Monday, June 16, 2008

Few options offered for Texas schools facing closure

By ERICKA MELLON | Houston Chronicle
June 13, 2008

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott faced a historic decision this month: What should he do with four schools that had failed for so long that the law required drastic action?

Legislators had given him two options: Close the schools or let an outside group — either a nonprofit or another school district — take them over.

The catch: No nonprofit had applied to the Texas Education Agency for a shot at the task.

"It would have been nice to have had that option," said Scott, whose agency first solicited applications via the Internet last July.

Instead, Scott found another option: Using little-known rules written by TEA officials, he announced last week that the Houston and Austin school districts could have a chance to redesign the schools they had repeatedly failed to raise to acceptable levels.

This week, Scott waived the harsh sanctions against a Waco middle school after it barely missed the acceptable mark. He has yet to say whether Oak Village Middle School in North Forest cleared the bar.

The long-troubled campuses, including Sam Houston High School in the Houston Independent School District, are the first in Texas to reach the end of the line in the state's accountability system, falling short of minimum academic standards since at least 2004.

Many more schools could land in a similar fix in coming years, raising questions about the state's ability to better serve students when outside groups are unable to help and when displacing thousands of children by closing a neighborhood school is not practical.

"There isn't the capacity on the part of states or private groups to bring about large-scale change," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, which studies reform efforts nationwide. "The hopeful thing is that states and school districts are taking this task much more seriously than in the past."

Meeting standards
One driver is the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which like Texas' accountability system, orders escalating sanctions against schools each year they fail to meet standards.

In Texas, schools that have unacceptable test scores and dropout rates for five straight years must be closed or put under alternative management.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, defended the state's school accountability system, which lawmakers toughened in 2006.

"For the first time in quite a long time, we're no longer just talking with an idle threat; we're actually acting," the Plano Republican said.

HISD and Austin officials said they appreciate the flexibility that allows them to reinvent their own schools.

Under the TEA's rules, the new schools must have a different academic program, a new name and principal, plus at least 75 percent of the instructional staff and 50 percent of the students must be new.

"We tried to make rules that allowed the building to be used, or repurposed, but would still result in the children getting a better quality of education," Scott said.

HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said he is thrilled Sam Houston likely will remain under his control, especially because the school would have made the acceptable mark this year had about a dozen more students passed the math exam.

"I don't think we ever as a staff felt we would turn our back on that school," Saavedra said.

Unreasonable action
Closing schools, based on a few students' test scores at a campus that is making progress, is unreasonable, he said. Half the students at Sam Houston passed the math exam this year, compared with 41 percent five years ago.

"No Child Left Behind says, by 2014, every school in this country is going to meet a level of proficiency in every (student) subgroup," Saavedra said. "Is the nation ready to close every single school that doesn't meet that? I can tell you the answer is, 'No way.' The system's got to be fair and recognize progress."

HISD's $3.4 million plan for reforming Sam Houston would split the school in two. Ninth-graders would have their own school on the same campus and would remain in class for an extra hour a day. The school for upperclassmen would encourage students to focus on careers in engineering, information technology or the automotive industry.

State Rep. Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he was only slightly surprised the state has not received any applications from nonprofit school managers.

"Often, alternative managers want to come in, and they want to be successful so they kind of size up what those chances would be," said Eissler, R-The Woodlands. "Maybe that is part of their reticence."

After striking out last summer, the TEA posted another request for proposals in November. Two undisclosed entities have expressed interest, said agency spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman, and have until July 2 to apply.

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