Seven years later, LBJ High School still not seeing benefits of split

Amanda Haight

Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk recently released its 2014 ranking of high schools in the greater Austin area. Out of 54 schools, the group gave Austin’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy the only grade of A+ and a No. 1 ranking. The organization ranked LBJ High School last with a failing grade of F. Not shown in the ranking, however, is that these two schools share a campus. Housed in one building in East Austin is an encapsulation of the larger education disparity that characterizes American public schooling.

According to the LASA website, in the ’80s, the Austin Independent School District introduced magnet programs to “address desegregation, busing and student population issues facing AISD” in addition to providing a unique, rigorous academic environment for students across the district. In 2007, in order to receive a $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, LBJ was required to adhere to a school redesign program, which split the programs into two independent schools, LBJ and LASA. The program, called First Things First, designed by the Institute for Research and Reform in Education, required separate accountability for the two high schools on testing data and “geographic specificity,” meaning the physical separation of the students. The goal of the program was to address design flaws and help poorer-performing students who were going unnoticed on a statistical level.

Though the separation was originally mandated in order to improve the education opportunities for LBJ students, the subsequent benefits to the two schools have been unequally distributed. LASA as an independent school has consistently ranked among the top 50 schools in the nation and is currently the seventh-ranked high school in the state by U.S. News with the highest average SAT score in Austin, according to the Austin Business Journal. While seven years is hardly enough time to definitively judge the effectiveness of the decision, LBJ students are still waiting to see their benefits. Each year that goes by, a class of students graduates with unfulfilled promises.

The split was originally met with hesitancy by some teachers, students and parents stemming from concerns regarding the potential changes in the social dynamic of the school. Before the two schools became independent entities there was a margin of flexibility in class enrollment and interaction between the schools. The structure today, however, with LBJ exclusively on the first floor and LASA on the second, allows little interaction between the two student populations. Former principal of LBJ Patrick Patterson, who oversaw the separation, notes the detrimental changes.

“The district shouldn’t maintain this current state of affairs. It’s almost like forced segregation,” Patterson said.

Looking at LBJ’s downstairs 99 percent minority enrollment compared to LASA’s upstairs 47 percent minority enrollment, consisting of only 169 students who identify as black or Hispanic out of 907 total students, the sentiment is not unfounded.   

“If I had to do it all over again … I would have recommended that one of the schools had to leave the campus,” Patterson said. “Surrounding schools had low enrollments, so either LASA could have moved out, or LBJ could have done the same. This current configuration really hurts the students who have the most need…When you stack the most talented high school kids in one school, in the same space as others, the others will always come in second.”

Always being second, always being the ‘other’ is the last thing a struggling school needs for improvement. LBJ students need to be reassured that their needs are a priority — an idea sometimes lost in the dynamic of the shared campus.

From school rankings to Buzzfeed, our society is obsessed with lists. But this constant compulsion to rank things might be detrimental to secondary education. Some high schools have even begun to discontinue the student ranking practice, recognizing that a single number does not accurately describe the academic capability of a student. But LBJ and other underperforming schools are part of a larger dynamic of inequality across the state. The top 7 percent of seniors at Texas public high schools will be automatically admitted to UT beginning this year. Naturally, some automatically accepted students come from low-performing high schools and are first confronted with the quality of education in this state in their first college classes. These students get to UT and are discouraged when they see the same disparity, the same ‘othering’ process that is happening at the LBJ campus. While students should be treated equally, the actual education quality distribution, for a multitude of reasons, is far from uniform. A perpetual comparison between the ‘best’ and the ‘worst’ demoralizes students who most need support. As for LBJ, Patterson says, “It’s very difficult work over there in the present configuration. Those folks should be applauded, not cursed with another ‘worst’ ranking. Instead of ranking them, go over there and help!”

Haight is a linguistics senior from Austin. She attended LASA from 2007 to 2011.