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New principal hopes project-based learning will improve academics at Mendez

Monday, July 16, 2018 by Claire McInerny, KUT

When students at Mendez Middle School return to school next month, there will be new curriculum – and a new principal.

After Mendez failed state standards four years in a row, the Austin Independent School District agreed to let an outside group run the school, and that group hired a new principal this summer, Joanna Carrillo-Rowley from Midland.

Instead of being governed by AISD, the school will be run through a partnership between the University of Texas at Tyler and Communities in Schools. Carrillo-Rowley said the school will shift toward a curriculum based on science, technology, engineering and math, while shifting away from the traditional classroom model.

“We’re going to move away from the pencil-paper, worksheet-based classroom,” she said. “It’s more of a project-based classroom.”

Students will be doing projects in many of their classes as a way to master skills in a more hands-on way.

But, to meet state standards, the school will need more than a new learning style. Carrillo-Rowley comes to Mendez from Midland ISD, where she specialized in helping turn around failing schools. She said there are a lot of operational changes she is going to make right off the bat.

One will be making sure teachers work more collaboratively across subject areas to help support each other and keep students on track. She also wants to make sure teachers feel supported after a tumultuous few years at the school.

“They’ve been through a struggle for a long time.” she said. “Just because you’ve been defeated for a little while, doesn’t mean you’re always going to face that defeat. I’ve got to rise them up, and make them feel good about what they do, and give them the support so they feel confident about what they do.”

She will also be dividing the students into teams in the hopes of creating more camaraderie within the student body.

A major issue teachers reported the last few years at Mendez was how the school deals with discipline. It was a barrier to learning, they said. Carrillo-Rowley said she will create a discipline task force to make sure all teachers are on the same page with discipline. She wants to take the restorative justice approach, which focuses on counseling students when they are disruptive – rather than focusing solely on punishment.

Teacher Blair Hanner is excited about that prospect. It’s something he brought up when UT-Tyler and CIS presented their plan to staff in April.

“It can be claimed that Mendez has been trying to implement restorative justice, but I don’t think it’s been properly done with fidelity,” Hanner said in April. “I don’t think that our teachers are properly trained.”

Carrillo-Rowley said she’s energized by the support she’s already received and said this is a welcome change from her experience in Midland.

“Coming to Austin, I have been inundated with community and parent support (and) tons of different organizations that are so willing to help.”

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News.

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