Pearce Closing: Scorched Earth, Uncertain Horizon

Pearce community is trying to work through the closure crisis

AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen addresses a packed house at Pearce Middle School July 15.
AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen addresses a packed house at Pearce Middle School July 15. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

The Texas Education Agency says it's the Austin Independent School District's fault that Commissioner Robert Scott intervened at Pearce Middle School and that he's trying to get the district to prioritize troubled schools. But AISD worries that if Scott is destroying the village to save it – by ordering Pearce closed or "repurposed" by next month – he also torched it before organizing the evacuation. Board of trustees Vice President Vince Torres said: "The long-term solution may be in the best interest of the district, but this short-term penal approach? It may hurt us, but it will hurt the kids far more."

It could also further damage AISD's reputation in East Austin, where trust in the district is already in short supply. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen knew that when she walked into a public forum at the Pearce gym on July 15. Before she took the job as CEO of AISD, she had laid out her philosophy of district management (see "AISD: A Chat With the New Super," May 1). "A community needs to work with both the board and the superintendent/administration to create the plan for what we're going to do," she had said. She was looking to the roughly 700 attendees to give her that guidance for Pearce. She got some, but she also drew heavy criticism for what the district hadn't achieved (like real investment in the Eastside) and what it had done (like designing a sufficient contingency plan for Pearce's closure, even though it's mandated by state law) prior to her arrival. (See "Five Options and the Next Step," below.)

As an introduction to the district, "it's not the ideal situation," understated AISD spokes­man Andy Welch. "People are trying to understand how their kids can come home and show them their grades, and they're getting information that tells them that things are improving – yet one man can close their school."

That one man is Scott, and his decision raises fears that Pearce is caught in the middle of a strange game of chicken between TEA and AISD. That became clear when TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe told the Austin American-Statesman that AISD "didn't think we would have the guts" to close the school. In an interview with the Chronicle, Ratcliffe elaborated: "The commissioner said a couple of times that he'd like the kids on the Eastside to have the same opportunities as the kids on the West side," but TEA was "frustrated" by AISD's seeming indifference to the threat of mandatory repurposing.

Yet in his three-page letter to Carstarphen informing her of the closure, the first mention that the district will be allowed to submit a repurposing plan doesn't appear until three paragraphs down on the second page. In that light, TEA's current stance baffled AISD board of trustees President Mark Williams. "I don't know what signal they got from the district that we were 'double-daring' them," he said. The district had been getting positive feedback from both the TEA management team and the campus intervention team at Pearce, and, he added, "AISD is still trying to work with the TEA in a helpful and collaborative way."

But who is Scott fighting? When he sent his July 2 letter to the district (see timeline), he targeted 10 years of Pearce's records – the time that Superintendent Pat Forgione ran the district. But Forgione has retired, and the district is in management transition, with a new superintendent implementing an educator-backed structural overhaul of the administrative staff and the educational agenda (see "AISD Staff Shake-Up," July 3). Torres said that process started in 2006, when an almost completely new board membership was confronted with the wake-up call of the threat of Johnston High School's closure. He explained: "I don't know what the previous board was doing, I don't know what the super was trying to do, but they weren't getting things done. But you can see, if you look at the data, things start to change after that election." While there's still much work to do, he said, in that three-year period Pearce and other suffering schools have made measurable improvements.

Now the question is whether Pearce is being sacrificed to make a political point and whether the crushing deadline of the new school year means any plan, especially with TEA's long list of concerns, could be implemented before August. Ratciffe noted, "We're willing to work with [AISD] as long as it takes, but there's a diminishing opportunity for this year."

Timeline of Pearce's Closure Order

May 20: Austin ISD receives preliminary TAKS results, indicating Pearce achieved passing standards for all cells except eighth-grade science.

June 10: TEA awards Pearce a $50,000 grant for nutritional science teaching.

June 19: House Bill 3, the new school accountability standards, becomes law.

June 30: AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione retires.

July 1: Superintendent Meria Carstarphen assumes office.

July 2: Commissioner Robert Scott mails closure letter to Carstarphen.

July 3: AISD offices and schools closed for Independence Day weekend.

July 6: Scott's letter arrives at AISD; board of trustees is informed of the letter's content.

July 8: Public announcement of Pearce closure.

July 15: AISD holds Pearce public forum.

Aug. 3: First scheduled board work group in 2009-2010 school year.

Aug. 10: New teacher orientation begins; first regular board meeting.

Aug. 24: Classes start.

Five Options and the Next Step

AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen presented five choices to the July 15 Pearce community meeting, and a majority of the 450 who responded (both at the meeting and online) backed Option 2. In this scenario, Carstarphen would work directly with Commissioner Robert Scott on a repurposing plan. The outcome, and Carstarphen's ability to keep stakeholders informed, may well set the tone for her future relationship with East Austin.

Option 1: Submit a modified version of the district's refinement and realignment plan as a proposal to repurpose Pearce for 2009-2010.

Pros: Ready to go now.

Cons: Scott has already rejected earlier drafts.

Community response: 13%

Option 2: Submit a repurposing proposal for 2009-2010 based on discussions between the superintendent and commissioner.

Pros: Gives Carstarphen flexibility to negotiate with Scott.

Cons: Requires closed-door negotiations that could alienate stakeholders.

Community response: 58%

Option 3: Don't submit a repurposing proposal for 2009-2010; create new instructional design for 2010-2011 and the future.

Pros: More time to create a school that really fits community needs.

Cons: Places extra resource strain on neighboring schools that would have to absorb current Pearce students.

Community response: 22%

Option 4: Request a records review related to the closure of Pearce.

Pros: Might find errors in TEA's analysis of TAKS scores.

Cons: Depends on Scott overturning his own decision.

Community response: 4%

Option 5: Pursue other ideas generated by the community.

Pros: Builds stakeholder buy-in for the project.

Cons: Unlikely to come up with a workable plan before 2010.

Community response: 4%

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Pearce Middle School, Austin ISD, Meria Carstarphen, Texas Education Agency, Robert Scott

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