AISD, Single Sex, And the Shadow of Separate But Equal

Trustee Bradley on why she believes East Austin needs a boys' school

Austin ISD trustee Cheryl Bradley:
Austin ISD trustee Cheryl Bradley: "There are rights of passage that boys need to work through, and it's easier if you're going to do that in a setting where everybody looks like you, and I believe that it's easier for girls to do the same thing." (Photo by Jana Birchum)

When Austin ISD Trustee Cheryl Bradley talks about East Austin and says, ""I believe we can change the face of education in this community," no one doubts her good intention. But when she proposes two single sex schools, and explains her thinking, you have to ask: Is this proposal about sex, is it about race, or is it about poverty?

As we report in today's Chronicle, Bradley is pushing hard for AISD to turn Pearce and Garcia Middle Schools into single sex schools, serving a massive merged attendance zone. Her concern is "the distractors" – the things that keep kids from achieving. It's not just the academic results, she argues, but the decline in discipline and the increase in problem behavior that happens around middle school age. In elementary, kids are part of a class in a classroom, but, Bradley said, "When you get to middle school, there's a certain amount of independence." That's when high-achieving kids start falling off the rails.

She admitted that this is "the world according to me," but as far as she is concerned, Pearce and Garcia are ripe for this kind of reform. Both have seemed to bounce between bullying intervention from the Texas Education Agency and benign neglect from AISD. Bradley noted that Pearce didn't even have an art class in 2011, the year before Texana Turner took over as principal. "You look at schools like Pearce and Garcia, and the only electives they'll have a band and PE, or band, PE and choir. That's it, and there may be a foreign language in there."

There's an argument for a fix for both. They are close to each other, they are both under-performing, and they are both underenrolled. She anticipates that, even under a single sex model, they would still both have empty seats, and that there would be room for transfers from across Austin for parents who want a single sex schooling for their kids.

Yet the district is proposing a community-wide change as that community is growing and expanding. Garcia is predicted to enroll more kids over the next decade as families move out towards Colony Park (see Creating Sustainability, Jan. 27). County Commissioner Ron Davis said he was worried the developments would be a new Mueller, pushing the poorer minority community even further out. But Bradley sees problems in the project's commitment to affordable housing. "You always have someone who jumps up and says, 'Low performance is nothing to do with race, it's to do with poverty.' If you're going to take a community that in some areas has mixed wealth, but in others it's section 8 housing, and then you're going to add that into a community that already has it, what do you think is going to happen to the school? So we have to create something now that can actually answer to what the city is planning for that community."

So, in the world according to Bradley, what are the benefits of single sex education? "People say girls mature at a faster rate than boys, and being a female I'm certainly going to claim that one," Bradley said, adding that "I want to educate the whole child." In her model, the schools would teach critical thinking, conflict resolution, leadership, and respect. The district's proposal is (pardon the pun) old school, complete with uniforms. Bradley said, "There are rites of passage that boys need to work through, and it's easier if you're going to do that in a setting where everybody looks like you, and I believe that it's easier for girls to do the same thing."

She argues that there's nothing experimental about single sex schools, that they have been in place for centuries. She fights any comparison to Austin's Ann Richards Leadership Academy for Girls, but cites the majority black Chicago Urban Prep: But unlike what she's proposing, their three all-male campuses are opt-in high schools, not opt-out middle schools.

And here's where the waters get choppy. If single sex education is so marvellous, why only do it in Bradley's district? Several speakers at AISD meetings noted that there's no push to open this kind of school in West Austin, and while Bradley agreed that there are high-needs kids in those areas, the problems are not universal. She said, "If you look at Lanier, they're facing some of the same issues. You look at Burnet, they're facing some of the same issues. I'm talking about West Austin Murchison. Why would I suggest that for West Austin Murchison? They don't have low performing schools."

But that's where an old specter raises its head. Austin's history of race relations has turned I-35 into a virtual Berlin Wall, and this plan takes a dim view of the idea it can ever fall. Bradley said, "I am an African-American who raised a son, a daughter, and have three grand children in Sims elementary, and what I know about this city and what I know about this district, education is not equal. And so I have to look at how I can at least level that playing field for children of color." In her district, Bradley sees "a divisiveness between the races." The issue, she said, "is getting them to see that, just because the outward appearance is different, we still share the same challenges, the same issues and the same experiences of this city."

Bradley's plan is not simply about gender. It's about creating what she sees as a safe haven for minority kids. She said, "You're going to have to learn to navigate this city, being an African-American male and being a Latino male, and that's just it."

Yet, as critics of the plan have pointed out, even if all of this is true, but it doesn't matter one jot without resources. AISD can tout research claiming that left handed kids should be taught seperately from righties for a year, but unless they put their money where their mouth is, it will not make a lick of difference. Chicago Urban Prep is a very well funded 501(c)3: Moreover, Harlem's famous Promise Neighborhood may be touted as a sign that charters work, but it's really a sign that investment in social services works.

Here is where Bradley and I parted ways. Resource allocation lies wholly and solely with AISD, the administration, and the board of trustees. It was the management on Sixth Street who decided in 2011 to dump eight Pearce teachers, including the choir teacher, and 26 staff at Garcia. It's little secret that AISD has already given walking papers to experienced and committed teaching staff at Martin Middle School, even though it looks very likely they will have to hire new (less experienced, less invested) staff because of higher than forecast enrollment.

Until AISD tackles the real problems within its control, like under-investment and high teacher turnover, nothing changes. Until every agency does something serious about endemic multi-generational unemployment, poverty, affordable housing, gang activity, and the city's complicated web of race relations, nothing changes. Ultimately, it's all just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. The question the district must ask itself is, does it want its minority girls at one end of the deck and the minority boys at the other?

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AISD, Austin Independent School District, Cheryl Bradley, AISD Board of Trustees, East Austin, Race Relations, Single Sex Schools, Pearce Middle School, Garcia Middle School, James E. Pearce College Preparatory Academy

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