Off the Desk:
Denis Halliday, longtime UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq who resigned in protest last year over the ongoing sanctions policy, will speak on Wednesday, February 24, at 7pm, Sid Richardson Hall on the University of Texas campus. For more info contact Jere Locke,
Separate and Unequal
Proposed school boundary changes didn't fare as badly at the ballot box as the AISD Board of Trustees might have expected, given the volume of opposition voiced at recent town hall meetings, but the outcry over school inequity has prompted the board to review a new instructional plan for schools in poorer neighborhoods. At the first of two work sessionsheld Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to review public response to the boundary changes, board members learned that written forms filled out by participants at the eight town hall hearings showed some support for the changes, particularly in the northwest and southeast, but the resounding message continued to be that the district must address school inequity.
To that end, the AISD board summoned superintendents, principals, and other instructional staff to suggest ways the district could copy successes at poorer schools such as Lanier High School, a former low performer which, under the leadership of Principal Ruth Kane, has become a blue-ribbon campus.
"What we're trying to do is take hold of these things that are working well now, in the existing situation, and hold these up as a model," said AISD Superintendent A.C. Gonzalez. The resulting plan, dubbed "Account for Learning," proposes $1,000 annual bonuses for teachers who commit to three-year stints at targeted schools, and prescribes teacher mentoring programs, extra teacher days for curricular planning, and more outreach to parents. It would require a special appropriation of $4 million.
Austin City Council of PTAs president Johna Edwards says that her organization supports the direction the board has taken. "We do have some very successful schools, but for some reason we're modest and we do not share like we should," says Edwards.
The plan, outlined by Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik, drew mixed reactions from board members Tuesday night. AISD Trustee Liz Hartman said the plan's authors had set the eligibility bar too high to include many schools who need help. (The proposed criterion for inclusion is the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches at a given campus -- the plan suggested targeting high schools above 85%, middle schools above 75%, and elementaries above 50%.) Board President Kathy Rider agreed, saying that drawing cutoff lines based on absolute percentages was not a suitable way of deciding where corrections might be needed the most. "We really miss the piece about what happens between the teacher and student to create a learning experience," said Rider.
Other trustees questioned whether the emphasis on teacher training translated into more out-of-classroom time at the expense of students. Psencik replied that the mentoring programs are different from traditional teacher training in that they occur on campus and allow more experienced teachers to teach beginners through example.
In ordering the plan to be drafted coterminously with the boundary change process, the board is acknowledging the conventional wisdom that the boundary controversy would be somewhat muted if all Austin schools were successful, even as it remains committed to pushing the boundary changes through. AISD Trustee Olga Garza doubted whether the "Account" proposal would appease a community already distrustful of AISD's commitment to equitable education. "We're falling back on the old strategy of one-size-fits-all just to put out the political fires of the moment," she said. The "Account for Learning" plan will be modified and come back to the board at a later date.
There is a public hearing on the boundary changes scheduled at 6:30pm, Monday, Feb. 22, at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth. The board of trustees is slated to vote on the changes Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:30pm. For more information, call 414-1200. --K.F.
Getting on Board
Getting a commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio might take a little less than the Second Coming. Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire said last year that it would take about as much to convince him to support the rail line. But Aleshire's successor, Sam Biscoe, is a lot less dismissive of the project. He says the Travis County Commissioners Court could soon vote in favor of forming the special regional rail district, though the commissioners have yet to formally discuss the issue this year.
So far, only the Austin City Council has voted to form the special regional rail district to oversee and manage the line once it's built. And commissioners from Hays and Comal counties registered their approval of the idea last year, voting to join the nonexistent district. But the rail district won't become a reality until the city of San Antonio, Bexar and Travis counties, as well as the Capital Metro Planning Organization (formerly the Austin Transportation Study), the San Antonio Metropolitan Planning Organization, Capital Metro, and VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority vote to opt into it. San Antonio officials have so far been the most supportive of the idea.
"I don't have any problem with formally creating the entity," Biscoe said last week. "The rail district makes sense to me on paper. If we agree it needs to be done, it's much easier to come up with the funds."
Approval from the Travis County commissioners could give the project needed momentum. But the proposed rail line still faces significant economic and political obstacles: Will Union Pacific, the country's largest rail company, give up or share its existing tracks between Austin and San Antonio? And most significantly, who will pay for the rail line?
Transportation officials hope to deliver answers to those questions with an initial chunk of their $414,000 feasibility study by early March, says Alison Shulze, a senior planner with the Capital Metro Planning Organization. The plan will suggest that the rail line is technically feasible. But Shulze says that the cost will probably exceed the previous estimates of $150million to $300 million. Austin transportation officials came up with the commuter rail line as a way to relieve car congestion on I-35. The 110-mile line would run from Georgetown through Austin to San Antonio, with about 12 stops along the way. Tickets would probably cost under $10. --S.F.
Memory vs. Truth
Amid allegations that her international bestseller contains exaggerations and factual discrepancies, 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú strongly, at times tearfully, defended herself to a standing-room only audience at Southwestern University in Georgetown during last week's Brown Symposium. In a thought-provoking, moving speech, the Guatemalan activist and author spoke of the recent controversy over her autobiography,
I Rigoberta Menchú; of the twists of fate that made her the chronicler of the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Central America; and of "the memory of the deaths of five members of my family that died during the civil war of Guatemala; all of them assassinated, tortured, and burned."
Menchú told the audience that she -- like many human rights activists -- met with resistance and apathy in the early 1980s when she began speaking out about the devastation in Guatemala. Her 1983 book, filled with horrifying tales of military-led massacres, destroyed indigenous communities, and impoverished families, convinced many to take notice. But last year, American anthropologist David Stoll called Menchú's book into question with his own work, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans, in which he claims that Menchú's autobiography "cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be." Among other things, Stoll questions accounts of family members' deaths and Menchú's level of education. Menchú said Thursday she received some education at a convent, where she worked as a servant girl who swept floors and cleaned the desks. Answering other charges, Menchú responded: "My memory is a collective memory, not an individual memory. If you offend me, you offend my people. And if you offend my people, you offend me. This is the message of the indigenous brotherhood that met the day before yesterday concerning this issue: We decided that we will no longer let anyone denigrate us like they always have."
In a recent article in The New York Times, Stoll says he didn't mean to accuse Menchú of lying, and that he understands her narrative strategy of folding others' experiences into her own to bring international attention to Guatemala and put pressure on the government and army.
During her lecture, Menchú called Stoll arrogant and criticized him for doing exactly what he charges she did: arranging events and exaggerating information to support his own pre-set agenda. "Mr. Stoll already had a conclusion and only went to [corroborate] his conclusions in Guatemala," Menchú charges. "One of those conclusions ... is that we, the indigenous people, are fools, easy to manipulate; that we don't have ambition and can't make our own decisions."
Menchú said that thousands of testimonials have been collected over the past three years, survivors' stories that tell tales as horrifying as the one Menchú unfolded 16 years ago. She continues to work to make sure these stories are heard and those responsible for the atrocities are held accountable. "Who writes history?" asked Menchú. Usually, she said, history is penned by "the victors, the conquistadors. They are the ones who write about the triumphs and successes over the people. Who writes about the victims? The victims themselves write their memories. History has already been written; it is up to us to recognize the truth of this memory." --M.J.G.