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To avoid state takeover, Austin ISD wants new leadership at Mendez Middle School

A sign outside Mendez Middle School
Gabriel C. Pérez
Test scores have remained low at Mendez Middle School. Austin ISD is trying to make a new plan on how to run the school.

The Austin Independent School District is looking for a new approach to help improve academics at Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin.

For the last four years, AISD has utilized a state law that allows outside organizations to run a “failing” school to improve test scores. At Mendez, a partnership with the nonprofit Communities in School and UTeach called the T-STEM Coalition, has overseen the school.

But test scores have remained low in the three and a half years the school has been run by the T-STEM coalition. If Mendez doesn’t receive at least a “C” from the state by the 2022-2023 school year, there could be severe consequences.

The state could either close the school, or take over the school board, replacing elected officials with state-appointed members.

“I don’t want to get that close to that line,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said at a school board meeting last week. “In other words, is it possible that Mendez could receive a ‘C’ or better by the 2022-2023 school year? It is possible. It’s also possible that they don’t get that, and we would be too late.”

So, AISD wants to find a new solution — and fast.

How did Mendez get here?

State law says if a school receives an “F” five years in a row the state will intervene. These letter grades are mostly based on the scores from the annual STAAR test students take. After Mendez received an “F” from the state for the fourth year in a row, AISD intervened by creating the partnership with the T-STEM Coalition. It started in the 2018-2019 school year.

Starting the partnership with T-STEM gave the district five more years to improve test scores.

Carlos Contreras, a seventh grade history teacher who has taught at Mendez for five years, said the transition to having an outside partner run the school was difficult the first year.

“The first year was tough, and that’s apparent in the STAAR scores,” he said. “Then the next year, we had been seeing some progress. There was a lot more input accepted from staff ... and it was very successful. In fact, I think if we had taken the STAAR that year there would have been a drastic increase in scores.”

But students didn’t take the STAAR in 2020, the second year of the partnership, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Contreras said like most schools in AISD and the rest of the country, students struggled to do well academically during virtual learning and the challenges the pandemic brought.

Even though there wasn't state testing during the first year of the pandemic, AISD was still giving Mendez students assessments to see where they were at, and scores were still low.

So now, AISD wants to end the T-STEM partnership after this school year.

Abandoning project-based learning

Anthony Mays, AISD’s chief of schools, says Mendez students need more support than they’ve been given. He said it’s not the students’ fault that they didn’t do well on state tests for years.

“We own that as a system,” Mays said. “We know that that’s something that we aren’t proud of, but we want to be able to do right by Mendez Middle School.”

The main pitch of the T-STEM Coalition four years ago was that it would implement project-based learning, where students in all subjects work on long-term projects to learn content. Mays said this is not the best fit for Mendez right now because when long-term projects are used, a teacher might not be able to see a student is struggling with the content until the project is complete.

Mays said the district wants to use a different model in the short term that helps teachers intervene more quickly with students.

Next week, Mays is going to ask the school board to end the contract with the T-STEM Coalition at the end of this school year, so AISD can make a new plan.

There are two options: The district could find another outside group to run the school, or AISD could resume control of the middle school.

Contreras said he thinks it makes the most sense for AISD to resume control because that would eliminate some of the bureaucracy of involving another group. He thinks decisions and changes would move faster if there was one less party involved.

But, he said, whoever ends up taking over Mendez needs to know that the best way to support teachers and staff is to give them more resources. Contreras worked at Martin Middle School when it was facing state takeover, and he said he experienced some tactics that worked and eventually helped teachers like him improve the academics and get out of state monitoring.

“When I was at Martin, the year that we did it, there [were] dedicated [teaching assistants] for every subject area,” Contreras said. “So, the teaching assistants that specialized in special education were able to plan with us.”

He said having multiple educators with different areas of expertise helped keep all students on track. Mendez needs more staff support like that, he said, to truly help students. He also said Martin had two teachers for every class, so if one left to do a specialized training, there was someone else there to teach and keep students on track, rather than bringing in substitute teachers.

Next steps

District officials have been meeting with teachers and parents about the potential for a change at Mendez. Mays said the one thing he wants the Mendez community to know is that the primary goal for the district is to keep Mendez open and help students succeed.

“One of the pieces that we’ve been really, really trying to convey is this does not mean that we’ve given up on the campus,” Mays said. “We still have a year to work to make sure we accomplish the outcomes we want on the campus.”

The school board will vote next Thursday on whether to end the current T-STEM partnership. Mays said if that happens, there will be more meetings with the Mendez community about what comes next.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the University of Texas at Tyler was part of the T-STEM coalition; it is not.

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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