Changing Course

AISD shifts to community-based model for prepping younger kids for college

James E. Pearce College Prep Academy Principal Texanna Turner
James E. Pearce College Prep Academy Principal Texanna Turner (Photo by John Anderson)

There are some words Pearce Middle School Principal Texanna Turner does not want to hear. Nobody on her campus is to be called kids, or boys and girls, or even students. From now on, they are scholars. She explained, "When the kids were here for orientation and I talked to them about being scholars, I told them to correct us when we call them students, and we will correct them, because scholars are people who are successful in college."

Middle school sounds a little early to be talking about college, but Austin Inde­pen­dent School District parents better get used to it. This fall, AISD and Austin Community College launched a bold new venture: the Early College High School Initiative. Start­ing with Reagan and LBJ high schools, the idea is not only to get more students into college but also to get them there faster, keep them in school, and give them the tools to graduate into the work force more quickly. The aim is nothing short of a wholesale rebuilding of the culture of college applications, particularly in communities with little to no tradition of higher education – English-language learners, kids from low-income households, and minorities. Yet those reforms are not restricted to the high schools. The vertical teams for both campuses, from prekindergarten to graduation, are being reshaped to fit that new model.

Pearce is part of that process. Last year, the East Austin middle school was run as a stripped-down campus housing only seventh and eighth graders while staff members were hired and trained for a new, early-college-prep system. Now all those students have gone either straight into Reagan's regular classes or into a new eighth grade college prep academy. In turn, Pearce has taken roughly 400 rising fifth and sixth graders from Andrews, Blanton, Harris, Pecan Springs, and Winn elementary schools. Turn­er is fully aware that, under the state's accountability ratings, all five of those campuses have been classified as "academically acceptable" or better for the last three years. She explained: "I know Pearce is considered 'academically unacceptable,' but the kids that are coming to us? They're not." Whatever those elementaries did right, she said, "We need to build on it, not have them regress."

But the restructuring is about more than getting the campus back up to "academically acceptable" status. It is about preparing her scholars for higher education. The curriculum has been reshaped to mesh with the early college high school model: All sixth graders will take a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) course, followed by a gateway to engineering class in seventh grade, preparing them for Reagan's engineering course. There will be a new emphasis on pre-Advanced Placement classes, and each scholar will take three semesters of college awareness courses. Even the name has changed: Pearce Middle School becomes James E. Pearce College Preparatory Acad­emy. Turner argued that linguistic shifts, as much as the programmatic change, will alter the learning culture. She said, "College is six, seven years off for these kids, but you can't wait until they're juniors until you start saying, 'Let's get ready for college.'" While that seems a little overly pragmatic for middle schoolers, Turner said, "We don't want them to lose that 'I'm gonna be an astronaut.' ... We want them to keep saying those things, but you still have to put things in place to make those things possible."

This is a big change for Pearce, which has been the poster child for ailing campuses: in and out of "academically unacceptable" status for years, repurposed, threatened with closure, and saved at the last minute. The end result is a revolving door for staff. Two years ago, Trana Allen was brought in as principal from Round Rock ISD's Berk­man Elementary after she bumped up its scores. Within her first year, Pearce had moved from "academically unacceptable" to "academically acceptable" status, yet when the state tightened standards this year, Pearce slipped back. Allen went back up to Round Rock, and Turner was in, moving from her position as middle school director at Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. However, Turner is optimistic that these latest reforms will work because they are part of a bigger package. She said, "My goal as a middle-school person is getting our scholars ready to go into Reagan and LBJ in the early college program."

Travis High School counselor Roy Larson
Travis High School counselor Roy Larson (Photo by John Anderson)

This is all part of a statewide debate. In the 2009 legislative session, the mantra was "college- or career-ready" – no academic remediation necessary to start college, no additional vocational training required for a job. When it comes to the number of students going to college, AISD has seen marked improvements. However, there are still enormous disparities between campuses. High schools in more affluent areas are most likely to send children to college, and those kids are more likely to head straight into a four-year institution. Kids in more economically disadvantaged areas are less likely to go to college, and if they do, odds are that they will go to a two-year rather than a four-year institution. And getting into college is only half the picture. A recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that, nationally, college enrollment is up among Hispanics who have completed high school: The problem is what happens when they get there. Only 66% of Hispanic students completing high school go straight to college, compared with 71% of white students. More worryingly, only 18% of Hispanic students will have earned a bachelor's degree by the age of 26, compared with 38% of white students. With more than 50% of AISD students identified as Hispanic, those trends are being keenly monitored by the Greater Aus­tin Hispanic Chamber of Com­merce. Stefan Molina, the chamber's newly appointed director of foundation and program development, said, "If we can't get our students, particularly Hispanic, to graduate from college or some post-secondary education, then we can't help out our businesses with an educated work force."

