The Austin Chronicle

'At the Snap of a Finger'

By Richard Whittaker, February 1, 2012, 10:08am, Newsdesk

Think the fight over IDEA Public Schools is over? Think again. At Monday night's Austin ISD board meeting, speakers from Occupy Austin – many of them reading anonymous letters from staff, students and families at both AISD and IDEA campuses – gave stories that only deepen the feeling that the board moved too fast.

Why the anonymity? Honestly, there is a culture of fear. Teachers are extremely cautious about speaking out, fearful that the district's new culture of single-year contracts (except, of course, for Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's multi-year deal) makes them too easy to target and remove. The district's willingness to let even senior staff go (including the extremely popular and successful principal Connor Grady and his successor Joseph Coburn) does not dispel that cloud.

However, not every teacher was afraid to speak out. Claire Reutter has struggled with the poor wages and lack of health insurance that comes with being a substitute teacher, but called herself "privileged" to sub for 200 days in AISD over the last year, around 140 of them at Govalle elementary:

Govalle which, if you are successful at ramming through your agenda, will be getting displaced third, fourth and fifth graders from nearby Allan because the new IDEA won't take them. They want to start with kindergarten through second grade, or even pre-K. Even the kindergarteners through second graders in the Allen neighborhood who qualify for IDEA may be assigned to Govalle and Ortega if, and here's the catch, if they understand your system well enough to do so.

Reutter said she had talked to a family member, who asked her whether she would consider working at IDEA: "No way," she told the board. "I could not work at a school that forces itself into a community where there is a consensus of opposition. … I could not work at a school where the CEO calls my colleagues 'professional protesters.'"

She touched on what is seen as a chilling effect, that staff around Allan are not supposed to discuss their criticisms of the IDEA proposal. So an innovative solution has been hit upon: That members of Occupy Austin will read their testimonials for them. Speaking for an Eastside student, John Duffy read this letter:

As a senior at Eastside Memorial, we are told that the takeover by a charter school will not affect us. We're even lead as a group to respond to the question, 'Will this affect you?' We were lead to chant 'No!' 'Will this affect the juniors?' We were lead to respond, 'No!' 'Will this affect our sophomores?' 'No!' 'And the juniors?' 'No!' Telling us that this whole deal will not affect us, or that it has not affected us already insults our intelligence and makes us angry. The instant the district went public with plans to implement a charter in East Austin was the instant it began to affect us. We started losing some of our favorite teachers in October of 2011.

The student made a key point: That motivational speeches and 'hang in there' posters do nothing to get kids through graduation. "If it weren't for teachers like [Eastside Green Tech Teacher of the Year Ingrid Ristoph] and Mr. Grady, we wouldn't care at all about stupid state tests," the student wrote. Yet it is left to Occupy Austin members to speak on those teachers' behalf.

Not that this was the first time Occupy has taken an interest in what is happening at AISD. Some of their volunteers stayed up all night in December, just to hold places in line for Eastside community members who wanted to speak against the Dec. 19 IDEA vote.

So the evening became an interesting exercise in watching Occupiers like Heather Kafka who read a letter from an AISD teacher in the Eastside vertical team. Citing the "district's intimidation tactics on campuses against teachers who advocate for children" the teacher cited "the almost seemingly intentional fog of confusion" around IDEA:

The teachers in AISD have been told everything from 'it's exactly as the contract as written' to the fact that IDEA is only going to be a K-8 school, leaving Eastside Memorial alone, to 'pre-K will stay at Allan but be under regular AISD jurisdiction,' to 'IDEA is now actually serving pre-K students.' This constant changing of implementation after the contract was signed is incredibly frustrating for our community. We are constantly being asked by parents over the entire vertical team, "what is going on?'

The most perturbing part of this letter was the fact that Allan parents will not be informed of their children's options until Feb. 10 "when the deadline will be two weeks later. How do we expect our Eastside families to make an informed decision in less than a month from today, when they will not even have the information they need until February 10th?" But what may be most surprising to some is how much criticism is coming out of the Valley, where IDEA has built its reputation. This from an IDEA parent, read by Amanda Austin (who explained to the board that she holds a Masters in Early Childhood Special Education):

My child attended [IDEA] until this fall when, after witnessing first hand and hearing my child's pleas to leave I withdrew him. It's important to know that IDEA did not start out as a direct instruction school. It was a comprehensive curriculum replete with art, music, science, social studies, Spanish and technologies. But this April some higher-ups at IDEA sat the parents down to explain how the school was going to undergo a transformation model. They misrepresented what this would look like and how it would affect our children, claiming that it would cater to each individual student's need. What I witnessed, and what my child experienced this fall, was nothing short of atrocious, and our principal, who the community loved and supported, left under protest at the new curriculum and a lot of the great teachers followed.

Students were not catered to individually but rather stigmatized by being placed in classes with younger students if they failed to meet the testing requirements. It was devastating to see my child's self-esteem deplete as he was a fifth grader sent back to third grade. I witnessed students being escorted by the arm to younger classes because they did not want to feel the shame of having to sit in a lower level class. In IDEA's direct instruction model, lessons must be repeated until every student gives the correct answer at the snap of a finger. Because of this, when a student responded to something incorrectly the rest of the class would express their disapproval to going over the lesson all over again. This lead students to lip synching answers so that they did not have to feel embarrassed in front of their class mates.

This may be the most problematic part of the deal for AISD. Not only is direct instruction incredibly controversial, but it's not IDEA was doing when it got the student achievement results that have the district slavering. And what happens to the AISD teachers who do not want to sign on for this model? Caitlin Austin spoke for another anonymous teacher "who has felt silenced by the district":

Sixth grade teachers were told that they have three choices: Interview with IDEA, be put in a reserve pool, or resign.

Not that Occupiers were content to just speak for others, as shown by their call-and-response mic check lead by Jessica Deleskey.

This is a school board appreciation message from Occupy Austin.
We appreciate the board members who listened to the voices of the community and tried to keep our public schools from being privatized. We do not appreciate the district leadership that is more interested in pleasing (IDEA CEO) Tom Torkelson than serving your constituents.
We do not appreciate you telling us that this is about choice when you have not provided clear information to the families that have been affected by your decisions. We do not appreciate that you are giving pre-kindergartners to IDEA without discussing this before the contract is signed and with no clear alternatives for those families.
We do not appreciate how the hard working teachers and staffers of Allan and Martin are being thrown under the bus. Nor do we appreciate the campaign of intimidation against teachers who have spoken out.
We are Occupy Austin. We stand for quality, equal public education. We have not forgotten what you did in this room last month, and we will continue to stand against the attacks on our schools, our teachers, and our communities.

Now the board does not respond directly to any comments, but there was an interesting moment at the end of citizens' communication. Board President Mark Williams told Carstarphen that "there were some issues raised that we will probably follow up with you off-line." Maybe he was talking about potential problems with the sale of the Travis County tract on Trail West Drive. Maybe not. However, the board may have little choice about the continuing conversation. Bishop Zareh, speaking for an Eastside teacher, told them "The more you push your heavy handed agendas and disrespect for the community, the more we will push back. This is round one. Are you ready to go 12?"

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.