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Profile                                                          Page 47

 

His 30-Year Credo:

‘You Don’t Give Up’

BY BILL GRAVES

ProfileGrier
Terry Grier

During 30 years as superintendent of nine districts, Terry Grier has been inclined to move fast, but he’s learned when to back off the accelerator.

“I’ve always been kind of a situational kind of leader,” says Grier, 64, superintendent in Houston, Texas, since 2009.

While running the Guilford County, N.C., district, he acted swiftly after a high school burned down. Within two weeks, students were back in class — the upperclassmen at a community college; younger students in a quickly remodeled vacant school.

In contrast, three years ago, as superintendent in 210,000-student Houston, Grier realized a more deliberate pace would be prudent when introducing a system for judging teachers that put half the weight on their students’ achievement. Grier and staff spent a year meeting teachers and visiting all 282 schools.

Teachers took issue with evaluation based on student testing, but Grier stood firm, delivered his case and won respect. “I don’t understand how you can evaluate a teacher,” he says, “if you can’t take into account what their kids learn.”

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers for three decades, says she can reason with Grier, noting, “I don’t always agree with him.” Adds Paula Harris, school board member, about the superintendent’s toughness: “If it’s right for kids, he is pretty unwavering.”

He’s been driven to raise student outcomes wherever he’s been the superintendent, which includes San Diego, Calif.; Akron, Ohio; and Amarillo, Texas. His track record of success led to recognition of Grier as one of four finalists for 2014 National Superintendent of the Year and to Houston as recipient of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

Grier prefers to move fast and push hard, often beyond what his cabinet and teachers prefer. He has a “sense of urgency,” says James Calaway, former board chair of the Houston Independent School District Foundation. “He gets up each morning and keeps his eye very firmly on the North Star, which is the kids.”

Shortly after Grier arrived in Houston, a student asked him why her high school offered no Advanced Placement courses. “Why do you think I’m stupid?” she asked. Grier discovered only three of 45 high schools offered more than 15 AP classes. Now all do.

The district also has lifted the graduation rate by 12 percentage points, closed the low-income student achievement gap and doubled the number of students taking the SAT.

Grier is building deep public confidence in the city’s education system. Voters in November 2012 approved a $1.9 billion school construction referendum, the largest in Texas history, to build and renovate 40 schools.

What’s more, Grier engineered an initiative to put a laptop computer in each student’s hands, beginning with 18,000 high schoolers this year. He’s following the lead of friend Mark Edwards, superintendent in Mooresville, N.C., the model for implementing 1:1 computing. Grier admits he was skeptical: “I thought this was just replacing textbooks with a machine.” But upon visiting Mooresville, he found students immersed in projects and “never saw one disengaged.”

He believes the values he adopted growing up on a tobacco farm in Fairmont, N.C., have guided his work in major urban venues. He calls public education a “great vaccine against poverty.” Then Grier adds: “Of all I learned, what stuck with me most is that you don’t give up on people you care about.”

Bill Graves is a freelance education writer in Beaverton, Ore. E-mail: billgraves1@frontier.com. Twitter: @billgrav


 

BIO STATS: TERRY GRIER

Currently: Superintendent, Houston, Texas

Previously: superintendent, Guilford County, N.C.

Age: 64

Greatest influence on career: An East Carolina University professor, Maylan McDonald, was a wonderful early mentor.

Best professional day: Watching the first Middle College High School class graduate in Williamson County, Tenn., in 2000. I still receive phone calls and e-mails from those students and parents.

Books at bedside: Every Child, Every Day by Mark Edwards; Leverage Leadership by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo; and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Biggest blooper: After a full Saturday renovating a house with my fiancée, we returned to my condo around 7 p.m. exhausted and dirty. The red blinking light on the answering machine was the first indicator of trouble. I had been expected at 6:30 at the home of the board president and his wife for dinner.

Why I’m an AASA member: The opportunity to network with colleagues.

 

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