LBJ Science Academy Sucks Rocks

Gee Whiz, Mr. Science

To hear most people

tell it, Eddie Orum hasn't an enemy in the world. The principal of LBJ High School since the 1992-93 school year, Orum is a black leader with a reputation for impeccable moral character, strong rhetorical skills, and a commitment to educational equity that began when he was a Nacogdoches high schooler in the 1970s. So when he was very publicly reassigned from the campus to a position with AISD central administration on September 28, it was quite a shock to the many Friends of Eddie.

Orum presided at a campus that houses one of the most prestigious academic programs in the city -- the Science Academy at Lyndon Baines Johnson High School, a magnet school for accelerated instruction in science, technology, and mathematics. Orum, seeking opportunities for those who've always done with "less than," freely admits that his own philosophy is at odds with the original mission of the school: to furnish "more than" what could be obtained in a regular academic setting. Many, including Orum himself, suspect that this difference of opinion contributed to his demise.

But a mere clash of personalities isn't grounds for dismissal. Although AISD Superintendent Jim Fox didn't provide a reason for removing Orum, Executive Director of Personnel Al Williams said that the district has directed the firm of Peat Marwick to look into "major operational problems" at the school, and AISD officials say they expect a report on the issue in the near future. Orum says he has nothing to fear from such a probe. But whatever is decided about Orum, it's clear that the LBJ Science Academy, and the two-tiered system of education it's accused of fostering, no matter how inadvertently, is the real point of contention. It seems to cry out now not to be defended, but justified.

An Academy Is Born

In 1983, the federal government, under the helm of President Ronald Reagan, pronounced American public education dead on arrival in "A Nation at Risk," a report that has been metaphorically nailed on the doors of many a conservative think tank. Public education has been responding ever since. A June 8 Wall Street Journal article noted that state-supported boarding schools for science in nine states, including one at the University of North Texas at Denton, emerged after the government's negative prognosis was issued and highly publicized.

Perhaps it was with the aim of swimming against -- in the parlance of the report -- the "rising tide of mediocrity" that IBM first broached with AISD the idea of creating a program for advanced math and science instruction in 1983. The original thought was to locate the school in a district-owned building across the street from IBM. But this seemed to rule out being able to have any extracurricular activities, such as athletics or band. Clearly, the support from an already established facility was going to be necessary.

And a facility was rapidly opening up, quite against the hopes and expectations of many in Northeast Austin. LBJ High School, built in 1974, a mere three miles down US290 East from Reagan High, was emptying out fast. School boundary changes, grade pattern changes, a maturing population, and most of all, a cessation of development and growth in that sector, had caused white flight and an overall decline in enrollment.

According to a study by AISD in 1994, enrollment at LBJ in its first year was 1,590; 320 were African-American, 82 were Hispanic, and 1,188 were white. Ten years later, in 1984, enrollment had dropped to 1,152; African-Americans numbered 722, Hispanics 103, and whites just 327. Today, total enrollment of the school hovers around 1,400. Of that number, about 600 are magnet students, about 70% of whom are white or Asian. For good or ill, without its magnet students, AISD might have a difficult time today defending LBJ's existence (unless, of course, it were to undertake new boundaries and busing plans). To put this into perspective, Bailey Middle School in far Southwest Austin has 1,600-plus students, or twice LBJ's zoned enrollment.

School district officials, knowing 10 years ago that LBJ could be headed for extinction, forged a plan to put the science magnet academy there with the hopes of addressing both integration and the enrollment lapse. The first class of ninth graders started in the 1985-86 school year. But the school's progenitors viewed offering accelerated, high-level math and science instruction as the primary objective, quite aside from any social aims. The course of study is, by anyone's standards, rigorous.

For example, students entering the ninth grade are required to start with chemistry, typically a 10th or 11th grade course at other schools. They go on to take courses such as molecular biology, earth science, and physics. Their upper-level electives include analytical chemistry and environmental science. Students must take four credits in mathematics beyond geometry, and choose from courses such as multivariable calculus, probability and statistics, and number theory, many of which carry honors or advanced placement credit (more about why this is significant later on). When students leave their high school studies, they are well-qualified for admission into the nation's most prestigious universities.

"If the curriculum were the same as the other high schools, then there'd be no reason for people to come [here]," says Mary Long, director of the academy since 1994. "I've always said that it has to be different enough to meet the needs of students who want it, in a way that can't be met as well in the other high schools."

Gerald Briney, a principal architect of the program and an advisory board member, now retired from IBM, admits that initial resistance from the host, non-academy population to the idea of the academy being located at LBJ was strong. But by the time of principal Dorothy Orebo's retirement in 1992, he felt the two schools were co-existing comfortably -- especially because the science academy director reported directly to central administration, not to the campus principal. Then Eddie Orum became LBJ's next principal.

The New Regime

Orum remembers clearly what he said that probably first upset people. "I made the comment that I understand the role for academies in the Eighties; I don't understand what the role of academies for the Nineties should be," he says. He says he meant it as a call for inquiry into that question, but instead -- when he suggested opening up more of the academy's resources to the entire student population -- it resonated as a call to "water down" the curriculum of the science academy at the very least, and disassemble the academy at the very most.

