A Bit of a Mixed Bag for Our Neighborhood Schools

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) released their ratings for schools in the state yesterday, and as usual, Austin schools did pretty well.  Almost all of them earned positive ratings from TEA.  Compared to other urban areas in Texas, Austin public schools get quite high marks.

Last year, TEA started using a new accountability system to rate the quality of schools and districts in the state, and a few schools are having a little difficulty adjusting to the new rules.  This new accountability system is intended to highlight and celebrate schools that are improving, and it is also intended to bring public attention to schools where there are substantial gaps, or where achievement scores are dropping.

Every school administrator in Texas knows that their school’s rating is going to be tied to their lowest-performing demographic.  That has always been the case in the state of Texas.  This means that even if nearly all of the students at your school are performing at high levels, your school can still earn a poor rating from TEA if any one of the subgroups at your school (e.g. Hispanic students, or students on Free or Reduced Lunch) is performing poorly.

Beyond this lowest-performing-subgroup rule, the new accountability system additionally takes into account your school’s prior performance.  Low-performing schools that are in the process of improving earn a higher rating than high-performing schools that are in a state of decline.  This also means that if a school has a low-performing subgroup of students, the school can earn a high rating by improving the performance of that particular subgroup.

This is a good thing: this accountability system means that the students most likely to slip through the cracks are the ones who are most likely to get attention and help.

With all of that in mind, we should examine the TEA ratings for our two neighborhood elementary schools carefully.  First the good news — Only nine schools in Austin earned high distinctions in every category. (And there are a LOT of categories!)  Most of them are the usual suspects (magnet schools like LASA and Ann Richards; wealthy schools like Zilker and Anderson), but one newcomer to the short list of exemplary schools was surprising:  Reilly Elementary School.

Under the leadership of the new principal Dinorah Bores, Reilly has been steadily improving for the past few years, and this year, TEA acknowledged their success with distinctions in every rating category.

Now the bad news — there were also nine schools in the city that received the lowest performance rating TEA has: the dreaded “Improvement Required.” Again, the usual suspects were listed in this lowest-performance category: Pearce and Garcia Middle Schools, LBJ and Eastside Memorial High Schools.  Those schools are perpetually in need of improvement, but this year, Ridgetop Elementary was also included in this category — the first time in many years our neighborhood school has been castigated by TEA.

Adding insult to injury, Ridgetop was the only elementary school in the whole city that earned the “Improvement Required” rating this year.

However, this does NOT mean that Ridgetop is the worst elementary school in the city — quite the contrary.  In recent years, Ridgetop has been improving remarkably, but that improvement must be sustained in all categories in order to maintain positive accountability ratings from TEA.  Unfortunately, this year, Ridgetop failed to hit the high marks they have been setting in years past.

Ultimately, what makes a school great is community involvement.  Reilly has improved markedly in the past few years, and Ms. Bores deserves a great deal of credit for her positive leadership.  The teachers at that school have been working very hard to make sure that all students from all backgrounds are as successful as possible.  However if it is to continue to improve, the community needs to get behind that school and help in any way we can.  Ridgetop may have struggled a bit this year, but it has been a great school in years past, and it certainly can be again if we give it our full support.

We truly do have two unique and wonderful schools in our neighborhood, but they won’t stay that way for long without our help.  Volunteer — open your wallet — get involved.  All of us benefit from having great schools near our homes, and all of us are responsible for the success or failure of our neighborhood schools.

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