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Under TEA pressure, AISD makes plans to close Johnston High

Tuesday, April 22, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin Independent School District trustees approved final plans for the potential closure of Johnston High School this summer – a contingency plan required by the Texas Education Agency – and only one person showed up at Monday night’s work session to raise concerns about the beleaguered high school.


In a letter to Superintendent Pat Forgione in February, Education Commissioner Robert Scott wrote that if Johnston were — once more – rated as academically unacceptable, he would pursue “the most stringent measures available to correct the trend.” And if the circumstances didn’t seem dire enough, Scott wrote that the school district should not obligate itself to contracts with Johnston teachers since it could be fully possible the district would not be able to fulfill those contracts.


It would seem dire – even crucially important – that the Johnston community affirm its commitment to turn around scores on the campus. At last night’s work session, though, only Robert Franco, chair of the Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, appeared to address the board, saying that his real concern was not simply Johnston but the schools behind it.


“We want to look for a plan for Johnston, but we also want to look for a plan for the schools behind it,” Franco said. “I really don’t want to be up here, a year from now, talking about another school that’s in Johnston’s situation.”


Webb Middle School was able to close the gap enough to escape closure, but it only missed the cut-off scores by a handful of students. The schools to follow could easily be Pearce Middle School or Travis, Reagan and LBJ high schools. All have faced tough challenges, and parents at Johnston say the open transfer policy at the school has encouraged students to jump ship and head to places like Austin High School.


Even at this late juncture – with the fate of Johnston in the balance – the sense of urgency does not seem present at the board level. Maybe that was because the trustees were simply grudgingly complying with the state and federal mandates to create a closure plan.


Trustee Robert Schneider noted the gains the Johnston had made in recent months – for instance, attendance is up 4 percent over the prior year – and said he was not convinced the state needed to close the east side high school.


“Regardless of what happens, we need to be continuing to get those in their seats at their school and focus on teaching and learning,” Schneider said. “This community deserves the best that we can possibly provide, whatever the declarations might be from the state.”


But that’s not the way everybody feels. When the non-attendance at the event was noted to one district employee, he shrugged and said, “What else can they do?”


School district trustees approved two plans: one state and one federal. The state plan requires Johnston to outline what it needs to do to close down the campus. The federal plan requires the school district to come up with a plan to significantly redesign education on the campus to drive improvement.


TEA already has appointed a two-member state management team to make sure the campus implements its current improvement plan. A Campus Intervention Team leader also has been appointed to supervise the implementation of a School Improvement Plan that was approved by Austin trustees last fall.


This updated plan – due to TEA on Wednesday – actually takes that one-step further, asking the campus to outline how students, teachers and even furniture would be dealt with if Scott chose in June to close the campus.


The new plan, approved last night, gets down to the level of determining which students would be transferred to what high school. The district would have to consider how the influx of low-performing students would affect the receiving school’s rating; whether the receiving school also might have a rating that would allow a transfer; and whether the receiving school offered all courses necessary for juniors and seniors to graduate.


The plan even gets down to the level of deciding whether to keep the furniture on the campus, submitting a request to TEA to keep separate class ranks for Johnston students and attempting to keep students in school once the announcement is made.


If this had been sooner in the process, the education code would have given Scott greater latitude to address specific issues on the campus. Alternatively, after the second year of poor performance, he could have ordered the teachers and even principal replaced. At this point, he could either order the school closed or attempt to solicit a non-profit management company to run the school instead of the district.

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