'If Not Edison -- What?'

East Austin 'Alliance' Organizes an Answer for Troubled AISD Schools

Austin Interfaith organizers, teachers, and families
Austin Interfaith organizers, teachers, and families (Photo By Jana Birchum)

In the Texas Education Agency's 2001 assessment of state school districts, the Austin Independent School District as a whole is rated "acceptable." Parents in Austin's predominantly poor and minority Eastside disagree.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots in Austin's public schools is large. The Fort Worth and Houston school districts edge out Austin for the state's highest drop-out rate, but when it comes to gaps across ethnic and economic divides, AISD stands alone among the state's 20 largest school districts. In 2000, by TEA figures, the district gap between the graduation rates of white students and African-American students stood at 19%. Between white and Latino students, the gap was 25%. By comparison, Houston had a gap of only 12% between whites and African-Americans, and 18% between whites and Latinos. Dallas had a gap of only 7% between whites and Latinos, while the graduation rate for African-American students was actually 3% higher than for white students. Moreover, in 2000, AISD graduated just over half of its economically disadvantaged students, while Houston graduated 64% and Dallas 75%.

AISD has a high percentage of schools ranked "exemplary" by the TEA -- but it also has one of the highest percentages of schools ranked "low-performing," based on high dropout rates and low student scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. In a pattern that holds consistently year to year, all five of those low-performing schools are east of I-35, the traditional boundary between the wealthy, predominantly white Westside and the poor, predominantly brown and black Eastside. East Austin parents are asking the school board why this longtime gap in student achievement persists -- and demanding that the board change something. Quick.

In January, the Eastside Social Action Coalition -- an organization of Eastside parents and community members -- asked the board to consider a proposal that would have privatized a cluster of low-performing East Austin elementary schools under the management of the for-profit education corporation Edison Inc. Following a review and public hearings, the board rejected the proposal, citing several reasons, from Edison's shaky business plan to its failure to raise test scores in other districts, as well as its employment of inexperienced and poorly paid teachers. The board also turned down a proposal from the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) that would have created an East Austin magnet school serving a small number of students at a high cost to the district. In the wake of those decisions, members of the ESAC -- headed by Rev. Sterling Lands of the Greater Calvary Baptist Church -- may renew an earlier threat to withdraw their children from the district.

The threatened split exposes a problem the TEA can't measure: Many Eastside parents feel disconnected from the district and from their children's education. "The district has a long history of ignoring minority parents," says Lands. "They have never shown that they were interested in what we have to say."

After the Edison and KIPP decisions, district Superintendent Pat Forgione called the proposals "an opportunity to look deeply at ourselves, to look at where we are and where we're going."

"We must respond," Forgione told the board. "If not Edison, then what?"

It's a question many parents want answered.


The Alliance Answer

At least one community group believes it has an answer to Forgione's question. Parents, teachers, and administrators at the AISD's "Alliance Schools" -- organized within the district by the national community organizing powerhouse Industrial Areas Foundation -- say they have the most solid plan yet for reforming Austin's low-performing schools.

In the basement of Zavala Elementary School, there's a room set aside for parents. It has the usual elementary school trappings: bright bulletin boards, child-size tables and chairs, and three computers. Every Friday morning, Zavala Principal Rosa Peña meets with school parents over coffee and doughnuts. These coffee talks are often standing room only, and they are more than a gesture. They are one of the principal organizing tactics around which Alliance schools are built.

Ten years ago, Zavala parents say, they didn't feel comfortable coming into the school. For the many parents who are recent immigrants, there was a language barrier between them and their children's teachers. Others say they felt the teachers and administrators -- few of them neighborhood residents -- didn't understand them, perhaps even looked down on them.

The district has a long history of ignoring minority parents. They have never shown that they were interested in what we have to say. -- Rev. Sterling Lands, Eastside Social Action Coalition
"The district has a long history of ignoring minority parents. They have never shown that they were interested in what we have to say." -- Rev. Sterling Lands, Eastside Social Action Coalition (Photo By Jana Birchum)

"At night, the teachers went home to the other side of town," one parent says. "They didn't know anything about us, about our community. If we had talked more to them, maybe they would have known more, but we didn't talk to them."

In 1991, just before Zavala became the first Alliance school in Austin, the school had rock-bottom TAAS scores and one of the lowest attendance rates in the district. Teacher turnover from one year to the next was nearly 80%.

Principal Alejandro Mindiz-Melton invited Austin Interfaith organizers Kathleen Davis and Joe Higgs to talk with Zavala parents about becoming an Alliance school. Early attempts to rally parents around the school -- by explaining how low students were scoring on standardized tests -- had backfired, erupting into open hostility between parents and teachers over who was to blame. Taking a different tack, Higgs and Davis went door to door in the Zavala neighborhood, talking with parents about their children's education. They found that while parents were indeed interested in academic progress, they were more immediately worried about their children walking past housing projects where drug deals took place during school hours, or going without routine vaccinations that many families couldn't afford.

