AISD Goes Global

Johnston High School welcomes immigrant students and makes waves in the neighborhood

International High School principal Anabel Garza
International High School principal Anabel Garza (Photo By John Anderson)

Michael Martinez walked to the United States from his native Mexico, enduring the cold nights and coyote howls of the desert. He lives in a small Austin apartment with his mother and works about 35 hours a week at McDonalds. He sends every cent he can to his sisters and brother back in Mexico, along with gifts of music and hip, new clothes – "all the things I wished I had when I was younger," he says with a proud smile.

Martinez is 16 years old and a student at the Austin ISD's International High School. The school, housed at Johnston High off Bolm Road in East Austin, is the district's answer to the challenges posed by students like Martinez: students who speak and read little English, but who still must earn enough high school credits to graduate, even as they come from backgrounds and deal with responsibilities often far different from those of their U.S.-born peers. In the past, many immigrant students responded to these pressures by just giving up: Last year, the dropout rate was about 50%. AISD administrators hope the international school-within-a-school can change that.

But no sooner had the International High School opened its doors – or rather, Johnston's doors – than the critics opened fire. They charged that the program is a slap in the face to Johnston's neighborhood students, who are among the most disadvantaged in the city and who themselves deserve intensive, innovative programs. Moreover, argued some observers, the international school isn't even the best thing for the immigrant students themselves. While the school appears to be settled in Johnston for good, the nature of the controversy surrounding it might be able to teach the district a few lessons about how it might build, rather than undermine, the community support its high schools so badly need.

Leis and Crazy Eights

Johnston High is a 1960s-era complex of wings, courtyards, and annexes just northeast of the Montopolis Bridge, in one of the central Austin neighborhoods losing family population. Overcrowding is not among its problems. While the school could house 1,800 students, it's home to just 900 (total enrollment, including the internationals, is 1,068). Nearly 70% of the regular students are economically disadvantaged, and nearly 20% are "limited-English proficient," or "LEP" in education lingo. The school's official dropout rate is about 15%, nearly twice the district average, but its four-year completion rate of 70% suggests that closer to one in four students will not graduate. Both state and federal ranking systems consider Johnston's test scores unacceptable.

The international students don't see the regular students much. Their buses roll in about 9:15am, after regular classes have begun at 9, and after what has been for many a long trip – taking one bus to their neighborhood schools and from there a second one for Johnston.

It's homecoming week. Hawaiian day, to be precise: As a chattering wave of students flows into the cafeteria, international school principal Anabel Garza hands out scrunchy plastic leis. The students eagerly throw them around their necks, then trot off to the kitchen for breakfast, which for most of them is free. "It's like a working breakfast," says Garza, a dark-haired, often-smiling woman who likes to use metaphors drawn from the world of business. "We're preparing them for the real world, where you work and eat breakfast at the same time."

"Work," in this case, means language-immersion exercises – or this morning, card games. Science teacher Denise Norris presides over a table of boys who slap down cards and cheer their way through a high-stakes game of Crazy Eights. All the players are originally from Latin America, mostly Mexico, except for one tall boy from Ethiopia. About 90% of the 170 students in the school are Spanish-speakers, but Norris, a strawberry blonde with the husky voice and easy authority of a well-liked coach, speaks English. Lots of it.

"OK, Jonas, it's your turn to deal. Here's the cards. Wow, you guys are some cut-throat card players," she says, keeping up a near-constant barrage of encouragement, directive, and teasing. The 20-year AISD veteran says the games do more than help with language and fill up time before the last buses arrive. "I get to know the kids better, and see them in a different light," she said. "It really helps with behavior management in the classroom."

Another thing that helps is that Norris is bilingual. Not all the teachers at the international school are – although all are trained in ESL techniques – in part so as not to put students from outside Latin America at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, there is only one non-Spanish speaker in Norris' ninth-grade science class, so she peppers her instruction – which today includes the mysteries of homecoming as well as the mysteries of the natural world – with Spanish to help the other 18 kids along.

International School student Michael Martinez
International School student Michael Martinez (Photo By John Anderson)

"So today, at lunchtime, all the international students are going to vote – van a votar – for the marquis and marquesa of the homecoming court," she said. "And then on Friday, they'll be crowned at the dance! Who's going to the dance? I'm going to the dance. Freddy, are you going to the dance?" The students giggle as she wiggles her hips to emphasize "dance."

