High School by Redesign

Garza Independence High School students get involved with plans to rework local high schools

Garza Independence High School students Ana Hernandez and Julian Padilla post fliers trying to get AISD students interested in the district's redesign efforts.
Garza Independence High School students Ana Hernandez and Julian Padilla post fliers trying to get AISD students interested in the district's redesign efforts. (Photo By John Anderson)

The Austin Independent School District promises that four R's will come out of its multiyear process of redesigning its high schools: rigor, relationships, relevance, and results. But to a group of AISD students and grads trying to entice more students to participate in the redesign planning process, that recipe is still one R short of success.

"Respect," said Katherine Sullivan. "That's the fifth R."

Sullivan, a Gonzalo Garza Independence High School grad, is one of the young people working with the nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth to organize and promote a pair of community discussions on high school redesign on June 14 and 16. Student participation has so far been slim in district-organized forums; the AVEY students hope their PR campaign – PSAs, summer school announcements, "come kick it at the gathering about high school redesign" fliers – will convince area students that their voices are indeed welcome. More than welcome, actually – the AVEY students say that even though the district's current plans for structural and curricular changes are exciting, several important pieces are still missing.

The redesign process began last fall, when the board of trustees heard two rather critical audits of its high schools, one by the Southern Regional Education Board and one by a team of UT researchers. Both found students felt disengaged and too often didn't graduate with the skills they needed for college and careers. The remedy, both agreed, begins with breaking huge, impersonal schools into small learning communities. These schools-within-schools would enable students to better build relationships with one another and their teachers, and would facilitate the transition to a more rigorous, career-focused curriculum that is relevant to students' life goals. One school has already gone under the knife – this fall, Johnston students will join one of three "academies" – business, arts/humanities, and math/science – of only a few hundred students each.

Such structural changes are a good start, say the AVEY students, but they're not quite enough. They should know – all moved from one of AISD's 11 regular high schools to Garza, an innovative all-transfer school whose 400 students are expected to take responsibility for their education, and who are treated as equals by the school's adults. Garza students and grads say the school's emphasis on respect is what sets the school apart and is something that needs to be front and center in the redesign. As evidence, they point to AISD's student exit surveys showing general disagreement with the statement "the adults at this school listen to the opinions of students," and frequent complaints about a lack of respect.

But respect isn't nearly as easy to prescribe as the curricular changes on which AISD has so far focused. That's why the AVEY students want to get students to the forums: so they can give the district concrete ideas of ways to improve school culture. Of course, the AVEY students already have plenty of ideas, both from their own experience and from a set of focus groups they conducted with AISD students. Taking a break from their planning activities at AVEY's 38th Street office, the students plopped on couches and beanbags and explained the changes they'd like to see.

Michelle Powers, who now attends ACC, says that making high school feel "relevant" should mean more than tailoring it to career goals, which are amorphous (at best) for your average high schooler. "That focuses on our future rather than what we need now," Powers said. Julian Padilla agreed, saying that AISD should tie the curriculum to what teenagers – including minority teenagers – are actually going through. "In my entire time in middle and high school, I read a total of one book by a Mexican author and one by a black author," Padilla said.

That prompted an amused snort from Ana Hernandez. "They're always the same ones," she said. To Hernandez, the district should redesign its discipline policies, which dump kids into in-school suspension for minor infractions like tardies. "I hate ISS," she said. "You sit there and stare at a wall, and they don't let you do work."

They suggested Garza's discipline model as an alternative. "If you've got a problem with tardies at Garza, your teacher will sit and talk with you, and ask you why you're late, and ask what she can do to help you not be late anymore," Powers explained.

Finally, they also worried that the small learning communities might end up segregating students by ability. Padilla, for example, remembered being virtually the only "brown kid" in honors courses before he moved to Garza. He stuck with the courses because his own parents are well educated, but he knows other brown and black kids often "don't feel like they belong in those classes." In order to keep small learning communities from turning into a tool for segregation, he suggested following Garza's model of having honors and nonhonors students attend the same classes, but earn honors credit through extra work. That way, no one has to decide if they're the kind of person who "belongs" in an honors class.

It's these sorts of ideas that the AVEY students hope come out of next week's forums. According to Fred Richardson of the Texas High School Project, massive community participation in the planning process – from parents as well as students – is necessary if redesign efforts are to actually result in substantive change. "Schools have got to do whatever they can to reach out to parents," Richardson said. "It's hard work. It means going to churches, going out to the community, maybe even into the local supermarket. They have to call parents up, invite them in, and expect them to come."

AISD expects everyone to come to the discussions: Tuesday, June 14, 6-8:30pm at Goodwill Community Center, 1015 Norwood Park, and Thursday, June 16, 6-8:30pm at Mendez Middle School, 5106 Village Square Dr. Dinner and child care are provided; door prizes and bus passes are available. Call 450-1880 or see www.austinisd.org for more info.

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AISDGarza Independence High SchoolAustin Voices for Education and Youth, Austin ISD, high school redesign, Fred Richardson, Julian Padilla, Michelle Powers, Ana Hernandez, Katherine Sullivan, Austin Voices for Education and Youth

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