Saving the Ten Percenters

AISD merges Liberal Arts and Science and Math Academies

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione (Photo By John Anderson)

The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees voted Monday night to move the Liberal Arts Academy from Johnston High School to LBJ, where it will merge next fall with the Math and Science Academy. The Board voted 6-3 in favor of the move, with Olga Garza, Patricia Whiteside, and Rudy Montoya dissenting.

Supporters of the decision welcomed the change, they said, because the new combined magnet program will offer a broad-based curriculum and will free the district's brightest students from having to choose between an advanced liberal arts curriculum or a science and math-based one. Buddy Owens, a member of the Community Working Group that recommended the change, says the old system provided a very lopsided education to his children at LBJ. "My children have had wonderful classes in math and science," he says. "But some of the liberal arts classes have not challenged them at all."

The new magnet school is expected to provide the best all-around, academic public high school education in Austin -- but some observers are concerned that the neighborhood students at Johnston will ultimately pay the cost. Magnet programs attract many affluent, white students, and when the Johnston and LBJ programs were created in the early Eighties, they were housed in largely minority Eastside schools in order indirectly to provide (theoretically pain-free) desegregation.

The AISD decision will, at least for the moment, put to rest the already much-neglected dream of truly integrated city schools. The Johnston student body will return to being almost entirely black and Hispanic, while the new majority at LBJ will be magnet students. However, neighborhood protest has been muted, for it is difficult to demonstrate that the presence of the Liberal Arts Academy ever helped the neighborhood students in the first place, at least in an academic sense. Not counting the magnet students, by TAAS-test standards Johnston High is one of the worst-performing schools in the district.

What has upset some neighborhood advocates is that the district has focused such attention on improving education for already privileged students, before addressing deeply rooted problems at the neighborhood schools. At Monday's meeting, Superintendent Pat Forgione promised to provide by January a plan addressing the needs of Johnston students. But UT professor Mia Carter, who as a Johnston magnet-student parent served on the Community Working Group, says she was disappointed with the priorities the board and superintendent demonstrated Monday night. Although the group had come to a consensus on its final recommendations, Carter described deep divisions among the group. Some members, Carter among them, recommended that the move to LBJ be made contingent on the creation of a well-developed plan for improving Johnston High. But the majority, she says, seemed to feel that the best strategy is to provide an advanced and accelerated education to the gifted few -- and forget about the rest. "That is what private schools are for," she said. "I believe strongly that public schools are there to provide all students with a quality education."

Those supporting the decision respond that neighborhood students will benefit from the move as well, because it provides them access to the state's Top Ten Percent plan (which since its enactment in 1998, automatically admits the top 10% of students in every high school, as defined by grade point average, to the state university of their choice). Thus far the plan has rarely benefited Johnston neighborhood students, because magnet students (who earn more points for each grade they receive) filled most, if not all, of the places in the top 10%. (Thanks to a specific exception law sponsored last year by Austin state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, neighborhood students at LBJ do have access to the Top Ten Percent plan.)

District One Trustee Loretta Edelen -- who voted to approve the consolidation -- expressed some reservations about how the magnet school move will affect Johnston, but said she decided it was more important in the short term that Johnston students enjoy full access to the Top Ten Percent plan. "I thought long and hard about the pros and cons of moving the magnet," she says. "But in the end, it is critical that Johnston students have access to the best universities in Texas."

The Community Working Group had also recommended that in official evaluations LBJ and the magnet academy be counted as two separate schools, in order to provide more accurate information about the performance of neighborhood students. But the board voted 8-1 to retain the current model, arguing that it promoted school unity and reduced administrative costs. Student performance, argued Forgione, will be separated by program regardless of the bureaucratic structure. Ingrid Taylor, the lone dissenting trustee, says that this model is too dependent on the whims of whoever happens to be in charge of the separate programs. "The current model can work -- if everyone is getting along and the administration is committed to accurate oversight," she said. "But it is not inherent in the system -- and that is the only way to absolutely ensure accountability."

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