Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin has failed to meet state standards over the past four years. If it doesn’t improve academics by summer, it will face takeover.
Mendez is the only school in the Austin Independent School District in its fifth year of failing the annual state assessment, or STAAR, test. What’s going on?
'Kids Were Doing What They Wanted To Do'
Chris Jones is Mendez's third principal in five years. He was brought in at the end of the last school year.
"It was not pretty," he said.
Jones said when he saw the culture at the school, he understood why kids weren’t doing well academically. Behavior and discipline were huge issues: If students are fighting or being suspended, he said, they are distracted from learning.
"Kids were doing what they wanted to do," he said. "There was no discipline, there [were] no structures. ... It’s not what sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders need."
So, he tried to implement what those students do need. Teachers gave kids specific expectations for behavior and school work. To reduce fights in the hallways, the administration staggered the time between classes, making sure fewer students were in the hallways at any given time.
Mendez also has many students with academic challenges. Sixth-grade social studies teacher Jennifer Doane said she sees it every day.
"In my classrooms, I’m receiving students that are expected to be able to execute a sixth-grade content, but they’re coming in at second-grade, third-grade and fourth-grade reading levels," she said.
In addition to not being on grade level, almost half the students are English learners and almost a fifth need special education. The vast majority of the students come from poor families. So, the challenges are huge.
When the school kept missing the state benchmarks, there was more pressure on teachers and administrators to improve academics.
"We’re given outlandish expectations without the manpower and without the time to execute it," Doane said.
Are The Interventions Too Little Too Late?
There's been a big discussion among the Mendez community about what resources were given to the school and when.
Each time a new principal comes in he or she has had to start the process over. Now, Jones is feeling the frantic pressure to make changes and wonders why the district waited so long.
"What happened [in] year two, three, four?" he said after a community meeting this month. "Because now it's like everything is a rush."
There were efforts happening in the earlier years, according to Rey Garcia, executive director of middle schools for AISD. He said the first few years Mendez failed the district focused on hiring the right principal to lead the turnaround efforts. But when the district ended up firing those people, it got more involved in helping the administration do the work.
“We worked on their climate and culture, and curriculum and instruction,” he said.
The district and school leaders also recently implemented tutoring and special reading classes for students who aren't on grade level. Garcia admits that these specific efforts are coming pretty late in the process.
“There are some things that could have been done differently and maybe sooner, but I don’t think that anybody wants to see Mendez fail," he said. "I think that we are now all hands on deck trying to ensure that the kids at that campus are successful.”
This next semester is crucial for Mendez. If students don’t do well on the STAAR test again, the state education commissioner will decide the school's future. There are a few options.
One option is to close the school and reopen it under a new name and administration. Another option is to find an outside partner, like a nonprofit or a university, to run the school like a charter. The hope is the partner could create a learning environment completely unique for what Mendez students need.
Doane thinks the district should have been doing that over the last few years.
"These kids are great kids, these teachers are great teachers," she said. "We need for AISD not to give us the mold that other schools have."
That’s the goal for everyone now: Make sure teachers, the administration and the district do everything they can so students do well on this year’s STAAR test.
If Mendez passes this year, none of these consequences would go into effect. But just in case, the district is making plans for what a redesigned Mendez might look like. Community meetings are scheduled at the school in the next few months to gather input.