Wednesday, June 11, 2008

2 new schools proposed at Johnston site

District's plans emphasize technology, early college start.

By Molly Bloom
Saturday, June 07, 2008

A proposal to be submitted to the Austin school board Monday calls for two new high schools on the campus of the former Johnston High School, which the state closed this week for failing to meet state academic standards for five years in a row.

Under the proposal, Johnston students would see few major changes during the 2008-09 school year. The new school would operate much as Johnston High did, with the addition of various support systems and an increased focus on individualized instruction. Significant changes would come the following year, when the new schools would open at the Johnston campus.

District officials say the two models that seem to best suit Johnston students are a technology-focused high school, in which students learn by working on projects rather than through lectures, and an "early college start" high school that allows students to earn college credits.

If trustees approve the proposal, the district will submit it to state Education Commissioner Robert Scott. District officials say they will flesh out the plan's details in the coming months.

Johnston was closed for repeatedly failing to meet state standards based on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills and dropout rates. Scott said Thursday that he hoped to rule on the plan by the end of the month. Under the law, Scott also had the option of placing the school under alternative management. If Scott turns down the district's plan for reopening, the district can either let the campus sit vacant or open a school with different grade levels, such as elementary, at the site.

"We believe we have to get this right," said Patti Everitt, the district's director of operations and community engagement. "We have to match what we do to the needs of the students."

The district plans to ask struggling Johnston students and incoming freshmen who didn't do well on the TAKS in middle school to attend summer programs to bring them up to grade level. A college and career support center would help students plan their futures beyond high school graduation, according to the plan.

The district also could hire a contractor to run the schools, similar to the "in-district" charter school arrangements in Houston and San Antonio.

At such schools, an outside entity would act as the principal while the district paid for day-to-day operations and salaries.

Under state law, at least 75 percent of Johnston teachers must be reassigned; district officials have said that they will find other positions for teachers not returning to Johnston who want to stay in the district.

State law also requires that at least 50 percent of the students at any new schools on the Johnston campus must have not been previously served by the school.

However, the Austin school district has not proposed a dramatic change to the school's student body, and district officials say students who want to attend Johnston will not be reassigned to other schools.

The proposal does not specify how the district would be able to accomplish that and still meet state requirements.

In past years, less than half of students in Johnston's attendance zone chose to attend the East Austin school.

The district also plans to try to recruit students districtwide to attend the new schools on the Johnston campus.

On Thursday, Scott declined to say what type of plan would address the enrollment requirement but said he didn't "want to punish the district for having an open enrollment policy."

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