By Bobbie Jean Sawyer
A group of Covington Middle School teachers, parents and students attended a community forum hosted by the Austin Independent School District (AISD) Saturday morning at Crocket High School to voice concern over the possibility of closing down Covington and turning it into a single-sex school for young men.
The School for Young Men is a proposed single-sex college and career preparatory academy. Covington Middle School—on Convict Hill Road near Brodie Lane in Southwest Austin—is listed among six under-enrolled schools as a possible location for the all-boys school.
If approved, the School for Young Men will house grades 6 through 12 and focus on developing a community of leadership and character-building among young men. Similar to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, the School for Young Men would be open for application to all boys in the AISD. If approved, the school, which has been awarded $4.6 million by the Moody Foundation to fund operations, is in consideration to open in time for the 2013-14 school year. Concerns and comments expressed during the meeting will be received by the AISD Board of Trustees, which may take action on Dec. 17.
Stacy Sakoulas, a member of the School for Young Men planning committee, discussed the arguments for and against single-sex schools in the opening presentation. Proponents of establishing the School for Young Men say in addition to encouraging more academic involvement and stronger peer relationships, single-sex schools provide more opportunities for extra-curricular activities, such as theater and art, because students feel less pressure to succumb to gender stereotypes.
Opponents of single-sex schools say separating boys and girls actually leads to an increase in gender stereotypes.
AISD performance data shows girls outperforming boys in reading and writing, and a higher dropout rate among boys.
Sakoulas said she got involved in advocacy for single-sex schools after seeing her two sons, who have now graduated, struggle in school.
“I saw discrimination, where they were expected to behave more like girls in the classroom,” Sakoulas said. “In my experience, boys have a natural energy, and if we could bottle that up and sell it we’d be rich. But instead we want to squelch it.”
Sakoulas said single-sex schools can help target specific areas in which boys are lacking, such as reading and writing proficiency.
“The nice thing about a single-gender school is that when you’re trying to improve something particular like that—like a reading or writing skill—you can make sure that the things that you’re teaching and making them read and write about have their interest,” Sakoulas said.
While the debate over whether an all boys school is needed in Austin continues, the question of where to put the potential school looms over faculty, students and parents who fear a disruption in their neighborhood schools.
One option AISD is considering is to co-locate the School for Young Men with an under-performing or under-enrolled school and eventually relocate the existing students within the attendance area as the boys school grows. The School for Young Men would start with 6th and 7th grade, adding one grade level per year with 115 students in each grade.
But many students, parents and faculty say Covington Middle School has no place on the list of possible locations for the School For Young Men.
Ruth Lim, a band director at Covington Middle School, said the school offers a quality, diverse learning environment with a top-notch fine arts program.
“We house a big population of Special Education and English language-learners and kids from our neighborhood,” Lim said. “We offer an extremely comprehensive fine arts program from band, choir, orchestra, theatre arts, media productions, steel drums and jazz band—and we’re one of the few schools that offers that year round.”
Lim said while Covington looks under-enrolled on paper, it’s not a reflection of the school’s quality or parents’ desire to send their children there.
“In the past couple of years, I have parents who come to (band) auditions or parents at open houses that come and say ‘I’m waiting on my transfer to Covington’ and I’ve heard more recently from parents that some of those have been denied,” Lim said. “So not only are kids being allowed to transfer out, some of them are being denied to transfer in and we don’t know why.”
Laurie Hunter, an academic intervention tutor whose three children graduated from Covington, said she’s witnessed firsthand the positive impact the school’s diverse population of students from “different backgrounds, experiences, academic levels and abilities and beliefs” has had on her children.
“That’s an amazing thing, to have my three children experience that kind of learning environment at that time in their educational career,” Hunter said. “I think they were blessed to have been a part of that. They can communicate with any person from any kind of background because of that.”
Hunter referred to the 2011 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Report Card for Covington, which shows Covington rates higher than the district average in subjects such as reading in 7th and 8th grade. The school’s scores also fared better than the district average among genders, races, economic background and ability.
“We’re talking about meeting educational gaps in the male population, but when I look here, I’m noticing something very wrong with the district averages for economically disadvantaged, limited English proficient and Special Education,” Hunter said. “We’re able to meet their needs but the district as a whole is not.”
An AISD parent survey completed by 89 Covington parents showed that in response to the statement “The educational experience at my child’s school is just as good as or better than that at any other school in the district” 100 percent of respondents agreed.
“If you’re going to close a school, let’s look at some data like this,” Hunter said. “Let’s hear from the parents.”
Brett Finch, the father of a Covington 7th grader, said he fears closing down the school would damage not only the Covington population, but also the schools that would take in the reassigned students.
“What that means is that all the kids that would typically be going to Covington would then be reassigned to the schools in the area that are shooting at 125 percent capacity right now,” Finch said. “It’s going to force those schools to become even more overcrowded than they originally were.”
Finch said shutting down the school would also have a detrimental effect on morale. ”Closing down a school is going to basically kill school spirit,” Finch said. “Who wants to sit there working a job that they know is going to be ending in three years?”
Another option is to house the School For Young Men in a renovated AISD facility, such as the Alternative Learning Center. Proponents of this option say it would be the least disruptive to students and faculty. However, funding to renovate the facility would be an additional expense.
Dr. Paul Cruz, AISD Chief Schools Officer, said it’s too early to say which option the district will favor if the school is approved.
“Every time we come to a group it just seems that group at that time is leaning one way or another; but then we meet with another constituency and they come back with a different approach,” Cruz said. “Right now the district does not have one model or one site that we’re moving toward.”
Cruz said one thing he’s sure of is that if it’s built, the School for Young Men will provide transportation for all AISD students accepted to the school.
“We will provide transportation for students to the school. We also do that for the Ann Richards school. It would run very similar,” Cruz said. “Some of the offerings for classes would be very similar. Some of the electives would be very different because of course we’d be designing a school for young men based on their interests.”
AISD gathered more feedback on the School for Young Men at a public hearing on the 2013-14 Annual Academic and Facilities Recommendations (AAFRs) Tuesday night at the Carruth Administration Center. Citizens will have another chance to address the AISD on November 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the Delco Center.
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