The Austin district’s inaugural year of all-boys and all-girls education at two middle schools looks like a success. Test scores are up in every subject at the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy. Attendance is up, too, and disciplinary issues are down.
Students at both schools point to fewer distractions in a campus devoid of flirting and twerking and boyfriend-girlfriend drama.
When Joshua Jackson attended the coed Garcia Middle School last year, he got in brawls in the hallway and after school. He skipped school and was suspended multiple times. Now an eighth-grader at the young men’s academy, Joshua passed all his courses and state-mandated exams for the first time. He attributes his change to the new school environment, pointing to the straight talks he received from his mentor and teachers who pushed him to do better. He said he heard consistent messages of becoming a leader, being an example for younger boys and correcting his behavior to avoid repeated pitfalls.
“They told me, ‘If you want to do better this year, don’t act like you acted last year,’ ” Joshua said. “I needed to be serious with my life and get focused on my work. I would have been on the wrong path. I’m back on the right path now.”
But better test scores might also come from beefed up academic programs, higher expectations and more stringent rules ushered in by two new handpicked principals. And while the majority of the students live within the designated attendance zones, all of them came to these single-sex campuses by choice, indicating some might be particularly motivated and willing to embrace change.
The former Pearce and Garcia middle school campuses were wrought with disciplinary issues and had long histories of academic struggles. Community members point to historic neglect of the students who live in East Austin, the majority of whom are black or Hispanic and are from low-income families.
“They’re beginning to really know that they are good, that they’re worthwhile,” said Joan Bartz, who serves on the campus advisory committee. “Most of these students, they’ve been put down for so long, it’s just unbelievable. Now they found a place where they’re being treated like they can learn, where they’re respected and give respect back. … They’re finally getting what they should’ve had in the past 47 years. I wish all the middle schools in Austin had this experience.”
But the schools have their critics. The American Civil Liberties Union in September filed a civil rights complaint against the Austin school district with the U.S. Department of Education. The ACLU argued that district leaders relied on gender stereotypes and “pseudoscience” in designing the curricula for the schools, including notions that boys and girls learn and develop differently and therefore should be taught using different methods.
At the boys school, a quarter of all students have a parent or family member who is incarcerated. About 24 percent are special education students, many of whom were not taught in general classrooms until being taught at the boys school.
“I was a little naive when I walked in to really understand the baggage, the issues some of the young men come in with,” said Sterlin McGruder, principal of Garcia school. “Understanding those challenges, what they’re dealing with — that’s been one of our biggest challenges.”
Still, the campus had a 42 percent drop in disciplinary referrals compared with the previous year. Last year, there were 300 fights at the school, compared with 33 this year. Attendance grew from 93 percent last year to more than 96 percent this year. Fewer students were sent home for suspensions: Last year, 355 students were removed from school, and as of last month, only 69 had been. While the district has yet to release preliminary data for state exams, McGruder said students made gains in all four core subjects, including a 20 percent increase in writing.
At the girls school, the campus had nearly 85 percent fewer incidents involving discipline, including in-school suspensions and home suspensions, compared with the prior year. The school had one of the lowest failure rates among middle schools, about 4 percent. Attendance inched up nearly a percentage point to 95.5 percent, a feat when considering the high mobility rates of lower-income students, whose families often chase cheaper rents. When two students stopped going to school, the campus staff learned their families had been evicted and the students were homeless.
“The resiliency that the girls demonstrate by continuing to come to school and overcome adversity is remarkable,” said Ivette Savina, principal of the Sadler Means school.
At both schools, there is more emphasis on hands-on learning, rigorous academics and an array of extra programs such as robotics, orchestra and band.
Newly elected Trustee Ted Gordon, chairman of the African and African diaspora studies department at the University of Texas, previously did research on the impact of race and gender on school performance, and he opposed turning the two middle school campuses into single-sex schools. He advocated more money and resources, more rigorous academic offerings and other support.
While it appears that progress is being made, Gordon said he doesn’t know whether it is factor of the single-sex model or the additional support in place. Either way, the schools have a long way to go, he said, and both schools remain underenrolled, with about 350 students at the boys school, which can hold 1,215 students, and 340 at the girls school, which can accommodate 1,078. The campuses, both of which were underenrolled as coed schools but had closer to 500 students each last year, were hoping for 600 this year.
There are no plans to expand this model to other campuses yet. District officials said they first want to continue working on helping these campuses succeed.
“It’s going to take several years to see if this model works or not,” Gordon said.
Whatever factors are contributing to the improvement, some students said it was the change they needed.
Joshua said he now takes responsibility for his actions and the actions of the other students at the school, statements in the school’s creed. McGruder pushed Joshua to be a leader, and the eighth-grader frequented sixth-grade classrooms to mentor the younger students.
“I have a lot of youngsters that look up to me,” he said. “I tell them: ‘You need to do better and get focused because it’s your life you have to look out for.’ ”