The students assigned to the school are those whose English literacy is below a fourth-grade level. This is not to say the students are academically challenged – on the contrary. For example, Norris said it's frustrating how much better many of them are at math than the U.S.-born students she taught at Bowie High for the last nine years. (At Johnston, only a quarter of the regular students passed the 11th-grade TAKS in math in 2003.)

But languagewise, they are at the bottom of a large and fast-growing heap of AISD students classified as limited-English proficient – 17,000, including 4,000 high schoolers, out of a total population of 78,000. According to associate superintendent for high schools Rosalinda Hernandez, it was about 18 months ago that district officials began to realize these students needed more than the standard prescription of small-group ESL classes and "sheltered" bilingual instruction in core subjects. But with such students scattered in small pockets throughout AISD's 11 high schools, it would be very difficult to staff for their needs on their home campuses. Thus: the international school-within-a-school at Johnston. By bringing the students with the most need to one place, teachers can tailor regular classes – say, the standard physics/chemistry class all high schoolers must take – to different students' language levels. After about a year of intensive ESL, students are expected to return to their home campuses and regular instruction.

Of course, officials admit there are downsides to the model. For one thing, it means that students brand-new to the United States have to deal with two new schools in two years. But Della May Moore, AISD's director of bilingual education, says the benefits outweigh that disadvantage.

"These are valid concerns, but you have to look at what it brings to students to go to the international high school," she said. "We're giving these students intense English language acquisition, and the opportunity to be accelerated and individually reviewed. So I think at the end of a year, or year and a half, or six months – where would they have been at a regular high school, and where are they now? We know where our immigrant students have been in regular high schools."

Plus, administrators point out that small schools-within-schools are the wave of the educational future. Large high schools, it is argued, too often impede the development of positive relationships with adults, causing many students to fall through the cracks. Garza believes the international school gives its students a priceless opportunity to learn in a small, nurturing community. "Students learn best when they know and trust their teachers," she said.

It's clear that many in the district administration agree. "Smaller learning communities" will likely play a key role in a high school "redesign" the district is researching this year. It is possible that within a few years, all AISD students could be in a school-within-a-school that fits their interests (and, more controversially, abilities). In this way, the international school can be seen as a model for things to come. But given the negative reactions the school has generated among some community members, that might not be a good thing.

Space, Students, or Neighborhood

The beginning of the 2004 school year was not a peaceful one for Johnston. The AISD police log for the first month of school shows fights occurred several times a week until mid-September, and only slightly abated in the second half of the month. But in October, the log shows only three fights amidst the stolen cell phones, 911 hang-up calls, classroom disruptions, and bully complaints ("Student reported another student has been poking her on the buttocks with a ruler"). Johnston principal Tabita Gutierrez said by e-mail that Johnston has not seen an increase in violence over the last year; AISD police Chief Pat Fuller says the main increase he's seen is an increase in people asking about violence. Nevertheless, some neighborhood people say the school is going berserk and that they know why: the international school.

In late September, Olga Cuellar, education head for the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, appeared at an AISD board meeting to excoriate the district for its decision to place the international school in Johnston. Since then, she has held a series of meetings with administrators, trying to get them to do what she feels they should have done in the first place: move the international school into its own facility, or at least to a school that doesn't already have as many problems as Johnston. "They did a disservice to the international students and the Johnston students by placing the international school at Johnston," she said. "They didn't place the students first. What they placed first was space."

Cuellar says neighborhood kids feel angry and resentful that a bunch of non-neighborhood students get the nifty new program while they're left to languish, and that they're expressing these negative feelings through fights. She says it's a repeat of when Johnston housed a liberal arts magnet school, which was moved to LBJ three years ago – for example, just as magnet kids dominated the band, three-fourths of the band is now international students. Finally, Cuellar argues that the district should have done much more to involve the community in developing the school (although the implication is if they had done so, the school would have ended up somewhere else).

Science teacher Denise Norris
Science teacher Denise Norris (Photo By John Anderson)

AISD administrators, not surprisingly, disagree.

