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Thursday, February 22, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

Middle school turnaround plan impresses board

Having to reinvest in a failing school is typically a somber affair, but the Austin Independent School District’s board of trustees was pleasantly surprised by the thought and energy that had been put into the Burnet Middle School Turnaround Plan shared at the Feb. 12 work session.

The Texas Education Agency accountability ratings released at the end of last year showed that Burnet in North Central Austin had received an “Improvement Required” status for the second year in a row. If a school keeps that ranking for four years, like Mendez Middle School, then the TEA reserves the right to close the school or to transfer ownership to another entity other than AISD.

Terrence Eaton, the district’s associate superintendent of middle schools, and Burnet Principal Marvelia De La Rosa presented the administration’s proposal to reverse the school’s poor performance. In an update on the second six-week period of the school year, Burnet had some of the highest home suspension and mandatory removal rates among middle schools. Approximately 83 percent of the student body has been determined at risk.

The campus intervention team for Burnet, made up of members of the community, administration and the district, concluded that the root causes of the school’s condition had mostly to do with lack of planning and high staff turnover. In response, the turnaround plan calls for a literacy initiative (Spanish is the first language for many of the students), a strategy to provide more support to faculty and staff, a renovated behavioral management apparatus, and a smoother induction process for new teachers.

Trustee Ann Teich applauded the plan, noting especially the idea of connecting more with Burnet’s six “feeder” elementary schools. She also commented that Burnet’s Latino population figure of 86 percent was misleading because a significant number of those students are immigrants or refugees from diverse backgrounds.

“I hope the state of Texas and the Texas Education Agency understand that we are implementing all the possible resources that we can for this school, and the number one resource is a positive attitude,” Teich said.

Schools in Burnet’s position usually see an increase in their average per-pupil spending as the district devotes more resources in response to the need, but Trustee Cindy Anderson said that according to a recent report it appeared that the per-pupil spending at Burnet had decreased by $1,000 in two years. Certain variables like a decrease in student enrollment may be the cause, but Superintendent Paul Cruz said he would investigate.

The consensus of the board was that the turnaround plan was extremely promising. “This is the first time I’ve listened to a turnaround plan where I was actually excited for kids,” said Trustee Amber Elenz. “It doesn’t feel oppressive and based on deficits. It really feels very proactively positive.”

Still, Trustee Jayme Mathias was skeptical, and he worried that the root causes identified did not go deep enough. “I suspect if we were to trace it back, it probably (is) a leadership challenge,” he said. “Maybe not just on campus, but also maybe at higher levels in the district, maybe even to this board table, which I think concerns me.”

The school board is scheduled to vote on the plan at its regular Feb. 26 meeting. If cleared by the board, the plan would then be submitted to the Texas commissioner of education for final approval.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AISD: Austin's largest school district, AISD is the Austin Independent School District.

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