Taken to Task

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione presents the district's dropout prevention task force recommendations, but not all members of the community are happy with the results.

AISD superintendent Pat Forgione
AISD superintendent Pat Forgione (Photo By Jana Birchum)

It wasn't easy, AISD superintendent Pat Forgione told his dropout prevention task force last week, to distill the lengthy to-do list the group gave him in December into a specific plan for helping more Austin students reach graduation. "I was in a state of anxiety because I didn't know if I could make a whole cloth out of this," said Forgione. What the new superintendent probably dreaded most, however, was the tug-of-war that was bound to ensue among various AISD constituencies once his office began proposing actual policy for reducing dropouts, a reform mandated by the Travis County attorney's office.

The six goals Forgione outlined to the dropout committee on Jan. 11 -- which focus on improving counseling and support services, alternative learning, sensitivity toward diversity, community involvement, and dropout reporting -- hardly destroyed the convivial mood the task force has worked under thus far. But it seems impossible to address the painful topic of kids failing school without treading upon the resentment, distrust, and partisan agendas that percolate in the community owing to perceived school inequity and alienation. Eastside advocate Gus Peña was quick to announce that Hispanics could not support a plan that did not propose remedial aid for at-risk elementary students. Others said Forgione's plan gave too few specifics about how the district plans to involve businesses and parents. Still others said it was just too vague, period, and wondered if the district truly intended to commit to the recommendations made by the committee.

"We don't have a message that matches the mission of this group," said the Rev. Sterling Lands II of Greater Calvary Baptist Church, adding that Forgione's plan doesn't make it clear enough to the public what the district's most pressing issues are. Afterward, Lands said he was referring to the lack of resources in Austin's poorer and predominately minority schools. "As great as these [dropout] programs may sound, it doesn't mean anything to me [as a parent] if my child drops out because he's embarrassed that he can't read when he's in the 10th grade," said Lands.

Dr. Jaime Chahin, a professor of social work at Southwest Texas State University, said the district was courting failure by not emphasizing business partnerships. "I'm very, very concerned," said Chahin. These proposals "are not transformational; they're very limited."

Task force co-chair Howard Lessard responded that no one was backing down from the challenge. "We want to make it clear that this is not a whitewash," Lessard assured the group. Forgione further calmed the waters by reminding the committee that his six priority recommendations are meant only to solicit parents' opinions in a series of public forums being held this week, not as final policy items. AISD staff will fill in more details once the public has spoken and priorities become more clear, Forgione said.

That went a long way toward mollifying the Chamber of Commerce contingent, who had fretted most about the lack of budgetary and procedural details in Forgione's plan. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Capital Area Training Foundation, said he thinks Forgione is on the right track but hopes the district will also give more attention to school-to-career programs and partner with area universities and businesses in setting higher academic goals for all students.

Forgione warned the group, however, that the district can't possibly make all the necessary changes in the near future. "One million dollars is not a lot of money," Forgione said, referring to the district's budget for dropout prevention efforts over the next two years. "We can only do two or three of these, folks."

Longtime AISD principal and ex officio task force member Vicki Baldwin, who designed some of the district's more innovative attempts to retain at-risk students at Gonzalo Garza High School, says she believes Forgione is serious about translating the the task force's recommendations into action. "For anyone to say they're [AISD] not listening, or this is just created to look good, well, I don't believe that," says Baldwin. But, she points out, there are no known systemic solutions for keeping all kids in school, and people shouldn't expect a million bucks to buy a miracle cure. "The bottom line is, we can't do it by ourselves," says Baldwin. "We need to rethink it all coming from AISD's budget."

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Pat Forgione, dropout prevention task force, Austin Independent School District, Gus Peña, Sterling Lands II, Jaime Chahin, Howard Lessard, John Fitzpatrick, Capital Area Training Foundation, Vicki Baldwin

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