"When Eddie came in, he didn't feel nearly as supportive of the academy as an institution," says Briney. "But if I put myself in his place, I would say to myself, `Well, I've got a problem here that's really severe. And if I could just get my kids into those classes, look what would rub off.' Well, that was anathema to us, because we recognized that the dumbing-down that is so characteristic of what has happened in the schools throughout the United States could happen to the science academy if we weren't careful," says Briney.

"What that means to me is that Jerry was interested in the academy succeeding, and I was interested in all students succeeding," says Orum. "I think too many times we assume that if I'm for you, I'm against somebody else."

Orum is well aware that he was largely perceived as an advocate for only the non-academy students -- who are largely African-American -- but he categorically denies this, and recalls that people were stunned when he drove a group of academy students to the Texas coast for the annual beach clean-up. By the same token, when an appearance at the school by the late Arthur Ashe was arranged only for academy students, Orum insisted that the assembly be extended to the whole school.

Rumored to be scheming to "destroy" the academy, Orum was alleged to have commingled the program's budget with that of the rest of the school, and placed the academy director under his supervision. He denies this also, noting that realignment of the leadership and budgets of all the school's magnet academies, including programs at Johnston High and Kealing Middle School, began under former superintendent Terry Bishop, and is continuing under superintendent Fox.

Two Schools, Two Populations

LBJ is by no means alone in its struggle for redefinition. All over the U.S., as educators confront the reality that magnet schools have not always accomplished their overt goals of integration, school leaders are questioning their role in the future. Orum's opinion -- that teachers in such programs ought to develop and explore the best practices, teach other teachers what they've learned, and then begin again -- is not so far afield of one of the school's secondary objectives. Director Long readily agrees.

"I believe strongly that the academy doesn't deserve to exist if the only students who benefit are the ones at the academy," she says.

Long, who has taught at LBJ since it opened in 1974, knows that the academy's rather low minority enrollment, hovering at around 29-30% every year, is a main criticism of the program. Getting kids excited about math and the sciences in elementary school is essential to changing that, she believes. But she and other members of her staff have been turned down time and again for grant money that they would have used to draw in more minority children. A Sloan Foundation grant went to another school with an even worse record on minority enrollment than LBJ's. Another proposal, penned by former LBJ teacher Wes Halverson, would have set up a school-wide computer lab, which would have been networked with LBJ's feeder schools to help recruit minorities. The application for the funds was sent to the U.S. Department of Education, but was rejected, says Halverson, for proposing to use the funds for the non-magnet population.

Halverson, who taught environmental science to both non-academy and academy students, said he felt discouraged at the end his 10-year experience at LBJ. He believes that both populations were short-changed because his efforts were splintered between them. "Neither program is as good as it should be," he says. "They're at crossed purposes. It's difficult to administer." If he were to enact a solution, he says, he would choose to move the magnet program out of the building, "and let both faculties serve the needs of those populations." School district officials say that this is unlikely to happen.

It's hard to imagine the school any more separated than it already is. Classrooms at LBJ reportedly tend to be heavily segregated -- although interim principal Wanda Flowers would not permit a campus tour to confirm this. Enrollment figures by ethnicity are proof enough, however, that white kids are upstairs in the academy, and African-American and Hispanic kids are downstairs. But the kids do "mix" in other academic classes, fine arts electives, athletics, and extracurricular activities, as parents of academy students are quick to point out. They might add that LBJ's home-grown courses in science/technology and earth science are open to any student. And they'll often say that it's no small sacrifice for their kids to attend LBJ, since most of the magnet students catch buses at 6:30am and don't get home until past 5pm.

"It's politically unpopular to say, `Excuse me, but I have a gifted child,'" says Melody Vuicich, parent of an academy junior. "I'm tired of apologizing for having a bright child and that he's getting what he needs academically."

By contrast, some parents of non-academy students see the "mixing" as convenient only for the academy. Larry Shannon Hargrove's daughter, Courtney, would be ranked third in her class if she attended another high school, such as Reagan. But because the science academy seniors are lumped in with the regular population when it comes to figuring grade point averages, Courtney's rank is 75th, which her father believes damages her chances for a college scholarship. Kathryn Stone's son, James, who served as a page to former U.S. Rep. J.J. "Jake" Pickle in the congressman's last session, would be ranked fourth in his class if he didn't have to compete against the science academy students, whose grade point averages have more weight because of the honors credits they incur from taking their curriculum. His rank is 89th.

Courtney, James, and several of their classmates in the same predicament, recently made an impressive case before the AISD Board of Trustees, petitioning them to make policy changing the ranking system at their school. They, like their parents, don't oppose the academy (one of them, in fact, has a sibling there). They just want what is fair to them, what they've earned.

Parting Thoughts

But the thought occurs: surely the tensions -- over class ranking, curriculum, standards, and leadership -- must have existed since the magnet program's inception, haven't they? Orum must assume some credit for bringing matters to a head (the students' activism is "a symptom of students feeling power," he says), and when he speaks of his student days, his own activist roots emerge. Was it worth it? Although his own future and reputation are still in limbo, he sees a greater good on the horizon.

"I believe that getting ousted from LBJ may solve more of the problem there and bring the discussions there to a greater forum," he says. While some angry parents continue to make themselves visible, protesting his removal before the school board and at meetings convened to find his successor, there surely must be some silent Friends of Eddie as well. It makes an interesting acronym: FOE.

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