Next Initiative

Turn the school around

On Feb. 22, the Austin ISD board of trustees passed one of its most significant measures in recent history when members approved the new school "Turnaround Initiative" – a new district policy to bring partner agencies onto troubled campuses, in the hopes of fixing them before the state steps in with mandatory "repurposing." Indeed, in anticipation of the formal adoption, the district released a request for proposals on Feb. 2, asking for a broad range of proposals from outside agencies, and it plans to have the first partnerships in place in the fall.

The plan comes with a $4.5 million price tag for the first year, which the district hopes will be offset by program changes and long-term savings – including the millions of dollars otherwise spent on a mandatory repurposing. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said her intention is "to match a campus with a partner or provider that is able to appreciate the challenges within the school and its community, appreciate and value the proud history of all residents, and provide a compelling vision, plan, and implementation of proven, research-based educational reform."

This is exactly the kind of program that trustees wanted from Carstarphen when they hired her. The board strengthened the language for the initiative from its first draft, allowing Car­star­phen to initiate the policy the first year a campus is found academically unacceptable, rather than waiting until year two. Board Presi­dent Mark Williams said the initiative played to Carstarphen's skills and said: "If I look at Meria and contrast her with [retired Superintendent Pat Forgione], he wanted to do it all himself. One of the strengths of Meria is her community involvement."

Education Austin President Louis Malfaro described the plan as half bold new vision, half facing up to political realities. He pointed to the Texas Education Agency's interest in such programs and noted that Education Commissioner Robert Scott said, "I've got five management companies, and I think you should talk to these guys, because if I close your schools, this is who I'm giving them to anyway."

Since Minnesota doesn't have a mandatory repurposing law, Carstarphen's only experience of large-scale campus intervention during her time as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools was a matter of policy, not state edict: When AISD hired her in February 2009, she was midway through repurposing four campuses. She was also a big advocate for specialty schools and forging strong links with the business community, such as the Farns­worth Aero­space PreK-8 School, a public-private partnership that works with firms such as 3M's Aero­space and Aircraft Maintenance Division. While Williams said he doesn't expect such direct corporate partnerships, he suggested that "the question is how we engage community partners like Big Brothers Big Sisters and neighborhood groups to really get involved."

Malfaro said his union has spent the last year talking to the district about setting up parent-run, teacher-supported, in-district charters, which he said could create "a truly community-run school." But he estimated that would take at least a year to establish. Since all proposals are due by March 8 for approval no later than June and implementation as early as the start of the 2010-11 academic year in August, he's concerned that reopens the door to groups like Community Education Partners, whose earlier proposal for a privately run academic intervention program was strongly rejected by the board (see "AISD," Oct. 2, 2009). While Malfaro called the overall idea of turnaround "very intriguing to us, this looks a lot like bringing in some private company to run the show."

So far, there's no indication of what the proposals may contain. When the district starts sorting through the submissions, said board Vice President Vince Torres, the selection process will be a test for both Carstarphen's management style and that of the board. He added, "We have to give her much greater latitude in coming to us with the best solutions, and then hold her accountable when they do or do not reach the objectives the proposers said they had."

  • More of the Story

  • Back to School

    Carstarphen and Austin ISD trustees wrestle over priorities, budget, and power

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Austin ISD, Meria Carstarphen, Mark Williams, Louis Malfaro, Robert Scott

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