Point Austin: Webb Games

Webb Middle School is a test case for bad public policy vs. community resolve

Point Austin
Although the dust has far from settled, the public battle to defend Webb Middle School from the blunt and counterproductive logic of "accountability" has paused, at least momentarily. Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione, facing strong and outspoken opposition from the Webb community, has backed down from his initial recommendation to close the school outright, proposing instead that the AISD board of trustees close Webb's sixth grade this fall and then phase out seventh and eighth grades in the following years. It's not at all clear why this elongated execution should be preferred to a sudden mercy killing, especially since Forgione's original argument was that it was better to take pre-emptive action to close Webb before the Texas Education Agency ordered the district to do so. If the situation is truly so dire, why should the TEA stay its hand while AISD dithers? It's hard to see Forgione's retreat as anything other than tactical, hoping the community outrage will dissipate over time, while the district proceeds, albeit a bit more slowly, with its original plan to close Webb and transfer the school's students to Dobie or Pearce, schools which face many of the same challenges.

To their credit, the district trustees have been publicly quite skeptical of Forgione's proposal, suggesting that his administrative homework on this project wasn't performed any more diligently than his community outreach. The board has delayed a formal decision on Webb and asked Forgione to respond to the specific community objections to the proposed closing. At a minimum, that probably means the quick closure is off the table, although the board will make a formal decision in the next few weeks. But the delayed phase-out is also a bad idea, not only because of what it will do to the Webb/St. Johns community, but because it will represent a premature capitulation to bad state and federal policy that needs to be opposed at the district level now, before it builds any more political momentum.

Webb vs. Garcia?

As Michael May reports here today ("Left Behind," p.30), Webb is nominally in its fourth year of potential "low performance," a state ranking that uses Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test scores and other standards as blunt weapons against public schools. The process is based on a business model that may make sense for marketing beef jerky but is nonsense for teaching students, who are not products to be phased out if they aren't selling at a sufficient pace. Indeed, Webb's first year in the TEA doghouse was based not even on its own students, but on post-Webb ninth-grade dropouts (who may themselves have been miscounted). We've reported frequently on the official folly of turning diagnostic tools into high-stakes bludgeons against students and teachers, and I won't rehearse those arguments here – but it's worth noting that a good many of the freshman reps now serving in the Texas House arrived there on the strength of pro-public-schools voters long since fed up with the Lege's "accountability" frenzy, particularly regarding high-stakes testing.

There's also another specific factor in the Webb case that has thus far received little notice. Administrators are openly concerned that the new Northeast Garcia Middle School, scheduled to open this fall, will be relatively underenrolled, possibly making it difficult financially to sustain Webb, Dobie, Pearce, and Garcia. Forgione has long made no secret of his impatience with attempting to sustain the district's smaller inner-city schools. Board President Mark Williams told me frankly that the "multivariable equation" affecting the pending Webb decision includes 1) academic issues, 2) the TEA "hammer" of accountability, 3) wider community demand for more "choice" (e.g., a boys' leadership academy for Webb), and 4) "increasing financial constraints in a fixed-revenue environment." The same state that is demanding high test scores or closure is refusing to provide the additional resources to educate Webb's many special-needs students.

Who Will AISD Serve?

I asked Garcia Middle School's namesake, Mayor Emeritus Gus Garcia, what he thought of the district's new, tangential justification for closing Webb – that is, in order to husband resources for the other three Northeast middle schools. "Basically, that's not a good argument," Garcia said. "The new school is built not for right now but for the next 50 years, and this area is growing, and the school will fill up over the next 10 years. I don't agree that it's a good idea to close Webb to fill up Garcia."

Like most Webb supporters, Garcia calls attention to the fact that Webb has absorbed a student population with special challenges, including many very recent, non-English speaking immigrants, and that even so, its academic performance has steadily improved – just not quickly enough to satisfy all of the TEA's always-rising criteria. To close Webb under these conditions, said Garcia, "sends the wrong message to the community, which is doing everything it can to support that school, in real ways. Instead the district should be trying to find the resources to address those needs. ... To give us a chance to help those students. We don't want to weaken that community."

Garcia added that he doesn't want to point fingers at the superintendent or the board, because he understands their predicament under state and federal law. But when asked, "What if the TEA indeed decides to close Webb?" he answered, "That's not the right question. Instead, the board has to ask itself, who do they represent – the state or the community that elected and supports them?"

Williams says he doesn't know what the board will finally decide but that "we're all driven by what's best for the Webb students." The trustees are still gathering information, he said, and he insisted, "Nobody got on the school board in order to close schools." Maybe not. But should the district allow itself to devolve into a reluctant executioner for the state, officials should not be surprised when they look to the community for support and nobody's there. end story

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education, Austin ISD, Webb Middle School, Pat Forgione, Gus Garcia, Mark Williams

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