Many Clint Small Middle School parents did not like what they heard from Principal Amy Taylor at an April 30 meeting about converting the middle school to a charter school.
by Ann Fowler
OAK HILL - Concerns by parents about potentially converting Small Middle School into an in-district charter school serving grades 6 to 12 has caused the committee that proposed it to delay consideration for a year in order to gain community support.
The proposal, which would add a high school component to continue the middle school’s focus on Green-Tech classes, requires buy-in from 80 percent of parents and classroom teachers. Several parents contacted the Gazette expressing their concerns about the proposal.
At an April 30 meeting, Small principal Amy Taylor said a petition seeking signatures of parents and staff would be due by October 31, 2013. But “The Future of Small Middle School” committee met about a week later and felt that the current timeline was too aggressive.
Taylor told the Gazette: “The committee discussed community concerns with the process of providing input and feedback to the In-District Charter Proposal being developed by the committee. The committee reviewed the timeline and decided to gain community input during the 2013-14 school year.”
The revised in-district charter timeline shows that the Small community will have more than a year to consider and discuss the idea:
- May 22, 2013 – Community Meeting
- August 2013-June 2014 – Community Input
- August 31, 2014 – Deadline to request superintendent informational meeting
- August 31, 2014-October 31, 2014 – Obtain parent and classroom teacher signatures
- October 31, 2014 – Deadline for obtaining 80% petition signatures from parents and staff
- January 15, 2015 – Last day for a parent or classroom teacher to remove a signature
- February 20, 2015 – Last day for the AISD Board of Directors to consider the charter application
- Spring 2015 – Await TEA approval
Some of the concerns recently voiced by local parents include:
- What happens to existing programs like fine arts in charter school funding?
- Where will high school students park?
- How to safely combine middle schoolers with older high school students?
Some who attended the April 30 meeting were disappointed that their questions were not addressed at the meeting. Instead, questions were collected to be addressed by the proposal committee.
Diane Hogan has a daughter who graduated from Small and a son who will start at Small next year. She said, “I can tell you there was outrage after the meeting that so many parents made childcare arrangements and attended the meeting to get answers, and then basically sat through a marketing pitch about the existing school.”
Hogan wants to know where local children will go if there is no room at the new charter school. She said, “I do understand that the current Small Middle School charter proposal calls for taking all neighborhood students for grades 6-8 – but there is concern that it will not happen that way due to facility constraints, selective course offerings, campus size constrictions, etc., and one of the concerns is—what schools will those students attend?”
She said, “I think the parents out here could understand a charter school proposal if our school was underperforming or failing—or if this was an AISD magnet school proposal—but a charter company is an unknown entity, and as Eastside Elementary here in the district has shown this year, a charter can fail, and then there is no money to re-open the school, and the neighborhood children and their families are the ones that pay.”
Juliet Kirchner has children attending Small Middle School and Patton Elementary. She attended the April 30 informational meeting at Small, where Taylor said school athletics and fine arts would remain part of the middle school experience. But Kirchner said, “I worry about what is going to happen to the fine arts department.” She fears that the funding now spent on fine arts might instead go to the Green-Tech classes.
Kirchner also expressed concerns for the current teaching staff. She said, “Studies show when a school becomes a charter school, the school has a huge turnover in teachers. There are teachers at Small who have put their heart, soul and time into this school, and these students, and now their whole way of teaching is going to have to change due to her new programs, i.e PBL [problem-based learning].”
She added, “I don’t want my child learning and spending the majority of his day at school on a computer with headphones.”
Gina Vance has three daughters attending Patton Elementary. She attended the April 30 meeting and said, “It was nice to learn what ‘Middle School Philosophy’ actually meant, and I appreciated the detail on the In-District charter designation and on the process that would be required to achieve this.”
But Vance wonders how the new charter school will be funded. She asked, “How are we going to pay for all of this? The current facilities at Small are designed for a middle school population. There is not the classroom space, adequate lab facilities or adequate parking for the proposed increase in high school student and staff population.”
