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By Sue Owen March 5, 2012

Academies still being added

Building on a program he kick-started in 2005, Gov. Rick Perry announced October 15, 2009, that he wanted to expand the Texas-Science, Technology and Math academies" reach. Among new goals for the program, he said, "I propose that we double the number of T-STEM academies in Texas from 46 to 92. We"re going to, obviously, double the number of students who will be receiving a STEM education.”

We asked the governor"s office and the Texas Education Agency for updates on that promise.

T-STEM academies, according to the agency"s website, are stand-alone or school-within-school institutions for students in grades 6-12 or 9-12. A school district or open charter program can apply, and if the application is accepted, the state will give professional and technical help to establish T-STEM methods and curricula. An example is the T-STEM academy at Austin"s Akins High School -- in this case, a separate building on the high school campus, constructed for T-STEM, with its own faculty.

According to the "blueprint” for academies, T-STEM students take courses focused on college degrees or careers in STEM fields, with specialized teaching and projects.  

From 2008 through 2010, according to TEA"s website, $39 million from the state and $15.4 million in private donations paid for 51 academies to be established. Ratcliffe said the private gifts, such as $20 million each from foundations established by Bill Gates and Michael Dell, funneled through the Communities Foundation of Texas, a Dallas charity that specializes in managing and distributing such gifts.  

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe provided a list indicating that as of February 2012, Texas had T-STEM academies in more than 40 cities and communities.

But state funding was ratcheted down considerably by the budget-strapped 2011 Legislature. Ratcliffe said T-STEM got $3 million in appropriations for 2012-13 compared with previous appropriations of $20 million covering 2008-09 and $20 million for 2010-11.

Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier told us by email that lawmakers made hard choices, and one of them was reducing the appropriation for T-STEM.

Ratcliffe told us by email that the number of academies rose by five to 51 in the 2010-11 school year, then by eight to 59 for 2011-12. As of February 2012, then, the total number of academies would need to increase by 33 more, or 56 percent, to fulfill Perry"s doubling promise.

Despite the drops in funding, Ratcliffe said, the academies haven"t suffered much yet, because the grants they get are typically for a two-year period. Also, under T-STEM requirements, "these schools should have been putting into place a way to sustain the program once the grant funds are gone,” she said. "Typically, this means that they would be looking for local funds, other grants or donations to continue to fund the work.”

In fact, some academies rely entirely on local funding. Anticipating that state funds could drop off, Ratcliffe said, TEA created a new method of establishing academies in which districts work up-front to gather donations from local sources, then apply for T-STEM designation.

Nine T-STEM academies were added this way in the 2011-12 school year, Ratcliffe said. (The net gain was eight because another academy closed, she said.)

Upshot: Perry"s doubling promise has not been fulfilled, but additional academies are still being opened. Should they open at a clip of about five a year, this promise could be fulfilled in six or seven years, though it will take longer if more academies close or the expansion pace is slower. We rate this promise IN THE WORKS.

Our Sources

Gov. Rick Perry, state press release, "Gov. Perry Announces Program to Improve and Expand T-STEM Academies," October 15, 2009

Gov. Rick Perry, executive order, "RP53 – Relating to the creation of college readiness standards and programs for Texas public school students,” December 16, 2005

Texas Education Agency Web page, "Texas Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Initiative (T-STEM),” accessed February 27, 2012

W.C. Akins High School T-STEM Academy website, accessed February 27, 2012
Email and telephone interviews with TEA director of communications Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, February 23-29, 2012

Communities Foundation of Texas website, accessed February 27, 2012

Email and telephone interviews with Catherine Frazier, deputy press secretary, Texas governor's office, February 16-27, 2012

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