Mendez Middle School’s Principal Joanna Carrillo-Rowley knocked on the door to the mobile home.
Wearing jeans, a school shirt and a pair of Converse shoes, Carrillo-Rowley was pounding the pavement on a recent summer night in search of students who were zoned to attend her middle school but had not registered.
It was a tactic she previously used to recover high school dropouts. The middle school students who had not enrolled in Mendez likely elected to go elsewhere because they either heard the school was struggling or thought the campus was closing, she said. And it was time to get them back.
“This is our form of outreach. They decided to drop out of Mendez, so our goal is to teach them what we’re going to do at Mendez and hopefully change their minds to come back to us,” Carrillo-Rowley said.
No one answered at most of the homes she visited, but at the mobile home, rising sixth-grader Jocelyn Esparza came to the door. Esparza hadn’t registered for classes yet but told Carrillo-Rowley her family was still planning on sending her to Mendez.
“Success!” Carrillo-Rowley cried out.
Monday is the first day of school for all Austin district campuses, and Mendez, which has failed state academic standards for five consecutive years, reopens as an in-district charter campus led by Carrillo-Rowley and run by the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Coalition (T-STEM), which has had success in turning around struggling schools.
Multiple Central Texas districts started classes last week.
Austin district officials predicted Mendez would have fewer than 600 students this year. But by walking neighborhoods and making calls to would-be students, Carrillo-Rowley, other Mendez staff and community volunteers ensured the school will reopen with more than 700, a number that’s comparable to previous years.
This is the second chance Mendez has gotten from the state after facing closure for poor academic performance. The Austin district leveraged a new state law, Senate Bill 1882, which provides a lifeline of sorts for struggling campuses. The state has paused the consequences of failure to give struggling schools the opportunity to meet standards and is directing about $1,900 more per student to Mendez. And by allowing the charter operator to run the campus, the school has been given another year to turn around.
Parents said they believe the hands-on, project-based learning approach T-STEM offers will boost academic performance.
Nearly all of Mendez’s students are low income. Ninety percent are Latino, and 9 percent black.
“We want to teach these students to be self-driven and independent learners,” said Carrillo-Rowley, who moved from Midland earlier in the summer to lead Mendez. “We, as educators, we sometimes tend to create children in robotic form. The project-based learning allows them to really get their imaginative brain going and flowing and thinking outside the box. They can learn state standards in a project-based environment so they totally understand what that standard means and why it’s important to learn.”
Under the leadership and curriculum change, about 40 percent of the staff left, some leaving teaching altogether. In finding replacements, Carrillo-Rowley said she was looking less for people with experience and more for teachers willing and able to build strong relationships with students.
“I needed to make sure the teacher understood what we needed for the kids in Mendez,” she said. “I wanted to hear their thought process was in helping make students successful, not just in school, but in the choices they make for college and career, military and life in general. We have a well-rounded group.”
Among them is Steven Wamble, a third-year teacher who relocated from a Grand Prairie charter school to teach eighth-grade intervention in English/Language Arts.
“I had a lot of success at my previous school, and I know this one hasn’t seen success in a while,” Wamble said. “So I’m very eager to make this setting like my last. It didn’t happen overnight there, and it’s not going to happen overnight here, but I’ve seen it be done and that’s enough for me.”
James “Luke” Monfries, who has taught at the school for 5½ years, stayed.
“I fell in love with this school and decided I want to teach these kids,” said Monfries, who teaches art.
Student registration will continue after school starts. The first three days will be dedicated to so-called family time, in which students and teachers primarily will start building relationships and students will learn more about STEM and project-based learning before jumping into a regular bell schedule.
“We’re going to start by building that social emotional connection with them,” Carrillo-Rowley said. “There is going to be a difference this year.”