Ten Down ... 90% to Go

AISD's magnet school merger leaves questions in its wake

Johnston High School Principal Sal Cavazos
Johnston High School Principal Sal Cavazos (Photo By Michael May)

On November 26, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees voted to move the district's Liberal Arts Academy from its current home at Johnston High School and to merge it with the larger Math and Science Academy at LBJ. The decision, hailed as a victory by advocates of the magnet schools, is expected to create the most advanced, broad-based public high school curriculum offered in Austin. Many of the program's advocates consider this decision only the first step toward establishing a distinct advanced-curriculum magnet high school on its own campus. It often seems they envision a new breed of magnet students, endowed with Scott Fitzgerald hearts and Albert Einstein minds, able to write short stories, do college-level calculus, win all the science fairs -- and intermittently leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Laura Tyler, longtime director of the Johnston academy, is unconditionally enthusiastic about the move. "This is a grand experiment," she says, "a chance for Austin to offer talented students the best curriculum we can." Speaking for the administrative and parent supporters, she said, "We have been hoping for this for years." The new magnet school could very well provide an academic haven for a select group of district students. The question remains whether LBJ's gain -- or the gain, at least, of its most advanced students -- will be to the detriment of neighborhood students left behind at Johnston High School.

The magnet programs were created at Eastside schools in the mid-1980s, in part to comply non-coercively with federal desegregation laws. The idea was to attract white students to minority schools by offering them special advanced classes. Neighborhood kids would, in principle at least, also have access to advanced classes and expanded resources.

The plan succeeded in creating literal de-segregation: White students did study on the Eastside. But from the beginning the co-existence between the predominantly white magnet programs and their predominantly minority host schools has been uneasy. AISD magnet school programs, which begin in the seventh grade (see "AISD Magnets and Academies," below), are said to attract the "best and brightest" students in the district -- but these 11-year-old enrollees, for the most part, are "magnet" students because they have "magnet" parents -- who will accept nothing less than the educational best for their children, and who also have the time and resources to invest in that goal. The presence of this highly vocal minority in Parent-Teacher-Student Associations, Campus Advisory Councils, and most recently, in the AISD-appointed Community Working Group (CWG) that promoted the magnet move, has led to the widespread perception that more resources and attention have gone to the magnet programs than to their host schools.


Unintended Consequences

Although host schools and magnet programs within AISD are officially considered single schools, there remains a persistent public impression of unofficial distinctions. Cheryl Bradley, an Eastside LBJ magnet parent who served on the CWG, says that in her experience magnet classrooms have more resources than their host school classes. "I never felt like my children needed to sit next to a white child in order to learn," she says. "In fact, my daughter would be more comfortable at Johnston, where more of the kids look like her. But I couldn't send her there. I mean, some neighborhood classes don't even have textbooks. Can you imagine that happening in a magnet class? I shouldn't have to ask for textbooks -- that is just not acceptable."

These tensions between neighborhood schools and their magnet programs simmered for years, occasionally breaking into public controversies, as in the mid-Nineties at LBJ. In 1997, the Legislature enacted the Top Ten Percent Plan -- which grants, to the highest 10% of seniors (by grade point average) of every high school in Texas, automatic admission to the state university of their choice. The plan was intended to replace now-outlawed affirmative action programs, by providing access to higher education at least to the very best students at historically under-performing minority high schools.

Neighborhood students at LBJ and Johnston, however, were often denied access to the Top Ten Percent program, because magnet students (who earn extra grade points for their advanced-placement classes) filled most, if not all, of the top 10% places at those schools. Nicholas Turner, a Johnston student who would be in the top 10% if not for the academy students, puts it simply. "I feel cheated," he said. However, he added that the Johnston administration has done a good job of helping him out with his test scores and college application, making him confident he will still be accepted by UT-Austin.

Nicholas Turner, a student at Johnston would have  been in the school's top 10% if not for the Liberal Arts Academy.
Nicholas Turner, a student at Johnston would have been in the school's top 10% if not for the Liberal Arts Academy. (Photo By Michael May)

Moving the academy to LBJ is expected to solve the 10% problem, because the neighborhood students remaining at Johnston will now be ranked only against themselves (and a subsequent law ensures that neighborhood students at LBJ have separate access to the plan). This fact alone convinced District 1 trustee Loretta Edelen, initially lukewarm about the magnet move, to vote for it. But Edelen maintains that the problems at Johnston will not be solved by this move alone. "The superintendent will still have to focus on the needs of Johnston kids," she says. "It is not an issue that is going away." AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione has promised to consult with the community and provide recommendations for improving Johnston by late January.

Others say that a comprehensive Johnston plan should have been developed by the Johnston community before the vote, not after. UT professor Mia Carter, who served on the Community Working Group and whose daughter is a student in the academy, is distressed at how little input came from Johnston parents. "It's not that neighborhood parents don't care," she says. "I think they are very cynical and depressed about AISD's intention to improve Johnston."

Carter believes they had good reason for their doubts. She describes CWG meetings as dominated by magnet parents intent on steering AISD's community resources directly to the benefit of their own children. "I was at a meeting where these magnet parents -- who like to describe their children as 'the gifted and talented' -- were talking about how their children should not have to be victimized by going to school with so-called 'normal' kids," she remembers. "One of the members of our group was in tears after that meeting. It was so depressing."

