AISD High Schools Hit Target

Four schools needing Improvement last year are now meeting standards

AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz (Photo by John Anderson)

Magic bullets have become the bane of education policy: vouchers, charters, single-sex schools. As the Austin Independent School District receives some of its best performance results ever, the real story is that slow and steady is winning the race.

Celebrating what he called "a good day in Austin, and a great day in Austin ISD," at a press conference at LBJ High School last Friday, Aug. 7, Superintendent Paul Cruz ran through the headline statistics. Under the latest numbers released by the Texas Education Agency, 111 of AISD's 129 schools were classified as either Met Standard or Met Alternative Standard. That's up from 109 campuses last year, and marks the first time that every AISD high school currently open reached the state target. It's also good news for the district as a whole, which has a new record graduation rate of 86.3%. That beats last year's all-time high of 84.1%, and marks six years of continual growth. Moreover, AISD surpassed the state performance targets by double digits. Cruz said, "We have exceeded the target in every single index."

Those good numbers still leave 18 campuses unaccounted for: Of those, 10 were not rated, while eight missed the targets and so are tagged by the state as Improve­ment Required. Martin and Mendez middle schools, which got hit last year, are back on the list, and this time around they are joined by Dobie Middle School, and Brooke, Govalle, Norman, Rodriguez, and Widen elementaries.

Back to the good news. Last year, four of AISD's high schools – Eastside Memorial, International, LBJ, and Travis – were classified as Improvement Required. This year, all four are out from under the TEA gun. Not only that, but under its new early college-prep model, some of LBJ's students are graduating with multiple semesters' worth of college credit hours. Cruz said, "Students earned their associate degree in May, and their high school diploma in June."

There's relief at Eastside Memorial, the target of multiple state-mandated restructurings in recent years. With such threats waning, PRIDE of the Eastside spokesman Vincent Tovar expressed "a sense of relief, but not happiness." While he praised the campus and the district, he criticized the state, calling for "a more humane accountability system" that doesn't punish struggling schools. He said, "It's not that we made the grade and now we're good. It's, what is the grade, and how is it pressuring people to feel guilty if they don't make it?"

Magic-bullet advocates will inevitably start looking to two of the district's new middle school success stories. Last year, Garcia and Pearce middle schools were struggling. This year, re-organized as the Gus Garcia Young Men's Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy, they reached state standards. During Cruz's announcement, he faced questions about whether the district will duplicate their single-sex models in other schools. However, rather than focus on gender, instead he credited improvements on "a school culture of high expectations."

It's hard to extrapolate anything from a single year's results, especially when the two campuses are basically unrecognizable from last year, when both were co-ed. Allen Weeks, executive director of Austin Voices for Education and Youth, commended Cruz for calling the wider achievements an evolutionary, not revolutionary, result. Weeks said, "It's not an exciting strategy, but it's the right strategy, to do the right things consistently and over time."

Austin Voices has been a key partner with AISD in what is known as community schooling. That's when the entire community teams up to provide social services and resources "rather than telling the school district, you've got to fix it all," said Weeks. He points to the eight years Austin Voices has spent at Webb Middle School, and the six years at Reagan High. "Each year, those schools are doing consistently better." The district is already seeing better teacher retention in East Austin campuses. He said, "The more you do those good things long-term and consistently, the easier it is to hang on to staff." Board President Gina Hinojosa, who pointed to the value of experienced staff, echoes the sentiment. "We have the best teachers in the state. We have the most nationally certified teachers in the state, and it is that experience, that skill, and that dedication of our staff that makes this happen," she said.

For the moment, AISD staff and families can take some comfort in knowing they hit the eternally moving state accountability target. However, that target is set to change dramatically in two years: In 2017, Texas will grade campuses on an A-F scale, rather than the current pass/fail system. Lawmakers passed the shift during the last session, arguing that it will give parents and students a better snapshot of how their campus is doing. However, Weeks criticized the plan as "very shortsighted," since it creates unreasonable comparisons between schools in wildly varying neighborhoods and communities.

National opinion seems to back Weeks. The same model has been adapted in several states, but has either been quickly dumped or heavily modified. He added that he hoped Texas lawmakers follow the example of Virginia, where a similar system was thrown out before it even took effect, "just because they saw it wasn't working elsewhere."

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AISD, Paul Cruz, Texas Education Agency, Allen Weeks, Austin Voices for Education and Youth, Gina Hinojosa

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