Seven years ago, I watched my daughter, Janet, receive her diploma from Johnston High School, in East Austin. No parent will ever do that again: In June, Johnston ceased to exist. A few days before this year’s graduation ceremony, Texas education commissioner Robert Scott informed the Austin Independent School District that he was invoking the nuclear option authorized by the Texas Education Code to close the school after five consecutive years of “academically unacceptable” performances on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. Scores improved this year, but not enough to save the school. State rules mandate that three fourths of Johnston’s teachers and half of its students be reassigned when the 2008-2009 academic year begins (some students and teachers can opt to remain at the current campus, which will be “repurposed”). The Johnston name will be expunged, and AISD must produce a plan for some sort of educational triage.
I was saddened to read about Johnston’s fate—but not surprised. For almost two years I had served on its campus advisory council ( CAC) with other parents, teachers, administrators, and representatives of the community. I knew Johnston’s problems all too well. In one of my first meetings, we learned that 50 percent of the freshman class had failed all four core courses (English, math, science, social studies) the previous year. In an educational environment dominated by high-stakes testing, Johnston got the black mark, but the roots of the problem reached back into the elementary and middle schools that had failed to prepare their students for high school.
You may be wondering why my wife and I would send our daughter to a low-performing school far across town. The reason is that the Liberal Arts Academy, a magnet program, was located there. Janet had been reading thousand-page science fiction novels since the fifth grade. Her scores on some now forgotten test were high enough that she received an invitation to the LAA’s