The Hispanic chamber already partners with Dobie and Martin middle schools to provide Advancement Via Individual Deter­mination programs, which encourage kids to enroll in AP classes. Molina said: "A lot of times with our Hispanic students, and just in general, they're extremely intelligent. It's just about giving them the confidence to make that second step." For Molina, Hispanic mentors are particularly vital in introducing Hispanic kids to the idea of college since they can tackle "the cultural competency, the language barriers, defining scholarships, and getting the families involved." Like Turner, he argued for a culture shift, which means having members of the Hispanic business community explaining the value of college education: "A lot of our students, particularly our Hispanic students, need to see that because it's not something they see every day." At the same time, he was supportive of the current programmatic changes coming – with one warning. "There really is no such thing as a pilot program when it comes to education. You can't just try something and it fails. It has to work the first time."

The truth is that the Early College High School Initiative is just the latest in a long succession of efforts to fix those disparities. So excuse Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis if he is optimistically cautious about this round – especially after the year his members have endured. Between schools being repurposed, massive layoffs, and the district's ongoing failure to provide a competitive wage, they feel pummeled. Nonethe­less, he said: "People are excited about the new year starting. It's a way of putting last year behind and starting something new." When it comes to college readiness, he said: "It's important that we define what that really means. Education is full of catchphrases, of moments du jour, and a lot of times they don't have any real meat in them. We want to have programs that have substance." He noted that AISD boasts that 86% of its students submit a college application. "Well, that's great," he said. "But how many kids are actually going to college, how many kids are finishing their first year at college, and how many of those kids are actually going to get a degree? Let's track this. Let's not get excited about a false positive."

Teaching to the Tests

For the reforms to be truly effective, they cannot be restricted just to Reagan and LBJ – especially since the state is shaking up the high school testing system again. Over at Travis High, counselor Roy Larson is preparing for the new school year knowing that the incoming freshman class will be the first to face the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR tests. In another new slice of college-centric terminology, they will form a freshman community with two assistant principals, a counselor, and a group of core academic teachers. A big part of that staff's job will be teaching these kids the difference between STAAR and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS tests. So far, most discussions about STAAR center on how it affects the state's dreaded accountability ratings. To give campuses a chance to adapt to the new tests, the Texas Education Agency suspended the campus accountability ratings for one year. However, Larson notes, "While as an entity we are going to get a reprieve, the students don't."

STAAR is in many ways a throwback to the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the testing system in place before TAKS was introduced in 2003. Like STAAR, TAAS depended on end-of-course testing, which Larson said he prefers to TAKS' end-of-school exit exams "because it actually measured what I did that year, as opposed to relying on years' worth of previous instruction before the student ever set foot in my class." However, that means getting students and teachers up to speed on the new structure: "Now a ninth-grade test is high stakes for these students, whereas it was just 11th grade in the past." Even more worryingly, Larson said, the Texas Education Agency "hasn't given us what the scoring system is yet." So far, little is known beyond jargon: There will be a minimum acceptable score, a minimum passing score, and a minimum advanced score. The TEA has yet to release those targets, but even without that vital information, Larson said, "We're trying to make the students understand: You don't want that minimum acceptable score because that's failing, and you'll have to do even better in your next years."

Ever one to find the silver lining, Turner said: "It's going to be kind of nice this year, I think, just to teach and do things we know that are right. We'll just have to hope at the end that it worked."

ACC Is the New UT

Mary Hensley, ACC's executive vice president of college operations
Mary Hensley, ACC's executive vice president of college operations (Photo by John Anderson)

Drew Scheberle, the Austin Chamber of Commerce's senior vice president for Edu­ca­tion and Talent Development, is less forgiving. Since much of TEA's senior administration has been at the agency for more than a decade, they have worked through transitions like this before. "This is not their first rodeo," he said, and there's little excuse for leaving school administrators in the dark. Not only is it unfair to districts and campuses ("Accountability is supposed to be a clear, preemptive set of expectations, and this commissioner sets expectations after kids have passed the test"), but Scheberle argued that it will hit students aiming for admission to a state university under the top 8% rule. With the new scoring system, he said, "hundredths of a point matter, and 15 percent of their grade for a class is tied to their end-of-course test. School districts don't know how to set that 15 percent."

For Zarifis this is all a direct, if sometimes muddled, response to a larger national fixation: that a four-year degree is a cultural and economic panacea. But he wants the district to pay closer attention to the career side of the "college- or career-ready" equation. He said: "I just spoke to a teacher at Crockett [High School] who still teaches an auto-mechanic class, and what a great thing to still have! What a fortunate campus to have that! Not that every student who is deemed 'not college ready' by a counselor should be shoved in that class, but if I choose to want to know more about cars and I choose to work on them for a living, then by god that should be just as respected as the kid that wants to go to Harvard."

