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New Accountability Standards Add Uncertainty to Failing Austin Schools

Nathan Bernier, KUT News
Pearce Middle School is requires improvement under interim TEA standards. It will become an all-boys school in 2014.

The Austin School Board approved a set of plans Monday night for 11 schools that need improvement under the Texas Education Agency’s new accountability standards.

But as it rolls out year-long plans requiring monthly TEA visits and evaluations, it awaits new changes to the standards for this academic year.

“It’s going to keep us very focused," says Paul Cruz, AISD Chief Schools Officer. "We don’t know what the performance standards are going to be, but that’s also for every school in state of Texas."

In April, TEA commissioner Michael Williams told lawmakers the state was moving forward with a new accountability system. It breaks down ratings into four categories:

  • Student achievement
  • Student progress
  • Closing performance gaps
  • Postsecondary readiness

It's the first step in the TEA’s new system to grade schools. By 2014, schools will be graded like students, with A through F letter grades.
For Austin schools, the change came at the end of an academic year when teachers and schools were under the impression they would be held accountable based on the old accountability system.

“You’re preparing all year and the game changes in fourth quarter and it’s unconscionable,” says Ken Zarifis, president of teachers’ union Education Austin. “It’s unfair to kids and schools. So now you slap a label of ‘low performing,’ ‘high needs,’ – whatever label you want to put on it – and it tells the community that you’re no good.”

This year, schools were rated by an interim system with three categories: Met Standard, Met Alternative Standard or Improvement Required. Two of the Austin schools that require improvement are Garcia and Pearce Middle schools in northeast Austin. The schools have oscillated between acceptable and unacceptable for the past five to seven years, but it's the second year in a row the schools have been rated unacceptable.

Under state law, the district must create reconstitution plans to restructure Garcia and Pearce. But that's already been in the works since 2011, when the district decided to turn those schools into single-gender campuses in 2014. Garcia Middle School will become and all-girls school, while Pearce Middle School will become an all-boys school.

School president Vincent Torres says he hopes the transition will help students focus on academics, “that will allow them to focus on their schools and not have to worry about opposite sex during that time period.”

The schools will have college prep curriculums that feed into LBJ High School's Early College programs. Last night, the district also approved a principal for the all-girls middle school.

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