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Austin Dropout Recovery School Faces Closure After 30 Years

The fate of an Austin charter school that has run a dropout recovery program for more than 30 years will be decided later this month.

American Youthworks faces closure under a new law that allows the Texas Education Agency to revoke licenses from underperforming charter schools, thus opening those licenses to other organizations.

TEA spokesperson Debbie Ratcliffe says Senate Bill 2 is pretty clear. That’s the law passed last year that, among other things, gave TEA teeth to revoke the licenses of failing charter schools. “If a school has received the state’s lowest, either academic or financial, rating for three straight years, it automatically is closed,” Ratcliffe says.

Six schools throughout Texas are facing closure. One of them is American Youthworks. According to the TEA, the school’s problems are both academic and financial.

But American Youthworks’ CEO Parc Smith says the story is not so simple because his school is pretty atypical.

“Most of our students who come here average 18 [years-old, with] half the credits they need [to graduate].” Smith says that’s why his school runs a credit recovery program and a drop-out recovery program. “We get them to catch up and move on to post-secondary education or to career pathways.”

On a tour through the school, Smith opened the door of one of the classrooms where teenage moms attend classes. “We have rocking chairs where the mother can sit with their baby if they’re nursing in that moment," Smith says. "We have carpets and toys for the children.”

There are desks that are there as much for the girls’ laptops and school texts as for their babies’ bottles and diapers.

Out of the 12 young moms who started the program this year, eight will graduate on time and one will graduate early. That’s one of the successes the school likes to highlight. Another one is the school’s environment, it’s a place where kids come knowing that this is their last chance to get a diploma. The school prides itself in having to break up only two fights in the 30 years it has been operating.

TEA’s Ratcliffe says she’s well aware of American Youthworks’ successes. But that doesn’t mean the agency will change its mind.

“There’s rarely a school that’s completely bad,” Ratcliffe says. “There’s always some bright spot.”

The point system TEA uses to evaluate charter schools does not focus on the bright spots. Instead, it looks at the charter’s failures. In the case of American Youthworks, CEO Smith explains the school used to have a couple of campuses in the Austin area. And one was failing. “We chose to close [it] ourselves back in 2010.”

But, the campus was licensed under American Youthworks. So the failing mark is under that same license.

Then, there’s the failing financial mark.

TEA has a set of financial performance goals that every school should adhere to. And those goals tell schools where it’s OK to invest their money. But American Youthworks chose not to follow the TEA’s guidelines. The charter found it could make more money in interest -- almost 1000 times more -- by investing elsewhere.

“This whole issue boils down to, basically $7.62,” Smith says. “So, in the end, we could be shut down over $7.62 worth of interest when instead we earned $7 thousand. Something is wrong with this measuring tool.”

CEO Smith says once he learned his financial methods put the school in jeopardy, he switched the school’s investments to a TEA approved account. He says the school is correcting all of its wrongs. But TEA is still pursuing the charter’s closure.

So the school is trying a couple of things. First, it’s appealing through the court system. And second, it’s encouraging current and former students to become some sort of ambassadors for the school. One of them is former student Ruben Castro Jr., a construction manager for La Casa Verde. Fourteen years ago Castro was a troubled teenager battling drug addiction. With no place to turn in their hometown of Luling, his parents moved him to Austin. After rehab, he landed at American Youthworks.

That was then. Now, he is building a five-star rated solar sub-division. “I think I’m happy. No, I know I’m happy where I’m at right now. I’m pretty much running this whole sub-division,” Castro says.

Castro has become a mentor to other kids at American Youthworks. He’s even hired a couple of them. He sees his old self in them. He sees the confusion and the desire to give up. So he tells them, “There’s also option A instead of B and C. Choose option A if it’s going to benefit you,” Castro says.

Both Castro and Smith hope TEA chooses another option for the school. Depending on what the courts decide, TEA has American Youthworks scheduled for closure at the end of this school year.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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