Forgione Says Follow the Blueprint

Forgione takes his Blueprint on the road, but is everyone buying?

AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione debates his Blueprint plan with Blackshear Elementary sixth-grader Matthew Montalvo.
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione debates his Blueprint plan with Blackshear Elementary sixth-grader Matthew Montalvo. (Photo By Michael May)

Last week, AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione visited the six Eastside schools that will adopt his Blueprint plan this fall -- including the five schools where the plan is being imposed from above. On Thursday night at Blackshear Elementary, Forgione stressed cooperation and teamwork, but made it clear that his agenda was not negotiable. "It's just like a football team," he explained. "If you want to play ball, you have to follow the rules."

Unveiled April 22, Blueprint will affect Sims, Harris, Blackshear, and Oak Springs elementary schools, and Dobie and Pearce middle schools, all of which have been designated as "low performing" or "borderline low performing" by the Texas Education Agency. The plan will provide experienced teachers, new principals (except at Sims), and an improved curriculum. Forgione says the plan's most important aspect is its emphasis on teamwork among teachers and principals at the Blueprint schools, who will train together, implement the same curriculum at the same time, and be required to sign compacts agreeing to the plan's core principles and strategies.

Staff at Sims seem eager to join the Blueprint team. "I'm ready to work with anyone," said Principal Texanna Grady. "I think it will be great for the whole staff to train together, and learn the same strategies. It's been a real struggle to implement comprehensive changes here." However, Sims is the only school that voluntarily adopted Blueprint; Forgione chose the others because they were among the lowest performing in the district on the TAAS test.

At Blackshear on Thursday night, parents and teachers seem especially concerned by Forgione's football rhetoric, because they've heard it all before. In 2000, after years of poor TAAS scores, Forgione imposed a major overhaul of the campus, installed principal Armando Cisneros, invested $1 million in the school ($300,000 donated by philanthropist and recent AISD Board of Trustees candidate Manuel Zuniga), and instituted a variety of changes in the classroom. How effective those changes were remains unclear: The 2000 TAAS scores revealed that the ousted administration had raised scores to the "acceptable" level, but a year later -- after the overhaul -- the 2001 scores were back into the "low performing" category.

Some worry that the Blueprint plan is following a similar course. Next year, current Joslin Elementary Principal Sylvia Pirtle will replace Cisneros. Once again, changes will be implemented without the input of teachers and staff. And, once again, it is unclear what this year's TAAS scores will reveal about staff performance.

Despite these similarities, Forgione took great pains at Thursday's meeting to distinguish the Blueprint plan from his previous failure at Blackshear. "Last time we put in an inexperienced principal, and told him to fix these problems on his own," Forgione said. "This time we are hiring six experienced principals at six Blueprint schools, under the guidance of a master principal, Claudia Toesak. Teamwork will make all the difference."

Forgione added that poor test scores and staff divisiveness left him no choice but to try again, and pointed out that 15 of Blackshear's 30 or so teachers had applied for transfers before the Blueprint plan was announced. Blackshear sixth-grader Matthew Montalvo challenged Forgione, saying the superintendent should do more to halt the exodus. "When all of our teachers were forced out two years ago, it was like losing family members," he said. "Unless you try and stop it this time, we are going to suffer all over again."

But Forgione maintains that teacher retention was not his responsibility. "I can't force teachers to stay," he told Montalvo. "If they want to be part of the Blueprint plan, they are welcome here."

After the meeting, one Blackshear teacher who wished to remain anonymous said she had requested a transfer because of difficulties with the current administration. While she didn't rule out the possibility that Blueprint could resolve the problems, other teachers speculated that the changes are premature.

Irma Rivera Dreier, a first-grade bilingual teacher who was hired during the last overhaul, contends that academic performance has been improving at Blackshear. The TAAS data is unreliable, she said, because it only considers results from students in third grade and above. "You have to give us time. Last year, none of the kids entering my class could read," she said. "This year, they all can. And next year, when my kids take the TAAS for the first time, you will see the scores go up, and the Blueprint plan will take credit for it." Dreier says 79% of kids kindergarten through second grade at Blackshear who take alternative achievement tests are reading at or above grade level.

Dreier doesn't simply worry about not getting credit for her good work. She's also concerned that the bilingual program will be undermined when Forgione imposes Open Court, a curriculum that Blueprint schools eventually will use for English and Spanish. The curriculum's Spanish version hasn't been released, and Dreier is concerned that its phonics-based instruction is not appropriate for Spanish-speaking students. Harris Elementary has the district's only dual language program (where native speakers of Spanish and English learn both languages together).

On Monday, Forgione announced that the Spanish version of Open Court will not be used until fall of 2003, since the publisher cannot guarantee it will be ready in time for teacher training this summer. But he said, this would not affect his decision to reevaluate the dual language program.

Forgione says he sympathizes with teachers who wish they had been consulted on the Blueprint plan, but asserts there simply wasn't time. When the AISD board rejected a plan Feb. 25 to have for-profit company Edison manage troubled schools, he was told to have an alternative strategy in place by April 22. That is less than two months to draft a plan, choose which schools to target, decide on a new curriculum, and hire new principals. "I would have loved to consult with teachers, but that would have meant waiting another year to take action," he said. "Austin couldn't wait another year. The rush may cause some problems, but I had no choice."

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