Is closing an underperforming high school part of the solution to what ails our public education system—or part of the problem?
by Paul Burka | Texas Monthly
Seven years ago, I watched my daughter, Janet, receive her diploma from Johnston High School, in East Austin. No parent will ever do that again: In June, Johnston ceased to exist. A few days before this year’s graduation ceremony, Texas education commissioner Robert Scott informed the Austin Independent School District that he was invoking the nuclear option authorized by the Texas Education Code to close the school after five consecutive years of “academically unacceptable” performances on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Scores improved this year, but not enough to save the school. State rules mandate that three fourths of Johnston’s teachers and half of its students be reassigned when the 2008—2009 academic year begins (some students and teachers can opt to remain at the current campus, which will be “repurposed”). The Johnston name will be expunged, and AISD must produce a plan for some sort of educational triage.
I was saddened to read about Johnston’s fate—but not surprised. For almost two years I had served on its campus advisory council (CAC) with other parents, teachers, administrators, and representatives of the community. I knew Johnston’s problems all too well. In one of my first meetings, we learned that 50 percent of the freshman class had failed all four core courses (English, math, science, social studies) the previous year. In an educational environment dominated by high-stakes testing, Johnston got the black mark, but the roots of the problem reached back into the elementary and middle schools that had failed to prepare their students for high school.
You may be wondering why my wife and I would send our daughter to a low-performing school far across town. The reason is that the Liberal Arts Academy, a magnet program, was located there. Janet had been reading thousand-page science fiction novels since the fifth grade. Her scores on some now forgotten test were high enough that she received an invitation to the LAA’s open house. It was a life-changing experience. The kids she met were like her: too shy and too serious to be part of the middle-school in crowd. In a sample class in art history, the teacher deconstructed a French Impressionist painting from a feminist perspective. Janet was hooked.
One of the rationales for placing magnet programs in schools that serve ethnic neighborhoods (Johnston’s is predominantly Hispanic) is to achieve greater desegregation; another is to broaden the educational opportunities for minority students. Magnet courses in English, social studies, and certain electives are open to all students. In practice, the liberal arts students arrived at Johnston with high academic expectations, and the students from the community arrived with low expectations; the hope was to churn oil and water and pray that it emulsified. It did not come to pass. Few of the students who were assigned to Johnston enrolled in liberal arts classes with magnet students.
At the end of Janet’s freshman year, I went to see her counselor to inquire about her class standing.
“She’s thirty-seventh out of seven hundred and fifty,” the counselor told me.
“That’s good,” I said. “Top five percent.”
“Not really” was his response. “We know from experience that the graduating class will be fewer than two hundred and fifty.”
I did the math. There were approximately 100 kids in the magnet program. That left 650 students in the regular program. Presumably, all of the magnet students would graduate. That meant fewer than 150 of the students from the community would graduate. I interviewed one of Janet’s former English teachers for this article, and he told me that the state was showing a dropout rate of around 2 percent for Johnston at that time. The real dropout rate for students assigned to Johnston was at least 500 out of 650, or 76.9 percent.
“How did the state come up with two percent?” I asked.
“If the school could get students to sign a piece of paper saying they intended to get their GED, it wouldn’t count against our dropout rate,” he said. “Of course, the kids all signed, but most had no intention of getting a GED.”
On the day Janet graduated, the program featured a list of the graduates’ names. I counted them. They numbered 223.
The issue of the dropout rate came up during the years that I served on the CAC. At the time, the official rate was (if I recall correctly) about 13 percent, and school administrators had mounted an all-out effort to reduce it to single digits. How did they do this? They hired a dropout specialist. The new addition to the staff came to a CAC meeting during the fall semester to explain what he was doing. He waved a sheaf of papers in the air. “This is a list of the students who are assigned to Johnston but have not enrolled,” he said. “If we can show that a student has transferred to another school or moved out of the district or is in jail, it doesn’t count against our dropout rate.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Students by the hundreds were in imminent danger of dropping out, and Johnston was spending resources on somebody who was tracking down students who had left school and would never return. I said so. The response was that it was the surest way to reduce the dropout rate. It was certainly easier than helping those still in school. But the irrelevance of what we were doing was appalling. One of the things I learned on the CAC was that in the age of accountability, schools spend a lot of time chasing benchmarks. Did the fault lie with Johnston? Or did it lie with state educational officials who developed perverse incentives to mask the true dropout rate?
The primary task of the CAC, according to state law, was to develop a campus improvement plan. Most of the objectives came from the principal; the rest were from the teachers. In my first year on the council, one of the key goals was to have every student wear an ID. Administrators argued that dropouts came back to see their friends to try to get them to leave school or perhaps to sell them drugs. Another suggestion was to have a truant officer on duty at the back of the school. We were hearing from parents that some students got off the bus, walked through the front door, and kept walking out the back door and into a brushy creek bed behind the school where they smoked pot. But nothing happened. The next year, the same two points came up, again. Nothing happened, again.
Discontinuity of leadership was to blame. During the four years that Janet was enrolled, Johnston had six principals. For a few months in the 1999—2000 school year, I thought that the leadership problem had been solved. The superintendent had chosen a principal who had turned around an elementary school and a middle school, both of which had been loaded with at-risk students. The U.S. Department of Education had awarded his elementary school Blue Ribbon status. At CAC meetings, he was candid about Johnston’s problems and the district’s lukewarm response. He was full of ideas about what he wanted to do. Then one day we read in the paper that he had been busted for marijuana possession. He was finished, and, for all practical purposes, so was Johnston.
Even the athletics program was a mess. During Janet’s freshman year, I went to one of Johnston’s early season football games. The quarterback couldn’t throw the ball. The defense couldn’t tackle. When Janet got home, I told her, “The question is not what game Johnston will win. It’s what year.” The Rams didn’t win until she was a junior.
And yet with all of Johnston’s problems—one principal gave 24 hours’ notice before leaving for a better job—a couple of Janet’s former teachers whom I talked to found a lot to like about the school. Unlike many urban high schools with at-risk students, Johnston had few disciplinary problems. Students behaved with civility in class and in the halls. They didn’t tag the building with graffiti. Violence was rare. The problems were at the top, in the principal’s office, and at the bottom, in the lower grades that hadn’t prepared their students for high school. “The average incoming freshman is reading at a fourth- to fifth-grade level,” one of Janet’s English teachers told me.
The extreme remedy of closing a school makes sense only if you believe that the students will be better off under whatever educational approach replaces it. I doubt that the Johnston students assigned elsewhere will ever feel at home in their new schools or be welcomed there; they could become Austin’s version of Katrina kids. Those who remain will encounter, by state edict, an entirely new instructional program, whatever that might turn out to be. It could be another Johnston with a different name or an innovative charter school. The question then becomes whether the new program will have the resources to make it work. The State of Texas, you may have noticed, is not generous with its allocations to the public schools. AISD came up with a “repurposing proposal” that envisions “two independent high school(s)” that might be created at the former Johnston site, “each with a rigorous college and career focus.” Isn’t this doomed if the students are reading at a fifth-grade level?
Johnston is a symbol for what is happening all across Texas. Public schools are being asked to educate the children of immigrants. The elementary schools have to deal with the language barrier. Bilingual education programs don’t appear to be effective. The Texas Education Agency, which used to monitor such programs, no longer does. Eventually these unprepared students reach high school, where they are expected to take a rigorous college preparatory course for which they are not prepared. Legislators gripe that the schools spend too much money and get too few results. The schools get the blame for failing to produce miracles. I don’t know what the answer is, but I bet it’s something more constructive than closing a school.