The Austin Chronicle

Johnston's Backup Plan

By Justin Ward, June 8, 2007, News

The release of the latest test scores from Johnston High has Austin Independent School District officials preparing for the worst. The district has drawn up a contingency plan in anticipation of a decision from state Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley on whether to close the school after three consecutive years of underperformance.

The plan would reassign more than 1,000 students to surrounding high schools, some of which are over, or near, capacity. The lion's share would be sent to nearby Reagan High, which is operating at 50% capacity; the influx of more than 700 students would nearly double Reagan's enrollment. The remainder will be divided among the rest of the neighboring schools, with around 300 going to Travis, 250 to LBJ, and 40 going to Austin High, which is already running at 108% capacity.

When the plan was first presented to teachers, parents, and students at Johnston last Thursday, some parents worried that their children might be sent from one failing school to another. Both Travis and Reagan – where most students will be reassigned – seem to be headed down the same grim path as Johnston. Based on current test scores, Reagan is expected to get its second consecutive academically unacceptable rating this year, and Travis its first. Superintendent Pat Forgione has assured parents their children will be allowed to transfer at the district's expense.

On Monday, AISD's board of trustees approved "a resolution urging that Commissioner Neeley keep the school open, and the Johnston Plan of Action," according to a district press release, which quotes Forgione describing the plan as "a rigorous, tightly designed, proven model to complement intensive, immediate District intervention with extra resources." Neeley is expected to make her decision when the final accountability ratings are released on Aug. 1 after the district has completed Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills retesting, though she may notify the district sooner in order to give it time to settle its accounts. If Neeley waits until August, it could be a logistical nightmare for the district. "I don't think there are any situations in this that aren't manageable. The biggest challenge we face in all this is the notice that you get," said Paul Turner, head of boundaries and facilities planning. "If there is a big change, we need to know about it."

If Neeley waits until after Aug. 1 to decide to close the school, the district would have less than a month before class starts to interview and reassign Johnston's entire faculty and sort out hundreds of student schedules, which have already been selected for the school year. If the Texas Education Agency decides to close Johnston, it will be the first school closed for purely academic reasons since state accountability rules were implemented, said TEA spokesperson Suzanne Marchman. The state decided to close two other schools in the past, but one can't forecast Neeley's decision based on those cases, Marchman said, since the schools were closed for both financial and academic reasons. "It's not an apples-to-apples comparison," she said.

Neeley could decide to close the school this school year or the next, depending on the circumstances. If the state keeps Johnston open, it will bring in contracted services, set performance benchmarks, and impose strict rules to ensure the school gets back on track. The Johnston Plan of Action will go before the school board Monday, June 11, for public comment and must be sent to the commissioner before June 15.

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