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Johnston community not ready for ‘repurposing’ of school

Wednesday, May 7, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin Independent School District is ready to find a new purpose for Johnston High School. But the question remains, is the community ready to follow?


Trustee Sam Guzman, Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) and Superintendent Pat Forgione came with a clear plan for Johnston last night: Johnston High School needs a new vision, and by vision, they mean a completely different purpose for the school.


This is how it was described in a flyer to parents and students: “Despite best efforts as well as additional resources, extra instructional staff, and intensive program and curriculum enhancements, student performance at Johnston has not made sufficient progress over the last four years. It is critical to rethink how education is delivered at Johnston, looking at successful models and schools that serve campuses with student populations similar to Johnston. Whether Johnston meets state standards this year or not, AISD must do a better job to meet the needs of Johnston students in the future so that they graduate at higher rates and are prepared for college and career success.”


As Watson told the assembled parents, state law says Johnston may close next year.


“It’s not what we wanted. It’s not what we hoped for. It’s not what we worked so hard for with all the different changes that have gone on in just the past year,” Watson told the assembled group. “But here’s the thing. What we do, we do on behalf of the students. Even if Johnston was to pass this year – and we all hope it does – are we still on the path we want for the students at Johnston? That’s why we’re talking about this new vision.”


Forgione has set a 45-day deadline for a new vision for Johnston, intending to present it to Education Commissioner Robert Scott before he makes a decision about the school on June 15. Scott could choose to close the campus entirely or place the school campus under a non-profit alternative manager. The Texas Education Agency currently is soliciting non-profit groups that would be interested in managing failing schools.


The procedure for that sanction was outlined under House Bill 1, passed two years ago. Who might actually be in line to manage Johnston, or any other failing school, won’t be clear until July. That new management would have to be in place in August.


Johnston is in the unique situation of being one of the first four schools considered for closure under the state’s accountability system. That leaves a lot of unanswered questions, Forgione told parents. The superintendent said he is hopeful that Scott might be swayed to work with AISD if presented with a thoughtful alternative model for Johnston, possibly one that works through the Texas High School Project.


“What we’re going to come up with is what we hope the state would find acceptable,” Forgione said. “We’d like to be able to say to you, ‘Give us your vision,’ and over the next 45 days, we can have a new vision for Johnston. I believe that Commissioner Scott wants the best for every child, but he must ensure himself that he has your support and our support, that we will not let our children down. For that to happen, we need for you to define, ‘What are the barriers in our community?’”


The Texas High School Project, which focuses on high school reform efforts, is a public-private partnership underwritten by $261 million in funding. Still early in its inception, the project has yet to yield any firm record of success in addressing problems at schools like Johnston. THSP currently is undergoing a multi-year evaluation process. Former Austin Independent School District trustee John Fitzpatrick runs it.


School leaders handed out a survey to parents at last night’s meeting. To make a new model work, Scott would have to be assured the parents supported it, Forgione said.


One parent comment, written on a card and handed to the trio for a response, noted that the model needed to match the strengths of the new school with the weaknesses of Johnston. Would the new campus do this? Would it build upon Johnston’s new programs or be something completely different?


Completely different, Forgione said. “I believe the commissioner wants to be assured that we put in a model that is systemic and equal,” Forgione said. “That’s why we have to go to a proven model that has all the features that have been successful. But we’re not sure what that model should be. That’s what we want parents to tell us.”


In a non-scientific and brief survey of students and parents in the room after the meeting, reaction was divided. Many agreed that change must happen at Johnston. A group of booster club parents talked about the advantages a high-tech high school – possibly something like what Akins High School offers – would bring to Johnston.


But the theme that kept recurring in brief discussions was that the majority of people at the meeting simply wanted Johnston to work as it is, a comprehensive high school, possibly with some additional features. As might be expected, students wanted to graduate from Johnston. A couple of them talked about the difficulty of being on a small campus – even as a good student – with students who weren’t taking school seriously.


Forgione and Watson spoke about a campus tailored to students who had to face the demands of working full-time, as well as going to school. Johnston already has a twilight school, a self-paced evening instructional program. Asked why that option wasn’t used more, students speculated it might be difficult for students in the twilight school to stay motivated without a peer support system. Sooner or later, work ends up taking over.


One mother was adamant that it was important to note how many good, experienced teachers had left the Johnston campus. Another talked about shuffling those kids who didn’t intend to maintain good attendance off Johnston to the district’s self-paced alternative campus. The school district should do more – possibly pay more – to encourage those teachers to stay at the Johnston campus, said another mom.


Another mom, a booster club parent, talked about the high demand for the culinary arts program on campus. Wouldn’t it make sense to share facilities with the ACC campus up the street – which also has a strong culinary arts program – to get kids back to Johnston?


Specifics like that were lacking from last night’s presentation. In fact, last night’s discussion was long on talk and promises and short on dialogue, questions and specifics. Talk of greater support for the school got applause from the audience; the direction Forgione wanted to take, less so.


That’s probably not surprising. In the past, parents from Webb Middle School and Johnston have expressed frustration that Forgione’s tactic of redirecting campuses – often referred to as “repurposing schools” – was not a vision shared by the local community. One mother said it was important to recognize that the problems that Johnston faced were not just Johnston’s. A number of schools in the district were facing the same challenges, and the school district was facing the same sort of shortcomings with each of them.


Forgione talked a lot about a commitment to Johnston, but he talked little about the district missteps that led to the current situation at Johnston. As one mom pointed out, many of the problems of the campus – a parade of principals, too much teacher turnover, a lack of consistency at the school, a broken feeder pattern – originated at the district level. With no acknowledgement from the district about the mistakes that have been made, it’s understandable that parents might be feeling some trepidation, she said.


One teacher said that she and her students were working as hard as they could. Her students took this year’s TAKS test extremely seriously, knowing the future of the school would ride on their performance. They were good kids. She was a good teacher. She had stopped reading the newspaper reports about Johnston. Those weren’t her kids.


“I just keep my head down and work as hard as I can,” she said. “My kids are working as hard as they can. I don’t know how they can work any harder.”

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