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AISD’s boss says Pearce repurposing plan just the beginning of changes

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin Independent School District Superintendent Meria Carstarphen promised last night that the repurposing plan for Pearce Middle School would be only the first step to answer the systemic decline that have plagued East side campuses for decades.

After 10 years of a superintendent who bragged that Austin was the “Cadillac of urban districts,” Carstarphen’s admission was a refreshing breath of honesty in AISD, and one that trustees appeared to be coming to accept. Austin faces 9 schools that have failed to meet even the bar of academically acceptable under the state’s accountability system and all but two are on Austin’s East side.

That includes Eastside Memorial, which was closed only last year by the Texas Education Agency and “repurposed” as a new high-tech campus for this fall.

“Pearce is only the tip of the iceberg,” Carstarphen said, acknowledging the district came to fix one school on the East side only to be faced with fixing another, followed by another. “We need to hold to deep systemic academic improvement including the East side. Even if the board approves this plan tonight, the community needs to know that tomorrow, our greatest challenge will be finding the right plan for the East side and really getting in front of this in a meaningful way.”

A family on the East side has few choices when it comes to middle schools and high schools. Only two of the six East side middle schools are rated academically acceptable. Of the high schools, Johnston already has closed, Reagan is on its way to closure and the non-academy campus at LBJ High School also was rated academically unacceptable this year. Only the Language Arts and Science Academy at LBJ earned a good rating. In fact, the magnet was rated exemplary, which put it above every other high school in the Austin Independent School District.

Carstarphen said it was not her style to rush through a plan the way she rushed through the one for Pearce. She promised the audience she would be bringing forward an expanded plan, with broader opportunities for feedback, that would  explore future investments in the East side by the school district.

“We must make right this historical wrong so that we don’t ever find ourselves in this situation again,” Carstarphen told the audience and trustees.

The Pearce plan, which was approved by the AISD board unanimously last night, will go to Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who promises a quick decision in order to open the “new” school on August 24. During a news conference about school and district ratings on Friday, Scott all but said he would approve the Pearce plan, mainly due to the extensive work to firm up the plan between AISD and Texas Education Agency staff over the last month.

Opening Pearce will require seriously ratcheting up the experience of the administration and teachers on the campus, Carstarphen admitted. The plan also includes grade-level teacher teams; an enhanced focus on science, including a partnership with the University of Texas; focused professional development for teachers; and a strong family support network.

Members of the audience, including the leadership of Pearce’s parent-teacher association, pledged support for the new plan to keep Pearce open. PTA President Charlotte Dodson said it was time to get the Pearce plan implemented so the district could focus on all the East side campuses. And PTA Vice President Betty Johnson pledged her support but criticized the TEA management team for failing to tell parents how serious the academic issues were on the campus and the likelihood of closure.

Alberto Gonzales, who lost his bid for school board, said a plan to improve Pearce was three years overdue and something that should have been discussed long before the district had to depend on TEA to run the local school.

“We don’t need the state telling us what to do and how to do it,” Gonzales said. “We need to decide these things for ourselves.”

Among the trustees, the most critical questions came from Robert Schneider, who closely questioned Carstarphen on what she would do if Pearce continued to fail (re-work the current plan) and whether she intended to reconsider the open transfer policy (possibly, it shouldn’t be used to avoid fixing campuses).

Trustee Victor Torres called for an indicator system that would tell the district how well prepared students were for science standards as they entered middle school. And Trustee Sam Guzman thanked the Pearce community for its work, which had led to improvements in test scores over the last two years.

The plan goes to Scott this morning.

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