Austin High School recovering after ‘reform from hell’

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Austin High School “flunked remediation,” Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas said in mid-September as he announced the removal of Interim Principal Al Clark. In the view of most people at the school, though, it was a bungled remediation that failed Austin.

“This reform was reform from hell,” says Gloria Walton, a teacher who worked all summer on plans to change the school, only to be cut from the faculty Sept. 1. And she wasn’t alone; more than 15 teachers, most of whom had done program planning over the summer, were dismissed at the 11th hour, leaving a total of 14 teaching positions covered by day-to-day substitutes when school opened—and plans for a new Austin in shambles.

Ask just about anybody at Austin what went wrong, and the first thing you’ll hear is that nobody knew who was in charge. “Lynn St. James would say one thing, Dr. [Marie] Jernigan would say something else, and Mr. Clark something different,” says the Rev. Lewis Flowers, who sat on Austin’s local school council and the team that recommended what was to be done under remediation.

St. James was head of the team until she became the chief educational officer of the school system in July; Jernigan, a staffer from the old Subdistrict 11, was head of plan implementation; and Clark was appointed interim principal after his old school, Cregier Vocational, was shut down for lack of students and little demonstrable success—only 25 students graduated in 1995.

After hitting bottom in early September, however, Austin now appears to be on the rise, with a new principal and new, ready-to-go programs rekindling hope among teachers and community members. “I think it got out of hand for a bit, but I think they’ve got a grasp on things,” says Leticia Walker, a staffer for the Westside Health Authority, which runs programs at the school. “If they let just one person stay there for a while and get their regular teachers and get them working, I think the kids will adapt real well.”

When former Supt. Argie Johnson learned of the abysmal state of education at Austin—99 percent of students couldn’t write up to state standards, for example, and on any given day 30 percent stayed home—she wanted to shut it down and start over. But the School Reform Act, as it existed at the time, wouldn’t let her; so she forced the subdistrict superintendent and council to put the school on remediation. (See Catalyst, May 1995.)

By early May, a 15-member remediation planning team was in place, with St. James at the helm; it included teachers, subdistrict and central office staffers, current and retired principals, and representatives of community and school reform groups. Within weeks, the team had agreed on a set of recommendations, including (1) replace the principal, (2) hire and train a bigger security staff, (3) establish a new school discipline policy, (4) reorganize staff and students into three or four small schools, (5) hire new teachers to fill a third of the positions, many of which were vacant, and (6) use unspent 1994-95 funds to pay parents, community members, consultants and the school’s staff to design all this over the summer.

However, the week the team issued its report, state lawmakers overhauled the school system. Suddenly, Argie Johnson, the driving force in remediation at Austin, had about as much job security as Austin Principal James Williams. Within a month, Johnson was out, and St. James was in as chief educational officer. And Austin was left with an interim principal who had been chosen by the former but wasn’t a favorite of the latter. Interviewed later about the situation at Austin, St. James was quick to point out that Clark “was not my appointee—though I supported him.”

Meanwhile, the subdistrict office, which might have lent a hand, was slated for demolition, and the new regional office would not be in place until August. Similarly, the new Office of Accountability wouldn’t get an intervention chief until late August.

Not surprisingly, the most controversial recommendation for Austin was the one on infusing the faculty with new blood. Throughout the first two weeks of the summer work, teachers haggled with parents and community members, who wanted the right to toss out “bad apples.” The group reached a consensus of sorts, recalls consultant Margo Crawford: Teachers felt vaguely assured that they all would have their jobs in September, but they agreed to be interviewed by a committee of staff, parents, teachers and community members.

However, the committee that began interviewing teachers Aug. 8 had no teachers on it. Within days, the process started to break down. For example, one teacher was kept waiting for five hours and then was interviewed by only Clark and Jernigan. Some teachers never were interviewed at all.

About the same time, in a harbinger of things to come, 11 teachers were cut from the design teams. They were told, according to Substance newspaper, that there wasn’t enough money left to continue paying them. When these teachers returned to Austin Sept. 1 for a professional development day, nine of them (as well as six other Austin teachers) were told to report to Pershing Road for reassignment to other schools. While they didn’t get an explanation, they did get an escort. Clark had four police officers usher the ousted teachers to the door. “We’re such a dangerous group,” quipped one.

Despite a confused and contentious start, Austin’s teachers had made significant progress over the summer in planning small schools, according to small-schools consultant Michael Klonsky. “When we got there [in mid-July], the morale of the teachers was very low,” he says. “But after a couple of weeks, teachers who had been at each others’ throats and fighting with each other were meeting in teams and discussing how things were going to be different when school opened up in September.” (As a contributing editor to Catalyst, Klonsky had written about Austin last spring, before being asked to work on the school’s remediation.)

