A new Texas law allows organizations, rather than the state, to take over schools that repeatedly fail the state's standardized assessment, or STAAR, test.
The Texas Education Agency rates schools every year as either passing or failing based on the test. Before, if a school had a failing grade five years in a row, there were two options: The state could either close the school or it could take over the entire school district, meaning it would oversee much of the operations. There was really no middle ground.
The new law allows an organization that is not the state or local school district to operate the school in an effort to improve academic outcomes. This can include a charter school, or a university or nonprofit that could get a charter to run the failing school.
The Austin Independent School District has one school facing takeover: Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin. If Mendez doesn’t pass again this school year, intervention is imminent.
Jacob Reach, special assistant to AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz, said the new law allows several types of organizations to work with the school, including other private or independent institutions of higher education, such as Austin Community College, nonprofits and other governmental entities.
But what does it mean for the school to have an organization take over?
The school, rather than being part of AISD’s district-wide decisions, would report only to its new partner. The university or nonprofit in charge would oversee academics, finances, and hiring and firing decisions.
Reach said potential partners for Mendez are UT-Austin and Talent Development Secondary, a nonprofit run through Johns Hopkins University. But AISD doesn’t want to make the decision alone.
“It is our hope [that] no matter who it is, that AISD and the teachers and the community would have a lot of say in these things,” Reach said.
A few weeks ago, the district held a community meeting at Mendez to talk about potential partners. Organizers broke the crowd into groups and asked them to describe what they’d like to see in a partner that might run the school.
"We would like for our partners to have similar interests and see Mendez as unique," said former Mendez student Hipolito Aviles, who participated in the meeting. "We would also like our new partners to adapt to our needs and they must have a major focus in SEL [social and emotional learning]."
Community meetings are scheduled at Mendez in January and February to gather more input about potential partners.