Johnston High School Gets Another Chance

Acting education commissioner says AISD can keep Johnston open another year

The state accountability results are out for last school year, and it looks like Austin Independent School District's Johnston High School dodged a bullet. The school was rated "unacceptable," as expected, for the fourth year in a row, which gave the state the right to shut it down. But acting Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott gave word that AISD will be allowed to keep Johnston open another year. The decision gives the school another chance to meet state standards, but the school's staff and students remain under the gun. Passing standards will be even tougher next year; Johnston has to make up lost ground and then some. If the school fails again, it will almost certainly have to shut its doors.

Johnston is part of a growing number of urban schools facing imminent closure. Last year, seven schools in the state had failed standards for at least three years in a row; 15 schools are at that point this year. The system is designed to hold schools accountable for all students, regardless of race or class. So scores are broken down into individual "cells," such as white, Hispanic, African-American, and poor. That means diverse urban schools can be judged in 26 cells, while more homogenous rural and suburban schools have far fewer ways to fail. "Austin schools have a total of 1,508 separate accountability measures to meet," Superintendent Pat Forgione said. "Austin passed in 1,429 of those cells. That's a 95% success rate. But whenever a school misses the standard on one or more cells, it gets a scarlet 'U' for unacceptable."

There are signs that Austin's struggling schools can make the grade. Webb Middle School, which the AISD administration had proposed closing next year, surprised almost everyone by meeting the standards this year. Two other schools that had been rated unacceptable last year -- Crockett High School and Dobie Middle School -- were rated acceptable this year. And six elementary schools that receive Title I funds, meaning they have a high proportion of students from poor families, were rated as "recognized" this year. Still, Austin had 10 schools rated "unacceptable," which is up from eight last year, and all but two of these schools are middle and high schools.

Forgione promised to target aggressively these "unacceptable" schools with more staff, resources, and teacher training, including specialists in high-need areas, student summer camps, better-prepared bilingual teachers, and a host of other remedies. At the high schools, he promised to roll out a new program called First Things First. Forgione has announced a new, major initiative at Johnston three years in a row, but he says this is different. "Those programs were our own homegrown initiatives," he said. "First Things First is a proven strategy that has worked across the country. It comes with a scientific way of evaluating teachers in the classroom. It's the right model, and we will see dramatic changes at Johnston."

The phrase "dramatic changes" is likely to strike fear into parents and students at Johnston, which, until last year, went through principals like McDonald's goes through cooks. The really good news, however, is not the new plan -- we've heard that before -- but the fact that the school will continue to see stability. Principal Celina Estrada-Thomas, her three top administrators, and more than 80% of the staff are returning to the school. "There's something about this school and this community that grabs you," Estrada-Thomas said. "I couldn't see leaving."

Teachers and students report the environment at the school is much better than it used to be. It could be that Johnston needs consistency more than a radical new plan. So it may be a good sign that many of the strategies in First Things First, such as small learning communities, are already in place at the school. Estrada-Thomas says the biggest difference will be that teachers will get immediate help from dedicated curriculum specialists. "It's not a completely new strategy," she says. "We already have the right concept, and I think we are hitting our stride."

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Johnston High School, AISD, Robert Scott, Webb Middle School, Crockett High School, Dobie Middle School, Pat Forgione, First Things First

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