"It's a shame that the perception has been negative, because it's only a benefit to expose kids to different cultures in different ways," said Garza. "But I suppose it's always hard for people to accept change." Assistant Superintendent Hernandez says putting the school at half-empty Johnston is the fiscally responsible thing to do, and that the school took no teachers or other resources from the regular students. And she questions whether Cuellar is the voice of a community, or an individual with an axe to grind – especially, she says, because the district did tell parents the school was coming.

"I understand a few people feel there wasn't enough of a dialogue, but there was an open meeting where the principal explained the concept to the parents," she said. "But, that information was made available to parents, so if the individuals making these criticisms weren't parents they wouldn't have been privy to it." But Cuellar is not alone in her critique that a single meeting, when the school was already in the late planning stages, just wasn't enough. Rita Haecker, president of the Austin Area Association for Bilingual Education, also believes the district flubbed the launch of the school, but she paints a more nuanced picture. She says the school could have been a benefit to Johnston – if the district had involved the community earlier in the planning process, and if similar efforts were made to launch new programs for Johnston kids. But because that didn't happen, she said, the school simply adds to a larger atmosphere of upheaval. "Just saying, 'Oh, we have 10 empty classrooms' isn't a good reason to put a program in a school," Haecker said. "Johnston was already going through a lot of changes and turmoil, and was not ready, in my mind, to take on this whole huge issue of having another school in it."

Recent and ongoing changes include three principals in four years and an annual teacher turnover rate of 18%. Within that context, it's conceivable that the problem is not the international school per se, but the way it was introduced (or not) to the Johnston community. "I think the international school was just the last straw," said Haecker. "This has been building up for several years; if it hadn't been the international school, it would have been something else."

Rules or Race?

Ask any Johnston student whether there were a lot of fights this year, and you'll probably get an affirmative answer. Ask them why, and the international school is most likely not what they'll mention. Instead, it's "the rules." "Johnston isn't that bad of a school, but the new rules are messing with everybody," said Angel Guerra, a 17-year-old with an explosive mane of thick, black hair. "It's making the students tense, so they take out their anger on the other students."

"It's like a jail," said junior Angela Musgrove, whose T-shirt, Chuck Taylors, and armload of jelly bracelets are all black. When it's pointed out that most high schoolers feel like they're in jail, she clarifies. "Yeah, but it's really like a jail. It's like a prison!"

Jason Redding, a thoroughly blinged-out 16-year-old in rhinestone earrings and a hubcap medallion (complete with functional spinning rim), agrees. "They're trying to change too much too fast," he said. "Teenagers want to be rebellious, and if you make all these rules, they're going to react."

The "rules," students say, include the brand-new dress code and an increased police presence (Johnston has two police officers and three security guards, an apparent consequence of the district's increasing emphasis on security after a couple of recent, high-profile incidents). They complain of locked doors impeding access between different parts of the school. (Principal Gutierrez confirms only that before-school access is often limited to the front of the building to "allow for close monitoring.") And all the students are under the impression that anyone who gets in a fight will be immediately exiled to the district's alternative learning center.

However, Justin Hickman, a junior with intricate braids and thoughtful eyes, says the situation is more complicated. While he acknowledges that a harsher disciplinary environment has been raising tensions, he also agrees with Cuellar that Johnston students have serious race-relation problems, ones that the international school – which he believes was dropped on the school out of the blue – hasn't helped. "We didn't even know the international kids were coming until they were here," he said. "That wasn't a good idea."

Teenagers, of course, don't like rules. And many parents no doubt welcome a watchful police presence, especially when there are frequent fights. But while the debate is far from over as to whether strict discipline helps or exacerbates school violence, it is also clear that the district could do more to keep promising new programs from being bogged down in misunderstanding and bad feelings.

After all, even if it's not true that the international school suddenly made everyone freak out, as critics have charged, the negative perception that it did do so is bad enough. While change always comes with a certain amount of controversy and resistance, it seems clear that district administrators could defuse much of this tension by building a solid public case that it seeks out community involvement, early and often, when it considers major change to its programs. The district has already held one open house on the high school redesign; a second one is coming on Nov. 30. More, it seems, may be needed.

Despite the wider controversy, Michael Martinez is obviously thrilled to be at the international school. He has his complaints – he'd like the opportunity to get to know more of the regular Johnston students, for example – but his English is progressing and he feels well on his way to his dream job of computer technician. He'll probably be ready for regular classes at his home school by next year. But when the time for that comes, he says, he'll apply for a transfer back to Johnston.

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