Texas district cancels sports to improve grades

By Christopher Sherman

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 10:41 a.m. MST

In this Sept. 30, 2011, photo, Premont fans cheer during a homecoming football game in Premont, Texas. Trustees of the Premont Independent School District last week signed an agreement with the Texas Education Agency allowing the underperforming district to stay open through December by a decision to cancel student sports and use the money for improving education.

Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Michael Zamora) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

PREMONT, Texas — Eliminating high school athletics during a school year is unusual, especially in a sports-loving state such as Texas.

But that's exactly what's happening in this small ranching community where the school district is taking desperate measures to prevent a state-mandated closure due to poor academics. The Premont Independent School District is even deploying its superintendent, a constable and high school principal to the homes of truant students in an effort to improve dismal attendance.

The actions announced this week are not only part of a last-ditch effort to save the school district, but perhaps the entire community — which some parents already plan to leave because of the uncertainty surrounding the schools' future.

"The school shuts down in this town, the town dies," said Frank Davila, a Jim Wells County constable who also works as the school security officer and grew up here. "This is all we have."

The town of 2,700 people in South Texas has been on edge since the Texas Education Agency placed it on probation nearly a year ago and then last fall ordered that the school district close by July 1. The order has since been put on hold as the district gets one last chance to meet the state's criteria. Failure would force Premont ISD to be annexed into another district 35 miles away and eliminate one of the town's largest employers — costing Premont 90 jobs.

With so much on the line, Superintendent Ernest Singleton decided drastic action was needed to show the state immediate improvement at Premont High School. The school failed to meet certain adequate yearly progress requirements since 2007 under the federal No Child Left Behind program.

To make time for extra tutoring and test preparation — and to save some money — Singleton decided sports at the school will have to wait at least until the next basketball season. That means no baseball, track, tennis or football.

"Sports is sacred ground in the state of Texas," said Singleton, who has been on the job barely seven months.

"But because we're so far behind with student performance I wanted an environment that was academic only."

The problems at Premont are numerous. The buildings are outdated and in need of repairs. The enrollment is dwindling — 570 students this year compared to about 800 students from five years ago — and a startling percentage of those who are enrolled regularly miss classes. The district decided to combine its three schools into two last year and only recently broke a five-year string of operating with a deficit.

Carmela Garcia, chairwoman of the school board, remembers better days for the town. She has lived here since she was 3 years old, had a daughter who was valedictorian and her father attended school here as well. But now, she said, the "culture" is different.

Not enough parents are involved in their children's school lives. Not enough students are attending class — a fact illustrated on a sign outside the high school that compares its 88 daily attendance average versus the statewide average of 96 percent.

"What happened to this great little town?" she asked.

Garcia struggled with the decision of whether to shutter Premont's schools and annex as the state ordered. In the neighboring district, elementary school children could take art and music classes, something they don't offer in Premont. But ultimately Garcia and six other board members voted unanimously to sign an agreement with the state earlier this month that would suspend its closure order. Sadly, she said, only about 10 parents attended even though residents voted last year to raise their taxes to help the district.

Garcia worries that poor attendance could be their downfall. It was the state's second priority behind student achievement.

"It's kids doing what they want and parents going along with it," said Constable Davila. "I turn blue talking to parents."

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