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Two Community Groups Compete For Job To Help Turn Mendez Middle School Around

Austin Price for KUT
Teachers, parents and community members listen to proposals to improve Mendez Middle School, at the school on Thursday.

Two organizations presented plans last night to parents, teachers and community members about how they would help Mendez Middle School improve.

Mendez has failed state accountability tests the last four years and will face takeover if it fails the STAAR test again. The school decided not to wait for this year's scores, however: It's taking advantage of a state law and looking for outsider help.

One of the groups that wants to step in is a partnership between Communities in Schools and the University of Texas at Tyler. The group wants to overhaul Mendez's academic system by focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). All lessons would rely on hands-on, project-based learning. 

Suki Steinhauser, the CEO of Communities in Schools, said after nobody initially stepped up to intervene at Mendez, she wanted to help. Her organization has never run a school, so it asked the Texas STEM Coalition at UT-Tyler to create an academic plan. She says the university has had success working with failing schools. 

“[It has] turned around about a dozen schools around the state – all different levels of economic advantage – and taken them from low performing to achievement standard," she said.

Steinhauser said when the two organizations looked at what academic programs would benefit kids the most, they asked themselves one important question: "How are they going to be able to earn a living in their own city, in Austin?" she said. "We came to the conclusion that STEM is the way you can make a living in this community."

If they are selected, Communities in Schools and UT-Tyler will enlist a group of other organizations to help turn around the school. Because academics will be dramatically different, UTeach, a teaching program at UT Austin, will train teachers in project-based learning. The group also plans to work with Austin Interfaith to integrate their work into the community.

Credit Austin Price for KUT
Members of the Mendez community listen to presentations from potential partners to help turn the school around.

The second proposal came from a partnership between Austin Voices for Education and Youth, a local nonprofit, and Talent Development Secondary, a Maryland-based education group. These groups worked with Reagan and Eastside Memorial high schools.

The partnership has a less dramatic plan to turn around Mendez.

“Disruption is generally not the best thing,” said Austin Voices Executive Director Allen Weeks, “especially for kids that are struggling to make it in school. We have a lot of new teachers, young teachers at Mendez that need support, and I think that’s going to be different.”

Weeks said teacher training and support is an important part of their plan. The group says it would also focus on attendance, behavior and how students are doing in class. It will intervene much earlier if a student is struggling in any of those areas.

Weeks said the partnership wants students and parents to tell it what new programs and classes they want, but establishing the routines and culture of the school will come first.

“The sky’s the limit for new programs over time,” he said. “But it’s the kind of thing that you really do introduce gradually, because you want to make sure that the kids are on a path to success before you are radically reshaping the school.”

After both proposals were laid out, Blair Hanner, an eighth-grade science teacher at Mendez, said neither group laid out a specific plan for discipline, a major issue at the school. He said he would like to see restorative justice implemented, a tactic of talking with students about their behavior and what led to it, rather than punishing them.

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

The school will keep its name and building, regardless of which partner is chosen. It would operate like a charter school within the district, which means the partner would have the flexibility to make it different from other AISD schools.

Attendees of last night’s meeting submitted notes about which partner they preferred. The school board will vote on which partner it wants to help run the school at its April 23 meeting.

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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