TEA to Pearce: Drop Dead

School officials and community are blindsided by agency's decision to close Pearce Middle School

AISD board member Cheryl Bradley addresses a crowd at Pearce Middle School.
AISD board member Cheryl Bradley addresses a crowd at Pearce Middle School. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

According to the Texas Education Agency, Commissioner of Education Robert Scott's decision to close Pearce Middle School, announced last week, isn't the end. It's supposed to be a fresh start for the campus and the community, and Scott is waiting for the district to deliver a new plan for the new academic year. District staff are now working on that plan, based on the realignment proposal that was already in place but with more emphasis on science and the teaching of English as a second language. But district leaders and stakeholders fear Scott has set impractical deadlines that mean they cannot assure parents, teachers, and students that there will be a Pearce to attend in the fall.

The latest decision goes back to the state's school "accountability" standards. On July 2, Scott sent a letter to new Austin Independent School District Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, officially informing her that Pearce had fallen short for the fifth consecutive year. In fact, after a yearlong, community-supported effort, the school had reached the standards to be classified "acceptable" in social studies, writing, reading, and math. However, only 39% of all students taking the TAKS test passed in science, falling short of the current 50% requirement. Scott told her he would be dissolving the school but giving the district the ability to present a "repurposing" plan to reopen the doors in August. "It was a surprise on multiple fronts," said AISD board of trustees President Mark Williams. "One, the timing, and two, the actual decision."

The decision on its face seems simple: Five years of failing grades was enough, and TEA Communications Director Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said that Pearce's "long track record came into play." In his letter to Carstarphen, Scott noted that the school had been in trouble eight out of the last 10 years. As a result, he wrote, "State law establishes an expectation that the students assigned to Pearce be provided a more effective learning environment."

But it's the accountability law itself that's got stakeholders angriest. Scott's decision was done under House Bill 3, the new school accountability standards passed in the last regular session. Under the old rules, when a school failed to hit the standards for five successive years, it was automatically closed or repurposed. Under the new rules, the commissioner has the discretionary power to give a one-year extension. "The old law would have made it mandatory for us to close Pearce; the new law makes it permissible," said Ratcliffe. However, she added, "It still comes down to a judgment call."

AISD trustee Cheryl Bradley thinks Scott should rethink that call. Pearce is in her district, and when she heard Scott's decision, she said, "You could have bought me for a penny; I was just that shocked." As for Scott's decision, she added, "It does not say, 'I care about the people that I'm supposed to be here to take care of.'" Speaking to a hastily organized public meeting at the school last Friday, Bradley declared she would fight the closure: "I will be damned if I allow this school to be closed."

As a lawmaker and a Pearce alum, Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, was equally shocked. Pearce is right in the heart of her district, so she followed HB 3 closely in the session. "There were so many assurances that closure would be a last resort," she said, "It's almost as if the bill didn't pass."

Education Austin President Louis Malfaro was in Washington for a conference when he heard about the closure. He found Scott's "eight out of ten years" argument particularly infuriating, since it's based on where Pearce was and not where it is now. He said, "If any school has made its case that the community is rallying behind it and it's making academic improvement, that's Pearce."

There are also major concerns that Scott and the district were receiving seemingly contradictory messages from TEA staff, especially the management team and the campus intervention team deployed by TEA at Pearce last year. Williams said, "We worked with them the entire year, and I don't feel that there was any indication to us from them that this was the direction we would take." In fact, on June 10 TEA awarded Pearce a $50,000 Investment Capital Fund Grant to create a food garden, intended as the cornerstone of nutrition teaching in science and math curriculum. He added, "The management team had told us that they were supportive of us continuing." Not so, says the TEA. "Maybe that's something they said orally," Ratcliffe said, but she pointed to their April to June status report, in which they simply told Scott's office that Pearce was on track to fail.

Whatever signs may have been sent earlier, Williams said the timing of the announcement compares poorly to the 2008 decision on repurposing Johnston High. Back then, Scott sent the district a letter on June 4: The last day of the academic year but a month before the board broke for the summer. This time, there was a month's less warning, at the heart of the summer vacation season, posted the day after Carstarphen took over the district and more than a month before the next scheduled board meeting.

TEA to Pearce: Drop Dead
Photo by Jana Birchum

The TEA has its explanation for the late announcement: the H1N1 virus, aka swine flu. "That caused some of our testing to be delayed," said Ratcliffe, "But the district got preliminary results in late May, so they should have known by that point that Pearce wasn't going to make it." The district has been working with TEA on a repurposing contingency plan for more than a year, but Ratcliffe said that the most recent draft lacked sufficient detail. "In some ways, they're in a time bind because they didn't finish their planning," she said.

