After facing closure for poor academic performance, Mendez Middle School is getting another chance from the state.
The Texas Education Agency has approved the Austin school district’s choice for a partner to help turn around the 700-student middle school in Southeast Austin. The campus, which failed to meet state standards for four consecutive years, could have faced state sanctions, including closure, if it failed again this year.
But Austin leveraged a new state law, Senate Bill 1882, which provides a lifeline of sorts for struggling districts and their campuses. The state pauses any consequences of failures to meet standards and provides more money per student if districts find a state-approved partner — such as a charter operator, university, or nonprofit organization — to run the schools.
The Austin district’s partnership with the Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Coalition provides Mendez a two-year reprieve from penalties under state accountability and a $1.3 million financial boost, about $1,900 per student. The extra funding Mendez will receive is equivalent to the additional money privately run but publicly funded charter schools receive.
“We always felt confident in the strength of our proposal and the strength of our partnership,” said Jacob Reach, the district’s chief of staff. “We made sure we followed all of TEA’s rules. But we also wanted to stay true to our community and do it the Austin way. We wanted to make sure our community had a say.”
The TSTEM Coalition, which has improved struggling campuses across the state, will operate as an in-district charter over the campus, with hiring authority and control over the budget and curriculum. The University of Texas’ UTeach Institute and Communities in Schools of Central Texas will help the coalition provide additional staff training and services for students.
Critics have warned that such state-approved partnerships allow outside organizations to run public schools, giving charter operators a bigger foothold.
Mendez parents and faculty members had made it clear they did not want to partner with a charter operator. To give community members a voice, the district convened a vetting committee of parents and teachers, which ultimately selected the organization.
Robert Kibbie, Mendez PTA president, and other parents said they believe the hands-on, project-based learning approach TSTEM offers will boost academic performance.
“I’m excited they are going to come in,” Kibbie said. “We were already on the right track and continue to be. Within a year or two, we’ll definitely be hitting accountability.”
Even before state approval, TSTEM has been providing training to teachers and replaced the principal with a director, Joanna Carrillo-Rowley, who started Monday.
TSTEM Executive Director David Simmons said Carrillo-Rowley has “a strong vision of where the campus needs to go to meet the needs of the students and staff.”
“Considerable preparation and training are taking place as we anticipate the opening for the 2018-19 school year,” Simmons said. “We are confident our project-based learning approach with emphasis on science, engineering, technology and math will be well received and supported by the Mendez and Dove Springs community.”