Who Killed Porter Middle School?
The evidence points to George W. Bush. But he wasn't alone.
A school died in Austin this week. The causes were definitely not natural.
As in most murder mysteries, the motive is cloudy, the culprit difficult to confirm, and a conviction most difficult of all. It was the AISD board of trustees that pulled the trigger on the night of March 6, approving a plan to start sending Porter Middle School students this fall to Covington, Bedichek, and O. Henry, and to transform Porter into a secondary school for science-minded girls. The board's co-conspirator was Superintendent Pat Forgione, who developed the plan to "repurpose" Porter and two other schools. But there's another suspect who may have in fact masterminded the plot, one who may strike again: a shadowy, federal Mr. Big, who goes by the alias "No Child Left Behind."
In the month of public debate over the proposal, the words "No Child Left Behind" were rarely uttered, and then only at the Feb. 27 board meeting, six weeks after the initial proposal. The word uttered a great deal, however, was "why." Why, if AISD is going to repurpose some schools, must they be schools serving mostly poor kids? Why those and not others?
The official reason that Porter should be turned into a Young Women's Leadership Academy is its low enrollment Porter is officially about 60% full, and all that undercapacity eats up scarce dollars. However, similarly empty are Martin (68%), Lamar (68%), and a handful of other middle schools. A contributing factor was that AISD also wants to move Porter's staff to a new middle school in Northeast Austin, to help whittle the $1.2 million it costs to open a new school. But staff from Lamar, on Burnet Road, would have likely been more willing to make the jump eastward. If the rationale is simply to make room for a YWLA, that still doesn't answer why it has to be at Porter. "It doesn't make sense that we can bus 600 students out of Porter," to close it down, said teacher Dusty Alkire, "but not 300 students into Porter to fill it up."
Unless, perhaps, you factor in NCLB, the federal law that attaches escalating penalties to schools with poor standardized test scores. NCLB didn't strike the first blow. To hear Porter teachers and parents tell it, the school has been bleeding for years. NCLB, however, deepened the wounds.
Porter's death may have been a mercy killing. But with one school down and two others on the block, the evidence suggests that the killers may strike again.
If you're a fan of long, contentious meetings about AISD policy, 2006 has been a helluva year. The weeks that followed Forgione's proposal to repurpose Porter and two elementaries (Oak Springs and Becker) were crammed with discussions and hearings in which the public sounded off long and hard in opposition to the plan. At each school there was anger, yet each also took on a flavor of its own. In 78704, well-organized, professional Anglos joined forces with the working-class Becker PTA and found celebrity nonprofits like the Austin Neighborhoods Council to speak on their behalf. At Oak Springs in central East Austin, the room sizzled with outrage as speakers rattled off other institutions important to local African-Americans AISD has closed, and questioned the logic of relocating a student population that nearly all lives in a housing project located literally across the street. (The lone speaker in favor of the plan at Oak Springs was a besuited white guy from the chamber of commerce. Let's just say that the Man's stamp of approval is definitely not the kind of thing that wins converts on Webberville Road.)
At Porter, just inside the triangle formed by South Lamar, Manchaca, and Ben White, the community served up a cupful of sad resignation with a twist of wounded pride. Folks there seemed accustomed to being unfairly dismissed, as exemplified by one eighth-grader who attended a couple of hearings to tell Austin that Porter was not the "dumb kids' school" people think. Yet few seemed enthusiastic about fighting for Porter. It was more like this: AISD did us wrong. You set us up to fail. And if now the time has come to put Porter down, let its tombstone read, AISD wounded it and left it to die. "The staff here is excellent as any at any school," said Alkire. "I don't want to see Porter and the faculty blamed for the decline, because it's not our fault."
Some readers are probably accusing Alkire of passing the buck. Cracking open AISD's historical tomes, however, shows strong evidence that Porter suffered from both bad decisions and bad luck. Here's the story, in a nutshell: It was early 1999, and the district was drawing new boundaries to replace a desegregation-era system that had bused kids hither and yon. Ideally, AISD would evenly distribute kids between all its available schools. However, south and southwest parents demanded their children be assigned to schools in the farthest-out, wealthiest parts of town. The board of trustees buckled.
In the consequent ripple that moved through South Austin schools, trustees decided at the last minute to move a chunk of students from Cunningham Elementary which (at least in Porter lore) was one of the more privileged neighborhoods in the feeder zone out of Porter and into newer, wealthier Covington. At the end of the 1999 school year, Porter had more than 1,000 students. When school opened that fall, Porter's population had dropped by 200 students, to 829. Now, it has just over 600. As Porter got smaller, it also got poorer: The percentage of students eligible for subsidized lunch has increased from 50% to 80%. "Where did the beginning of the end start? It started way back then," said teacher Mickie Powers. "We could have certainly used Cunningham so those kids could set good examples. And it would have helped our scores."
