Closing AISD Middle Schools, One Grade at a Time?
Two historically Black and Latinx middle schools set to lose sixth grade
Students, families, and educators at Martin and Mendez Middle Schools still have many unanswered questions after Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde announced early last month that both schools would no longer offer sixth grade. The plan has been proposed as a solution to declining enrollment and academic shortfalls at both campuses, but advocates fear that it won't lead to better educational outcomes and is instead a step toward closing the campuses. *
Gabriel Estrada, a former educator, leads Austin Voices for Education and Youth's Eastside Memorial Vertical Team, a collective that advocates on behalf of Eastside schools, including Martin. He told the Chronicle the decision was made before AISD leaders consulted with the community, making the district's promise to work toward educational equity "laughable." Both schools have served large numbers of Black and Latinx students.
"They're saying, 'We know what's best for you,' ... but at the same time, why would you do something so drastic like this without any conversation with the community?" Estrada said. Shrinking the schools, he says, will lead to even larger declines in enrollment and eventually to closures.
Emily Sawyer's seventh-grader is the second of her five children to attend Martin, but the campus at the lakeside end of Comal Street will no longer be an option for the younger three, enrolled in elementaries that also don't offer sixth grade. "I would have to send them to one middle school for sixth and then switch to Martin for seventh grade, and that's just not tenable," Sawyer said. Her oldest son was attracted to the school by Martin's Innovation Academy, established in 2015 for students seeking to specialize in STEAM courses (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). As the academy cohorts begin in sixth grade, it's not clear how or if it will continue at Martin.
Sawyer does not see how these changes will help student outcomes, nor has the district made much attempt to convince her and other parents, "which makes me wonder if they even know." She alluded to the district's many past changes to Eastside schools, including the 2019 vote to close four elementary campuses that predominantly served children of color, two of which (Metz and Brooke) sent students to Martin.
"I just don't want all of this upheaval to happen," Sawyer said, "and then still we don't follow through and actually give kids what they need." Some studies suggest keeping sixth-graders at elementary campuses has advantages for some students, but Sawyer said that conversation should be had separately, after the district has put more time into formulating a plan and consulting with parents and educators.
That would include educators such as Eric Ramos – a special education teacher who primarily works with sixth-graders –who aren't sure where they'll be working next year. Teacher contracts ensure they'll be offered a position elsewhere in the district, but Ramos isn't sure all his colleagues will find the move worthwhile as job security at AISD becomes more seemingly tenuous. He says the last-minute scrambling by staff is a sign the district's plan was half-baked from the get-go. He also doesn't understand why Martin, which has earned passing grades from the Texas Education Agency, is being lumped together with Mendez, which has struggled for years under different leadership teams, the latest of which is being replaced for the 2022-23 school year.
No more mask mandates: At a special called meeting last week, Elizalde told AISD trustees the administration was dropping mandatory mask requirements at its campuses beginning Monday. The move came as Travis County reentered Stage 2 of the local COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines, which advise no special precautions for ordinary indoor and outdoor activities except for travel. The decision was met with mixed feelings, as some are ready to return to post-Omicron normalcy and others remain worried about those with compromised immunity. "We are Austin; we respect each other's differences," said Elizalde. "Let us all support each other, masked or unmasked." *
Editor's note March 11 12 pm: This story has been updated since publication to clarify that Elizalde, and not the Board of Trustees, made the announcement regarding Martin and Mendez and the decision to lift the mask mandate. We regret our errors.