Point Austin: Compared to What?

Crisis at Kealing the latest chapter in a too-long story

Point Austin
Kealing Middle School Principal Ron Gonzales, appointed only late last summer, appears to have accomplished the impossible. On a campus long known for its troubling divisions between underperforming neighborhood school and nationally renowned academic magnet, privileged commuter students and disadvantaged neighborhood students, the mostly minority Eastside community and mostly white magnet parent groups, Gonzales has united virtually the whole campus.

All these disparate groups and people, alas, are largely united in a single goal: ridding Kealing Middle School of Principal Ron Gonzales.

The Dump-Gonzales sentiment is by no means unanimous and features sometimes contradictory perspectives. But judging from several meetings, from teacher surveys by the school district and Education Austin, and from numerous conversations with Kealing faculty and parents, a clear majority of the school community has concluded that Gonzales is an intemperate, unqualified "micromanager" who disrespects teachers and staff and is more concerned about minute policy rules – and standardized test scores – than real education or student achievement. According to his critics, the principal has reduced planning, morale, and discipline to an unprecedented low level. They've told the AISD administrators that if Gonzales is not removed, they fear decimated programs and an exodus of excellent teachers and staff members.

After a series of tense public meetings, the official response has been mixed. Superintendent Pat Forgione initially defended Gonzales as "one of the best educators in the district" and has since argued strongly that the principal, who served successfully at Riley and Harris elementaries, deserves more time and a better chance to prove himself at Kealing. But last week Forgione announced that he's assigning a mentor – Small Middle School Principal Sheila Anderson – to Gonzales and will re-evaluate his performance in June. Simultaneously, he proposed formally splitting Kealing into two distinct but single-campus "schools" for Texas Education Agency testing accountability purposes – the advanced academic magnet, currently with about 750 students, and the neighborhood "comprehensive" school, with about 500 students. If Forgione's proposal is enacted by the AISD board of trustees, Gonzales would remain principal of only the comprehensive school, and the district would hire a new principal to run the Kealing magnet.

Thus far, the reaction to Forgione's proposal has also been mixed. After he announced the idea last week to a hastily assembled group of parents and teachers, several told me that they were trying to address one problem – the widely perceived unsuitability of Gonzales as Kealing principal – and that the school-splitting was a solution to a problem they hadn't raised. "We're already trying to juggle apples and oranges" at Kealing, said one parent, "and he throws us a pineapple." Even more seriously, several teachers in the comprehensive (nonmagnet) program said they were insulted both by Forgione's proposal and his attitude in presenting it. "He told us we were failures, that we had failed Kealing's students," one teacher said. "And his proposal told us that while Principal Gonzales is not good enough for the magnet, he's good enough for us and our students. And he said if we didn't like it, we are free to go elsewhere."

The Style Is the Man

At a subsequent meeting in a packed Kealing cafeteria, Forgione was more conciliatory, and his divided audience seemed at least willing to listen. Asking for patience and cooperation, he referred obliquely to the many complaints about Gonzales, while gathering a broader conclusion: "I must directly acknowledge to you that the circumstances that are here are unacceptable." Then he spoke at length about his proposal to split Kealing academically while maintaining joint programs (e.g., band and sports) and described the current, more mixed situation as based on a "failed design – a school-within-a-school just doesn't work." "Most academic magnets nationally are now freestanding schools," Forgione said, because it's too difficult to administer curricula for two "such diverse clienteles." He defended his proposal as allowing him to recruit administrative teams with "skill-sets" matched to the specific demands of the distinct Kealing programs. "Both student populations here deserve the very best," he said.

Earlier, Forgione told me that he sees the Kealing situation as exemplifying both "a leadership problem and a structural problem." He acknowledged perceived shortcomings in Principal Gonzales' "style" but pointed to the principal's prior success (in raising TAKS test scores) at Riley and Harris elementaries as confirming his qualifications. He believes Gonzales, and comprehensive program director Helen Johnson, should be given at least the school year to prove themselves, adding, "I will hold [Gonzales] accountable to change his style." Forgione believes Gonzales has the specific skills needed to address the academic problems of Kealing's nonmagnet students. He concluded, "I need a little more time to evaluate whether Ron Gonzales is capable of doing the job." Beyond that, his "structural" proposal asks the Kealing staff to prepare parallel plans fully addressing the needs of both programs, while the district recruits a new principal for the magnet school.

