specialized classes which serve up curriculum specific to occupations. The programs are promoted through Workforce Solutions. Partner SEIU is a Gulf Coast union serving approximately 3,000 workers in hospitality, janitorial and medical support staff. During the pandemic, the hospitality industry has been especially hard-hit by the virus. Many industry workers were laid off and are readjusting to new jobs or different careers.
“With this pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs in this industry,” HCDE Adult Education teacher Antonio Fuentes said.
As teacher of the classes, Fuentes works through customer relations topics with his adult learners, offering help through various scenarios. Throughout the week, his students practice lessons in vocabulary and pronunciation through distance learning and completed assignments. On weekday mornings, they go online to virtual learning sessions with their teacher.

Antonio Fuentes, ESL workplace teacher

The former middle school teacher of 24 years retired two years ago and began working for HCDE Adult Education. “I love this job,” he said. “It makes my day working with struggling students who work all day and come directly from their jobs, and they are dedicated to learning.” Twenty-one janitors and housekeepers were on his student roll last spring.

Fuentes with last year’s students

“SEIU is a great organization because they are truly helping out their members,” he said. SEIU union organizer and ESL coordinator Ricardo Martinez made it a habit to drop by the in-person classes. The experience filled him with inspiration, joy and pride as SEIU members practiced their second language.
“During the last two years, our collaboration with the HCDE program has cultivated an incomparable enthusiasm and hope for SEIU Texas members that wasn’t there before,” he said. “For many of them, it was like a dream to have a very well-structured ESL program dedicated exclusively to them. The two teachers took the time to understand that most of the students have two jobs and families to provide for.”
As tradition would have it, on the last day of class students would proudly serve food from each of their countries to celebrate the end of the semester. Martinez loved to experience the celebration. Student Gonzalez and teacher Fuentes knows there will come a day when they can return to the classroom for those celebrations. “The students are so dedicated to learning,” Fuentes said. “They know by learning this language that it’s going to change their lives. They will be better for it.” For information about the free adult education classes beginning this fall semester, go to Source: HCDE
Image of a woman teaching words through a virtual platform.

Lois Rose

Harris County Department of Education Head Start teacher Lois Rose has one hard-and-fast rule in her pre-k classroom, be it virtual or in-person. “We take care of each other,” Rose said. As 145 HCDE Head Start teachers and teacher assistants start school virtually Sept. 8 with their students, they begin the year getting to know each other. A slate of class rules follows. No running or hitting. Take care of others. Rose expects challenges, but she has big plans for the students in her virtual classroom. HCDE operates 14 Head Start sites and has Early Head Start programs at three of those sites, as well as four additional childcare partnership sites. In total, the program provides comprehensive services for 1,060 families of children ages 6 weeks to 5 years in northeast Harris County. Plans are for in-person classes to resume as COVID-19 numbers decline, HCDE Head Start Senior Director Venetia Peacock said. Manager Pamela Jones-Lee oversees education and disability services within HCDE Head Start. Teachers use Frog Street pre-k curriculum for both Head Start and Early Head Start. Curriculum is aligned to Texas pre-k guidelines and Head Start early learning outcomes. Teachers are using the Microsoft Teams to meet virtually with students and parents.
“We know that many of our families have other children, so we don’t want to overwhelm them,” Jones-Lee said. “Family service providers see the challenges families are facing and they relate those back to us. Coping with COVID-10 is enough. We want to do what is best for their families.”

