San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

July 23rd, 2010
School board approves academies for 2011-12

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Left to right, San Marcos CISD Trustees David Chiu, Judy Allen and John Crowley. Photo by Sean Batura.

By SEAN BATURA
News Reporter

San Marcos CISD approved high school career academies in a 5-0 vote earlier this week. Trustees John Crowley and David Castillo, skeptical that the district can fund the project’s $493,000 price tag in its first year, abstained.

The division of San Marcos High School is scheduled to take place for the 2011-12 school year. Full implementation of career academies will involve dividing the approximately 2,100 high school students into four groups of 400, and moving the remainder into the ninth grade academy and Phoenix Academy.

The four proposed academies include:

• AACME, for agriculture, automotive, construction, military and engineering fields.
• FACT, for fine arts, communication and technology fields.
• H3, for healthcare, hospitality and human services fields.
• MLB, for marketing, law, and business fields.

“I’m for the academies, but I feel that sometimes we rush ourselves,” Castillo said. “I’d rather be safe knowing we can do it little by little. We can get there rather than throwing ourselves all in and sinking. I would like to see it done little by little.”

Crowley cautioned his colleagues not to take “an all or nothing approach,” and suggested that the district implement one academy for two years and then create more when the district is on better financial footing. Crowley said “a lot” of district positions are currently funded with state and federal funds, which, he said, may be greatly reduced in two years.

Trustee Judy Allen said the district’s “healthy fund balance,” about $22 million, may provide some cushion for the increased expense of academies, which, she said, “we can’t not spend the money on.”

The school district presently is considered “property wealthy” under the state’s school financing formula, but that property wealth doesn’t yet reach the level requiring payments back to the “Robin Hood” plan for equalizing the school funding across the state. San Marcos CISD taxes $1.04 per $100 of taxable property value, the maximum allowable without having to provide funds to Robin Hood.

Trustee David Chiu said implementing academies at the high school would make it more attractive to parents who may otherwise not want the district to educate their children. Chiu said that unless the district attracts more students, its ratio of property wealth per student will rise to the point that Robin Hood payments will be required.

“If we’re looking at budget shortfall of $450,000, $500,000 a year, in 10 years we’re looking at $5 million,” Chiu said. “But, if we became a property tax rich district … we could lose $3 million to $4 million in one year. So, to me, (academies are) a concept worth considering. I’ll be honest: in the beginning, I had some questions about academies, but the principal convinced me otherwise.”

San Marcos CISD Assistant Superintendent for Business and Support Services Michael Abild said increasing the enrollment rate is one strategy to avoid making Robin Hood payments.

“We’re some ways from the point where we need to make those payments,” Abild said. “We’re safe for the foreseeable future, but it’s a legitimate concern, long term.”

Trustees plan to implement four academies in Fall 2011, though how many are actually created depends on what the board chooses to fund in its 2011-2012 budget. The board is currently preparing its 2010-2011 budget. San Marcos High School Principal Michelle Darling, who has spearheaded the effort to implement academies, said full implementation cost of $493,000 would fund seven additional teachers, one administrator position, one counselor, a half-time clerk, and one instructional coach.

Darling said that allowing teams of teachers to tailor their curricula to students with similar interests has been shown to result in increased attendance rates, college enrollment, and income for people after they graduate from high school.

Between now and fall 2011, San Marcos High School teachers will train for the transition to academies. In November, the district will send teachers to the National Career Academy Conference in Austin for professional development training.

The ninth grade academy, currently in existence, is not career-themed, but is intended to facilitate student transitioning to high school and beyond through self-exploration of their interests and strengths, and building self-confidence. Phoenix Academy serves as an alternative graduation route for students more likely to drop out of high school.

On June 24, Darling said the school district is not adequately taking advantage of a “united business community” and the presence of Texas State. Darling said implementing academies at the high school will allow businesses to more easily recruit students.

“This is like putting handles on the high school, so that when the engineering department at Texas State calls us and says, ‘Hey, we just got a grant, we are going to be doing summer camp, we need 20 engineering students and we need them three days from now’ — right now that would be really hard, because right now I’m broadcasting public service announcements to 2,000 kids and they get lost,” Darling said. “When you start organizing the school so that it’s easy for a group to pull up to, I think amazing things can happen here. As I said before, career academies are not new. I’m not asking that we try something that’s new. They’ve been around 40 years, and, in some places, have been a phenomenal success. I think we could meet or exceed that because of our position within the town of San Marcos.”

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