In theory, at least, AISD could have refilled Porter. The boundary for adjacent O. Henry Middle, for example, is a contorted, crescent-shaped blob stretching from 45th Street to Oak Hill. To get to O. Henry, students from Oak Hill drive right past Porter: They cross MoPac, traverse all of 78704, and roll across Town Lake before finally arriving at the Tarrytown school. The route runs contrary to everything AISD says it values about compact attendance zones, staying off major thoroughfares, and neighborhood schools but it does do a great job of gerrymandering one more majority-wealthy school out of a 58% poor district. (See map, p.30; AISD says the goofy boundary is an artifact of desegregation.)
AISD didn't refill Porter, and the outbound trickle soon became a stampede. Some parents were probably spooked by passing rates on standardized tests, which are indeed low. But Porter also had strengths: for example, about 60% of its teachers have more than 11 years of experience, well above the district average. Parent Ginger Boyer, who calls Porter the "best-kept secret in Austin," believes many parents who sent their kids elsewhere didn't bother to research the source of Porter's bad reputation. "I came to find out that a lot of stuff I heard came from things 15 years ago," she said. "It's mostly low-income and it's not fancy and big. But I discovered the faculty really cared about kids, and the kids were in fact learning."
The local history may help set the record straight for loyal Porter Panthers who really, really want to convince their neighbors that their school was set up to fail. But other than that mutual regret, why should we care about school district memories?
Well, watch what happened next.
The Evidence Accumulates
George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind law in 2002. NCLB gets its name from its goal of ensuring that every child succeeds: by 2014, schools where even a single student fails to pass standardized tests will be considered out of compliance. To work toward that utopian standard, the law sets testing performance goals, called "Adequate Yearly Progress," that rise a little higher each year. If any subset of students (Hispanic, low-income, limited-English, and so on) performs poorly on the school's tests, the entire school is sanctioned, so that even otherwise high-performing schools can receive poor marks. That was demonstrated at nationally recognized Anderson High last fall, albeit that time on a state rating system with similar rules a couple dozen special-education students didn't meet their assigned goals, so the entire school flunked the accountability test. (AISD successfully appealed the Anderson rating.)
The same thing happened at Porter, three years in a row. Despite overall rising test scores, Porter's special-education students didn't improve quickly enough. Plus, an administrative error involving testing rules for recent immigrants meant Porter missed its participation targets as well. But NCLB accepts no excuses. "If you look at the bigger picture of test scores, you will see a good, steady increase in overall scores in those categories in those years," said principal Judy Szilagyi. "That's the thing with NCLB you get one cell wrong and you're on the list."
And NCLB doesn't just rate schools. It punishes them, and in ways that often aggravate the illness the sanctions are theoretically supposed to cure. The first sanction, which applied to Porter and five other schools this year, is to send letters to every student's parents informing them of the poor performance and that they're eligible to transfer to another school, with AISD-funded transportation. So far, most parents have passed on the offer (about 5% accepted districtwide). However, Porter did lose more than 100 kids, the highest NCLB out-migration rate in the district. Parents say it also took a toll on those who stayed. "For the past two years the district has been sending letters to the parents here telling you that if you don't want your children here because it was low-performing, you should take them out," parent Irma Flores-Manges told Forgione at a hearing. She filled the cafeteria with applause. "That's why you have underutilization here. Those letters were very, very disheartening."
Beneath the radar, the letters also mean something else. Under that NCLB sanction, no matter what AISD does with boundaries elsewhere, it wouldn't make any sense and would in fact be illegal to draw new neighborhoods into Porter: Every single student has the right to demand AISD put her on a bus and send her somewhere else. According to AISD facilities manager Paul Turner, NCLB transfers in other parts of the district are starting to mess with the already-difficult job of planning for student population growth. Still, he expressed optimism that test scores would rise and NCLB would have less of an impact. "Hopefully the end game is you get to the point where everyone is doing better so [NCLB transfers] don't come into it as much," he said.
Transfers are only the first stage in NCLB's five-step process. Later steps include dismissing staff, restructuring management, replacing curricula, and beaming in outside experts to take over the school. Maybe these steps will improve schools, or maybe all the upheaval will make bad situations worse. Or maybe AISD will avoid them, at least temporarily. NCLB is built on the premise of "competition and choice," so let's put it this way: Maybe AISD will respond to the market, and put failing schools out of business.
AISD says that school closure is simply an impersonal numbers game, the result of booming suburban populations even as empty-nesters and child-free yuppies take over the center city. That "doughnut" effect is definitely for real. What Porter's experience shows, however, is that the way AISD manages its doughnut does have real effects. The slings and arrows that drained Porter dry are not going away. Porter's killer may strike again.