Magnet advocates strongly disagree. Buddy Owens, also on the CWG, is an LBJ magnet parent who argues that moving the magnet will benefit the Johnston students as much as the magnet students -- because it will presumably force AISD to confront the long-running underperformance of Johnston neighborhood students. "I genuinely want the district to help low-income students," says Owens. "But it is hard for a white guy from the Westside to come in and start making suggestions without appearing patronizing. We have to support what the community would like done." Owens also questions whether putting the magnet programs in low-performing Eastside schools was ever a good idea. He worries that in that context, his children could come to believe that minority students in general are "unmotivated and uninterested in education." He says diversity within the magnets is much more important than where the magnet programs are located.


The Ones They Left Behind

From the polarized emotions of the debate, you might think the magnet campuses themselves would be rife with a neighborhood version of a town/gown conflict -- West Side Story, with one of the gangs brandishing worn-out textbooks, the other leather-bound copies of Moby Dick. Yet students say the divisions are much less a consequence of hostility between students in the two programs, or even differing academic aptitudes, than of administrative neglect.

The academy was placed at Johnston, in part, so that neighborhood students would benefit from access to magnet classes and an expanded honors and advanced placement curriculum. Students say that access never really materialized. Turner admits he probably "should have been" in the magnet program. But he says school administrators never held high expectations for him nor for any neighborhood students. "Many of the students in the neighborhood are just as capable as those in the academy," he says. "The administration has never emphasized, until recently, that we should take upper level classes." Turner has taken magnet classes, largely due to family pressure, and says he did not find them much harder than neighborhood classes. "There is more emphasis on advanced content, but it's really a natural progression," he concluded. "Not an enormous leap."

Sal Cavazos, the principal at Johnston, agrees. He is the fifth principal at Johnston in the past two years, and says lack of stability has left neighborhood students without direction. "When I gathered the neighborhood top ten percenters together at the beginning of the year," he said, "I found only one of them enrolled in an honors class. These kids are very, very bright, but the school has failed to give them appropriate guidance." Cavazos has since asked the top ten percenters to enroll in honors classes and says he is committed to raising expectations for all the students -- beginning when they are freshmen.

Liberal Arts Academy student Ari Reis wanted the magnet to stay at Johnston.
Liberal Arts Academy student Ari Reis wanted the magnet to stay at Johnston. (Photo By Michael May)

What worries Cavazos is that just as neighborhood students are finally being pushed, their advanced opportunities will disappear, right along with the magnet. Not only are most advanced placement classes dominated by magnet students, but so are the band, the newspaper, and the theatre department. If there are no longer enough interested students to fill these slots, it is unclear if Johnston will continue to offer advanced placement classes and other extracurricular activities. Cavazos says he hopes to be able to create some form of academy program at Johnston. "There is going to be a huge vacuum left at the school when the magnet leaves," he says, and then smiles bravely. "I'm trying to see it as a challenge."

Although magnet parents spearheaded the move to LBJ, many Liberal Arts Academy students resisted it. Students petitioned the AISD board against the move, and an editorial in the latest edition of the Johnston student newspaper is headlined, "We don't want to go." This is largely due to a perception that they will lose the unique, freewheeling spirit that characterizes the academy. "There is a feeling that the kids at the Liberal Arts Academy are all liberated tree huggers, and the kids in the Math and Science Academy are a bunch of laptop-lugging nerds," says Ari Reis, Carter's daughter. "I think that's a bit of an exaggeration." There are also concerns that students will lose their places in student government, the newspaper, and extracurricular activities when the two programs merge.

There is also the question of literal diversity -- not only will moving the program return Johnston to de facto and stark segregation, but the new majority at LBJ will be magnet students. This worries Ari, who says that Johnston's social diversity is one of the things she likes most about the school. "People think there is hostility between the host and magnet students," she says. "But it's really not there at all. I hang out all the time with neighborhood students. I think that, if anything, an artificial separation has been imposed from above."

She points to the newspaper as an example: Only two neighborhood students serve on the entire staff. While some administrators talk about recruiting neighborhood students to take over for next year, Reis wonders why this is happening at the 11th hour. "Why hasn't the school been recruiting newspaper staff all along? Why hasn't it been publicized?" she asks. "You can't just plunk a bunch of people down together and expect them to mix. There has been little or no effort made to integrate the programs."

But Liberal Arts Academy director Tyler thinks it's unrealistic to expect that neighborhood kids would even want to be part of magnet classes and activities. "Look, not every eighth-grader wants to go read Tolstoy and Chekhov," she says. "The magnet students are a small minority in the entire district."

It's that kind of sentiment -- that neighborhood students at Johnston are just not interested in academic rigor -- many hope will disappear when the academy departs. Robert Zieger, who was hired to teach U.S. history in the Johnston magnet program, intends to stay on. "I think, that at times, neighborhood kids have been intimidated by the magnet students," he says. "I think they will start to fill up [advanced placement] classes and the newspaper, once the magnet students leave."

Zieger is a member of a group called the Johnston Alliance, part of a larger national effort by the community-activist Industrial Areas Foundation (represented here by Austin Interfaith) to organize communities through neighborhood schools. The Alliance met with Forgione last week and asked that Johnston advanced placement classes be continued, no matter how many students enroll, and that Alliance parents be consulted in all district decisions about Johnston students. Forgione agreed to attend three Alliance meetings over the next semester.

Despite the current situation, Zeiger is optimistic about Johnston's future. "We don't think parents need a college education to know what their kids need," he says. "With help from the superintendent and a stable administration, I think the community can turn Johnston around. There is a lot of untapped potential here." n

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