Arlington charter school fighting to stay open

ARLINGTON -- Educators at Jean Massieu Academy in Arlington say they're close to turning the low-performing school into a place where teachers and students consistently meet expectations.

But first, the charter school's officials must persuade the Texas Education Agency not to close it July 1.

Principal Kathi Johnson will head to Austin this week to plead with state officials to give the school one more chance.

Personnel changes, curriculum improvements and better financial accountability will be the pillars of Johnson's argument.

"There was a lot to do coming into this school because a lot of the infrastructure wasn't in place. So, we had to work on that while simultaneously working to increase the TAKS scores," said Johnson, who took over in July 2008.

"I feel like we're poised right on the edge here of turning the school around," she said.

In March, Jean Massieu was one of three charter schools whose accreditation was revoked by the TEA. In Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott's letter to Johnson, he noted "serious and persistent deficiencies" in the school's special-education program and a 2009 Financial Accountability Review rating of "substandard."

Additionally, the school has been rated academically unacceptable for four consecutive years for failing to meet passing standards in writing, social studies and math on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

Scott wrote in his letter, "While it saddens me to take this action, given the expectations of state law and my concern for the long-term education of the students served by Jean Massieu Academy, I am compelled to move forward with this action."

Where deaf kids feel at home

Jean Massieu started in 1999 to serve deaf children, their siblings and peers. Over time, the student body has grown to include students who aren't hearing-impaired who struggled or did not feel safe in the large public school system, Johnson said.

Today Jean Massieu has about 100 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Thirty percent are deaf and 40 percent qualify for special-education services. Students are bused in from as far as 25 miles away.

The classrooms are spread throughout a 60-year-old former church building in central Arlington. It doesn't take long to notice what makes the school unique. Teachers use sign language throughout their lessons, whether it's helping a middle school student with a social studies handout or reading a story about seahorses and porcupines to kindergartners. All students learn American Sign Language as a foreign language, and teachers say the fact that everyone knows it helps deaf students feel at home and confident.

Johnson beams with pride as she walks through the hallways.

"Once you spend time at this school, you realize it's a really special place and you've got to be here," she said. "The kids are what keep you coming back. They're just wonderful and they deserve the best."

To that end, administrators have replaced about 90 percent of the teaching staff in the past two years. The number of teachers who are considered "highly qualified" under federal guidelines has jumped from 48 percent last year to 84 percent this year.

The school, which has been under the guidance of a TEA conservator since May 2008, has also implemented a new curriculum, Johnson said.

Because of the small classes at Jean Massieu, students get more individual attention than they would in public schools, said Samanatha Welch, a senior whose mother is a bus driver for the school. The class size is a big help for her, she said. Welch will graduate this spring and doesn't want to think about what happens if the state doesn't give Jean Massieu a reprieve.

"It made me cry," she said. "I really don't want to see our school going through that. Our school is really good."

Working to stay open

Officials are working on a variety of measures aimed at keeping the school open.

They applied to be evaluated by TEA under Alternative Education Accountability, a different set of guidelines used to evaluate and rate schools where many students are identified as being at risk. Administrators think such an evaluation would help rise above the academically unacceptable ranking. They are expecting to find in May if they can be measured in that way.

Johnson said Jean Massieu went through a difficult time after the school's founding principal left in 2005. There was a lack of administrative experience, and senior teachers essentially ran the school until Johnson was hired, she said.

Johnson said the school has also been working with state auditors to better understand strict special-education guidelines, and she believes that it is in line with requirements. She plans to present that information at the records review.

A state conservator's report for February listed special education as an "ongoing concern," and Jean Massieu is not in compliance with all federal special-education requirements, said DeEtta Culbertson, a TEA spokeswoman.

"There's obviously some things that still need to be addressed," Culbertson said.

Johnson said the school is also on firmer financial footing. The 2009 report that Scott referred to in his letter dealt with financial figures from the 2007-08 school year. In June 2009, Jean Massieu signed a contract with the Region 11 Education Service Center to oversee its business office and finances.

Parents and students have also been writing to elected officials and the TEA, telling them what the school means to them. They also wear "The Deaf Shall Be Heard" shirts in support of the school.

Teacher Flora Morales is hoping the TEA gives Jean Massieu more time. After substitute teaching at the school, she got her first job out of college in January. She says she worries that her students would "shut down" in a large public school and be isolated into a program for deaf students.

She knows the school has had trouble in the past, but she'd like to put Scott's concerns about the children's futures to rest.

"The way it's going from this point forward, I think they're going to be OK. There's no reason to worry," she said.

TRACI SHURLEY, 817-390-7641