In the coming years, AISD will build eight new schools on the fast-growing outskirts of town. One of them, a new middle school in the southwest which the district insisted it didn't really need but was added to the bond at the last minute to woo southwest voters may have to be built sooner than anticipated. The reason is Porter: Once their school is closed, Porter kids will be bused to other south-central middle schools like Covington, taking up room that could have held overflow kids from southwest schools like Small or Bailey. (It also means AISD can only relieve dramatically overcrowded Paredes Middle School in the southeast by redrawing nearly all the South Austin middle schools boundaries east of MoPac, rather than simply reassigning some Paredes kids to Bedichek as originally planned. Note that no new middle school is being planned for the southeast, despite current overcrowding. Forgione has also begun saying that the district will need to put a "small" bond around $100 million before voters in 2007 or 2008 to fund, among other things, a new southeast middle school.)
Nobody in the southwest is likely to be disappointed by that turn of events. Recent boundary debates have shown that Circle C parents are as partial to economically homogenous schools as they were in 1999. More than 100 parents showed up to oppose being moved from overcrowded Mills (75% white, 6% poor) on the west side of MoPac to Cowan (50% white and 20% poor), even though once demographic differences are taken into account, they don't differ much in test scores. (The main difference is that Cowan's Hispanic students lag those at Mills.) Lest it be thought that parents simply object to crossing MoPac, other parents in the smidgen of Circle C that lies east of MoPac mobilized to demand reassignment westward across MoPac to Kiker. One parent said the difference between being assigned to Kiker and not was worth $100,000 on the price of the house.
In making their case, southwest parents didn't talk about school demographics. They talked about convenience, logical driving routes, neighborhood solidarity, and emotional attachments. They talked about the same sorts of things as parents at Becker and Oak Springs. In the southwest, the parents are getting their way. We'll see whether the low-income parents at Becker and Oak Springs have the same luck. Whatever parents' motives in the southwest boundary debates, the end result is crowded, largely homogenous schools on one side of MoPac (with relief thus far scheduled to come only from new schools farther southwest), while just to the east, Cowan and Boone are both left 30% empty. A few years down the road, will there be a superintendent standing in one of their cafeterias saying the numbers leave him no choice but to drop the axe?
Or, perhaps the next death will be an NCLB euthanasia. Last year, 17 schools missed AYP. Any of those schools that miss AYP this year will have to offer transfers. AISD struggles to get its students up to speed, but signs are there that it doesn't expect all schools to make it. For example, AISD anticipates tracking students from the new Mueller redevelopment to Lamar, located a congested slog across I-35 on Burnet Road, even though both Pearce and Webb are closer and more convenient. That's a decision that makes little sense unless Pearce and Webb's failure to make AYP (or worse, their high-poverty, high-minority demographics) comes into play. Facilities manager Paul Turner defends the Mueller assignment as another "artifact of desegregation," but that's a curious assertion for a school not yet built.
There's one factor more that didn't exist in 1999: a move toward ever-greater school choice. Superintendent Pat Forgione is clear he hopes the Young Women's Leadership Academy is only the first of many specialized offerings that will keep students with means and their typically high test scores in AISD. "I want kids to come back from charter schools, from private schools, from Catholic schools, because I believe public school is the best place to educate," he told parents at Porter. Because AISD gets state funding on a per-pupil basis, attracting students from such schools would also deliver a financial shot in the arm. These specialized schools will not be ability-based magnet programs, but interest-based programs open to all. Still, when parents have greater choice it's hard not to wonder how AISD will keep them from choosing what they've gone for in the past: economic (and often de facto racial) segregation.
That brings up one final irony worth noting before we close the history books. It has to do with gentrification. Nobody much mentioned the "g" word during the 1999 boundary fight. Then, equality-minded Austinites argued that the problem with a "neighborhood school" policy was that a residentially segregated district would have, by default, segregated schools. This did turn out to be the case in much of Austin. But in other parts, we've come full circle: The neighborhoods are integrated. The schools are not.
In the end, what matters most is not the color of the kids at the desks or the money their parents bring home, but the education they receive. NCLB's goal that all children in every school get a quality education is laudable and necessary. But with more schools nationwide missing AYP each year, the evidence is accumulating that we're not on the right track to get there. With AISD being squeezed by a state government that doesn't adequately fund education (as recent polls indicate not just schoolteachers, but most Texans, believe to be the case), NCLB offering all stick and few carrots, and school choice segregating the most disadvantaged students into all-poverty schools, it's hard to find reason for optimism.
Now the jury must rule: Has No Child Left Behind claimed its first victim in Austin? If the verdict is guilty as charged, remember: It wasn't acting alone.