Schools in the Austin district still outpace their urban peers, with most scoring A’s and B’s, but 29 percent continue to lag behind in academic performance, according to the latest ratings by Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk, which annually ranks campuses in the state’s largest urban areas.
“Austin is one of those bright spots in the state,” said Children at Risk President Bob Sanborn, who credits the Austin region’s affluence; research links academic performance to socioeconomic status. Yet, he said, “there are still too many schools in Austin at the bottom. We’re seeing good movement, but there needs to be more.”
The neighboring Round Rock school district clinched nearly all of the top 10 elementary schools, as well as the top three middle schools, while Eanes and Austin had two top 10 middle schools, and Lake Travis, Leander and the charter Meridian World School in Round Rock all had one each. The Austin school district continues to struggle at the middle school level — half of its 14 middle schools received F’s.
While ranking changes don’t occur often at the high school level, this year they did, Sanborn said.
The Liberal Arts and Science Academy in the Austin school district and Westwood in the Round Rock school district held on to their No. 1 and 2 spots, respectively (the schools are ranked No. 4 and No. 19 statewide).
But the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders rose several spots to clinch the third spot. Not previously among the top 10, Harmony Science Academy in Pflugerville also made it into the local top 10 list.
The nationally recognized Westlake High in the Eanes district tumbled a couple of spots to No. 6 locally and by 20 spots statewide. Westlake’s drop was due to a decrease in the percentage of students performing at the highest level in math on a state-mandated exam, as well as a drop in campus performance and growth scores, according to the nonprofit’s data. However, the group said that, compared to the nearly 1,400 high schools ranked statewide, the decrease is small and the high school remains very high performing with an A+.
One dozen elementary schools were named gold ribbon schools, which are campuses with high percentages of students from low-income families and with strong academics. Nine campuses in the Austin district were given the designation, as well as one each in Bastrop, Marble Falls and Manor districts. Sanborn said more high-poverty schools are performing at higher levels across the state, a trend that he attributes to stronger campus leadership, a willingness to try new things and more use of test data to identify where students need help.
Austin’s Blackshear Elementary, which is a national Blue Ribbon school, topped the list of local gold ribbon schools. It also has been recognized by the Texas Education Agency for the work it has done with a high concentration of students from low-income families; the majority of the campus’ students are low-income and are either black or Latino. In 2014, the school became the district’s first elementary fine arts academy, which has helped boost enrollment.
“Schools like Blackshear, where they are investing, we’re starting to see it pay off,” Sanborn said. “Urban, economically disadvantaged schools, we’re starting to see them turn around, and that’s a great trend we’re starting to see across the state … in these gold ribbon schools, they have a principal that promotes stability and engagement with the parents.”
Several of the Austin district’s middle schools have ranked poorly on the nonprofit’s annual list and also have struggled to meet state standards. Dobie, Garcia and Mendez, which received F’s in the nonprofit group’s ratings, also were labeled as “improvement required” by the state. Administrators have said they recognized more work needs to be done to improve; last year, they launched a districtwide literacy plan, which they hope will improve reading and writing scores.
While many schools in the Manor district continue to struggle, there are early signs of improvement. Manor High School, which was ranked the worst high school the past two years, moved up a few spots, and both Decker Elementary and Manor Elementary improved by two letter grades since last year to a C- and a B, respectively.
For its rankings, Children at Risk uses academics; how well students did in reading and math on state standardized testing; how well a campus performed compared with similar schools; and how much students are improving academically year to year. High school also includes a college readiness index, focused on graduation rates and performance on college entrance exams.