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AISD: IDEA Down, Travis Heights Up

AISD board cancels IDEA at Allan, but IDEA promises to stay in town

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Dec. 21, 2012

Members of the crowd celebrate as the vote to approve a charter at Travis Heights Elementary passed.
Members of the crowd celebrate as the vote to approve a charter at Travis Heights Elementary passed.
Photo by John Anderson

Call it what it was – a gut-check moment. On Monday, Dec. 17, the Austin Independent School District's board of trustees voted to cancel the district's contract with IDEA Public Schools, right after approving a new community-led charter school at Travis Heights Elementary. In doing so, trustees argued that their decisions bring the district closer to its core values: a broad education in the classroom and broader community engagement beyond the schoolyard.

The audience at the meeting was split between parents, teachers, and students who wanted IDEA to stay at Allan Ele­mentary, and residents of East Austin and Travis Heights unified in their belief that AISD had a double chance to restore their trust – by removing IDEA from the Allan campus and approving the Travis Heights proposal. The two are, at their cores, very different entities: If the district wants to place an external charter operator on a campus, it merely takes a board vote to impose it, which is what happened at Allan with IDEA. However, if a campus and community want to create their own in-district charter, they must gather the support of more than 80% of teachers, administrators, and primary caregivers for every student – a percentage Travis Heights exceeded. Ultimately, the board unanimously approved restructuring Travis Heights starting next fall, but it split 5-4 to remove IDEA at the end of the current school year.

The IDEA vote represents a new political reality. Three trustees – board Vice President Gina Hinojosa (At-Large Place 8), Jayme Mathias (District 2), and Ann Teich (District 3) – were elected on Nov. 6 with a clear mandate that community involvement must be cardinal. With the backing of existing trustees Tamala Barksdale (At-Large Place 9) and Robert Schneider (District 7), both of whom voted against the original IDEA contract in 2011, they had the five votes to terminate the deal. Their reasoning was simple: Since not even one in five IDEA Allan students comes from the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team, IDEA simply does not serve that community. Hinojosa told her fellow trustees that, on the same night that the board voted to extend fine arts and dual language provision on all campuses, she simply did not see how the narrow test prep culture of IDEA could fit into AISD, and delaying the final decision a year would only cause more neighborhood division. She said, "At some point, so much damage is done that it's time for a divorce."

In an earlier meeting, Mathias had originally proposed a compromise, whereby IDEA's scheduled 2013 expansion to Eastside Memorial High would be put on hold for a year while trustees reviewed their options. Teich called this an "olive branch," but on Monday night, even Mathias voted against it, arguing that it left IDEA parents in limbo. Ultimately, only four trustees – President Vince Torres (District 4), Cheryl Bradley (District 1), Lori Moya (District 6), and newly elected Amber Elenz (District 5) – voted for compromise, and those same four finally voted against canceling the deal. However, the decision was made with little of the acrimony that marked prior debates. Even Bradley, one of IDEA's strongest advocates, said she backed the compromise as a way to create a clear vision of what Allan should look like in a year, and where the current IDEA Allan students will go. Similarly, Moya simply said, "I'm having difficulty wrapping my heart around taking a program away from kids who are excelling in a particular environment." Some audience members gasped at this, asking loudly where that compassion was a year ago when Moya voted to close Allan.

So, as IDEA winds down, the Travis Heights community begins the long process of taking over their South-Central Austin school. The staff and students will remain the same, but the campus will have a new board, plus autonomy over its budget, staffing, and curriculum. The charter is a collaboration between the school, Austin Interfaith, and Education Austin, which secured the project's original planning grant. EA President Ken Zarifis suggested the board vote could mark a turning point in relations between the district, the union, and the broader AISD family. He said, "I'm hoping that this shows the way for the district to genuinely partner with the community: To talk to people, not at people, [and] to listen to what they need in plans moving forward."

Several trustees have suggested that campuses could develop Travis Heights-style autonomy without going through the strains of becoming an in-district charter. Moya has proposed that the district re-evaluate its policy, while Schneider suggested that the current state rules already give campus advisory councils more independence than they generally currently use. The biggest project could well be Eastside Memorial, where community-developed proposals are already being discussed. However, as Schneider noted, even if the board creates new rules to empower campuses, the biggest challenge will be getting communities to step up.

And what of IDEA? The morning after the board vote, CEO Tom Torkelson and IDEA Austin Executive Director Larkin Tack­ett announced that the Valley-based charter group will open a new independent Austin campus in the fall, and that they plan to take all 540 current students with them. Torkelson, who has become a lightning rod with his controversial comments about the AISD board and Austin citizenry, said he expected to announce the campus location in early 2013. However, he declined to comment on whether IDEA would stay in East Austin.

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