A Plan and the Man With Its Fate in His Hands
The repurposing of Pearce Middle School
On Monday, Aug. 3, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees voted unanimously in favor of a repurposing plan to reopen Pearce Middle School on Aug. 24 with new staff and a new instructional model. The next morning, the plan was shuttled to Education Commissioner Robert Scott for his approval, and before close of business, he'd given it the thumbs-up. Now the district just has to implement the plan in a little more than two weeks.
Coming into the Monday meeting, the stated aim of both Scott and AISD was to provide the best possible education for Pearce families. But Superintendent Meria Carstarphen told the board this is part of a much bigger strategy for the whole district, with one simple goal: "Every child at or above grade level within three years." That goal was at the cornerstone of the Pearce proposal, and board President Mark Williams argued it represents the best and most supported path. "We have a unified district, staff, community, families, neighborhood that all say, 'This is a plan that we can live with; we accept this plan for our kids,'" he said.
Even with that support, Pearce's fate was Scott's decision. If he hadn't said yes, it was unlikely that another plan could be implemented in time – meaning the school would stay closed. Even after a month of talks between AISD and the Texas Education Agency, there were no guarantees. On July 31, Scott told a press conference he'd discussed handing the campus over to "an alternative management provider" and had a contender lined up. "If for some reason Austin's plan fell through, that's what my option would be," he said.
But whether Scott approved the plan or not, Williams said, the effort is about more than just Pearce: It's "a first step in a long-overdue effort to enhance education on the Eastside." However, he added, "The demographics in this district have changed, and it's not just the Eastside any more." With its large Hispanic and growing Asian population, Education Austin President Louis Malfaro noted, "The North is the Eastside now." Problematically, the state accountability system breaks children down as either white, Hispanic, or African-American, yet Williams noted, "In Lanier [High], there are over 50 different languages spoken at home in the families of kids." In part, those demographic realities are why the board hired Carstarphen. "She comes from a multicultural community in St. Paul [Minn.] where there's no dominant ethnic majority," Williams said.
Carstarphen's arrival marks an opportunity for a fresh start, which she acknowledged when she called the repurposing process "a huge step for the community to trust blindly the administration, my staff, and me." But that doesn't wipe away all prior sins and errors, so the pressing and historic issue remains East Austin. Williams explained: "For a lot of people, that's where we have to start, because that's where was left behind the earliest. ... If we do something that's good in East Austin, if it's curriculum or academic instruction or teachers or student support, it will hopefully be a good pattern for everybody." But one of the most important lessons for AISD in the Pearce process, and before that Johnston High and Webb Middle, is the value of community involvement through groups such as the St. John Neighborhood Association and the African American Men & Boys Harvest Foundation. In many of the faster-growing areas of Austin, Williams said, "there's not a natural, organized neighborhood group that can take the lead with the entire community, so we're going to have to work out how to engage all those stakeholders."
Now the clock is ticking, with new teachers scheduled to report on Aug. 10 and classes starting Aug. 24. Carstarphen warned the board, "Staffing the school with the high-quality staff that we need ... will be a challenge," and it may inhibit the ability to fully implement the plan to its greatest impact. There may still be room for some negotiation: Since the only area Pearce failed was science, and the repurposing plan calls for its science staff to be completely replaced, Malfaro asked the board to request that Scott use the discretionary powers granted to him last legislative session to lift the current cap of retaining only 25% of staff. Since the other departments have turned their scores around, he said, "Let the rest of the people come back." That may not be so easy: 15 core area teachers (almost half the teaching staff) have already left, and the district estimates that, with additional counseling, support, and administrative positions, there could be 70 vacancies to fill.
Even after this effort, the district has cold, hard proof that a repurposing plan is still just a plan. Eastside Memorial, which took over the old Johnston campus last August, has been classified "academically unacceptable" this year. Board Vice President Vince Torres said Scott "wants a school that is academically superior to any other middle school in the district. But to do that by August 24th is impossible."