Hogwarts at Austin High?

Some Austin High parents say the Academy of Global Studies should be its own school

Austin High School
Austin High School (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Out of the roughly 2,100 students at Austin High School, about one in seven attend its Academy of Global Studies. Established two years ago as part of the Asia Society's International Studies Schools Net­work, this small learning environment currently provides pre-Advanced Placement classes for ninth and 10th graders from the Austin High community. But parents of kids in the host school fear the academy skews student results, placing their children at a disadvantage in class rankings. So now they want the Austin Independent School District to formally separate the two programs into two schools.

Lurinda McNamara already has one child in Austin High and two middle schoolers she hopes will follow their elder sibling. While they would prefer to take the Advanced Place­ment track in the main high school, she said, "They may end up having to enroll in AGS just to compete academically." She accepts that the academy helps individual students, but, she added, "We're just asking that students are allowed to compete with their peers."

But academy parents argue that the school should have more academies, rather than exiling the one it has. Montse de Muller has a 10th grader in the program: She chose to place him there because of the international studies aspect of its curriculum and the well-established benefits of small learning communities. She said: "All the testimony that I get from parents at Global Studies is that it works. The kids are pumped up to learn, and they're making a difference." Rather than seeing the academy as competition for the host school, she argued it is "a step in the right direction" toward improving education for all Austin High kids by establishing new best practices.

Those best practices are part of the contention. The academy works with extra tuition and interdisciplinary studies, as well as a master calendar to tackle problems such as clashing test dates. McNamara explained: "It's not that it's less rigorous, but there are inherent advantages. That's the whole purpose of a small learning community." While the extra resources created some tension between the two communities, the breaking point was the academy's approach to grading and testing. She said, "There were no points taken off for late work, and you could retake tests as often as you wanted."

McNamara fears the program, which has a higher proportion of Anglo-American students than the host school, has become a way to counter "white flight" through increased resources. Noting these concerns, Austin High Principal Lucio Calzada released figures showing that, while the academy's demographics do not reflect the general school population, it reflects AP enrollment and actually has a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students taking four AP classes. In a May 20 letter to parents, he wrote, "To borrow an analogy, we are not going to eliminate our softball team just because more Hispanic players are on the team than the school's percent of Hispanics." (Calzada and AISD board of trustees President Mark Williams have children in the academy.)

Even with all these tensions, McNamara said no one wants to close or relocate the academy. Nonacademy parents seeking to have the academy given its own Public Education Information Management System number are currently involved in an appeal process. After being rejected by the campus administration and Associate Superintendent of High Schools Glenn Nolly, the parents turned to the AISD board of trustees. With a hearing date pending, the board declined to comment, but the district issued a brief statement, explaining that the grading and retesting issue at the academy was the result of a problem in the first two six-week grading periods of the 2008-09 academic year, which will be tough to solve retroactively. While no rules were broken, the district concluded there were "grading disparities" that were solved with new "campus-wide, consistent guidelines."

However, even with those fixes, McNamara wants the district to accept the reality that the two programs are separate entities (even the Asia Society calls the academy "a school within a school"). She points to the new Global Tech High at Eastside Memorial High School, which shares a campus with the new Green Tech High. "The district gave [it] its own PEIMS number, and that's what we're asking for," she said.

This is not a new problem. In 2001, Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, authored House Bill 1387 allowing such campus divisions. Back then, the concern was that seniors at the Math and Science Academy at LBJ High School and the Liberal Arts Academy at Johnston High (see "Naked City," March 9, 2001) dominated the top 10% college admissions slots for their host schools. Dukes explained: "The magnet program was established at these schools to improve the numbers. What they should have been doing was making sure they were putting in the resources for every kid." That's what Calzada called his ultimate aim, and he has floated the proposal to split Austin High into five "houses" (reminiscent, he wrote, "of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books") so everyone is in a small learning environment.

The final authority to issue a new PEIMS number remains with the Texas Education Agency. However, there are triggers on issues including eligible attendance and graduating class size, and it is unclear whether the academy will reach those markers. Even if the district backs the call, there's no guarantee that the rules will allow a split.

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