Scheberle went further, arguing that "college-or-career ready" may be a false division. In Central Texas, he said, "Living-wage jobs require an associate degree, some kind of serious certificate, or bachelor's and beyond." That applies to the kind of skilled engineering jobs that some high school graduates want. "If you're talking electrician, that's a serious credential," he said, "If you're talking plumber, that's a serious credential." That's why he wants AISD's current 66% college enrollment rate closer to 70% – to fit with the business community's idea of college- or career-ready. When they are hiring, their thinking is simple, Scheb­erle explained: "Do we have to go back and train you in the academic part of what we'd thought you had learned?"

For students, that means blurring the line between high school, higher education, and vocational training. For decades, the academic paradigm has been simple: High school is high school, college is college, and never the twain shall meet. Increasingly, junior colleges are supplementing their role as a post-public-school destination by playing a deeper role in high school graduation. "We have to actively work to melt those barriers away so there is fluidity between those institutions and students can avail themselves of higher education at a much earlier age," said Mary Hensley, Austin Community College's executive vice president of college operations.

ACC is already the higher-ed destination of choice for 26% of all college-bound AISD students (compared with only 6% headed to UT), but it is also playing an increasingly pivotal role in their path to graduation. Take the administration of AISD's career and technical education program. Hensley said: "Anyone would think that they are Austin ISD staff. They office there, they do everything there, but they actually are employed by ACC, and they do everything from curriculum development to ensuring the certifications are suitable for courses to textbook selection, professional development, the hiring of teachers, making sure that teachers are appropriately certified."

The big push is on dual-credit courses, provided by ACC through its Early College Start program: Any high school junior or senior living within the taxing district can take dual-credit courses for free, while other students pay a nominal fee. Last year, according to Hensley, 16,717 high school students took some form of class at ACC: 4,590 were from AISD, and around 3,000 of those took dual-credit courses. While passing an Advanced Placement test may make it easier to get into college, walking into college with a semester's worth of dual credits means a student can earn a degree faster and save money on tuition. That could make for a tough choice for families who have never sent a kid to college before, but that price point issue could be the deciding factor. "College is simply not affordable for a lot of these low-income families," said Molina.

Bridging the Gaps

However, economically, these bold steps to increasing college readiness could not come at a worse time. School finance woes made headlines all summer, but lawmakers also pulled nearly $2 billion from college financial aid while slashing community college funds. ACC alone lost around $10 million in state cash, even while its enrollment has soared. Neil Vickers, ACC's associate vice president of finance and budget, explained, "Not only did we not get a theoretical 20 percent increase, we actually took a 15 percent decrease." That is nothing new: In 2001, the state contributed 41% of ACC's revenue. "This upcoming year, they're going to fund just under 18 percent of our budget," Vickers said. For now, ACC is covering that shortfall through tuition increases, bigger class sizes, and cuts to administration. However, one expense will remain sacrosanct: The dual-credit programs will remain free. Vickers said, "ACC and the board feel strongly that that is a very good program for the community."

For all the attention paid to big projects, there are always lots of small gaps to be filled, many of which are being covered outside of the regular school day and school budget. At Pearce, Turner wants to add short support sessions around and between regular classes. ACC runs bridge programs across the summer, which Hensley called "intensive interventions" to help students catch up with the college readiness standard. The Hispanic chamber runs mentoring programs in several AISD schools, plus a STEM program at Martin and Dobie middle schools, aimed particularly at increasing student interest in well-paying technical careers. Similarly, the Austin chamber, through Austin Partners in Education, will sink $500,000 into college readiness programs in AISD, plus $50,000 in Round Rock and another $50,000 split between a robotics program in Del Valle and computer gaming programming for Pflugerville. For the last four years, chamber members have been part of a tutoring program working with small groups of seniors. "There's a lot of accountability in a one-to-three setting," said Scheberle, who has tutored at Lanier, Eastside Memorial, and Akins high schools. These sessions are not reteaching the entire curriculum for the whole class but honing in on particular areas where individual students are struggling. Scheberle argued that, while the topics may be small, the impact can be surprising: "There's not a big spread between graduating and being college-ready. But if you're in that remedial class in college, your chances of graduating from college go down five- or sixfold."

Ultimately, that will be the real test of the success of all these programs. Not when Turner's middle school scholars integrate into Reagan or when Larson's freshmen get their first STAAR test results back, or even when ACC welcomes the next round of former AISD students. It will only come when – or if – the graduates of the early-college-prep system earn their degrees.

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