Parents Playing High School Redesign Hooky?

Austin ISD's proposed high school redesign needs more parental involvement

In case you haven't been paying attention, AISD is planning to throw out the creaky old institution known as high school like a crumpled corsage after the prom. But judging by the turnout at the community forums AISD has organized to discuss how to redesign high schools into something better, you haven't been paying attention.

The fourth round of forums, one at Reagan High and one at Travis, came and went last week without even 150 people weighing in. That's a pretty slim slice of the opinion pie for a district with 80,000 students. AISD says the process is barely beginning; however, the consistently low turnout is making some wonder whether the district is truly committed to involving the community in the effort to end high school as we know it. "Where is the dynamic community involvement? [The redesign plan] seems pretty laid out for us," parent Kevin Foster asked. "Do they want collaboration, or do they want buy-in?"

AISD certainly wants one thing – better high schools. At the worst-performing schools in the district, less than half of the students pass their standardized math tests; reading scores aren't much better. Even at the best-performing schools (which, not coincidentally, have few poor kids), the performance of low-income students also lags behind those of their more privileged peers. While many students struggle, some just give up – one in five AISD seniors from the class of 2003, the group for whom the most recent data is available, did not graduate.

But now, it's redesign to the rescue! Thus far, the year-old push to redesign has been driven by experts – most notably a consulting team from Stanford University – who swoop in from the consult-o-sphere astride fat three-ring binders of studies, best practices, and accumulated wonkitude. This team has helped AISD draft the basic redesign plans all schools must adhere to. The basic idea is to transform large, impersonal schools into "small learning communities" of no more than 400 students. The learning communities might be defined by a theme, such as a "science academy" or "liberal arts academy," but they may not be defined by student ability. Each teacher will see no more than 75 students in a day, and each student will have an "advocate," a teacher responsible for keeping close tabs on their academic and personal lives for at least a two-year stretch – sort of like what counselors at traditional high schools would do if they weren't so busy handling scheduling minutiae for hundreds of kids.

On top of these basic, non-negotiable features, AISD wants every school to plan the details of its own nip-and-tuck. (Full proposals are due to the board in April.) That's where community involvement comes in – in theory, at least. In one of the pizza-fueled small-group discussions at the Reagan forum, for example, participants included a few AISD employees, representatives of educational nonprofits, a Stanford consultant, and only two parents (one of whom is faculty at the UT College of Education). And most of their discussion focused not on the details of redesign, but on how to get more parents – especially in majority black and Hispanic schools – to show up. For Alvin Pruitt, who runs a group called True Brilliance that teaches life skills and character education at Lanier High, the district's current PR strategies of fliers, e-mails, and newspaper ads just aren't enough.

"It's a question of priorities," Pruitt said. "If there's a real will to involve parents, all the resources the district has for parents need to be devoted to that." He cited the massive door-to-door effort around TAKS time as an example of what it looks like when the district makes reaching parents a priority.

Katherine Brewer of Austin Partners in Education, another group that encourages community involvement in schools, agreed. "It should be a metric – this thing doesn't start until we have a certain amount of parents involved," Brewer said. Other ideas discussed by the group – as well as by groups bemoaning low turnout at previous forums – included holding forums somewhere other than schools (such as churches) or placing representatives in malls or grocery stores to catch parents' attention while they're out shopping.

Janis Guerrero, who directs community relations for AISD, said the district is open to ideas like block-walking to boost turnout for the next round of forums in November. For this round, she explained, the district deliberately targeted nonprofits and community groups in the hope that they could help reach noninvolved parents and the community as a whole. "The planning process is only beginning," Guerrero said.

As the process continues, one parent who is sure to be involved is Pamela McKinney. She attended the Reagan forum even though her elementary-aged daughter is still several years away from high school. Her biggest concern is making sure all students can attend the learning community that's best for them, even if it's not in their home schools. Attending the forum raised new concerns, however. In particular, McKinney was "appalled" by what seemed to be the dominant assumption that all minority parents need to be prodded to get involved. "There are minority parents who are involved, who are educated, who do care, and who see this as an opportunity," she said. McKinney added, however, that she's still optimistic about the process. "You have to start somewhere, and it's a good start."

Major AISD Redesign Requirements

• Each campus must divide into small learning communities (SLCs) of fewer than 400 students.

• SLCs must be heterogeneous in terms of race, income, and student ability.

• SLCs may (but do not have to) have a theme, such as "science" or "liberal arts."

• Teachers will interact with no more than 75 students each day.

• Every student will have an adult "advocate," who advises no more than 18 students at a time, and who maintains the relationship for at least two years.

• Schools may request facilities renovations to physically separate SLCs.

• Campuswide extracurricular activities will continue to be available.

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Austin Independent School District, Austin ISD, High school redesign, Janis Guerrero, Pamela McKinney, Alvin Pruitt, Kevin Foster

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