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Whatever It Takes: Transforming American Schools—The Project GRAD Story

reviewed by Anne Wescott Dodd - 2006

coverTitle: Whatever It Takes: Transforming American Schools—The Project GRAD Story
Author(s): Holly Holland.
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745421, Pages: 193, Year: 2005
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Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), a program that helps poor and minority students get the foundation, support, and motivation to go on to higher education, began as a scholarship pledge to some Houston, Texas, high school students. Over time, thanks to the determination and hard work of James L. Ketelsen, then head of Tenneco Corporation, and others, it became a national model for school reform. Holly Holland became acquainted with the project when the Ford Foundation asked her to look at this reform initiative.

In the book, which is divided into two parts, Holland interweaves generous use of narrative and quotations from participants and stakeholders from several sites with research findings on reforms and education of minority students—a clear strength of the book. Its organization, however, is problematic. She sometimes begins chapters in media res and pages later fills in the details the reader needed sooner.  The chronology is also confusing: Too few dates are given to help one follow what happened when.  Nonetheless the book provides an interesting account of an urban school reform program, which expanded from one school to others in Houston and to other cities across the nation.

Holland introduces the book with an overview of Project GRAD and a well-supported argument for doing more to help poor kids who live with low expectations. Despite the accountability movement, including No Child Left Behind, the schools sanctioned for failing to show progress “reside in low-income communities” (p. 14). Holland writes: “The] futures [of these students] are effectively circumscribed the minute their families move into one of the inner-city neighborhoods across the country. . . . Behind those numbers are real teenagers who need real hope for a productive future….” (p. 15).  Part I, “A Plan for Poor Kids,” recounts the history of Project GRAD and  the components of the reform.

Chapter 1, “Building a Community of Learners,” details the beginning of Project GRAD.  Ketelsen’s corporation had long been a partner of Davis High, but when he discovered that the $400,000 Tenneco had spent over a decade hadn’t made a difference, he wanted to invest another $200,000 in scholarships for seniors. Fortunately the school’s principal and Tenneco’s community affairs director realized that giving scholarships to seniors was a bad idea because these students were not prepared to succeed in college. A new plan, the basis of Project GRAD, was approved: Scholarships would be offered “to 9th graders who agreed to attend two summer institutes at the University of Houston’s downtown campus, maintain a 2.5 grade-point average in college preparatory classes, and graduate in 4 years” (p. 25).

Even though at the end of 1992-93 school year, 47 % of the Davis graduating class qualified for scholarships, Ketelsen was disappointed.  The top half did well, but “[t]he bottom half still dropped out, and we had no impact whatsoever” (p. 37).  Chapter 2, “A Foundation for the Future,” explains why.   Disadvantaged students need more than money for college.  The beliefs and practices of both teachers and administrators also needed to change. Feeder elementary schools became involved, and the right people were hired to lead the schools.

Changing the beliefs of students about themselves was another obstacle, as chapter 3, “Academic Support for College,” points out.  One teacher, a Teach for America recruit, found that a summer program helped students build confidence and develop skills, especially in writing.  She went with a group of students to Cornell the first summer. Future students went to summer programs at Rice University and the University of Houston-Downtown, which also allowed Davis students to take courses during the year. From this exposure to college, students were prepared for higher level learning; and, perhaps even more important, the students discovered that they “were not stupid” (p. 49).

Because students often had personal and family issues that impacted their school experience, Project GRAD found that “Setting Up a Safety Net” (chapter 4) was also necessary. Working with Communities in Schools, an organization that already existed as part of a drop-out prevention program in Houston, school officials put social workers in the elementary feeder schools and undertook all kinds of efforts to get the message out and to involve parents and community members. Walk for Success, an annual event became an important recruiting tool for the program: “During the Walk for Success, volunteers fan out in neighborhoods surrounding the school, knocking on doors to meet with families, discussing the benefits and requirements of the college scholarship offer and asking parents and students to sign a pledge of participation” (p. 71-72).

The next two chapters explain other classroom components of the project: (a) the adoption of a classroom management system developed by H. Jerome Freiberg, (b)) the introduction of the Success for All reading program developed in 1987 at Johns Hopkins University, and (c)) the MOVE IT Math (Math Opportunities, Valuable Experiences, and Innovative Teaching).  As explained in the book, these programs appear to be highly structured in the ways teachers are supposed to follow them. Holland does present the arguments of critics as well as the perspective of Dr. Robert Slavin, co-founder of the Success for All program, which has been the subject of recent articles in some educational journals.

Part II, “Scaling Up,” presents some of the lessons learned as the project developed in various sites and describes the extension of the program to rural America. In chapter 7, “Balancing Intimacy with Growth,” stories and other evidence support two important points: (a) Mentors matter, and (b) Bigger is not necessarily better.  Holland begins chapter 8, “Learning to Change,” noting that, despite the program’s success, its rapid growth perhaps created the tensions that were apparent when executives of seven sites convened in New York in 2002.  She comments on issues and explains these major lessons. First, there is a “need to understand the local context for reform” (p. 136).  Second, the expansion suggests “the need to develop strong nonprofit organizations to coordinate education reforms in each location” (p. 144).  Finally each site needs “to recruit ‘a local champion’ whose credibility, commitment, and financial resources will rally others to the cause and help schools sustain change” (p. 149).

Chapter 9 tells the story of Project GRAD’s implementation in a remote Alaskan community, suggesting that the reform model can be successful in rural areas of the United States where many other disadvantaged students live. In the last chapter, Holland reiterates the urgency of the challenge of finding ways to be successful with students who haven’t had the opportunities they should. Project GRAD, though still a work-in-progress, is a good step in the right direction. For this reason, the book is well worth reading.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 818-821
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12138, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 7:29:13 PM

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About the Author
  • Anne Dodd
    Bates College
    E-mail Author
    ANNE WESCOTT DODD is a Senior Lecturer in Education, Bates College, Lewiston, ME, and the co-author (with Jean L. Konzal) of How Communities Build Stronger Schools (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002) and Making Our High Schools Better: How Parents and Teachers Can Work Together (St. Martin’s Press, 1999). One of my earlier books, A Parent’s Guide to Innovative Education (Noble Press, 1992), was named by Child Magazine as one of the 10 best books for parents in 1992. In addition to parents’ involvement with schools, my research interests include teacher education and educational reform.
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