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Failing Texas Schools Face Dwindling Options

July 28, 2008

By Terrence Stutz, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 28–AUSTIN — Fixing the worst schools in Texas is about to get harder.

A 2006 law meant to spur improvements at low-rated schools gave the state two options for campuses that rack up five consecutive years of “unacceptable” ratings — closure or the use of outside managers to run them.

In practice, though, there’s just one choice. The state did not attract a single bid — from either a private company or a nonprofit entity — after soliciting proposals for several months for an outside manager.

“At this point, we have no one to call on,” said state Education Commissioner Robert Scott. “Because there are no takers, we are left with just one option — closure” for chronic underachievers.

Two high schools, in Austin and Houston, were ordered closed this summer by Mr. Scott after failing to meet minimum academic standards for at least five years. Both will reopen in the fall as specialized campuses with new students and teachers.

A third high school, Spruce in Dallas, saw the writing on the wall after four years of failing marks and was also recast recently as a new type of school serving mostly ninth graders. Most students and teachers have been transferred elsewhere.

As many as a dozen more schools in Texas could be headed toward the same fate next year.

Outside managers are used in several other states. Mr. Scott said he couldn’t explain the lack of interest in Texas. A Texas Education Agency spokeswoman said it might be because of the relatively small number of campuses available for an outside manager to take over.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said dramatic action is necessary when a school consistently fails to meet minimum achievement standards.

“Schools that repeatedly fall short should face consequences,” said Ms. Shapiro, who authored the legislation to deal aggressively with poor-performing schools. “After five years, surely something needs to change if youngsters at those schools continue to receive an inferior education. They deserve better.”

Her counterpart in the House, Rep. Rob Eissler, agreed, noting that low-rated schools get assistance under state law each year they make the unacceptable list.

But he also said the lack of potential outside managers is a concern.

“Everybody wants a fighting chance to succeed. But the perception about many of these schools is you won’t get a fighting chance,” said Mr. Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Eissler lead a special legislative committee that is looking at revisions in the state’s accountability and school rating system — one that may rely more on incentives and less on penalties.

Taking action

In the meantime, Mr. Scott is considering his limited options for dealing with bad schools.

He said he takes some encouragement from the way the Dallas school district took the initiative at Spruce High School.

“I’m pleased they decided not to wait for the state before they took action,” he said. “Dallas is the only school district to get an early jump like this, but hopefully this will be a model for other schools in a similar situation.”

Two experts in remaking poor-performing schools told lawmakers from Texas and other states on Friday that the job is not hopeless. But they said it takes a willingness to make unpopular decisions and undertake radical solutions, such as an 11-month school calendar and a longer school day. Both also said weak school leadership must be tossed out for improvement to occur.

‘Remove the obstacles’

Paul Vallas, superintendent of the Recovery School District of New Orleans — created to manage 63 low-performing schools in New Orleans and 10 troubled schools in other parts of Louisiana — said all state restrictions must be set aside to turn such schools around.

“There’s a reason U.S. schools get their butts kicked in international comparisons,” Dr. Vallas said at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in New Orleans, pointing to the greater length of time students spend in school in other countries. “You’ve got to remove the obstacles that limit instructional time.”

He instituted an 11-month school year and a longer school day, increasing the total amount of instruction for students by a third. Other restrictions, such as those on class size and seniority rules that protect less effective teachers, must also be challenged, he said.

Dr. Vallas also was superintendent of the Chicago and Philadelphia school systems, where he was credited with boosting achievement in low-performing schools. He noted that in Philadelphia, a third of the schools were run by private managers or charter schools.

Mel Riddile of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who was credited with turning around one of the nation’s worst high schools in Fairfax County, Va., assured lawmakers that bad schools can be turned around with the right combination of actions — including a state legislature that stands firm on high standards for its schools.

It took him four years to bring J.E.B. Stuart High School in Virginia from the bottom — with three-fourths of students reading three or more years below grade level — to the top of the state’s academic standings. For his efforts, he was honored as the national high school principal of the year in 2005.

Based on his experience, Dr. Riddile is convinced that the principal is the key to turning around a bad school.

“You can put them in a new building, you can hire all new teachers, but if you don’t have a principal who can effect change, nothing’s going to happen. You have to have a principal who can lead the change,” he said.

FIXING THE SCHOOLS

What academically unacceptable schools must do:

Year 1

— Appoint a campus intervention team

— Assess needs and complete evaluation

— Write school improvement plan

Year 2

— Work with campus intervention team

— Plan to replace staff

— Update school improvement plan

Year 3

— Continue with campus intervention team

— Begin staff replacement

— Hold public hearing on remedies

Year 4

— Continue with campus intervention team

— Hold additional public hearing on remedies

— Appoint conservator or implement other sanctions

Year 5

— Use alternative management or school is closed by commissioner

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

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