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Austin 'Blueprint Schools' Show Mixed Results at Two-Year Mark

Ohanian Comment: Can you imagine a superintendent cranking out education out of a blueprint--as though he were building tract houses? And the press calls it an ambitious initiative.

I commend to you a quote I recently posted on this site:

"The more we focus on teachers getting students to perform up to standards—-and that's exactly what we're doing now—-the worse they'll do as teachers. They'll talk more, coerce more. These are destructive behaviors, but they're what some people think make a good teacher."

—Prof. Edward Dici, in Education Week

Two years ago, Austin Superintendent Pat Forgione launched an ambitious initiative to improve academics in six struggling East Austin schools.

He called it the Austin Blueprint to Leave No Child Behind, a play off the federal act President Bush signed into law in January 2002.

Forgione designed the program to boost state test scores by staffing schools with experienced teachers, emphasizing basic skills such as reading and writing, and promoting stability by having teachers promise to stay at least three years.

So far, the Blueprint program's report card reflects both progress and setbacks.

Overall, scores on state tests are up at the schools. But in certain subjects and at some grade levels, the percentage of students passing the tests actually declined -- in some instances drastically.

Teacher turnover that once plagued the six pilot schools is down, but at most of them, it's still higher than the district average.

And although some teachers embrace the strict focus on basic skills, others worry Blueprint schools are teaching students only to pass a test.

Forgione and his staff will evaluate the program next year, beginning in February. Whether the six schools will remain under the Blueprint umbrella is yet to be determined.

"Until I see the data, I have not set any hard rules here," Forgione said.

Forgione announced the Blueprint program amid pressure from the East Austin community for better schools and shortly after Bush's federal No Child Left Behind Act became law. The act lays out federal standards schools must meet to avoid facing sanctions.

The six schools Forgione picked for the program -- Blackshear, Harris, Oak Springs and Sims elementary schools and Dobie and Pearce middle schools -- were the lowest-performing in the district at the time.

At Oak Springs, for example, only 32 percent of third-graders passed the math portion of the state achievement test in 2002, then the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. And only 42 percent of them passed reading.

This spring, when they took the new, tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, 78 percent of the third-graders passed math. And 62 percent passed reading on their first of three tries.

Oak Springs was the only Blueprint school to have double-digit increases in every grade and subject this year, though others saw significant increases as well.

The comparisons reflect the percentage of students who would've passed the 2003 tests based on the tougher 2004 standards, which require students to answer more questions correctly to pass. All comparisons are based on the English-language version of the test; the test is offered in English and Spanish.

At Blackshear, the percentage of third-graders passing the math test jumped from 60 percent to 80 percent. At Harris, that number went up by 30 percentage points -- from 52 percent to 82 percent.

The percentage of Sims third-graders passing reading on their first try jumped from 58 percent to 86 percent.

And writing scores improved at Dobie and Pearce, where the percentage of seventh-graders who passed the test jumped by 25 and 23 percentage points, respectively.

"I feel very proud that this district created its own intervention for struggling schools, and we can now show evidence that quality teaching is going on at those schools," Forgione said.

Some scores fall

But the Blueprint schools also suffered setbacks.

Overall, the schools still tend to perform below the district average, and some passing rates have dropped since the program began.

At Harris, for example, the number of students in the fifth grade who passed the English version of the reading test dropped from 76 percent in 2003 to 60 percent this spring. During the same period, the percentage of those passing science went from 40 percent to 23 percent.

Harris has a large Spanish-speaking population, and the drops were less severe when the English and Spanish test results were combined.

The largest declines among Blueprint schools came at Blackshear, where, between 2003 and 2004, the percentage of students in the fourth grade who passed reading dropped from 85 percent to 59 percent. The percentage of fifth-graders passing math dropped from 82 percent to 60 percent during that time.

"I have to say for me it's no excuses, and I have to come up with a plan for addressing those drops," Blackshear Principal Sylvia Pirtle said.

Blackshear earned the state's second highest rating, "recognized," the year Forgione made it a Blueprint school -- an announcement he made before state test results were released that showed significant gains at the school.

Even so, school officials decided Blackshear should still be a part of the initiative because it had struggled academically for years.

African American students also continue to struggle in some of the schools, passing the state test at a lower rate than their Hispanic peers. (The white student population is minuscule at Blueprint schools.)

However, black students at Pearce did better than their peers in every grade and subject except sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade math. A little more than half passed in sixth grade. About 30 percent of black students passed seventh- and eighth-grade math, but their peers didn't fare much better.

Better, at what cost?

Some teachers say the overall improvement at the schools has come at a cost: a much narrower education that focuses mostly -- if not solely -- on teaching students how to pass the TAKS.

"Everything was TAKS, TAKS, TAKS," said Raquel Jonon, who retired from Blackshear at the end of last school year. "I think it has also to do with the administrators. They're very accountable now. They don't want to be thrown out of their schools . . . or they don't want to be demoted."

At Harris, teachers say, administrators have set up an ultra-rigid working environment in which every minute of their day is accounted for. They expressed concerns about the fierce focus on passing TAKS and teachers' inability to make lessons fun, something Forgione and other administrators say isn't true.

Armando Lomas, a fourth-grade bilingual education teacher at Harris, said he didn't teach poetry and play-writing lessons required under the district curriculum last year, focusing instead on TAKS-passing strategies, because the pressure to improve was so great.

"I'm thinking, 'Let's do that after the test because I've got to get these kids ready for the test,' " Lomas said.

Teacher turnover also remains a problem, though it's not as high as pre-Blueprint levels. For example, throughout the 2000-01 school year, anywhere from 17 percent to 39 percent of those six schools' teachers left.

The first year of the Blueprint initiative, starting in fall 2002, Harris lost 16 percent of its teachers, Blackshear lost 29 percent, Pearce lost 27 percent, and Dobie lost 17 percent. About 3 percent of Oak Springs teachers left; 8 percent left Sims.

The districtwide attrition rate that year was nearly 14 percent.

Because teachers can resign until June 30, 2003-04 numbers were not available.

"It doesn't mean people don't drop out of the Marines when they go to boot camp," Forgione said of the promise teachers make to stay at the schools three years.

Forgione said he and his staff will decide the fate of the schools next year based on test results. He said the first factor would be progress over time. Even without "hard rules" yet to measure that progress, Forgione said, having 70 percent of the students passing the tests would be a good benchmark.

District officials will also spend this coming school year planning to bring two high schools, LBJ and Reagan, into the program in fall 2005.

Blueprint principals, such as Celina Estrada-Russell at Dobie, said students would do even better next year.

"In any type of restructuring, the first year you're establishing new systems," she said. "In year two, you get hit with some reality about those systems. . . . Then it gets smoother because you've learned from the mistakes of your first two years."

mmmartinez@statesman.com; 445-3633

— Michelle M. Martinez


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