Any repurposing plan has to be approved by both Scott and the trustees, but the board doesn't meet again until Aug. 3, three weeks before the 2009-2010 academic year begins. Trustees fear that, if the district manages a plan, even the most committed parts of the community can't wait indefinitely. Families want to know which school their child is attending; staff want job security and may well start looking for other positions (with no seeming sense of irony, the TEA June report said one of Pearce's biggest problems was staff leaving because the threat of closure made them fear for their jobs).

So whose fault is this mess? The TEA, for sending enigmatic signals, or AISD, for not being better prepared and not giving Pearce enough of the right resources to get those science pass rates up?

"There's more than enough blame to go around," said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, herself a Pearce alum. She argues that the system is still configured to make schools fail. For example, last year, 31% of Pearce's eighth graders passed science when the pass score was 45%, but this year it was 39% with a passing score of 50%. The goal posts had been moved – by the TEA.

TEA's solution remains simply to have "better schools." Even if the district does reopen Pearce this year, Ratcliffe said, "there are a lot of other options in Austin where the students are succeeding more, and hopefully if they get those students into those schools, they'll have better success." But Williams counters that, under the district's open transfer rules, parents who wanted their children to go elsewhere could already transfer them. "This is a group of kids that have chosen to go to this school and that were working awfully hard to do that," he said.

Board Vice President Vince Torres argues that Scott's edict doesn't take into account the realities of working families that need and want a neighborhood school. As for TEA's suggestion of transporting middle-schoolers around the district, he said, "Some of those kids are a year, maybe three months, out of elementary, and you're going to bus them across town?" The better solution, he argued, would be to do what TEA has done for Powell Point Elementary, the only other state school facing closure. Since it's the only school in Kendleton ISD, southwest of Houston, they've been given an extra year to wind down the entire district. Torres said that if the TEA is putting the late announcement down to something as extraordinary as the H1N1 virus, Pearce families should get the same courtesy. "If there was something that caused a delay on [TEA's] behalf, then they should have taken that into account," he said.

For Allen Weeks, the closing is history repeating itself. As president of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, he saw his community go through the same turmoil when nearby Webb Middle School fought off closure in 2007. He's seeing the same issues with Pearce this time and fears none of them are about academic achievement or failing schools. He said, "I know there's a lot of politics about 'looking tough,' so I'm not sure where this has come from – but it's definitely not about serving the kids in the best way."

Pearce ... Reagan ... Eastside Dominoes?

Pearce isn't the only school in the district to draw Commissioner of Education Robert Scott's attention – there's also Reagan High School, expected to enter its fourth year classified as academically unacceptable when testing scores are officially released later this month. But rather than close Reagan, Scott wants the district to bring in private firms to address the school's problems.

In his July 2 letter to incoming Austin ISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, Scott informed her that, while the school would stay open and the current administration stay in place, he wants more oversight (a TEA campus intervention team is already in place) and for more new reforms to be implemented. He also ordered that the district submit a plan to bring in private tutorial and instructional services, as well as outside staff development. Not that he's reaching into state coffers to pay for these additional services. "These professional services must be acquired at the expense of the district and/or campus," he wrote.

Many have noted that this is the fourth school in East Austin to recently find itself under the threat of TEA-enforced closure: Webb Middle avoided the axe in 2007, but Johnston High became Eastside Memorial in 2008. Now it's Pearce, and Reagan is where Pearce was last year. Board of trustees Vice President Vince Torres dismissed the idea that there's some kind of conspiracy. "I can categorically say that there was no plan by the district to close [either] school or force a repurposing," he said.

But if either Pearce or Reagan closes, stakeholders fear a domino effect east of I-35. The district has already drawn up contingency plans for both schools, with options to either redraw the attendance zones or simply transfer students elsewhere in the district. Either way, if Pearce closes, the majority of students are expected to go to the two nearest Title I middle schools that are not above 115% of capacity, Dobie and Webb.

Allen Weeks, president of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, fears that moving so many kids around, especially after the disheartening experience for the Pearce kids of watching their school close, means "it's almost guaranteed that these kids are going to get off to a very poor start." With so little time to find additional staff and facilities for other schools, he said, "It's going to put a burden on them that is almost unbearable." Weeks added, "The disrespect to the community is really hard to stomach."

TAKS Passing Rates for All Pearce Students, 2007-2009

Year ReadingWritingMathSocial Studies Science
2007 6371446122
2008 6760586631
2009 7282647139

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Pearce Middle School, Robert Scott, Austin ISD, Texas Education Agency, TAKS, Reagan High School, Meria Carstarphen, Johnston High School

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