Parent engagement came into focus when the city announced plans to relocate a nearby health clinic out of the neighborhood. Through many parent-teacher meetings facilitated by Higgs and Davis, teachers and parents agreed that one problem with Zavala's poor attendance record was the children's poor health. At a school board meeting in December 1992, 60 parents and 24 teachers asked the city to move the health clinic directly into the school. The board agreed. That year, Austin Interfaith also secured $350,000 in funding from the Texas Education Agency, and used it to create the Investment Capital Fund. All money from the fund goes directly to the schools, and is the Alliance schools' only source of public funding.


All Gifted and Talented

Flush with that victory, the Zavala team turned its attention to academics. Melton obtained a waiver from the district to abandon the standard curriculum, and the school began teaching all students using the district's gifted and talented materials. Within two years, Zavala students scored in the top half of the TAAS ranks, teacher turnover was virtually nil, and attendance was exemplary. In 2001, Zavala was given "recognized" status by the TEA and a "Blue Ribbon" designation by AISD.

Success at Zavala was the seed of further activism. The neighborhood walks and meetings in which parents met their children's teachers and each other are the persistent strategies by which 13 more Alliance schools were organized in Austin over the next 10 years.

"You build relationships first," says Doug Greco, an Alliance school organizer and ninth grade geography teacher at Johnston High School, which will hold a faculty vote on whether to become an Alliance school this spring. "That's what builds real accountability -- not that someone is looking down on you from above, but that someone else knows your story, that they can say 'Look, I was at this meeting. Where were you?'"

Rather than impose any program from outside, Austin Interfaith organizers say, they support change that begins within the school, and concentrate on developing parents into leaders, and teachers and administrators into community advocates.

"Austin Interfaith has three full-time employees, so it's not as if they can come in and start putting in some program," says Interfaith co-chair Regina Rogoff. "We're not about programs. We're about power. When you have power, you can have programs that you choose to have, rather than someone coming and trying to sell you one."

Parent academies sponsored by Austin Interfaith teach parents how to track their children's success and ask teachers the right questions about their education ("Will my daughter be ready to take algebra in the eighth grade? Why not?") They also teach parents how to devise plans to address problems in the schools, and how to ask for help from the school board -- or if need be, from the Legislature. (Last session, the Alliance schools successfully lobbied against a bill that would have opened the Investment Capital Fund to for-profit education corporations.)

Once these relationships are established, organizers say, Alliance schools can also become focal points for community organizing beyond the schools themselves. Alliance school parents and teachers make neighborhood walks generating interest in other Austin Interfaith issues, like job-training programs, living wages, and affordable housing. (Despite the name, and the fact that the Interfaith is organized through some 25 Austin congregations, none of the initiatives the organization pushes are religious.) Some Alliance school projects benefit schools district-wide -- like a drive at Becker Elementary that convinced the district to replace old and dangerous playground equipment at all district schools. "The district thought that they were not responsible for playgrounds," says Becker parent and PTA officer Tómas Morales. "We fought for it and we won that for all the schools."

Morales became a PTA member and Alliance organizer to show his own children he believed in education. When Becker began to offer English as a Second Language classes for adults as a way to involve more parents and community members in the school, Morales signed up. Through the school, Morales also joined a GED class and earned high school graduation equivalency in March. "I never went to school in Mexico, and I wanted to show my children that education is very important," Morales says. "I have proved it to them."


Is It Only Elementary?

Successes like those at Zavala and Becker are the kind of rags-to-riches stories every organization likes to tell. But the trouble didn't end for Zavala students and parents when the school climbed off the low-performing list. After fifth grade, most Zavala students were bused across town to affluent Murchison Middle School in Northwest Austin. When they left Zavala, most students were scoring in the top third of the TAAS. Yet by the seventh grade, many were back in the bottom tiers, and therefore out of the running for Austin's competitive magnet school program.
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione (Photo By John Anderson)

It's a problem that faces all East Austin parents. However well the elementary schools begin to work, problems seem to harden in place as children move up the feeder system. While three of the five elementary schools (including Zavala) that feed Martin Middle School are "recognized" schools, Martin is rated only "acceptable." In fact, no East Austin middle schools rate as recognized, and one is low-performing. Johnston High School, where Zavala students are tracked, presents a grim future for students and parents. Perennially on the low-performing list, Johnston also has one of the district's highest rates of teacher and administrator turnover.