“Those teachers were cynical, but they worked past that,” says Louis Pyster, who was Austin’s teachers union delegate until he, too, was removed from the school Sept. 1. “At a certain point, you’ve got to buy into it. They ‘believed’ enough that they worked.”

Meanwhile, plans to beef up school security also went unfulfilled, even as Clark beefed up enrollment with dozens of older students who earlier had dropped out or been kicked out of the school. Howard Saffold, a retired police officer who heads an organization called Positive Anti-Crime Thrust, helped select prospective security staffers, but they were never hired. When school opened, there were seven or eight guards on staff for a building with four floors and nine exits.

“I got a call at the end of the first student attendance day from Reverend Flowers,” recalls St. James. “We were on a three-way hookup with [a reporter] who said, ‘You guys better do something. Somebody’s going to get killed over there.’ I told them I would be there with a team and a security force to stabilize the situation the following day, no later than 8 o’clock.”

Eight security guards arrived from School Board headquarters, and the Austin police district sent a dozen or so officers. Within a week, Clark was replaced by a trio consisting of John West (a top assistant to Vallas), Adrian Beverly (an assistant to St. James) and Ron Beavers (an assistant to regional chief Hazel Steward). Jernigan was sent to a job at the Region 5 office. And Vallas told reporters the school had “flunked remediation.”

(Clark, who has since resigned from the system, could not be reached for comment for this article. Jernigan never gave CATALYST an interview, despite repeated requests over a period of months.)

West, Beverly and Beavers spent a few weeks at Austin, hiring permanent teachers and security guards, registering students for classes—Austin’s programmer had resigned over the summer—issuing student ID cards, and paying some of the bills they found piled up at the school offices. “Together, we were able to settle things down,” says West. “We had a lot of help from central office.”

With the backing of central office, the trio moved beyond damage control. It came up with the idea of spinning off the older, returning students into an evening program—to be run with Saffold’s support. And it lined up some outsiders to help. At a well-attended LSC meeting the night of Sept. 19, representatives of three organizations made presentations and asked for support from the council, teachers and community. They were Sylvan Learning Centers, the National Alliance for School Restructuring and Barbara Sizemore’s Student Achievement Structure. Sylvan and Sizemore are working at the school now; the Alliance is still talking with board officials.

Loose ends and rough edges abound. In late October, consultant Saffold was still waiting to be paid for his summer work. And while the school no longer was staffed with day-to-day subs, 19 positions were being filled by full-time-basis subs or teachers without the appropriate certification, according to acting Principal Arthur Slater, who replaced the trio on Oct. 2. And only about 40 out of the 80 students assigned to the evening program were showing up on a given day. Both Saffold and Slater, who was assistant principal at Hyde Park High, say that the program may have to be re-evaluated in a few months.

Also, the small schools that teachers struggled to create seemed bound for the scrap-heap. “I think that concept has sort of died a little bit,” Slater says. The problem is staffing, he explains: Each minischool should have a team leader who teaches fewer classes and spends the extra time on administrative tasks; but Austin is still short on teachers. “Because staff worked so hard on this, I’m trying to keep the program alive,” Slater says. “But I just don’t have the extra positions” that would let leaders function effectively.

Klonsky, whose official association with Austin ended in August, is guardedly optimistic about the future of Austin. “This is a school that didn’t even have a science lab. Didn’t even have a copy machine. Can you imagine? Now, hopefully, that school will get some attention and the resources it needs.

“Of course, change is very difficult,” he cautions. “All kinds of problems are going to break out. But a year ago, nobody cared. Nobody cared how the money was being spent. Nobody cared. Because after all, who goes to Austin that anybody should care about? That was the prevailing attitude.”

Leola Spann, board president of the Northwest Austin Council and a member of the remediation planning team, thinks the school may be on the mend. But she is outraged over the summer’s failures. “This is discrimination in its highest form,” she says. “No other community would stand for this kind of disruption in children’s schooling.

“I was on the remediation team,” she says. “When the new board came about, if our recommendations weren’t what they thought they should have been, they could have called us and said so. Me being from this community and having a daughter that went to Austin, I think I could have dealt with that. Otherwise, I think the implementation should have been done in the summer.”

Spann calls Sizemore’s arrival “the first breath of fresh air we’ve had around here” since the school year began. After hearing the DePaul University dean give a stirring speech at the Sept. 19 LSC meeting, Spann concluded, “She understands African-American children, she’s a strong woman, and she understands some of the problems the school has. If Ms. Sizemore is coming in, I think the school is on the right track.”