Loving and Fighting
After a century of struggle, will Blackshear Elementary ever beat the odds?
We love our Blackshear, we love our Blackshear
The one and only dear,
We'll fight for Blackshear, we'll fight for Blackshear
For we have known no fear ...
Blackshear Elementary had already bred generations of East Austin youth when the school song was composed, during the Depression, and the decades since have seen healthy measures of both loving and fighting for Austin's historic African-American grammar school. But not equal measures, unfortunately. In recent decades, Blackshear has shown the effects of too much fighting and not enough love. Or maybe it's the other way around.
Next fall, Blackshear will have a new principal, new teachers, and a new vision for success as part of Austin ISD Superintendent Pat Forgione's "Blueprint" initiative. Sound familiar? Two years ago, Austin's then-new school chief Forgione administered a similar round of shock treatment -- "reconstitution," with a new principal and new teachers -- to a school that had already seen massive waves of staff turnover. The Blueprint now covers six campuses, but at that time, Blackshear was the only school (and the first in Central Texas) to get this kind of tough love -- though sweetened with a generous dollop of extra funds, both public and private.
The results seemed mixed at best, and for many Blackshear teachers, locked in combat with principal Armando Cisneros, the last two years have been most unhappy. More than half the faculty sought transfers to other campuses, and many sighed with relief when Forgione's Blueprint plan smoothed the way out. Then, Blackshear's all-important TAAS scores came in, and the perennially underachieving campus had in one year gone from "low-performing" to "recognized" -- i.e., from an F to a B. And it was an embarrassed Forgione and the AISD brass' turn to be unhappy.
But Cisneros is now gone, Blackshear remains a Blueprint school, and the district wants to move on. The school's progress next year will be duly anatomized by the district, community observers, and the media. After decades of being left to flounder, is Blackshear getting more attention -- more loving and fighting -- than one little campus, serving less than 400 of AISD's 78,000 students, can bear? Is it more significant than other Eastside campuses, all struggling with too many kids and too many needs and not enough skills and resources and support from the district?
Well, yes. No school in Austin has a history like Blackshear, which embodies all too clearly and powerfully the fluctuating fortunes of Central East Austin -- once black, now Latino, never wealthy, but once vital, then blighted, and now something else again. As Blackshear goes, so goes the neighborhood, and so goes AISD's relationship with communities of color for whom Blackshear is a symbol. As the district wraps its loving arms around Blackshear one more time, it holds not just 400 little kids, but more than 100 years of legacy and sensitivity and pride and grievance, in its hands.
Blackshear Elementary traces its roots back to at least 1894, when a grammar school for "colored" youth in Austin was established on Olive Street and named after one of the neighbors, Mr. Bishop Gregory. (Some district records show an active school in 1892.) The "Gregory School" or "Gregorytown School" -- or, more typically in the press of the time, "the negro school" -- moved to its current location on 11th Street in 1936.
In that same year, it was renamed for Edward Lavernia Blackshear, who when Gregory School was founded had been the administrator supervising Austin's black schools. (He was then appointed by Gov. Jim Hogg to run the black college in Prairie View, which he did for 20 years.) The Blackshear school song was apparently written for the occasion by one Juanita VanDyke Wilson.
As with many Eastside stories, the Blackshear saga features cycles of neglect interrupted by great flurries of improvement. Before it was relocated and renamed, conditions at the "negro school" were "deplorable," reported the old Austin American in 1933. "For that 450-pupil school," the writer reported, "there are only 11 teachers and a principal. [They] seem capable and willing, but cannot accomplish their best with the equipment they have at their disposal." The "ramshackle" campus had no lights or heat, and "is obviously a firetrap, and nothing has been done about it." The school's playground was the street.
At the time, Austin school superintendent A.N. McCallum announced the district's grand plans to build a new campus on East 11th, but not to abandon the Olive Street school, which he pronounced "in good shape." The neighbors disagreed, wanting the "obviously worthless" campus torn down and a modern school built to replace it. McCallum dismissed this idea, but that is eventually what happened -- though it took until 1950 for the whole of today's Blackshear campus to be completed.
That was about midway through the tenure of Blackshear principal Friendly R. Rice, who had started as assistant principal in 1931 and would lead the school until 1972. The Ivy League-educated Rice, widely viewed as a leading "progressive" educator, had free rein (and ample time) to implement his innovative ideas -- collaborating with social service agencies to serve what we'd today call "at-risk" kids, building a library (the first at a black school in the Southwest), and providing hot lunches for kids, a novelty eventually adopted throughout the district.
