- By Melissa B. Taboada American-Statesman Staff
Mendez Middle School has not met state academic standards for four years in a row and could be closed by the state if it fails again this school year — something that has happened just twice to Austin schools.
But instead of waiting until summer to find out, Austin school district leaders are launching a plan to save Mendez by teaming with an outside group, such as a university or nonprofit, to help turn around its history of poor test scores and low student achievement.
A new law, Senate Bill 1882, offers the district more money per student at the school and a two-year reprieve from state sanctions if the district partners with a charter school operator or other outside entity.
But most Mendez parents, students and community members have said they are leery of opening Mendez to outside advisers, and they’re particularly wary of bringing in a charter school operator.
Some have expressed concern that the district will lose control of the school and that a separate governing system — required under the state’s rules — would trump decisions by Austin school board members regarding school finances and academic programs.
At a school meeting Tuesday night, district officials told 100 parents, teachers and neighbors that they want their input in choosing a partner.
Mendez PTA President Rob Kibbie, who attended the school when he was a kid, said Mendez and its new principal are now doing well and should be given a chance to succeed.
“You should see the way the teachers care for every student,” Kibbie said. “I’m hoping we get out of IR (Improvement Required status), but if not, I’m hoping a partner like Johns Hopkins comes in or another nonprofit, just not a charter.”
Mendez, which educates mostly low-income black and Latino students, already had to replace its leadership and staff and to submit turnaround plans because of previous years’ failures. With 651 students, the school is at only 54 percent of its 1,200-student capacity. While the school has improved its scores from the state, which are largely based on standardized test results, not enough progress has been made and students have struggled to pass the social studies portion of the exams.
District officials say they have not given up hope that this year’s test scores will lift the school out from under the Improvement Required label, but they are moving forward with plans to partner with an outside group because the application is due March 1. If district officials do nothing, and the school fails again, they will have missed the deadline and the school could be closed.
Their hope is to duplicate the district’s partnership with Johns Hopkins University-affiliate Talent Development Secondary to turn around Eastside Memorial High School, a historically low-performing high school that now has met standards for multiple years. In the high school’s case, the district sought proposals for a partner — one that wouldn’t take over the school, but would work with district and campus leadership to boost academics.
District officials again plan to issue a request for proposals, as early as this week, to improve Mendez, and say they will get input from parents, teachers and community members on the potential partners. A school-based committee will make a recommendation to the school board. If the board approves, the partner, along with the turnaround plan, would then be submitted to the state.
Mendez has grappled with high teacher turnover rates. This year, the district put in new leadership, hired new teachers and beefed up support to help educators there. Reading specialists also were brought in to help students catch up in reading.
Trustees on Monday night criticized administrators for the school’s academic struggles.
“We should have gotten ahead of what was happening at Mendez a long time ago,” said Trustee Ann Teich, who for years volunteered at the middle school and faulted previous campus leadership for the failures, as well as district administrators for not removing that leadership when concerns were raised. “We have let Mendez down. We have let a number of our middle schools down because there has not been a coherent, unchanging way of teaching these kids.”
Parent Irma Valdez expressed the same frustration Tuesday night.
Valdez said her older daughter was ill-prepared for high school after attending Mendez. Valdez is against a charter operator running the school, saying charters have rigid rules and emphasize testing above all. She tried to transfer her younger daughter, who currently attends Mendez, but could not provide the transportation to get her child to another school.
“They’re saying they’re doing a bunch of things for the students, but they’re not teaching my children anything, and are focusing on the test. They’re not making progress,” Valdez said.
At the meeting, district officials solicited volunteers to serve on the selection committee for the new partner once the proposals roll in.
Sixth-grader Maya Craft, 12, said she likes her teachers and is open to a school partner, but fears the change would mean the current teachers will leave.
“It doesn’t make me nervous, but I don’t want it to be an all-charter school and don’t want it if the teachers can’t stay,” Maya said.