Manor district launches two more New Tech schools to boost academics

August 20, 2017
Austin American Statesman

Praised by former President Barack Obama as an example for the nation, Manor New Tech High School has continued to buck national trends by graduating nearly all of its students, largely ethnic minority members who are low-income, and sending them to college.

But the Manor district has struggled to translate achievement at its flagship campus throughout the district and to its historically struggling schools. District leaders hope the launch of two new schools under the New Tech model results in a pipeline of academic success.

The district on Monday will debut its newest campuses, Manor New Tech Middle School and Lagos Elementary, the first elementary in Texas designed and constructed as a New Tech campus. Like the high school, both the elementary and middle school will emphasize science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education. They will be focused on project-based learning, which uses hands-on, collaborative projects to teach core subjects. Students will work in small groups with desks designed to face one another, instead of facing the front of the classroom, and technology is heavily integrated into daily learning.

“The whole New Tech feeder pattern piece, it’s going to help ground Manor,” Superintendent Royce Avery said. “As the system gets better, we’re going to see academic gains. … New Tech is going to be that foundation. It’s established. It’s something we’ve done very, very well at the high school level, and now we have to replicate that.

“The most struggling district in any community has the opportunity to rebound.”

Lydia Dobbins, president of the California-based New Tech Network, said that as the nonprofit has bolstered training and support for districts, the timing couldn’t be better for Manor to commit to the development of a full K-12 New Tech pipeline.

“What we’re excited about with Manor is that we brought the model that is the best of the personalized (learning) world and the best project-based learning,” Dobbins said. “We’re confident that the method of project-based learning can be a very effective way for students to develop the literacy and numerous skills and the joy of learning.”

Both new New Tech schools in Manor will also require uniforms, and if the requirement is successful at those campuses, the district might require them at all its elementary and middle schools.

Like Manor New Tech High, students will have to apply to get into the New Tech middle school.

New leadership

Avery, since he took the helm in summer 2016, has been making reforms throughout the district and adding academic programs. At Manor High School and Manor Middle School, both of which have struggled academically, about half of the teachers won’t be returning this fall. Avery, who began replacing principals and assistant principals at various schools just months into his job, said the attrition has been intentional, though many of the principals and teachers left voluntarily. He also is boosting fine arts at two elementary schools feeding into Decker Middle School, which has been converted into a fine arts academy. And district leaders are working to bring rigorous International Baccalaureate programs into four campuses, including the underperforming Manor Middle School.

“I felt we needed something to get people excited about: the new direction we have, with a new administration and new facilities. That’s enticing to people,” Avery said.

The district for years was mired in controversy with investigations, a forensic audit into financial irregularities, alleged whistleblower violations, lawsuits and federal complaints, including some lodged by African-American former employees who alleged they were discriminated against. There also were fights among school board members and a turnstile of leaders, with former Superintendent Kevin Brackmeyer resigning abruptly under pressure, getting hired back, and leaving again in the course of two years. Then three interim superintendents took turns at the helm, and longtime school board members were voted out.

Avery said he needed to overhaul some areas and create new programs to stop students transferring out of the nearly 9,500-student district.

“It’s about putting the opportunities of choice in our district,” Avery said. “There have been a lot of families over the last five years who have chosen to not have their children attend Manor, for lots of different reasons, for political reasons, from school board to superintendent to accountability.”

While still growing by 300 to 400 students annually, about 1,000 students who live within district attend neighboring districts or charter schools, which are booming in the area, and Avery expects the charters soon will open campuses within the district’s boundaries.

“Change cannot come any sooner,” Avery said. “We have to get ready for that.”

The district already won back 80 students, after reaching out to those families this spring, sending mailers and hosting community meetings about the new academic offerings.

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