This was when East Austin was the home of a stable, not entirely working-class black community whose sons and daughters worked their way through Blackshear, then Kealing Jr. High, then L.C. Anderson High School, and often then went to Samuel Huston and Tillotson Colleges (later to merge). When people like U.S. Senate hopeful Ron Kirk (recently given a "distinguished alumnus" award at Blackshear) went through the school, it was a focus of justifiable community pride, staffed with educators who were pillars of the community and who themselves had often gone to school under Rice's watchful eye, turning out kids who were not expected to fail simply because they were children of color who lived in the ghetto.
Of course, things changed. By the time Rice finally retired, East Austin had already started to fall apart, and urban renewal had already gutted much of the neighborhood around Blackshear (though the nearby Rosewood housing projects, from which many Blackshear students hailed then and still do now, had been there for generations). Succeeding principals did not live up to Rice's example either in commitment, influence within the district, or longevity, generally lasting a couple of years before bailing out.
"The better principals were benign, and the worse ones were malignant, and the district consistently looked the other way," says Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin, AISD's leading teachers union. Malfaro taught at Blackshear for five years in the 1970s and 1980s. "A lot of good teachers went through Blackshear trying to make a difference for these kids who had such a multitude of needs. And those needs haven't gone away."
But again, years of neglect were studded with spasms of effort to fix the ever more glaringly substandard Blackshear, recognized as a school in crisis and a test case for AISD. The school was renovated and reorganized, new techniques were introduced and then dropped in favor of newer ones, and Blackshear was adopted by and partnered with most everyone in sight, often with heroic measures not attempted at any other school. And still -- the results got worse.
During AISD's 1980s foray into busing for racial balance, while other Eastside campuses sent kids to Central Austin schools, Blackshear was partnered with suburban Sunset Valley, 45 minutes away even then. (In the exchange, younger grades went south, older kids went east.) While this was clearly disruptive, it also infused Blackshear with a great many middle-class white kids -- which, you may remember, was supposed to improve poor minority schools and was the point of desegregation. Whatever busing might have been worth, it ended for elementary schools in 1983, and by the mid-Eighties, Blackshear's test scores were the lowest in the district.
Various community efforts -- by Huston-Tillotson, by Austin Interfaith, by local churches, by concerned parents, by Austin business leaders -- all tried to make a difference at Blackshear, and in some cases did help a bit. But the ground itself was shifting under the community's feet. Even in 1990, the student body was 70% African-American. Today it is 70% Latino. "People still think of Blackshear's heritage as a black school, and it's not that any more," says Malfaro. "It's still housing project children, but they're predominantly Hispanic and a lot of them are immigrants."
Efforts to grapple with these new realities and needs were hampered by what Malfaro calls "administrative neglect for most of the 1990s." The whole district was beset by a leadership crisis under now-disgraced Superintendent Jim Fox, whose policy of rotating principals every two years did not help bring stability to Blackshear. The nadir came in 1997, when school and district staff tried to alter Blackshear's TAAS scores to produce an "acceptable" rating under the state's accountability system. After yet more heads rolled and the district pled no contest to felony charges -- the first such conviction in Texas history -- Blackshear's corrected scores sent the campus back to the basement of student achievement.
Enter Forgione, a professional number-cruncher from the U.S. Dept. of Education and not the school board's first choice, who soon after arriving in 1999 availed himself of the power to "reconstitute" Blackshear -- in effect, starting over with a whole new staff. Yet Forgione had little choice. It was either that, or watch the school be taken over by the state.
Considering that Blackshear had already seen massive turnover, with three principals in four years and waves of often-inexperienced teachers sent in, chewed up, and spit out, this was not an entirely popular decision. Forgione then puzzled Blackshear parents and supporters by giving the principal's job to Armando Cisneros -- assistant principal at Mendez Middle School, a man who'd come into education after a career in the military, with no master's degree and no experience running a campus.
But "Mr. C" had a mandate to innovate, take risks, and move mountains enjoyed by no Blackshear principal since Friendly Rice, and his commitment and charisma seemed enough to give Blackshear a new lease on life. He also had resources at his disposal -- both increased funding from the district, which allowed Blackshear to reduce class sizes down to as few as eight students per room, and a three-year gift of $100,000 per year from businessman and political aspirant Mañuel Zuniga and his wife Jane, both former teachers. (The Zunigas also raised $11,000 from other donors.)
