AISD Casts a Wider Blueprint

The Austin ISD announced its expansion of the Blueprint Initiative to LBJ and Reagan high schools

The next battle in the Austin ISD's accountability wars was announced last week, as the district's Blueprint Initiative was expanded to include two Eastside high schools: Reagan and LBJ. Two middle schools, Dobie and Pearce, already part of the 2-year-old program (along with four elementary schools) will be shifted to this secondary school group. The four schools will be administratively reorganized and supervised by Marcus Nelson, hired for the task from Pflugerville ISD's John B. Connally High School, where he has been a principal since 2001. "I'm very excited about the opportunity to join the Austin team," Nelson told an audience of administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community members gathered at the Delco Activity Center near LBJ for a welcoming reception March 30. Although he has already been meeting with AISD personnel, Nelson formally joins the district June 1, at the end of the current academic term.

The new "master principal" has his work cut out for him – he's charged with raising the achievement levels at two of the most difficult of the district's dozen high schools, as well as assuming responsibility for the ongoing effort in two similar middle schools. And the prevailing definition of "achievement" in the current lingo of school accountability – under the rubric of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind – boils down to "test scores." The two high schools have scored, on average, among the lowest in the district on the TAAS tests (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills), and administrative expectations are not high for this year's upcoming scores on the TAKS test (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) that has replaced the TAAS. In recent years, only a little more than half of the students at LBJ and Reagan (excluding LBJ's magnet students) have typically passed the TAAS, and the newer tests that the students have been taking this year were designed to be more difficult. "I wanted to get a new team on the ground before this year's scores come out," Superintendent Pat Forgione told the Chronicle. "I want to make it clear that the district is committed to the highest expectations for all our students."

The current administrators at the two high schools have been asked to step down, although they can reapply should they wish to join the group Nelson will assemble to run the two schools. (The middle school administrators, chosen in 2002 at the initiation of the Blueprint program, will stay on.) All of the new hires are expected to be in place by the time Nelson begins his own appointment in June, and he said he will be doing an "instructional audit" of the academic program before he installs a revised curriculum aimed at raising student achievement.

"The structure has to be in place in which kids clearly understand the expectations – and then there has to be mass enforcement of those expectations," Nelson said. "We need to get kids moving through a process, so that they can get an intensity going about their education." He will also have to respond to concerns expressed by some teachers that the Blueprint program's devotion to "accountability" puts an overemphasis on rote education and "teaching to the test."

Nelson points to his educational success at every level, adding, "I feel like I'm at home" on the city's Eastside. Nelson attended public schools in San Antonio, got his B.S. at Abilene Christian University and his doctorate in educational administration at Texas A&M. "I'm no fool," he told the audience at Delco. "I've heard the rumor mill about whether I'm the right person for this job. I just want everybody here to know, every place I've ever been, I sell out." Nelson's specific wry reference was to his avocation as a singer and motivational speaker, but later he added that teachers would learn that while he is a "hands-on, out-and-about" administrator, he is not "tyrannical" in his approach. "I'm all about building partnerships," he said.

Nelson will be stepping into what could be a politically charged atmosphere – not only from the pressure to produce higher test scores, but from conflicting interests in the school community. At LBJ, for example, there has been intermittent tension over the presence of the magnet Liberal Arts and Science Academy, filled largely with white students from outside the neighborhood, amidst the general neighborhood population. Some of that history was reflected in questions from the audience, and the school's PTSA President Ava Falk countered that the school continues to work hard to build unity between the programs. Nelson insisted he sees no need for conflict among the various student populations, from "at-risk students to the best and the brightest." "Our kids deserve great schools where all their needs are met," Nelson said, adding later, "I want to maximize all the students' success and to have no objective for anything divisive."

Claudia Tousek has served as the master principal for the six initial Blueprint schools, and said she welcomes the partnership with Nelson. "The Blueprint appears to be going very well thus far," she said, "but we've got to continue to find ways to end chronic underperformance" at these schools. Tousek says, "The principal is number one" in improving student performance, followed by experienced teachers. Both she and Nelson speak of the Blueprint process as "data-driven." "We have to continue to make ongoing assessments," Tousek says, "and that includes both teacher accountability and student achievement."

Speaking of the current school administrators, Forgione said, "This isn't about people failing – they have been making progress, it's just not yet enough." He said the school board and his administration are committed to "closing the gap" between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and that the Blueprint program is only one of "several more equity steps" that AISD will implement. "We're determined to close that gap," he concluded, "and we're putting the attention first on those schools where the need is greatest."

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public schools, Austin ISD, Secondary School Blueprint Initiative, Marcus Nelson, Pat Forgione, Reagan High School, LBJ High School, Ava Falk, Claudia Tousek

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