July 29, 2009
State Education Commissioner Robert Scott said Tuesday that he feels confident Pearce Middle School will be open in the fall with new programs and a new vision and said his first choice would be to leave the campus in the hands of the Austin school district.
Scott stopped short, however, of guaranteeing that the school would remain under total district control.
“We’re negotiating in good faith. I think both sides are,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have a good plan in place for this coming school year.”
Amid scrutiny from state lawmakers and under pressure from the campus’ Northeast Austin community, the district is compiling a plan to reopen Pearce after Scott ordered the school closed in a letter sent to the district this month. Pearce has failed to meet state goals on standardized tests for eight of the past 10 years, and so far, district administrators haven’t submitted to Scott an acceptable map of the campus’ future.
The district is also facing a time crunch. The first day of school is Aug. 24, and teachers are scheduled to report to campuses Aug. 10.
Scott said he didn’t foresee turning management of Pearce over to a local charter school — one of the options other than closure that he has for the campus.
“There have been charters that have said they have been interested, but I don’t think that’s the proper solution right now,” Scott said. “I’m a fan of charters, and if the right charter moves into East Austin, maybe that would be a possibility in the future.”
But Scott wouldn’t rule out creating an “in-district charter,” in which the district would contract with an outside entity to run the campus. Under such arrangements, which have been tried in the Houston and Arlington districts, the charter’s management would report to the school board.
“I can’t say that for sure yet,” Scott said. An in-district charter “is possible, but it’s not my first choice right now. I want to work with the district to get their repurposing plan in place and go from there.”
State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, worked with Scott on a plan for the former Johnston High School, which Scott closed in 2008. Watson said he hopes Scott keeps the commitment to reopen Pearce.
“Ultimately, we cannot lose sight of the fact that this is about the proper education of our kids,” Watson said. “The district and the commissioner must keep that in mind.”
Austin Superintendent Meria Carstarphen did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but Communication Director Andy Welch said in a written statement that the district continues to work closely with the Texas Education Agency.
The Pearce community will be able to view the plan by the end of this week, Welch said. Trustees could vote on it at their meeting Monday after a public hearing. If approved, the plan will be forwarded to Scott.
“If the commissioner accepts the proposal — and we have worked closely with his staff to address his earlier concerns — the repurposing plan will be implemented with the start of the 2009-2010 school year, building upon Pearce’s academic progress from last year,” Welch said.
Under state law, the plan must include campus staffing changes and a reassignment plan for students who opt to go elsewhere.
The core parts of the plan being negotiated for Pearce would put students into different academies, a move based on research that suggests high-needs students sometimes perform better academically with more direct supervision in smaller settings.
The Pearce proposal has one academy for sixth-graders, one for students who struggle on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, one for English language learners and an academy similar to one at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, where students on an Advance Placement track learn leadership skills. Pearce also would hire a full-time volunteer coordinator to manage mentoring and tutoring programs and establish a resource center that would provide families with housing, health and other social service resources.
The plan has been toiled over by district officials and community members for the past year.
Allen Weeks, a community organizer helping with the plan, said he is one of several co-signers sending a letter to Scott today that reminds the commissioner that he promised to move quickly.
“It’s just saying that time is short, and we as a community do support this repurposing plan,” Weeks said. “It’s just to express and to remind the commissioner that there’s a very broad citywide interest in the success of Pearce and that we want to see Pearce open. We’re keeping our eyes on the process.”
District officials and local lawmakers expressed surprise at the July 2 closure letter, given that the state Legislature had just changed the law giving the commissioner the option to let a school stay open if it had shown improvement.
In the weeks since, some community members questioned whether politics over school choice — the idea that money spent on failing public schools might be better spent on privately run campuses — were at play.
“I’ve heard the same kinds of things,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin. “I don’t know what anybody’s agenda is, but at this point, that really doesn’t matter for me. All of these schools are a part of our community. … Those kids in those schools need to have whatever it takes to be as successful as the kids in the West Austin schools.”
Pearce’s passing rates on the 2009 TAKS showed improvement in all subjects, according to preliminary data, but gains failed to meet the state standards in science. Only 39 percent of students passed the science test; the state standard is 50 percent.
Official TAKS results and campus ratings will be released Friday.
Meanwhile, the district is trying to manage staffing at a campus that doesn’t have an approved plan to open its doors less than a month from now. Nine of 28 core subject teachers have transferred out of Pearce for the 2009-10 school year, and 13 of the remaining 19 have less than two years of experience.
“It’s just that getting a quality faculty together becomes harder and harder with each day that passes,” Weeks said.
Scott said he also is interested in deciding on a plan for Pearce for the coming school year as soon as possible.
“I’d love to have it done within a week,” he said.