And Vance feels that a high school population could have a negative impact on middle schoolers who “are at an age of multiple changes in their physical, emotional and social development.”
Patton parent and PTA member Michelle Nathanson shares Vance’s concerns about adding a high school component. She was unable to attend the April 30 meeting but was filled in by friends. She said, “I am concerned about 6th graders being on the same campus as 9th-and-up-graders.”
She added, “Small Middle School is Patton Elementary’s home middle school, where my son will feed into when done at Patton Elementary. It is also one of the best middle schools in our area. Where are we going to have the option to send our kids if we don’t want them to go to this charter school with high school students?”
A letter sent to the Gazette signed by Gina and Tom Vance, Stacy and Craig Bennett, Vanessa and Josh Blinder, Juliet Kirchner and Michlle Nathanson said in part: “Many of us as parents of middle school aged children are not at all enamored of the prospect of fraternization between middle school and high school-aged students. Bullying, dating, and sexual encounters between high school and middle school-aged students can only get worse in this environment. There is a reason why dual-sex schools in these age groups are kept separate during these emotionally and physically developing years.”
Parents will now have a year to ask questions to determine whether Small should become an in-district charter school.
Benita Trevino, president of the Small Parent/Teacher Association, said the idea to explore an in-district charter school stemmed from parent disappointment with high school offerings. She told the Gazette, “I wanted to make sure that people were aware that [the charter school idea] stemmed from a real frustration that several parents who were on the Campus Advisory Council felt when they went to the high school choice sheet night earlier this year. They were so disappointed to see the limited number of elective classes that would interest their students. This coupled with the frustration we felt when our proposals to adopt more high school credit courses at the middle school level were denied were the kicking off point. At that time, we as parents and community members begin to ask Amy what our options were and that’s when we begun to explore the idea of an in-district charter.”
Trevino said she understands the concerns about combining middle schoolers with high schoolers: “I totally understand this concern and think it is valid to raise this question.” She added, “The committee is proposing placing the high school students in portables on the school grounds away from the main school. Additionally, because of the different start times, the different aged kids would have almost no opportunities to mingle before or after school or even during passing periods or lunch.”
She added that they are recommending a first-year high school class of 90 to 100, and accepting only those students with no disciplinary actions. She envisions a full 4-year high school of 320 or less. She said, “So we are talking about a small group of smart kids who will have no history of discipline issues, who are busy and highly motivated to learn, housed in portables not located in close proximity to the middle school. When I think about it, the 8th graders are still more of a concern in comparison!”
She said start-up funds are available from the Texas Education Agency and the federal government, plus state funding will be provided in a fashion similar to that of Bowie or Austin High. She said, “Funding is a concern, but of all the issues raised, this is the least of my concerns.”
The committee has several ideas on providing parking for the high school students, including renting spaces from nearby businesses.
And addressing concerns about special education students, Trevino said, “I do not see an in-district charter school with a Green Tech focus having a negative impact on special education students. If anything I think this program has great appeal.” She added that a Special Ed teacher on the committee said, “Behind a computer, no one knows these kids are in Special Ed.”
Trevino said the committee members are excited about the possibilities an in-district charter school brings: “This is a chance to build a new, cutting edge type of school. … I work in the technology sector and the types of elective classes that we are proposing are geared to the industries of the future. Coupled with a problem-based learning environment, you are educating students in the type of critical and creative thinking skills that these industries are looking for in job candidates.”
Trevino added that her son so enjoys his tech classes at Small that she worries if or how that interest will be fostered in high school. “I was so impressed with what they were doing with the 8th grade PBL model. The chance to go even further in this track with that type of model would have been such a draw to my son. And the opportunity to do it in a small, supportive environment with other like-minded kids in my own neighborhood? That would have been a dream for our whole family.”
But she realizes that dream is not for everyone. She said, “We totally get that most Small Middle School students/parents will not choose to attend this [high] school and will self-select to attend a more traditional comprehensive high school. But the middle school will still see some real benefits from having the in-district charter, and it is the chance to provide a real high school option for students who want to make the green and technical fields their future careers.”
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