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Community meeting studies ways to keep Reagan High open

Thursday, October 16, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Reagan High School community must begin a tough uphill climb if it intends to return the school to a rating of Academically Acceptable under the state’s accountability system.


The faces at Tuesday night’s rally at Reagan would be familiar to people active in the Austin community: Reps. Dawnna Dukes and Donna Howard are alumnae. Community leaders in the audience included Melvin Wrenn, Michael Lofton and Ashton Cumberbatch, along with St. John’s community leader Allen Weeks.


Weeks, instrumental in the turnaround of Webb Middle School, has spent the last six weeks drafting a community schools plan with Reagan parents. This is a different approach from Johnston High School, where the Austin Independent School District came in and called the shots. While reform efforts are not off the table, the inclusion of Weeks and his team is a tacit acknowledgement that things are not going well at Reagan.


Most schools that fall into the Academically Unacceptable category stay on the list for no more than one year. In fact, the Texas Education Agency estimates that roughly 80 percent of low-performing schools are not low performing for two years in the row.


Reagan has bucked that trend, staying on the list for a second, and even a third, year. Scores on state-mandated tests were lower in 2007 than they were in 2006. Results from the 2008 TAKS were mixed. The school has had five principals in five years, the latest being the former principal of the Austin Independent School District’s International High School, which was housed as a separate school on the Johnston campus. The district’s reform efforts to date appear to have made no significant dent on either the dropout rate or tests scores, with the exception of science, which did see some gains in 2007.


Even so, the campus is a better position than Johnston was last year. By the time serious reform efforts – including a family intervention specialist and expanded tutoring – were brought to Johnston, the campus population had dropped to less than 600. AISD spent a great deal of money to keep a full schedule of classes on the campus, even as afternoon truancy continued to plague the campus.


This year is the make-or-break year for the 1,000  students at Reagan. At Tuesday night’s forum, both Dukes and Howard pledged their support for the campus, with Howard telling the crowd of about 100 that the school cannot close. Weeks, of the St. John Neighborhood Association, says the work can be done, but he does not sugar coat it: Without a significant effort before next spring, Reagan is done.


Making Reagan work requires honest talk from the Austin school district, tough choices at the high school campus and a commitment by the school’s parents. Most of all, it requires changing the climate of Reagan, and that is going to be tough, Weeks said.


“There’s really not the will here to make it happen,” Weeks said of efforts to turn Reagan around before its forced to close. “The district plays around with redesigning the school, but in the meantime they’re doing things that just tear down these schools. Webb was not closing because of low test scores. Webb was closing because the school district was systematically removing programs. They put in weak leadership. And then they let the campus drift. We really did make a very conscious choice to come in there.”


Weeks and his team of volunteers turned Webb – a school with no involvement – into a campus where hundreds of parents showed up to meetings. And Webb feeds Reagan. Therefore, the hope among school supporters is that the momentum can move Reagan.


In the meantime, the community plan outlines some straight-forward strategies for the campus, including additional training in instructional strategies for at-risk kids; moving social service providers onto campus to deal with families; expanding part-time employment opportunities for students; complete home visits to the majority of Reagan students by Dec. 1; and network the community to lobby to change the state accountability law.


Johnston High School was the first of two schools to close in Texas for poor academic performance. AISD was given the go-ahead to “repurpose” the Johnston campus as two smaller alternative schools. Because of the failure of Johnston, TEA has placed a management team over the low-performing campuses in AISD. That team is given the right to overrule decisions made by the AISD board of trustees that are considered detrimental to the welfare of the district’s low-performing schools.

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