The Austin Chronicle

AISD's Johnston and Webb: Test Score Role Reversal

By Michael May, May 25, 2007, News

Austin Independent School District's board President Mark Williams was both relieved and disappointed when he saw the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills scores for the district's two most struggling schools, Webb Middle School and Johnston High. But mostly he was just confused.

"There's more questions than answers," Williams said. "The results are a complete surprise."

The futures of both schools hang in the balance. They've both been rated "academically unacceptable" for the previous three years in a row, and the state could close them if their ratings don't improve this year. Official ratings won't be released until August, but it looks like Webb has shown enough improvement to be rated "acceptable." Johnston's scores will most certainly keep it in the "unacceptable" category, though, and the district will have to lobby the state to keep it open.

It's a complete role reversal. Just a few months ago, AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione had given up on Webb. He proposed just going ahead and closing the school this summer so that the district could have time to plan what to do with the students and staff. The community protested, and ultimately the AISD board voted to keep the school open. Johnston, on the other hand, has been part of the ambitious "high school redesign" program, and the district and the board assumed that the investment would pay off in higher test scores.

Webb finally has something to celebrate. Considering the incredible turmoil the school went through this year, it seemed unlikely the students would show improvements on the test. The teachers spent half the year worrying about their jobs, and the students were essentially being blamed for shutting down their neighborhood school. But the threat may have actually provided some sort of therapeutic shock treatment.

"It's a situation that's been a blessing in disguise," says Allen Weeks, vice president of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, who organized the community during the crisis. "The teachers and the kids have really been heroic. It was incredible to watch them get their focus back." Weeks is optimistic about the future. Once the board voted to keep the school open, the district devoted considerable time and resources to getting the school on its feet. Weeks says the school is more than doubling the amount of students that will have access to ESL support, and he expects to have 200 mentors helping individual students over the hump.

But it would be naive to think there won't be some negative repercussions after such an incredibly stressful year. Teacher turnover at Webb was already a problem. And, until this week, the staff members were not even sure their jobs would exist in the fall. Jerry Howard, a science teacher at Webb's English Language Learners Academy, says the next hurdle is attracting and retaining experienced teachers. "The morale is much better now," he says. "But, still, the poor press about Webb is going to make it hard to attract good teachers, and that's what we need to keep up the momentum." It's an issue the district is working on, and it wouldn't be surprising to see teachers earn more at Webb next year under the "strategic compensation" plan being considered by the AISD board.

Although Johnston was also facing its fourth year performing below standard, the district never threatened to close that school. On the contrary, it's been the test subject for AISD's high school redesign program, which will ultimately change how all the district's high schools operate. "It's modeled on all best practices from around the country," Williams says. "We have small learning communities, a great staff, and a focus on themes of interest to the students. We've had experts come in and give us positive evaluations."

Since the scores came in last week, Williams and the district are asking themselves what went wrong. "It doesn't cast doubt on the fundamental structure of the redesign program," he says. "But there is a missing ingredient. It could be that, since they weren't under the gun like Webb, the students weren't as motivated. We need to find out why they didn't make it."

The Texas Education Agency now has the power to close the school over the summer if it feels that progress isn't being made. But the district hopes the agency will give the school another year to turn around. Paul Saldaña, who's been running a mentorship program at Johnston for the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, believes the school is finally getting the resources it needs. "We haven't been given enough time for the changes to take hold," he says. "This is a school that's had an incredible amount of turnover in the principal's office. And you have kids at the school who really don't have an adult advocating for their eduction. They're being raised in single-parent homes, and the parents are often working multiple jobs and don't have time to get involved."

Saldaña's program is recruiting mentors to help students make it successfully to graduation. This year they paired 50 mentors with freshmen; next year they hope to have at least 75 more. Saldaña believes it's going to take a grassroots effort to get families and students to invest in the school. "We have to tailor the model to the Hispanic community," he says, "and that requires a lot of face-to-face communication, meetings, and hands-on instruction. We're facilitating that."

It could be that Johnston's high school redesign, which values relationships and encourages students to pursue their own interests, is having a positive effect that's difficult to measure. Camille DePrang, a Johnston teacher, believes the school shouldn't be judged just by the numbers. "The school has been transformed for the better," DePrang says. "But you can't expect to completely turn around 20 years of neglect in two years."

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