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Trustees cast doubt on success of UT partnership program

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

At its Aug. 28 meeting, the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees approved an interlocal agreement with the University of Texas at Austin to renew the Literacy First program at 22 Austin schools for the coming school year, but not without a few trustees raising questions about whether the program is delivering a return on investment.

Literacy First was started in 1994 by UT Dana Center Director Uri Treisman, employing AmeriCorps tutors to assist kindergarten through second-grade students in reading based on the response-to-intervention model at Title 1 schools. Edmund Oropez, the district’s chief officer of teaching and learning, explained that the $700,000 to be authorized in the agreement is a combination of school funds and city money and that 1,600 kids are served each year. “We’ve found that it’s been cost-effective,” he said at the meeting.

Some of the trustees questioned the conviction of that statement. Trustee Amber Elenz said that while the AmeriCorps volunteers receive pedagogical training, it is not training that seems to integrate them into the AISD network and its various other programs. “I’m a little concerned that our right hand isn’t talking to our left hand,” she said. “We are spending money sending teachers through two years of training (for dyslexia therapy). To expect an AmeriCorps volunteer to be up to speed on that is probably not realistic.”

Board President Kendall Pace followed up by asking why, if the program is data-driven and successful, reading performance at some of the program’s schools remains consistently poor. Oropez said that the program is intended to be supplemental and that the reasons behind perpetually bad reading levels are more complex.

Pace continued by bringing up the 12 UT staff listed on the program payroll. “(They do) ongoing training and monitor the program,” Oropez said. “They support the principals and all the tutors around the district.”

“I’m not sure what that means,” Pace said. “I have a theory as to what that means.”

The Charles A. Dana Center staff webpage lists seven Literacy First staff, including Director Mary Ellen Isaacs and K-2 Director Susan Buchanan.

“They do go to the campuses pretty often,” Oropez said. “They’re not just housed at UT.”

Trustee Edmund Gordon said that the absence of data in relation to partnership programs is a problem the district has encountered in the past. “We’re asked to provide this amount of money based on a long history of participation with these folks, without really very much information to say whether it’s working or not,” he said.

Not all the trustees were so skeptical. Trustee Julie Cowan said that she had witnessed the tutors in action and that the principals she had talked to were very appreciative of the support. “I was quite impressed with what was going on,” she said.

“I’m sure they’re very well meaning, and I’m sure they’re doing good work,” Gordon responded. “What I was asking for was the data that shows that the work actually has some positive impact on our kids, rather than anecdotes.”

Cowan made a motion to approve the agreement, and Trustee Ann Teich seconded. The motion passed 6-1-2, with Pace dissenting and Gordon and Elenz abstaining.

Photo by daveparker made available through a Creative Commons license.

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