Signs of Trouble and of Hope at Mendez Middle School

In-district charter seeks to turn around a campus' longtime struggles

Photo by Jana Birchum

Eight months ago, Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin was taken over by an in-district charter – the first of its kind in the Austin Independent School District – led by the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (T-STEM) coalition. Along with Communities in Schools (CIS) and the UTeach Institute, T-STEM was tasked with turning around a school that has struggled to pass state accountability standards for five consecutive years.

If the school doesn't improve enough in two years to receive a rating of "D" or better under Texas' current system for ranking school performance, it could face closure. Those are the stakes for the T-STEM effort; for some in the AISD community, the partnership highlights the difference state-funded grants can make for a district bracing for a financial crisis. For others, the model now in effect at Mendez – and other campuses in the future – poses an existential threat to public education.

So how much improvement has Mendez seen thus far? That depends on who's telling the story and what data is considered. More kids are in school: Daily attendance is up, and the number of students with repeated absences is down. But disciplinary actions resulting in home suspensions have risen since last year. At a school like Mendez, which is mostly attended by students from low-income families who may not have access to social services that can help improve a child's behavior in school, the prevalence of "exclusionary discipline" practices can be dire.

The Metrics That Matter

Data obtained by the Chronicle shows that last December, at the end of the first semester of the 2018-19 school year, the number of home suspensions at Mendez was about 74% higher than at the same point in the previous year. Of Mendez's just-over-600 students, English-language learners (ELL) make up 51%, and special education students 17%. Students identified as economically disadvantaged (for Title I education-funding purposes) make up more than 90% of Mendez's enrollment. Among the more vulnerable ELL and special education populations, discipline leading to home suspensions saw a bigger jump – 98% and 179% increases, respectively – than those among the whole student body. Another notable increase is among the school's black students: Although they only make up 9% of Mendez enrollment, they accounted for 20% of home suspensions – more than double the rate of the previous year. (The school is 90% Hispanic.)

Mendez Principal Joanna Carrillo-Rowley acknowledges the home suspension numbers are troubling, and says most of those occurred after other behavioral interventions failed. She points to other metrics, however, as signs that the administration's efforts are gradually having an impact, such as the improving attendance rates, which offset the impact of a year-over-year decline in total enrollment. The number of in-school suspensions is also down by nearly 15%. "We've been reading the data and trying to make sure we are meeting student needs," said Carrillo-Rowley. "Improving discipline has been a focus in our second semester, because if we do that, we'll have more students in class and learning."

Mendez Principal Joanna Carrillo-Rowley (Photo by John Anderson)
“It takes time to earn respect from the students, so we’ve been developing a plan for how to do that. I think now we are seeing the results of that effort.” – Mendez MS Principal Joanna Carrillo-Rowley

Carrillo-Rowley and other leaders at Mendez all point to a key reason why they have struggled to rein in suspensions: a lack of time to formulate a thorough disciplinary plan. T-STEM's contract to run Mendez was not approved by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) until June 28 – just two months before the first day of this school year. David Simmons, executive director of school turnaround at T-STEM, said this posed a major hurdle for partnership efforts in the first school year.

"The time factor has been a critical issue for us as we've implemented this partnership," Simmons said in a conversation with the Chronicle. "Time affords planning, and any project that has extended planning time puts itself in a better position." Simmons said T-STEM's leaders were focused on training teachers to implement problem-based learning, an instructional model that emphasizes group projects over teachers lecturing to students in their classrooms. That focus meant less time for building a thorough disciplinary plan, even with CIS – whose mission is to provide support services to help students stay in school – serving as an equal partner in the school's new leadership.

High rates of home suspensions cause many problems, most obviously that students are not in class where they could be learning. That could be especially problematic at Mendez, which turned to T-STEM to bring up the school's ranking in the state accountability system, which is largely dependent on State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam results.

The charter partnership at Mendez was established under Senate Bill 1882 (passed into state law in 2017), under which school districts can partner with groups pre-approved by TEA to try new approaches to improve student performance at struggling schools. While the districts have to grant those campuses more autonomy, they gain additional per-student funding from the state; crucially, the school earns a two-year exemption from the TEA accountability rankings, with a possible third-year waiver available.

The lack of planning time leading up to the school year was also a problem for CIS. Louise Hanks, Mendez Middle's director of school climate and culture, didn't start on the job until the first day of school. Although Hanks has extensive experience with what are known as "restorative justice" practices – intended to help students scrutinize their own actions as a way of preventing future misbehavior – she said those efforts take time. "Restorative justice is a needs-based practice," she explained. "It takes time to figure out what's happening at a school, what's working well, and what the challenges are."

"School Is Not a Place for Them"

It's difficult to reliably measure the year-over-year impact that the rise in home suspensions could have on academic performance at Mendez, because students will not take STAAR exams until later this year. Students did take midyear benchmark tests, which were constructed using questions from the 2018 STAAR exams, but that assessment has some drawbacks: The test may draw from parts of curriculum that haven't yet been taught, and the comparison data reflects students who have attended school at a particular campus for the entire year, which the midyear test-takers may not have done.

The effect of exclusionary discipline can extend beyond student performance in any given school year. "It also harms the relationship between students and their school," explained Deborah Fowler, executive director at Texas Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit that has examined the effects of exclusionary discipline on students. Fowler noted research that shows students of color and low-income students – such as nearly the entire student body of Mendez – are disproportionately subjected to exclusionary discipline compared to white and wealthier students. "Our fear is that this sends a message to students of color that school is not a place for them," Fowler said.

