Naked City

A Hard Lesson

Strike one for the Austin Independent School District's high-profile campaign to keep struggling teens from tumbling onto the district's lengthy dropout rolls. The man hired last August as AISD's Dropout Prevention Coordinator, Dr. Alfred C. Maldonado, has already tendered his resignation, saying he believes the district made it impossible for his work to succeed. Maldonado's resignation is official as of Jan. 15, but he stopped going to work at AISD's downtown headquarters in November.

Has the school district become so stuck in its ways that even administrators' best intentions can't change a system that fails so many kids, or did it simply hire the wrong man for the job?

Maldonado, whose last job was with the Higher Education Coordinating Board, says he was warned by a top AISD official soon after he accepted his new post that he would be caught in a position where he couldn't win. AISD's central administration would want to see progress, the colleague warned him, but he would not be given the resources to offer staff support to campus principals already stretched to the breaking point trying to fulfill other mandates from downtown.

"Out at the campuses they told me, 'When you stand up there as a member of the administration downtown, you are put in the same box as people who have been deaf to our needs. You're asking us to do something that takes a lot of resources, and we're already overly stretched trying to meet other priorities,'" says Maldonado. He says he soon came to agree that the district wasn't willing to put its money where its intentions were.

"When I needed things, people would say, 'No, we can't give you that.' ... They wanted me to be strong but also meek, to really get it done but not to ask for anything," says Maldonado.

Some community leaders and AISD campus officials, however, say Maldonado may have signed on with unrealistic expectations about how quickly he could reform an organization as cumbersome as a large, urban school district. "It's always a push and tug; it's a lot more difficult than just dictating what needs to be done," says a city official who regularly works with AISD. "I'm not sure that AISD is any more difficult than any other organization."

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione announced shortly after the district hired him in 1999 that dropout prevention was one of his top five priorities. That year, 13 AISD campuses were rated low-performing by the Texas Education Agency for their dropout numbers, and the district's overall rating was lowered because of faulty dropout data. Forgione assembled a community task force that early last year drafted a district strategy for intervening on behalf of at-risk students. One component was to create a dropout prevention office, and Forgione budgeted $1 million toward that effort.

Maldonado's job was essentially to oversee the formation of campus teams that are supposed to help link students to social service groups that can provide them tutoring, counseling, financial aid, or other support. He says he was never invited to meet with Forgione, however, and came to believe his mission wasn't very important to the administration. "I questioned their sincerity and their placing the dropout issue number three [on a list of eight priorities]. I didn't see how it could be that high given their casual attitude toward that issue."

He says his immediate supervisor, AISD General Counsel Mel Waxler, didn't care to hear about overburdened principals wary of the new dropout prevention program. Waxler suggested that he use an overhead projector and make snappier presentations, says Maldonado. Finally, he says, he was asked to resign, purportedly for leaving the office in frustration after heated exchanges with Waxler.

The district declines to comment on Maldonado's story, saying the terms of Maldonado's resignation stipulate that the district not talk about the matter. Waxler does say, however, that the district's dropout prevention efforts haven't missed a beat. "The district was, is, and will forever be committed to the success of this program. We have gotten down this road farther than we ever have before, and there is no intent to turn back," says Waxler. Leaders of social service organizations, who Maldonado says were highly skeptical when asked to cooperate in the district's efforts, say that while they may have been disappointed with AISD in the past, they have seen enough progress to stay at the table.

"If I were to just drop in the middle of this process, I could certainly see how [Maldonado] would think that there wasn't commitment ... because you just don't go from zero to full stride immediately. A whole huge bureaucracy is having to rethink its role," says Don Loving, executive director of Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that provides support to at-risk students on AISD campuses.

"I don't think it was a good match," says one high school principal of AISD's decision to hire Maldonado. "To go from the Higher Education Coordinating Board to [preventing] dropouts is a leap." But Maldonado says AISD administrators didn't think his lack of experience in public education was a problem when they hired him. The main conflict, he says, was his insistence that the district redirect attention where no one wants to look, challenging administrators to leave the security of their "fiefdoms."

"What they were asking for," says Maldonado, "was ... an effort to comfort the afflicted, without afflicting the comfortable."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

dropout prevention coordinator, Austin Independent School District, Alfred Maldonado, Pat Forgione, Texas Education Agency, Mel Waxler, Don Loving, Communities in Schools

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