Pamela Jones-Lee

Two synchronous or live sessions will be held twice a week for 45 minutes each with the pre-k learners and their parents. “On a virtual day, parents pick a time frame for class which fits their schedule best, and students attend live sessions,” Jones-Lee said. Outdoor time, music and movement time and art projects are sent to parents as supplemental activities. Homework packets are picked up Mondays through a drive-through system along with meals made available three days a week. Teachers connect through a wave and a smile. “Mondays are very important because they enable teachers to touch based and greet students and parents to maintain human contact through safe, social distancing,” Peacock said. At Early Head Start centers with the infants and toddlers, sessions are one-on-one with families and allow for modeling learning activities with parents first. Later, students join in the sessions and feedback is given by teachers and their assistants. Home visits allow parents to see what virtual learning will look like. Teachers can tour student home life virtually and get to know the family. “Home visits allow parents and teachers to set goals,” Jones-Lee said. Families have generally been very supportive of virtual instruction, she explained. Collectively, virtual learning is important for families because they want their preschoolers to have the social and academic skills to be ready for kindergarten. Lessons for the pre-k students include a social-emotional component along with literacy and math. A class on friendship allows children to learn about themselves and their family relationships. During the pandemic, Head Start staff are especially attuned to the social-emotional needs of students.
“So, if a parent relates any kind of learning or social-emotional challenge to the teacher or family service provider, there may be a referral of the child to a specialist or mental health professional,” Jones-Lee said.
Back in the classroom, Rose sees her virtual classroom as an open house of sorts. Last spring, parents would join into Zoom sessions to see what their children were learning and view classroom structure. When her 4-year-olds get fidgety in the virtual classroom, the tactics are much the same as the regular class. “We stop and do something fun that they like and then get them back on track again,” Rose said. Calling it “a blessing” to have a new class of students, the Head Start teacher at the HCDE Fifth Ward Head Start Center is eager to get to know her students and set expectations. “It will be different,” Rose jests. “We will need to do thumbs up instead of high fives.” To find out more about enrollment opportunities in HCDE Head Start or Early Head Start, go to Source: HCDE
Key dates for the 2020-2021 school year for all 25 school districts in Harris County are available through the Harris County Department of Education comprehensive school district calendar. Due to COVID-19, dates may be subject to change throughout the year, district to district. Actual calendars from each district may be downloaded by clicking on the district name in the calendar. Many districts begin virtually or are adopting a hybrid model of in-person and virtual learning. Check with each district for details. View the calendar for the 25 school districts: (HCDE provides the compilation of district calendars as a public service. We are not responsible for changes in district calendars. Please consult your local school district for additional details concerning holidays/staff work days, etc.) About Harris County Department of Education: HCDE is a unique, educational hybrid serving school districts, governmental agencies, nonprofits and the public in the third-largest county in the U.S. HCDE annually serves a quarter-million students and educators through schools for students with profound special needs; the largest adult education program in Texas; Head Start early childhood education; school-based therapy services; and afterschool programs. Educator professional development and certification, school safety, records management, and a purchasing cooperative are also provided. #SeeTheImpact at Source: HCDE
Image of teachers on a video call.
Beginning Aug. 24, teachers and staff at Harris County Department of Education’s four special schools welcome students back from 39 client school districts and charter schools in greater Harris County. Instruction is virtual in the beginning. Later, in-person classes will be offered. As an estimated 100 teachers drive by respective schools to get their computers next week, each receives a Lenovo laptop think pad with camera enabled for Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
“We are very focused on the school year,” HCDE Schools Senior Director Dr. Anthony Mays said. “We are delivering a high level of instruction in a virtual environment to meet students’ needs.”
Virtual learning will be both synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous learning is online learning where students are engaged with the teacher at the same time. Asynchronous learning allows each student to log on and work on assignments as teachers and aides assist them independently. “A teacher could be doing both, teaching synchronously but having the assignments asynchronously,” Mays said. As with all Texas ISDs, HCDE’s Schools Division is governed by Texas Education Agency guidelines for hourly requirements for instruction, varying by grade level. For grades 3-5, 180 minutes of synchronous instruction are required. For grades 6-12, 240 minutes of instruction are standard. HCDE’s Schools will meet the instruction model prescribed by each client school district. For example, if a district has the option to meet in-person or virtually, the parent may decide and HCDE will supply that preference. As staff engages with students, it will be essential for teachers and counselors to maintain personal contact with students’ parents and caregivers. Mays said HCDE is following both CDC and TEA health regulations. Sneeze guards will be provided for nurses and school administrative assistants. A minimum of three sanitation stations are set up at each school. Once in-person school is in session, trifold desk screens will be used in each classroom. Safety protocol is outlined and strictly followed at each campus. This week, Schools Division leaders met for professional development in preparation for return to school as teachers return Aug. 11 to get online professional development. Staff have been collecting student data and information to use in benchmark assessments for academics and behavior. Two of HCDE’s schools—Academic and Behavior School East and West—are for student populations which include children with autism spectrum disorder, emotional disabilities and developmental disabilities. Each student enters the new school year with targeted behavior and academic outcomes. At Fortis Academy, HCDE’s school for recovering youth, students will be engaged virtually through synchronous learning by teachers guiding them through content-specific lessons (math, English, science). Students at Highpoint, a school for adjudicated or troubled teens, will gain that same type of instruction. HCDE’s Teaching and Learning Center Curriculum Director for Digital Education and Innovation Dr. Colina Poullard will be assisting new and existing teachers for Microsoft Teams and Zoom platforms for instruction. She will be working with teachers on methods to engage special populations of students through virtual instruction. As teachers drop by their respective schools to receive their new laptops, Mays repeats a commitment to support them in the a very unconventional school year: “It’s a huge learning curve for our teachers,” said Mays. “We are meeting with our teachers next week and they will have our full support. We have been teaching through virtual learning platforms since the spring of last school year, but we continue to grow our skills.” Source: HCDE