But several comprehensive teachers told me that their problems with Gonzales are not primarily stylistic, despite teacher objections to a new dress code, stricter sign-out enforcement, even banning faculty children from afterschool meetings. "Forgione repeatedly insists that at AISD, we 'teach to the standards, not to the tests,'" one said. "And at workshops last summer, Gonzales appeared to listen when we suggested ways of incorporating the TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge & Skills] material into the TAKS [Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills] test preparations to provide the students with some relevant knowledge, not just test answers. But when it came time to adopt a curriculum last fall, all that was thrown out. We're expected to teach to the test ... above everything else. Not only is that not best education practices for the students," he concluded, "It doesn't even work."

(I made several attempts to talk to Gonzales directly about these matters, but he did not respond.)

The More Things Change ...

The Kealing debate became visible citywide at a Jan. 9 board meeting, when dozens of mostly magnet parents, supported by representatives of Education Austin, demanded that Gonzales be removed because of his perceived failures concerning staff morale and student discipline. The complaints ranged from "micromanaging" teacher activities to "out of control" and "violent" hallways and cafeteria. (Forgione says that the number of discipline incidents this year is about the same as last year, although the perception may be worse because, for a couple of scheduling reasons, the hallways are more crowded.)

But the most telling evidence was a Kealing faculty survey – including magnet and comprehensive teachers – compiled just before the December holiday. The written Dec. 18 survey report of teachers' comments, while not unanimously critical of Principal Gonzales, is in detail overwhelmingly negative about his effect on schoolwork and school atmosphere. It includes numerous variations on this distressingly representative comment: "I have never seen the morale so low. I have never heard of so many teachers feeling that they can no longer remain here." Depending on how one calculates the outcome, somewhere between 75% and 90% of faculty members, across the board, said they have "no confidence" in Gonzales' leadership.

That broad-based sentiment makes it much more difficult to dismiss the Kealing uproar as just another instance of squeaky-wheel complaints from privileged magnet parents or teachers. Virtually everyone involved has insisted to me, "This is not just 'a magnet problem,'" and more recently reiterated their concern that the "structural" solution finally proposed by Forgione, rather than an attempt to solve the real problem, is an attempt to change the subject. At the Tuesday night school meeting, one parent told the superintendent of the split-school proposal, "It seems to me that proposal is just nonresponsive to the problems we have raised, especially concerning the comprehensive teachers." He went on to say, nevertheless, that in a spirit of goodwill, "Perhaps we owe you a little bit of a cease-fire."

The night before, during citizens communication to the AISD board of trustees, one Kealing parent was considerably more blunt. Kevin Cole (spouse of City Council Member Sheryl Cole) said it appeared to him that Forgione's proposal did little more than give the magnet parents and teachers everything they want, while "giving the nonmagnet students and teachers the finger."

Somewhat defensively, Forgione insisted to his audience that the problems of low-performing students, across the district, had to be addressed directly, whether at Webb Middle School (proposed for closing because of low test scores), Johnston High School ("redesigned" in an effort to avoid closing), or Kealing. "This is real," insisted Forgione of TEA's determination – under the federal law known as "No Child Left Behind" and state counterparts – to close persistently low-performing schools. "This is not a threat, this is real."

The superintendent's words abruptly recalled to me the words of that Seventies-era Les McCann jazz anthem, whose defiant refrain runs, "Tryin' to make it real ... compared to what?" That tune's popular zenith would have been just about the time that historically persistent residential segregation in Austin mandated the creation of anti-white-flight "magnet" programs like Kealing's. Seems like by now, our children – black, white, and brown – shouldn't still be paying for the sins of their grandparents, not to mention for the bureaucratic micromanaging of Texas and Washington politicians for whom "accountability" is always a one-way street.

As another weary Kealing parent, whose daughter is doing well in the comprehensive program, told Forgione Tuesday night, she's willing to give his proposal at least a chance, even though she could not immediately see how it addressed the problem of school leadership, or, more especially, teacher morale. But whatever else happens, she concluded, "I don't want some separate-but-equal thing going on." end story

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Kealing Middle School, Ron Gonzales, Pat Forgione, Austin ISD, Kevin Cole

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