There is one much-debated loophole by which parents can steer their children away from Johnston. After sixth grade -- via an option called "diversity choice" (also known as "open enrollment") -- the district allows parents to transfer students to schools outside their normal attendance area. For Eastside parents, it is a difficult decision: in exchange for sending their children out of the community, there is the chance of better education at a wealthier and better-performing West Austin school. For West Austin schools, higher enrollments spell more teachers and a bigger slice of district resources -- so in recent years, these schools have recruited heavily from the other side of the highway.

However, transfer students who don't perform well academically or prove to be behavioral problems are sent back to their home districts, parents say -- while the extra teachers and resources remain at the West Austin campuses. The result is smaller student-to-teacher ratios in West Austin, and bulging class sizes -- with a disproportionate number of low-performing and disruptive students -- on the Eastside. In response, the Alliance school organizers propose a homegrown solution: improve the feeder system all the way up the chain to Johnston, and keep high-achieving students in schools within their neighborhoods. The first step, organizers say, is to patch East Austin's fragmented feeder system.

Only some of the East Austin elementary schools have sixth grade, and the district has often changed its mind about where to send students who leave their elementary schools after fifth grade. "I felt like maybe somebody was throwing dice, and saying, 'Now we're going to send the Montopolis children over here," said one mother whose nine children went to four different middle schools. "My kids were bused all over."

At the same school board meeting where the board rejected the KIPP and Edison proposals, it agreed to create a sixth grade at Martin Junior High (leaving Kealing as the district's only junior high). Three of Martin's feeder elementaries -- Sanchez, Ortega, and Brooke -- will drop sixth grade, and students at these schools will attend sixth grade at Martin. It is the hope of teachers, administrators, and parents who presented the proposal that Martin will provide an alternative to shipping sixth graders out of the Eastside. Earlier this year, Martin asked for and received permission from the board to implement the Middle Years program of the International Baccalaureate Organization. Organizers hope the internationally recognized math and language curriculum will prepare students who attend Johnston for the Advanced Placement courses that are becoming increasingly crucial to college admissions. Teachers and administrators at Martin have worked with Alliance school organizers and will vote within the next year or so on whether to become an Alliance school.

Moving sixth grade to Martin and putting the Middle Years Program in place took organization and communication up and down the feeder system of a kind that teachers say rarely takes place. "We talked about where the students are, how Johnston can be prepared to support the students coming from Martin," says Robert Zieger, a teacher and Alliance school leader at Johnston. "We had conversations so that I know, when those students are in my classes, what I should be able to expect from them."

Forgione was impressed. "This is the future of this district," he told the school board and assembled parents.


The Limits of Alliance

By the numbers, the performance of Alliance schools has been solid, not stunning. By their own report, TAAS pass rates at Alliance schools improved at double the rate of all other state schools (4.6% compared to 2.5% gains) between 1999 and 2000. But so far, after 10 years of organizing, only four of the 10 Alliance elementary schools are "recognized," with the rest ranked "acceptable." None are "exemplary" -- a rare rating in the district, handed out year after year to only a few West Austin elementary schools. The acceptable rankings at Alliance schools are consistent, however. Alliance schools do not bounce on and off the low-performing list, as do many schools in the district. With the other burdens East Austin schools bear, it's hard to tell if the Alliance school rankings represent a limitation of the Alliance school system, of the district's chronic inability to sufficiently support East Austin schools -- or of social and economic factors beyond the control of individual schools or even school districts.

And this limited progress that comes with working within the district simply doesn't satisfy the more militant voices of the Eastside Social Action Coalition. ESAC head Rev. Sterling Lands dismisses the alliance schools as "still failing minority students," and he foresees no future cooperation between ESAC and Austin Interfaith. And the ESAC's threat to leave the district stands.

But in an aside in the District Advisory Committee's report that recommended Edison's rejection, the DAC urged the school board to "search out and empower community-based organizations that have ... already demonstrated some success. Recognize the power of organizations such as the Alliance schools and assure their intimate involvement in these school improvement initiatives."

Early one Friday morning in the parents' room at Zavala, principal Rosa Peña discusses the pros and cons of moving Zavala's sixth grade to Martin Junior High with a standing-room-only crowd of parents. Next year, the parents, teachers, and administrators will vote on whether to keep sixth grade at Zavala. "This is going to be our decision," Peña says. "But if we don't make it ourselves, then somebody else is going to make it for us."

In English and Spanish, parents express the desire for their children to stay in community and do well. But the move worries them, too. Are their fifth-graders, their babies, ready to leave elementary school? And don't they have sex-ed classes in middle school? Are they ready for that?

Peña reassures the parents. There's plenty of time in the next year to talk about it, to iron out the difficulties and make the best choice. The decision is still theirs. "This is just the beginning of the conversation," Peña says.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

AISD, Austin Independent School District, Alliance schools, Austin Interfaith, Industrial Areas Foundation, Texas Education Agency, Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, TAAS, Eastside Social Action Coalition, Edison, Inc., Knowledge is Power Program, KIPP, Sterling La

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