Great news for UT's Charter School headed by UT Ph.D. recipient, Ramona Treviño! Great leadership always fits into the mix of explanations, too. -Angela
UT Elementary hooks top ranking
By Laura Heinauer American-Statesman Staff
Not much can compare to the excitement of the first day of school, as evidenced by the smiles at the University of Texas Elementary School last week. Save maybe finding out that your campus has been rated exemplary by the state.
"It is our Rose Bowl," said Ramona Treviño, principal of UT Elementary, a four-year-old, university-run charter school that this month earned the highest rating under the state's accountability system for the first time.
The school, which primarily serves a low-income, mostly minority population, is the only campus in East Austin to achieve the rating under the current requirements, which are largely based on performance on state achievement tests.
School officials credit several factors in their success, including the latest research on effective teaching, small class sizes and motivated parents. It's a feat that only 8.6 percent of 7,385 campuses rated statewide achieved; it's particularly surprising given the school's large at-risk enrollment.
More than 90 percent of UT Elementary third- and fourth-grade students who took the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in the spring passed each subject to earn the rating. Furthermore, more than 90 percent of students in all ethnic and economic groups passed in all subjects.
In the Austin school district, seven schools earned an exemplary rating, but all are west of Interstate 35 and have significantly fewer economically disadvantaged students.
"I feel very confident that my girls are getting a good education here," said Pedro Reyes Jr., father of Yulissa and Jessenia, both of whom are UT Elementary students. "They're raising little Longhorns. It's kind of cool. It's a special school, and we're very proud of it."
The campus uses a "three-tier" model for helping struggling students, based on research from the UT Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts, in which teachers use intervention strategies typically reserved for special education students in regular classroom settings.
As a result, 20 percent to 30 percent of UT Elementary students receive additional in-class instruction, and 5 percent to 10 percent get after-school tutoring and attend summer school.
The interventions, Treviño said, are combined with other social and emotional practices, like motivational school-wide assemblies every morning and "peace tables," where students can meet to sort out their differences. Nurses and psychologists often team up to deal with problems from home.
"Creating a culture of caring is very important to what we do," Treviño said. And that includes making students and their families feel part of the UT family: All students wear burnt orange-and-white uniforms.
Teachers said they have more freedom to add research-based teaching techniques to their curricula than they would in public schools. And small class sizes - there are 40 students per grade and 20 per class - allow teachers and administrators to have close relationships with parents.
Another key to the school's success is parental involvement. Parents have made a choice to have their children attend, Treviño said, so she can have higher expectations for them as well.
"I expect 100 percent participation in the science fair, and I actually get it," she said. "The idea truly is for these kids to feel like they are on track for college. ... It's that whole 'We're UT' thing."
Choice is just part of what makes it difficult to compare the performance of charter schools with that of public schools. Families have to go through the extra step of applying to charter schools, so there is often a higher level of engagement from the beginning. On the flip side, many charters specialize in serving at-risk students, which can be reflected in their test scores.
Although students reap the benefits of university-based research, the University of Texas has made it a point not to throw large amounts of money into the charter campus; it has a $1.6 million operating budget, of which $1.3 million is state money, said Marilyn Kameen, senior associate dean at UT's College of Education.
The elementary campus is simply a collection of portable buildings with no real gymnasium. Enrollment is limited to five East Austin ZIP codes, and acceptance is based on a lottery.
"The intent was always to create a real school with real kids who have all the issues that kids in urban settings have," Kameen said.
As the plans for a UT charter school were being laid out in 2002, Austin school district officials offered to work with UT as an alternative to the charter, but UT declined.
At the time, school vouchers were a hot topic in the state Legislature, and Charles Miller, a friend of President Bush's and a charter proponent, chaired the UT Board of Regents. Before voting to create the school, he quoted the Austin district as saying, "We can do it better."
"It has not adversely affected us or any of the schools in that area," Austin school district spokesman Andy Welch said.
Struggling charters in Texas outnumber those that are doing well. This year, 16 percent of 317 charter campuses rated statewide were rated unacceptable, compared with 4 percent of Texas public schools.
In Travis County, their performance has been mixed. In addition to UT Elementary, the NYOS charter school, which serves preschoolers through third-graders, was rated exemplary this year, but six other charter schools were rated unacceptable.
Critics argue that charter schools, which are funded with public tax dollars, should not be supported to the detriment of the traditional system.
"The last thing we want to do is talk about expanding the system before we fix the mess we've already got," said Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that supports public schools.
Amid the debate, UT Elementary parents are so satisfied with how their school is performing that many are trying to get a middle school created.
Officials at UT say that a charter middle school is not part of their plans, but several other ambitious plans are in the works.
This year, UT Elementary will begin a $19 million capital campaign to build a permanent facility at its location on East Sixth Street. The school also plans to launch a pilot program to strengthen teacher preparation.
There's also talk of testing some new research in physical education and publishing a teacher training manual that can be used by other schools.
Treviño said she plans to reach out more to the Austin school district.
"I know we can do more," she said.