Monday, April 28, 2008

Texas could close four schools if they fail again

By Kate Alexander - AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF - Monday, April 28, 2008

Four low-performing Texas schools, including Johnston High School in East Austin, are facing the highest of stakes on this year's high-stakes tests.

Rated "academically unacceptable" for at least the past four years, the schools must be closed or turned over to new management if attendance and student performance on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills once again fall below state standards. Testing started for some grades weeks ago and will end in May.

The mandatory sanction is the most severe in the state's school accountability system and has not previously been imposed by the Texas Education Agency.

Despite ample public discussion about accountability, testing and standards, little attention has been paid to what happens when a school reaches the end of the line.

A dramatic move by the state, which could come as early as June, would serve as a cautionary tale to other low-performing schools and would also shake up the teachers, school leaders and district administrators.

Whether the students would benefit from a shake-up, however, is unknown, education experts say.

"We're trying a lot of stuff without having any kind of scientific research," University of Texas education professor Julian Vasquez Heilig said.

There is a "gut feeling" that tough sanctions will fix the problem, he said, and the sanctions allow political and education leaders to say they have done something to hold failing schools accountable.

But if the accountability does not work as advertised, Vasquez Heilig said, the students will bear the brunt of the adults' bad decisions.

"The real question is what do you do to ensure that you providea sound academic program to the kids there," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University who has done research on Texas schools.

"The current kids don't have the luxury of waiting while someone else figures out how to better manage the schools."

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who could not be reached for comment, said at a recent conference that no decision has been made on the future of the schools but that "we're going to do better for these kids."

The Legislature sharpened the teeth of the school accountability system in 2006 by mandating closure or outside management when a campus reaches its fifth year with an "academically unacceptable" rating.

Five years is a long time for students to be stuck in a failing school, so the Legislature added the mandatory provision to show the gravity of continued failure, said state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, chairman of the House Public Education Committee. "You have a drastic penalty, and you admit that it is drastic so that everybody will know it and they won't get in that situation."

That penalty is stalking mostly urban schools with large populations of low-income students, many of whom are new to the schools. Eissler and others are considering ways to change the accountability system during the next legislative session to recognize the particular challenges of those schools.

The changes might include incentives to attract the best teachers and administrators to the struggling schools as well as altering how the state measures progress.

Any future changes will not help the schools that might pass the five-year threshold now.

Those schools can avoid the tumult by earning an "acceptable" rating — the third-lowest of four rankings in the state accountability system — based on the 2008 tests as well as meeting certain standards for attendance and the dropout rate. At least two of the schools have made strides over the past four years that have gotten them close to the mark.

Officials at Sam Houston High School in the Houston district are confident that the school can break its five-year streak of being rated academically unacceptable, said Karen Soehnge Garza, chief academic officer for the district.

Last year, the school missed the "acceptable" standard because of the performance of African Americans on the math test. The state granted a one-year waiver of closure or new management because the struggling group was very small — 59 test-takers in the subgroup out of more than 2,500 students.

In recent years, the district has pumped resources into the school to reduce class size, provide tutoring from college students and make other changes, Garza said. This year, that effort cost an additional $675,000.

"It is going to pay off," Garza said.

G.L. Wiley Middle School in Waco has experienced "phenomenal gains," district spokesman Dale Caffey said, and an "acceptable" rating is expected this year.

There is similar optimism at Oak Village Middle School in the North Forest district near Houston, spokeswoman Nakisha Myles said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The students struggled last year on the math and social studies tests, and the school also had a problem with dropouts.

North Forest's troubles extend far beyond one school. The district has a host of financial and management problems that have prompted Texas Education Agency intervention and talk of dissolution.

Of all the schools, problems appear the most pervasive at Austin's Johnston High.

Every demographic group that figures into the rating missed the state standards last year on every test. The passing rates largely dropped — many by double-digit percentage points — even with three years of the intervention and overhaul that is mandated by the state. Substantial gains will be necessary on this year's tests to meet the so-called required improvement standard and avoid state action.

Administrators acknowledged in a recent communication to the Austin district's Board of Trustees that closure was "probable," wording that was suggested by agency officials to underscore the dire situation.

A previous closure plan had most Johnston students going to Reagan High School, which has been rated academically unacceptable for the past two years. Other students would head to Austin, LBJ, McCallum and Travis high schools.

But the school board must approve a new plan in May, a requirement by the agency.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the state needs to keep in mind the main objective of the accountability system in dealing with Johnston.

"The goal is educating our children and creating the opportunity for them to be educated," Watson said. "It is not just to have the ability to say, 'We have held you accountable by shutting you down and padlocking your school.' "

If Johnston does not meet standardsthis year, the state should find a solution that does not punish the students, the community and the school district, Watson said.

Use Johnston as an opportunity to show how school turnaround can be done with minimal disruptions and without creating a bevy of unintended consequences, he said.

"I fundamentally believe that we have to be willing to experiment with how we're going to keep urban schools open," Watson said. "We can't just be saying, 'In the name of accountability, we'll close these schools.' "

Closure can be a solution for a long-dysfunctional school that has become impervious to change, said Michael Petrilli, a former U.S. Education Department official who helped implement the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"In terms of achievement, I think it is still an open question and the devil is in the details," said Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education reform group in Washington that promotes school accountability.

For the closure strategy to succeed, a comprehensive and tested "new school" plan must be in place that allows for aggressive change, Petrilli said. He has not found many instances across the country in which schools have been systematically closed and then established as better schools.

The Texas law does allow for keeping the campus open and turning it over to a nonprofit organization or another school district to manage.

An alternative approach would allow for more flexibility and innovation in running the schools, Petrilli said.

Austin school board members have said they would like to use that alternative route to create an "in-district" charter school at Johnston, if necessary. That option is available when there is a "reasonable expectation" that the school will earn at least an "academically acceptable" rating within three years of the new management, according to the law.

State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston and a member of the public education committee, said the challenges before these schools and the students will not be resolved by relocation.

Chronic failure of a school "is not a function of the walls or the building. It is a function of the people who allocate resources and who make hiring decisions," Hochberg said.

"Forcing those kids to go to a different school won't necessarily fix the problems that those kids have but might make those kids disappear in the larger numbers at another school."; 445-3618

Population breakdown for the four schools

Johnston High (Austin)

African American 16%

Hispanic 82.1%

White 1.8%

Economically Disadvantaged 81.6%

Limited English Proficient 20.4%

Mobile students* 43.9%

Sam Houston High (Houston)

African American 4.1%

Hispanic 92.5%

White 3.2%

Economically Disadvantaged 73.7%

Limited English Proficient 16.4%

Mobile* 27.2%

Oak Village Middle (North Forest/Houston)

African American 66.7%

Hispanic 32.7%

White 0.4%

Economically Disadvantaged 99.1%

Limited English Proficient 10.2%

Mobile* 24.2%

G.L. Wiley Middle (Waco)

African American 76.2%

Hispanic 21.8%

White 1.9%

Economically Disadvantaged 97.1%

Limited English Proficient 4.4%

Mobile* 47.7%

* Students are considered mobile if they attended a school for less than 83% of the school year (i.e., have missed six or more weeks at a particular school).

Source: Texas Education Agency

Schools facing possible closure or alternative management

Johnston High, Austin district

Sam Houston High, Houston district

Oak Village Middle, North Forest district (suburban Houston)

G.L. Wiley Middle, Waco district
Read more in the Austin American Statesman

No comments: