No Bilingual Blueprint?

Forgione's new blueprint attracts critics who worry it will mean the end of the dual language program.

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione speaks to parents at Harris Elementary on Monday night.
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione speaks to parents at Harris Elementary on Monday night. (Photo By John Anderson)

On Monday night, Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione met with parents at Harris Elementary School, and later at Pearce Middle School, to raise support for his "Blueprint" plan, which aims to improve academic achievement at six Eastside schools deemed low-performing or borderline low-performing by the Texas Education Agency. At Harris, his opening remarks were conciliatory, and he generously applied phrases such as "working together" and "putting the children first" to his presentation. But as audience members rose one by one to protest Blueprint's top-down implementation, which would jeopardize Harris' separate, voluntary dual language program (in which students learn both English and Spanish), Forgione's face betrayed more and more irritation.

"I am sorry you feel left out of the process," he told one parent. "But I can't negotiate on the details of the plan, and then expect to be accountable for it -- that's not fair. Remember, I didn't pick Harris out of the air." An hour or so later, a smiling and relaxed Forgione closed an uneventful public meeting at Pearce, which is also adopting Blueprint. "Thanks for showing faith in the program," he said to the welcoming audience.

Educating children is hardly a one-size-fits-all process, but Forgione seems confident that Blueprint, which aims to synchronize staff and curriculum at all six campuses, will provide a model for other struggling AISD schools. Along with Harris and Pearce, the plan will be adopted at Sims, Blackshear, and Oak Springs elementaries, and at Dobie Middle School. Blueprint calls for installing new principals at five of the schools, instituting a new curriculum, and providing additional support, funds and expectations for teachers, the administration, and parents. The district has also promised to only hire teachers with at least two years of experience for Blueprint schools. As "master principal," current Hart Elementary Principal Claudia Toesak will oversee the plan.

The Blueprint curriculum will be delivered via a literacy program called Open Court, which emphasizes phonics and a schedule over teacher experimentation. Although Open Court will release its first Spanish version next year, critics contend that it is not ideal for Spanish-speaking children. "They may learn to pronounce the words," says Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Deputy Director Olga Cuéllar, "but they won't understand them. It is not a balanced program like what they have in place right now at Harris."

Almost all parents and teachers who turned up at Harris Monday night agreed that change is necessary, but some worry that Blueprint is incompatible with the dual language program. "Something needs to be done," says Rosa Maria Gonzalez, who has been a dual language teacher at Harris for 21 years. "In fact, something should have been done years ago, when the scores first started to decline. But it is a big mistake to sacrifice the dual language program after only four years. It should be given a chance."

Gonzalez and other dual language teachers have threatened to leave Harris if their program is abandoned. They say this year's TAAS scores, which will be released in May, will show that the dual language program is helping develop literacy. Progress has been slow, they say, because the program, now in its fourth year, took a full three years to implement, and severe overcrowding at Harris allowed some students to fall through the cracks. (The new Pickle Elementary has since absorbed excess students).

Although Forgione didn't say AISD would entirely discard the program, he refused to make it a priority. "We can't leave the program in place as it is," Forgione told one angry parent Monday night. "We need native-language and English-language literacy first, and then we can look at how to implement the dual language program."

While several parents agreed, most advocated the dual language program. "So many kids end up hateful by the time they get to high school," said Marisela Morin, a parent who lives outside the Harris district. "But this program is like an antidote for that. I get up early every morning so that I can bring my child across town for this program. If it goes, then my kid goes as well."

Louis Malfaro, co-president of Education Austin (which represents district teachers), thinks that Open Court is effective, but says it's crucial that Forgione try to bridge the gap between Blueprint and the dual language teachers. "I understand that he needs consistency across all the schools in the Blueprint program," he said. "At the same time, he needs to let the teachers at Harris know that he will work with them. There are some master teachers in the dual language program, and it would be a huge, huge blow to the school if they leave."

At other schools, the Blueprint plan has been welcomed with open arms. Sims Elementary Principal Texanna Grady volunteered her school for the program, and says she's looking forward to the structure and support it will provide. But others feel that the Blueprint plan doesn't go far enough. "So we have finally admitted there is a problem. Amen," said Eastside Social Action Coalition President Rev. Sterling Lands II, who has been pressuring AISD to act for years. "But why only focus on six schools, when there are children of color suffering in mediocre schools across the Eastside? This is a political solution, not an honest effort to raise standards across the board."

Forgione will have another chance to sell his Blueprint plan today, Thursday, May 2, at 6pm at Blackshear Elementary; and at 7:30pm at Oak Springs Elementary.

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