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Austin ISD removes sixth grade from two middle schools to try to increase enrollment

Martin Middle School Principal Brandy Gratten speaks during a PTA meeting with AISD teachers, staff, and parents, discussing the elimination of the sixth grade from Martin Middle School on Monday.
Michael Minasi
Martin Middle School Principal Brandy Gratten talks about eliminating sixth grade from Martin Middle School during a PTA meeting on Monday.

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Martin and Mendez middle schools will not offer sixth grade next year. Austin ISD officials announced the change last week in a letter to families, saying it will help both schools gain enrollment and do better academically.

But at this point, teachers and parents in these communities have questions about how the change will help those issues and how the transition will work.

Why is this happening?

AISD plans to move sixth grade classes from Martin and Mendez to some elementary schools that feed the two schools.

AISD thinks this could keep sixth-grade students in district schools.

Both Martin and Mendez have seen declining enrollment the last few years. In a Facebook Live last week, AISD’s chief of schools, Anthony Mays, said this enrollment drop is most dramatic at the sixth-grade level.

“Currently 60% of the students that are moving from fifth grade to sixth grade within the Mendez and Martin vertical team [leave],” Mays said. “That’s a huge problem for us.” A vertical team is the progression of schools a student is assigned based on their location.

The district doesn't know for sure where all those students go, but Mays said charter schools are a big reason for the enrollment loss.

Mays said the district is hoping parents will feel more comfortable keeping their kids at their elementary school and won’t transfer out.

“We know that as students are introduced into that middle-school setting, it’s a dynamic situation that for a sixth-grader, at that maturity level, can be challenging,” Mays said. “We want to address that by keeping those students at their elementary campus.”

The other issue AISD is trying to address is academic performance. Both middle schools have received F grades from the state, and Mendez is currently trying to avoid state takeover because of its rating. Mays said removing sixth grade will help teachers at the middle school focus on fewer kids, and the district will give seventh- and eighth-graders more support to try and improve their rating.

Why so soon?

When the announcement was made, parents and teachers didn’t have any idea it was being considered, and the letter sent to parents didn’t include all of the details.

AISD teachers, staff, and parents discuss the elimination of the sixth grade from Martin Middle School during a PTA meeting on Feb. 7.
Michael Minasi
A woman writes down questions and comments during a discussion about eliminating sixth grade from Martin Middle School.

Lisa Flores has a child in eighth grade at Martin and a fifth grader who had planned on attending Martin next year.

“If kids are failing in sixth grade, then they haven’t been well prepared in elementary school,” she said. “So, I’m not understanding what the removal of sixth grade solves in conjunction to achievement and enrollment.”

Flores said she's also concerned about the details of AISD’s plan: students can attend sixth grade at their elementary school, but if parents want to send their kid to a middle school for sixth grade, they will have to attend another district school. She said if students take that option, why would they transfer back to Martin or Mendez in seventh grade?

Eric Ramos, a special education teacher at Martin, said he has concerns about the timing of all of this. The change goes into effect this fall. Ramos said he worries about trying to set up sixth-grade programs at the elementary schools that will prepare the students to attend Martin or Mendez for seventh and eighth grades.

“It’s going to be hard to keep a lot of our programming,” Ramos said. “Because how can we guarantee continuity at five different campuses. How are you going to guarantee it’s done with fidelity at all five campuses and [at the middle schools] with such little planning?”

He said if the elementary schools had more than a few months to work with the middle schools and the district it could be successful, but he’s worried about starting something new by August.

“Why so soon?” Ramos said. “Why were we not informed? Why did we not at least get to help make a plan? If they made the decision, why couldn’t we make a transition plan so it’s done without harming kids.”

One of the fears in the community is that removing sixth grade from these two middle schools is the beginning of a plan to close them.

In 2019, the district proposed closing 12 schools that were facing under-enrollment, and ended up closing four of them.

But Mays said that is not at all the case here.

“Our superintendent is focused on not closing any campuses,” Mays said in the Facebook Live last week. “We want all of our campuses to be strong and viable options for the populations that are currently in our schools, and the populations that we are losing to charter schools.”

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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