Kealing: Equal but Separate Plans

Parents of magnet and comprehensive program students have differing visions for Eastside middle school

Kealing: Equal but Separate Plans
Photo By John Anderson

At a March meeting, Kealing Middle School students and parents gathered inside the offices of the nearby Booker T. Washington housing projects to talk about the school's future. When asked about their wildest hopes for Kealing, answers varied – one boy joked that he wanted teachers to let students bring cell phones to class. But topping everyone's wish list was one thing: a desire for Kealing to be "one school."

The discussion comes in the wake of the controversy surrounding Superintendent Pat Forgione's since-shelved proposal to formally divide Kealing's magnet program into a separate school with its own administration and state accountability tracking. Forgione withdrew the proposal in response to two student-led walkouts and protests from parents who were concerned that splitting the school would deepen existing divisions between the magnet and the comprehensive programs. Afterward, as he prepared to present a modified plan to the Austin Independent School District trustees, Forgione said he was pleased with the eventual outcome: "My primary intention in January … I believe has been achieved, in terms of a planning procedure that has created two terrific education plans, with good things we can implement – some in the short term, some in the long term."

District officials, parents, and faculty agree that one positive outcome of the debate was an opportunity to re-examine the relationship between the two programs and begin to address some of the issues raised. Earlier this year, when Forgione announced his intention to split the school, he created two teams composed of faculty and administration from each program to draw up different plans. So while the school will formally remain one, the district still plans to implement some of the suggested two-track reforms.

Among other things, the 11-point proposal for the "comprehensive" (neighborhood) school calls for restructuring on a model of small learning communities with clusters of four teachers who stay with the same students all year long. The proposal also suggests increased social services for students, greater technological resources, an expansion of AVID (a program to point kids toward college), and several initiatives designed to get parents more involved. Many of the reforms will require additional resources from the district, said Helen Johnson, the interim director of the comprehensive program.

Johnson said she and her team have come up with cost estimates she believes reasonable. While she doesn't expect to get "everything we want, … we wouldn't ask for something if we didn't think it was possible." Kealing is better funded than many schools in the district, said board of trustees member Robert Schneider, including an additional allotment for the magnet, as well as Title I money for schools serving a majority economically disadvantaged population. However, Schneider added, "The bottom line is that with the changes that came about with House Bill 1 and the special session [of last year's Legislature], we're working on a fixed income."

Johnson said that if she had to prioritize the proposals, high on the list would be team-teaching and technology. Currently there's no computer lab serving all Kealing students, and the only computers are in classrooms dedicated to the magnet program's keyboarding class. The proposal asks the district for three computer labs in addition to two labs on wheels, for instructional purposes and to extend keyboarding – soon a prerequisite for high school technology courses – to comprehensive students.

Unlike the comprehensive proposal, the magnet proposal calls for no major structural changes. It is mostly a refinement of goals, priorities, and principles. It also includes initiatives designed to increase the number of underrepresented students in the magnet program through recruitment at targeted elementaries. "It's painful – the allegations that the magnet program is elitist and racist," said Ken Pfluger, a parent and a member of the Kealing Magnet Advisory Group. Yet district statistics show that black, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students are underrepresented in the magnet. Currently, the magnet is composed of 8% black, 26% Hispanic, and 54% white students, compared to districtwide middle-school numbers of 14% black, 53% Hispanic, and 30% white. And only 21% of the magnet population is economically disadvantaged, compared to 46% of all Austin middle schoolers.

A third proposal, drafted independently by other teachers, called for students to take core classes together and would require magnet teachers, who on average have more experience, to teach in both programs. Johnson said this proposal would be considered, but it would require more teachers despite limited resources. Pfluger says the proposal ignores the magnet's mission as a program of academic excellence, and Schneider concurred, calling it a "utopian illusion" of something that hasn't existed at Kealing for years. "It just hasn't been the case that by grouping [neighborhood] students with magnet kids, everyone benefits from the rigor," he said. Right now, there is crossover in fine-arts electives and extracurricular activities, and comprehensive students can take magnet courses provided there is space and they meet certain Texas Assessment of Skills and Knowledge requirements.

Schneider said there's reason to doubt whether the district will actually implement the proposed changes, given what has happened in the past. In 2001, problems similar to those being faced today led to the creation of a task force that issued a report titled "Academic Magnets and Neighborhood Schools." Most of the recommendations made by the report were never acted upon, Schneider said: "During Dr. Forgione's tenure as superintendent, he has had two opportunities to resolve these issues from Kealing and has chosen not to act in both cases."

Schneider likens the situation at Kealing to that of LBJ High School, which recently split the academic tracking of the magnet program from the rest of the school – the initial plan for Kealing that has since been withdrawn. Schneider said by not assigning separate state tracking numbers (known as PEIMS numbers) to the two programs, the district is hiding Kealing's underperformance. Under the state's accountability system, said Schneider, if the comprehensive school were considered separately from the magnet, it would be the lowest-performing school in the district. Forgione insists, "The PEIMS numbers was never the end, it was a means to an end." That end is to find an effective way to raise the comprehensive achievement level while maintaining that of the advanced academic magnet. Forgione believes the two parallel plans will create the conditions for both programs to succeed. "I'm feeling positive about this," he said, "and I am looking forward to implementing this plan."

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Austin Independent School Districteducation, Kealing Middle School, magnet school, Pat Forgione, Ken Pfluger, Robert Schneider, Helen Johnson, Kealing Magnet Advisory Group

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