- Associated Press - Sunday, January 26, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - On the surface, it seems to defy logic: Encourage the city’s poorest students to apply to the nation’s most elite universities.

But Rick Cruz of the Houston Independent School District is staking his burgeoning career on the strategy. These top 100 or so tier-one colleges, including Ivy League schools, offer near-free rides to low-income, high-ability students to foster diversity on their campuses. With vast resources and a commitment to maintain their stellar rankings, these schools can provide students with the tutoring, mentoring and financial aid they may need to graduate.

Cruz, a 29-year-old Yale University graduate, is investing hundreds of hours into helping hand-picked HISD students apply to these schools - the same way a pricey consultant or expensive college-prep high school might help tip the scales for a more affluent student.

“It’s crazy good. I can’t think of anything we’ve embarked on that I’m any more proud of,” Superintendent Terry Grier said of Cruz’s program, called Emerge.

The Teach for America alumnus was a fifth-grade teacher when he started the nonprofit Emerge on his own time in 2010. Grier persuaded Cruz to expand his program districtwide, promoted him to assistant superintendent of college readiness in February and nearly tripled his pay overnight.

Grier provided Cruz with a $1 million budget to grow Emerge and vowed to clear any obstacle in his way. He told Cruz to ignore naysayers who criticize the program’s disproportionate use of tax dollars.

Parent Sofie Smith, whose children attended Davis High School, is among those who say it’s unfair for HISD to focus such tremendous resources on so few students.

“That is wrong,” she told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1eRkgcz). “Their job is to serve all of our kids. HISD should not have the luxury to just serve some.”

Cruz argues that these best practices are being spread across the district.

And Emerge’s early indicators are positive. This year, 27 seniors have early acceptance letters into elite schools. Many have financial aid packages worth $250,000 each over four years. Just a handful of students with these hefty scholarships offsets the district’s annual investment, Grier noted.

The goal is to eventually have at least 20 students from each of HISD’s 29 comprehensive high schools attend a top-tier university, he said.

“That’s 600 kids a year that will graduate and come back to Houston and join the job force,” Grier said. “There’s no question, we’re going to change Houston.”

Yet Cruz has had to contend with sideways glances from fellow educators uncomfortable with a young teacher moving up the ranks so quickly.

“In education, it’s more about tenure,” Cruz said. “It can make things difficult.”

Rather than focus on his own quick ascension, Cruz wants to share the stories of the 300 students in Emerge - the sweat-soaked boy who rides his bike more than 10 miles from DeBakey High School to Chavez High School to meet with Cruz and other Emerge students, the recent immigrant from Vietnam who called in tears because her father didn’t want her to attend an East Coast school, despite a full scholarship.

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