A study conducted in 2011 by the Council of State Governments Justice Center showed the consequences of disciplinary action on Texas students. Looking at six years of records (from seventh grade to 12th) for more than 900,000 students across the state, the research found that 31% of students with one or more suspensions or expulsions were held back a grade at least once, compared to just 5% of students without any suspensions or expulsions. Almost 10% of students who were subjected to exclusionary discipline ended up dropping out of school, compared to a 2% dropout rate among students not suspended or expelled. Furthermore, 23% of students involved in a school's disciplinary system would go on to have "contact with the juvenile justice system." Just 2% of students who were not suspended or expelled saw the same contact.

Austin ISD declined to make a district representative available to discuss the discipline problems at Mendez or the district's stance on home suspensions in general. (In 2017, the AISD Board of Trustees banned the use of discretionary suspension or expulsion in pre-K through second grade.) Instead, AISD Chief Officer for School Leadership Michelle Cavazos issued a statement to the Chronicle saying the district was monitoring progress at Mendez and that T-STEM would present an end-of-year report to the board in June. Cavazos' statement also said, "We are committed to keeping students in school during disciplinary actions to ensure students are able to still receive all services, including free or reduced lunch, and continue course work in an alternative setting."

Change or "Charterization"?

Gauging how teachers are responding to T-STEM's efforts has been difficult, because most of the faculty approached for this story were reluctant to speak on the record. Two who did are new to the profession. One of them, Alfred Bradford, who teaches sixth-grade math, started at Mendez midway through last school year. He said adjusting to the T-STEM blueprint took time, but he has seen it have an impact on student engagement with schoolwork and getting students to think beyond the lesson in front of them. He described one example where he tasked his class with creating a math-themed board game. Part of the project involved creating a promotional flier, as if the game was being sold by Hasbro. "That really lit a fire under them," Bradford said. "A lot of the kids we work with don't look to the future like that. They don't have the opportunity to stop and think about their future, so these projects can really help them dream."

Mendez MS math teacher Alfred Bradford (Photo by Jana Birchum)
“A lot of the kids we work with ... don’t have the opportunity to stop and think about their future. These projects can really help them dream.” – Mendez MS math teacher Alfred Bradford

First-year teacher Chelsea Aceves didn't take over her sixth-grade social studies class until late last semester, but even in that short time, she's beginning to see a shift in the campus climate at Mendez. "We're getting really serious about changing the culture here," Aceves said. "I see it already. Kids who weren't doing work last semester are doing much better now."

But Education Austin President Ken Zarifis says he's hearing a different story from teachers at the school who take issue with the administration's approach to discipline, which he notes can have broader impacts. "The academic success of a campus is only as powerful as the climate and culture developed on that campus," he told the Chronicle. The teacher union leader says the discipline struggles at Mendez highlight concerns he has with SB 1882 and are an early sign that the legislation will harm public schools. "Outsiders don't have an understanding of AISD culture, and when these groups come in, we begin to see the 'charterization' of our public schools." The trade-off of higher per-student funding at the expense of school oversight by elected trustees poses a problem, said Zarifis; Education Austin is currently opposed to any new SB 1882 agreements at AISD campuses.

"A Sense of Safety and Belonging"

Zarifis' fears that T-STEM may be unable to right the foundering ship at Mendez may not be borne out, however. Carrillo-Rowley, recruited by T-STEM from Midland ISD with a reputation as a campus turnaround specialist, made clear that reducing the number of suspensions was a key goal for the school's second semester. She pointed to several initiatives her administration and CIS have undertaken to achieve that goal, such as making sure all students are greeted when they enter the building and reinstating the student council to help the student body feel more empowered on campus. "These changes help [students] feel like people care," Carrillo-Rowley explained. "It helps them feel seen and be more self-confident, which improves their willingness to participate in class."

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis (Photo by John Anderson)
“Outsiders don’t have an understanding of AISD culture, and when these groups come in, we begin to see the ‘charterization’ of our public schools.” – Education Austin President Ken Zarifis

Carrillo-Rowley pointed to another program she thinks shows promise in improving classroom behavior: the junior leadership program, which was launched in January as an elective for students who are struggling with academic and/or behavior issues. The class gives students an opportunity to work together in small groups on such skills as conflict resolution and helps them put into practice "schoolwide values" like respect for others. Staffers with CIS come in twice a week to help facilitate these activities; in addition, the students receive intensive academic intervention to help with subjects they're struggling to master. "We're trying to equip them with different solutions [to conflict] rather than putting fists to faces," explained Kaeli Helmink, one of the two junior leadership teachers. She said the work has been gradual, but noted that with the students they are serving, even small improvements can make a big difference in their life at school. "For these kids, even just choosing to put forth the effort is a major win."

CIS is also stepping up with added support for both teachers and students. Hanks has implemented a "point-person" office at Mendez, a sort of on-demand conflict resolution room available to all students. The room is intended to give students a space to talk through issues without the pressure of an audience, which can cause a tense situation to escalate. Hanks said CIS will grow its intervention efforts: "If we can do restorative practices in a calm place and not as a response to disciplinary issues," Hanks said, "we'll create a sense of safety and belonging that makes it possible to soak up instruction and do well on tests."

Early data indicates these and other initiatives undertaken at Mendez are working. Discipline data showed a 54% drop in home suspensions issued since the start of the second semester; Carrillo-Rowley credited the decrease to the "responsive collaboration" between the partners in the T-STEM consortium. In her experience, any turnaround effort takes time to diagnose campus problems and craft appropriate solutions – something, she said, that could have happened last fall if they'd had more lead time. "I'm new here and CIS is new here. It takes time to earn respect from the students, so we've been developing a plan for how to do that," Carrillo-Rowley said. "I think now we are seeing the results of that effort."

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