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AISD considers charter school option for Mendez Middle School

Thursday, November 16, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Facing severe under-enrollment and a below-average educational suitability assessment, Mendez Middle School may be turned over to a community partner in hopes of reversing the campus’ downward trajectory.

Austin Independent School District staff shared the project initiative with the board of trustees at its Nov. 13 work session, explaining the opportunity presented by Senate Bill 1882, which was passed in the last legislative session. The law offers financial incentives for districts to consider the charter school option as a more lucrative way to turn around schools with an “Improvement Required” status.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said at the meeting that while it was not a done deal, the charter school option seemed to be the most promising at this time. In the Facility Master Plan Update adopted earlier this year, Mendez had been assigned to the 12-25 year track for renovations, although its excess capacity was intended to be considered for an alternative purpose that served the students, community and AISD. Enrollment at the middle school is currently at 66 percent of its permanent capacity.

The district is in early talks with the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins University as candidates for the partnership. “There could also be other partners that we may approach, once we get more of an understanding from our parents and our staff members,” Cruz said.

Community partners have managed early college programs at AISD high schools, like Travis, Eastside Memorial and Crockett, but the main difference with the Mendez scenario would be governance of the school itself would also be changing hands. Trustee Cindy Anderson said that before moving forward, the board needed to be reassured that the partner has experience with turnaround plans because that has not always been the case.

“I don’t want to limit ourselves to something simply because we’re looking at dollar signs. At the end of the day, it sounds to me like we lose absolute control. That includes whether or not there’s continuity in the vertical team with programming,” Anderson said. “They might decide after year one that they want to change from STEM to some other model, and it seems like we would have zero control (over) that.”

Although the definite time frame has not been determined, Jacob Reach, special assistant to the superintendent, said that he estimated that Mendez would be under the control of the partner organization for at least two years. Cruz agreed that it was an uncomfortable position for the district to be in. “(But) job number one is for a school to meet performance standards outright,” he said.

Despite the drawbacks, the consensus of the board appeared to be in favor of the swap, largely because the alternatives were worse. If AISD fails to get the middle school back up to speed academically, then the Texas Education Agency Office of the Commissioner would have the power to close it or assign it to another governing body.

“Having expressed my hesitations, I fully support the administration in pursuing this,” said Trustee Jayme Mathias. “Our options are so extremely limited.”

Terrence Eaton, AISD’s associate superintendent for middle schools, said that so far there had been two community meetings about going the charter school route and participants had been open to the idea but wanted to stay involved in the process.

Community meetings are expected to continue throughout the end of the year into 2018, with the next information session scheduled for Dec. 5.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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