Austin ISD to remove sixth grade from Martin, Mendez middle schools

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Austin ISD to remove sixth grade from Martin, Mendez middle schools
© Rodolfo Gonzalez/Special to American-Statesman Volunteers head out to block-walk as part of the Austin school district’s Operation Reconnect last June at Mendez Middle School. The district is taking a variety of steps to counter declining enrollment, and shifting sixth grade out of Mendez and Martin middle schools is part of that effort.

Beginning next fall, sixth grade will no longer be an option at Martin and Mendez middle schools in the Austin school district.

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District leaders plan to transform the two Eastside campuses into junior high schools, serving only seventh and eight grade, by moving sixth grade students to other middle schools and adding sixth grade classes to the elementary campuses that feed into Martin and Mendez.

In an online discussion last week, district leaders said they hoped the approach will improve student performance and allow the district to keep students who are typically lost during the transition to middle school, but some parents worry that the change will provide students with fewer school and extracurricular options.

Martin and Mendez transition

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The Austin district, which has long struggled with enrollment, has seen about 60% of students unenroll after graduating from an elementary school that feeds into Martin and Mendez middle schools, according to Chief of Schools Anthony Mays. Many students opt for charter schools instead, district leaders have said.

“That’s a huge problem for us,” he said in the online discussion last week. “Of course, we know we have declining enrollment, and so if we have an opportunity to do something about it, we want to be able to do it.”

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The two schools have also failed to meet state standards, based on students’ performance on standardized tests.

Mendez Middle School has struggled to meet the standards for so long that the Austin school board faces a potential takeover by state-appointed officials if the school does not improve. District leaders had hired a nonprofit to turn the school around and are now seeking new leadership for the campus. 

Based on research, Mays said, district leaders believe keeping sixth grade students at their elementary schools for one more year could improve their academic performance and offer them “more stability and more opportunities for them to grow and be supported.”

District leaders have also designated alternate schools for students who want to attend another district middle school, including the Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy and the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy. District leaders said they are also working to boost enrollment at the single-gender schools.

O. Henry and Covington middle schools will also serve as sixth grade alternates for Martin, as will Paredes and Bedichek middle schools for Mendez.

Students may apply to attend other district schools through magnet or special programs and the transfer process, but transportation will be provided only for district-identified alternatives, according to a “frequently asked questions” document shared with some affected campuses.

Students who choose a district-identified alternative and want to remain there will have access to transportation beyond sixth grade, district leaders told the American-Statesman.

District leaders said they will provide staffing to the affected elementary schools based on their enrollment and will ask employees for sixth grade at Martin and Mendez about their teaching preferences for schools in the district.

“We will work with each sixth-grade teacher to find an appropriate position,” district leaders said in an email.

Parent questions and concerns

Lisa Flores, mother of an eighth grade student at Martin and a fifth-grade student at Lee Elementary, had planned to send her younger son to Martin but has been scrambling since district leaders announced the removal of sixth grade.

Lee Elementary, like Blazier, Mathews and Barton Hills elementary schools, already offers sixth grade. But Flores said her son doesn’t want to stay there, and she doesn’t want him to go to a single-gender school and isn’t sure about the designated alternatives farther from her home.

Her neighborhood elementary, Pecan Springs, isn’t one of the schools that will offer sixth grade, she added.

“Sending your kid to school should not be this stressful,” she said Monday after learning that her son’s application for Lamar Middle School’s Fine Arts Academy had been rejected. “It just shouldn’t be.”

Flores said she also worries that the change will limit other students’ options, including extracurricular activities and career and technical education opportunities available at middle schools.

District leaders said sixth grade students at elementary schools will have access to world languages classes through the schools’ dual language programs and to physical education, music and art classes at the campuses.

The district is working to identify interest in band and orchestra.

“The sixth graders will be given a band or orchestra option and depending on the interest levels, we will have band and orchestra classes that rotate among the elementary schools that have 6th grade,” district leaders told the Statesman in an email. “This is currently the same system as other elementary schools with 6th grade have in place.”

The change felt abrupt for Flores, who wished parents had been consulted before the announcement. District leaders last week said they made the decision without community engagement to avoid disappointing families with the possibility of an alternative.

“The trend data has given us a clear answer,” Mays said. “I would not want to be disingenuous in terms of bringing a decision to the community, in terms of a change like this that we know can be beneficial to the campus and the students.”

Flores said she was considering a nearby charter school or online school for her younger son because of the change.

“I am trying to make a list of every viable option, and that is one of them,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin ISD to remove sixth grade from Martin, Mendez middle schools

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