Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Killing of a High School.

The replacement of Eastside Memorial High school with IDEA Charter is a stunning example of a school board pushing forward over the clear wishes of the students and families it was elected to serve

Like many high schools in relatively isolated, low-income sections of cities, Johnston High School, in a pocket of east Austin, had quietly suffered for years. As in other places, the reality of a low-income low-resourced community meant that keeping a school successful was a challenge. But there was an extent to which some really good things were happening ... and had been happening for a long time.

Then came the swift decline. And as in other places, the decline started after a fateful moment. At Reagan High school, which is also in east Austin, the tragic blow was a stabbing and killing in the school by a deeply disturbed young man who will now spend decades in prison. At Johnston High, the blow was less horrific, but no less effective in terms of the damage inflicted upon the school. In the case of Johnston High School, the school board ensured the school's demise by removing its Liberal Arts Academy. The Academy, even as just one section of the school, kept many stable working class families of color invested. Once the Academy was gone, so was the base of support. More and more kids transferred to spots like Austin High - a straight shot west and most important, a school on the other side of the IH35 magic dividing line that separates east and west Austin.

Thank goodness though for educational reform, right? Once NCLB was passed and accountability was dramatically ratcheted up everything would get better, right? Wrong. What came with reform was a wave of experiments in the building, none of which were given a full chance to work, but all of which required community support if there were to have a chance. Again and again, poor and working class families responded to calls to action, supporting the school, going along with new programs and leaders, placing faith in the public school system. Time and again micro and macro-initiatives were abandoned half-baked.

AISD Superintendent and school board members helped kids get excited
about the new version of their school ... two years before shutting it down. 
The latest iteration has a name that hints at what a mess things have been. For the last two years the school had the classic too-many-chefs name of "Eastside Memorial High School at Johnston Campus." The mouthful name reflects the attempt to compromise among groups when it was determined that the school's persistent low-performance meant that the had to be reconstituted. The school also had two programs, Global Tech High and Green Tech High, which reflect the renowned and highly successful educator Bill Gates' call to small learning communities. (Please note that in the previous sentence I was being facetious in my glowing reference to the influence of Gates, a guy who has spent a lot of money for the most part helping our messes get bigger).

Long story short, the school has made improvements, but not fast enough for the state and federal accountability systems. The system demands miracles and when it doesn't get them in an instant, knee-jerks into action.

Students rallied ... and were ignored
So what happened on Monday December 19, 2011 was that the school was turned over to IDEA charter, a charter school system that has some good things going for it, is far from perfect, but at least has a chance since they have a multi-year contract and fewer constraints than traditional publics. The biggest problem that IDEA has in east Austin is that it had to be rammed down the community's throat. The district's community engagement and consensus building was an epic disaster, with more and more folk lining up against the charter's introduction, mostly because they don't like things being shoved at them as if there is a choice when all indications are that there are not. (Side note: community relations and buy-in is far from the only problem with the incoming school(s), but I don't want to pick IDEA Charter apart since the community is now stuck with it).

Kids and families who had invested themselves in Eastside came out
en masse to protest its closing and replacement with IDEA charter.
So where we are now is that, by a tone deaf 6-3 vote to follow the superintendent's recommendation, IDEA charter will now take over schools in the former Johnston High attendance area. Eastside Memorial High at Johnston Campus is dead. What is left in that corner of east Austin are the kids who rallied into the night outside the last two Monday Night AISD school board meetings. The kids and families had followed the lead of the district and bought into their school for the last two years. Silly them, trusting their school leaders like that. They are now numb, disillusioned and dispirited. The school they had believed in is dead, killed at the hands of the people who had asked them to believe in it. It is being replaced by a school that they do not want.

Long live IDEA charter!! Let's see how this one turns out.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tenured at last ... time for a new tat.

Thursday, December 15 was a darn good day. Ten years after receiving my doctorate I was granted tenure at the University of Texas at Austin. What is nice about the situation is that I earned tenure without betraying my sense of who I am to be as a scholar. I staked my career on the importance and viability of community engaged scholarship and was ultimately rewarded by my university.

We don't talk about it this way, but one way to look at tenure is as a ritual hazing process that threatens to render academic freedom irrelevant. While on the tenure track, junior faculty are continually discouraged by caring senior colleagues from engaging any methodologies, publication venues, communities or activities that could be seen as controversial, experimental, untested, or not properly deferential to established norms. There is of course irony in this. We academics are supposed to be in the business of generating knowledge, not regurgitating what already is. Nonetheless, the overwhelming message is to use traditional methods to engage research that is solid, easy to conduct and write up, and to crank out as many publications as possible. The extent to which the publications chart new territory is nowhere near the point. Rather the point is quantity of publications in rigorous publication venues.

