State gives thumbs up to T-Stem Coalition taking over Mendez MS


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Education Agency has given its blessing to Austin ISD’s plan to avoid closure and improve academics at Mendez Middle School.

The struggling campus in southeast Austin will remain open and operate as an in-district charter in the fall.

The Texas STEM Coalition, Communities In Schools of Central Texas, and UT Austin’s UTeach Institute are teaming up to run the campus of 700 students. The campus will be operated by a separate governing board which will have full control over staffing, the school budget and the curriculum.

The new director, Joanna Carrillo-Rowley, started moving into the old principal’s office Monday. She came from Midland ISD where she’s been a teacher, assistant principal and bilingual ESL director who has a proven track record of turning low performing schools around. 

“It took us a lot of hard work and a lot of planning, and now that I’m here at Mendez it’s an exciting thing to happen again,” said Carrillo-Rowley. “It’s very challenging. I love the challenge. There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us.”

Even though Monday was her first official day on the job, she’s been on the campus for a month and has already gone through a three-week training with half of her teachers.

The rest will go through training in mid-July to get up to speed on the new project-based, hands-on lessons they’ll be implementing in the classroom. She spends the first three hours on the first day laying out her mission.

“[I told them] number one keep your head up — don’t quit trying. You can’t keep going in the same direction. You’ve got to get out of that mindset that you are defeated,” said Carrillo-Rowley.

She has also been busy calling parents who plan on moving their children to another middle school campus to try and talk them into staying. Many told her they thought the school was already closed.

“Kids disappeared. We want them back. We need them back,” said Carrillo-Rowley. “This is their campus, this is their neighborhood — there’s no reason for them not to come here.”

She plans on taking teachers with her to go door-to-door later this month to talk to parents she was unable to reach by phone. Her own daughter will also be attending Mendez as a sixth grader.

“If I can’t lead the teachers and the campus to be the best for my own child then I’m not doing my job,” said Carrillo-Rowley.

This will be Austin ISD’s third experience with an in-district charter model.

The first attempt was a failed partnership with IDEA Public Schools. Austin ISD terminated the contract with the charter operator after the first school year amid criticism from groups about the implementation process, and families who fought the decision saying they were fearful they were losing their neighborhood school.

The only other current in-district charter in Austin ISD is at Travis Heights Elementary. The program is led by Austin Interfaith and Education Austin. Organizers had more than 90 percent of parents and employees sign a petition of support. 

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