Among those recruited to the reborn Blackshear was Charles Anderson, also ex-military and ready to move on from Harris Elementary, which had its own set of problems. (Harris is another Blueprint school.) "He begged me to come, and I was really flattered," Anderson says. "And he and I really hit it off. I thought this guy must be Superman if Forgione asked him to take Blackshear on.
"But right from the first week, things started going wrong," continues Anderson, who also served as Blackshear's campus rep for Education Austin. "We had problems at Harris, but I've never seen anything like the favoritism and disinformation under (Cisneros). We were told that teachers would be the decision-makers, then he started making all the decisions. If you weren't one of his favorites, you couldn't even get supplies. ... It was making people sick; they couldn't take the stress. Two years of lying, manipulation, coercion, favoritism, [and] everyone [at AISD] knew the truth of what was happening at Blackshear, and nobody came to do anything. It's been a nightmare."
Cisneros (who could not be reached for this story) and Anderson have obviously had a rocky relationship. Anderson's grievances, including a formal complaint of racial harassment as yet unresolved, are quite detailed, and he's shared them freely with local media. "I'm not one of those guys who goes looking for trouble," he says. "But when you see dirt that hurts kids, you speak out. I don't want my job to be 'whistleblower,' but I want to be a better teacher and I always fight for kids." In a February letter to Forgione, Anderson alleged 16 separate incidents over the preceding 18 months in which Cisneros "harassed" him both because of his race and his activity on behalf of the teacher's union. He had earlier filed a formal grievance after being reprimanded for not having turned his report cards in on time, a charge he disputes.
It's tempting to take Anderson's perspective with a grain of salt, but it was shared by enough Blackshear teachers to be given credence by the Texas Education Agency. In its site report earlier this year (standard practice for low-performing schools), the TEA accreditation team noted that staff "were experiencing increased levels of frustration associated with late notification, sudden changes, and spur-of-the-moment decisions" and that "many ... believe there is a divisiveness among the faculty due to a perception of favoritism. Several experienced educators indicated they would not return as a result."
The TEA team recommended management training for Cisneros and conflict resolution programs for the faculty, but Forgione decided instead to send Cisneros packing and make the school -- whose TAAS scores in Cisneros' first year had actually gone down -- a Blueprint campus. The fact that more than half the faculty had already requested transfers made the decision easier. "If Mr. C was so good," says Anderson, "then why was his handpicked staff all stampeding to the door? We had smaller classes and were getting paid more [with the Zuniga money] than other teachers in the district. It's easier to leave than to complain."
Forgione announced his Blueprint plans in April. A month later, Cisneros' fortunes suddenly changed, when the school's TAAS scores came back showing jaw-dropping improvement in the school's pass rate, vaulting it from "low-performing" to "recognized." As Cisneros threw a big party for the kids, attended by the Zunigas and State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Forgione was forced to ask Cisneros to stay on. Cisneros declined.
Erasing the Past?
Such dramatic gains, while not unprecedented, are certainly rare, and it may be inevitable to question whether they are legitimate, considering that Blackshear already got caught with its hands in the TAAS cookie jar once. Of course, nobody really wants this to be true -- even Anderson, who first raised the question publicly in the Austin American-Statesman and earned a public scolding in its pages (from letter writers and, obliquely, from editorial page editor Arnold Garcia) for days afterward. "I believe that no child cheated on the tests," he noted in a statement filed with TEA after the results were made public, but that alleged "irregularities ... could easily have been prevented and given our kids a chance to prove themselves."
Staff at TEA are considering an "erasure analysis" of the third-grade results, after Cisneros and staff members gathered over two days to erase "stray marks" from test booklets. (Statements filed with both AISD and TEA by Anderson and other staffers allege that Cisneros wouldn't let unwilling teachers leave the "erasure event.") Reportedly, the district gave its OK to this endeavor while it was going on, and has defended it publicly afterwards. But TEA guidelines say teachers are supposed to ask students to erase stray marks.