While the messages on how to achieve tenure generally come from folk who are genuinely concerned with your success, the critical by-product of the heads down, stay in your lane, nose to the grindstone approach they have been taught to advocate is the production of tenured scholars who are unable to push boundaries, unable to challenge established wisdom, unable to rock the boat. And with apologies for the string of metaphors, for some us, this is an unsatisfying approach to intellectual life.

I am excited beyond words that in the end, my university chose to reward rigorous, purposeful, productive community engaged scholarship. I took a leave to serve in the Federal Government when I was told not to, published in venues that I was told wouldn't count as much, took stands in local controversies when I was told to wait until after tenure, and after amassing the first dozen or so publications I began co-authoring with my advanced students (and allowing them lead authorship!) so that they would be more viable on the job market once they finished. And in the end, it turned out just fine.

While words cannot express my gratitude to the university that signed off on the work I've done, there were also two senior colleagues, Ted Gordon and Doug Foley, who were outliers in their support for taking the stands that I felt compelled to take, and for pursuit of activities and methods that I felt most appropriate. They were, in many ways, the bridge between my work and acceptance by the academy. Words cannot capture my lifelong gratitude to them both.

Along with the wonderful feeling of relief, the congratulations from friends, and the humbling recognition of all the folk who have supported me for years, the biggest lift this gives me is that I can continue to be full-throated in my advocacy for a community engaged approach to scholarship. I can now speak, write and act not as someone who calls for others to do what he would not, but as someone who chose a path because it felt like the right thing to do and then was rewarded. Thanks UT Austin, for your support of a scholar who seeks to be defined by his community engaged intellectual work.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Austin School District Leaders Blundering through the Charter question

Austin Independent School District (AISD) is making a mess.

The school board is deciding whether to have IDEA charter take over much of the east side schooling in Austin. At their Monday 12/12/11 Board meeting, IDEA charter school friends & staff (many from out-of-town) took up seats INSIDE the already small AISD board auditorium, while directly affected parents, students and small kids from the east side were forced to stand for several hours OUTSIDE the auditorium. Meanwhile the board hemmed and hawed until 1am before punting the thing over to next week. The display was pathetic on many levels. It also told me much of what I needed to know in order to decide where to stand on this one.

There were many problematic aspects of the proposal. Here are just two: 1) the proposal on the table requires IDEA to perform at the same level or better than the current schools they would replace. If they are only required to meet the current level of mediocrity then what is the point of turning over the keys to an outside entity?; 2) The community - and by community I mean those families directly affected - is overwhelmingly against this, making the situation colonial, hell perhaps even mercantilist, in nature. An outside governing entity contracting to another entity to run the ship for $$ over the objections of the locals. Seems so much the last 500 years of global history.

Capping the whole thing was a tragic lack of Board leadership. At-large Trustee Barksdale was the lone voice grasping the big picture and asking important questions about a matter (granting the district's 1st in-district charter) that has gigantic implications for the future of AISD and the future of Austin. Trustee Moya on the other hand, did little more that grandstand as she emotively offered her logic for favoring the charter. She declared that things are bad so we have to do ... something. That's it? Yikes. Likewise, Trustee Guzman offered that, charters are coming one way or another, so we might as well get on board. Yikes again. There might be good reasons for granting charters. Those were not. Meanwhile, other Board members are backpedaling into this thing. They are refusing to act affirmatively, but rather allowing the decision to wash over them, which only means that a lot of angry parents are going to be out again next week, only to be ignored again, and only to become more angry. ... What a mess.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Back at UT-Austin

Wow. time flies. I tried to get rolling with a blog while I was still going back and forth between DC (temporary home for a year with the NSF) and Austin (base for my UT-Austin academic appointment). Looks like life took over and the blogging didn't happen. A year and a half has passed and I'm back in Austin full-time -- back to my family, back to my academic position and back to my community. It has been a busy year with tenure among the major priorities. We'll see in a few days how that turns out.
In the meantime, I've been working with a great crew of students (grad and undergrad) on a project to be purposeful about the dissemination of black studies scholarship via new media ... We've all been tweeting, the department has a couple of Facebook pages going and we are moving towards a spring event to record and the share clips of professors doing their thing. ... More soon; should be nice.