There's also a question as to how many Blackshear students actually took the TAAS. When the Chronicle contacted national education experts to see how unusual Blackshear's results were, Ed Haertel of Stanford University said, "It's a good idea to check that the percent of students absent or excused from testing has not changed dramatically over the same time period as test scores have changed, and that the school's demographics have remained stable." As it turns out, in addition to various waivers (for new students, for kids with limited English proficiency, etc.) that are common to all campuses, Blackshear's enrollment dropped by nearly 50 students between the start of the year and testing time. Some of those kids left involuntarily, because they were deemed to actually live in other schools' attendance zones.
All that aside, it's likely that there has been some real, perhaps even dramatic, improvement in Blackshear student performance. (Even Anderson feels that the fifth- and sixth-grade results, which were likewise greatly improved, "are totally legit.") "A gain of this size is not a fluke. Something positive has happened for the students' learning," says Joy McClarty, AISD's deputy superintendent for accountability and overseer of TAAS testing. "If the school maintains its focus on student learning and works with the students as well as they did this year, they are certainly capable" of seeing the same results in the future.
It will be a different Blackshear, though, trying to maintain that focus. "The achievement went up, but it's going to be almost an entirely new school, since the majority of teachers did request a transfer out -- and that's why Dr. Forgione chose to keep them in the Blueprint," says Claudia Toesak, the former principal at both Highland Park and Hart elementaries who is now Forgione's assistant superintendent over Blueprint.
Wagging the Dog
"We of course want the achievement to continue and increase, and after the second or third year we may look at a different level of intervention, but right now they're set to [follow] the same pattern as the other [Blueprint] schools. Had the teachers stayed, we may have looked at a different model." While the Blueprint requires experienced teachers, provides more training, and calls for various "non-negotiable" commitments to student success, it's not clear that some of the obvious advantages Cisneros enjoyed at Blackshear -- smaller classes, the Zuniga money -- will continue.
Another question is whether Blackshear can do more than it has to really grapple with the changing nature of its student body. The TEA report was less than enthusiastic about the state of Blackshear's bilingual/limited-English-proficiency program, and Blueprint does not specifically address this fairly obvious influence on Eastside school performance, although it is a consideration in restaffing the campus.
"As student populations and demographics change at the historically African-American schools in Austin ISD, faculty changes ought to be made to reflect the changing needs of students," says Tony Diaz of the League of United Latin American Citizens. He adds that this "must be carried out by using a sensitive and delicate process, to avoid displacement of African-American teachers from AISD. ... We must also ensure that bilingual programs are understood and remove the perception that [they] 'take away' from present programs."
New principal Sylvia Segura Pirtle, who was assistant principal at Blackshear years ago and came back after leading Joslin Elementary, says she'll tackle "some of the things that need to be changed from the TEA report -- making sure everyone is working collaboratively and that there's communication, and remembering that we're here for kids. Some of the negativity is from adult situations that are happening, and it takes the focus away from kids. ... When I left [Blackshear the first time], some of the difficulties we were experiencing, again, were adult situations that had nothing to do with kids. We had very capable kids then, and we do now."
Mary Amaya, the former president of the Blackshear PTA, agrees: "The constant change ... always made me feel like the kids were the reason people weren't staying around, that they were unteachable, and that's so untrue." But she's pulled her two kids out of Blackshear. "I think a lot of people have gotten really disenchanted with the whole thing," she says. "We had just gotten started, and things were going right under Mr. Cisneros, and now we're starting all over, and that's the problem -- we're starting all over, all the time. If they had just left things alone and been able to implement other programs, build on what they started, we would be fine. But now we have to wait another two years. And my kids don't have time to wait."
Should Blackshear have simply been left alone? As Toesak suggests, the district didn't really have that choice. But even if TAAS scores are all that matters, it's worth wondering why Blackshear needs a whole new initiative, instead of continuing on the same path (with the same resources) Cisneros had started, albeit with new staff. "The testing tail is wagging the dog, and Blackshear is the greatest example," says Louis Malfaro. "We know what works -- stability, certified teachers, good campus leadership, curriculum aligned with what you want students to know. But at Blackshear it's been triage all the time, leaning over the teachers' shoulders trying to get that short-term gain in TAAS scores. The only thing consistent at Blackshear has been the inconsistency."
Well, that, and the legacy -- the loving and the fighting -- are bound to go on.
Hail blue and gold -- The Blackshear colors wave
for our alma mater dear
They stand for victory, without the least bit fear
We must stay up -- upon the tip-top
And lead until the end
Now let's cheer -- Blackshear dear -- Blackshear ever more.