Naked City

Off the Desk:

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman lost her bid to postpone the approval of $1.6 million to rehabilitate the Holly Power Plant's Unit 1 for possible use this summer. "There are a great many numbers that I am unable to make jibe with each other," Goodman said, asking for more time to study the issue before casting her vote. But the rest of the council (save Councilmember Willie Lewis) were persuaded by Austin Energy's argument that if not approved now, the improvements could delay the reopening until mid-June, after the hot season begins. "If we are this close to an emergency, why do we just now know about it?" wondered Goodman, who ultimately voted to approve the item. Lewis earned the gratitude of Eastsiders by repeating what they have been telling the council for months -- that the city should stick to their promised schedule for the closing of Holly. "To me, a deal is a deal," he said.-- J.S.

Sign of the week: The Great Outdoors landscape and nursery on South Congress marquee reads, "We Have the Cheapest Hoes on South Congress." Co-owner Mark Gibbs says the streetfront play on words prompts more chuckles than angry calls, though Gibbs says he contemplated changing the sign when a woman complained last week about it being offensive. "We're just trying to have fun," says Gibbs. "We weren't trying to be rude." Not to be outdone, neighboring Ben White Florist's marquee retorts, "But We Have the Best Hoes." -- L.T.


Where Did They Go?

It's spring break. Do we know where our students are? Far too many Texas teens are taking permanent vacations from school, public interest groups say. Dropout rates at public schools have been questioned by conservative pro-voucher groups for some time, but a new report from the nonprofit public interest group Center for Public Policy Priorities adds credible evidence that reported dropout rates in Texas schools are indeed farcically low. The annual statewide dropout rate for grades 7-12 that Texas schools report for accountability is 1.6% (The Austin Independent School District reports a dropout rate of 1.8%). But that figure reflects only the percentage of students in each grade who leave school. The cumulative percentage of students who drop out between seventh grade and graduation is 9.1%. What's more, the CPPP reports points out, the true dropout rate among kids who are of age to leave school is diluted by including seventh- and eighth-graders in the count. The number of freshmen who never move on to 10th grade, for example, is more than seven times higher than the number of seventh-graders who drop out, according to Texas Education Association statistics. Nearly half of all dropouts are between the ages of 15-17, TEA numbers show.

But regardless of how TEA chooses to present the number of dropouts it knows about, it's the number of students that Texas schools can't account for at all that is bringing heat from legislators. A study produced by the Hispanic Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) last year revealed that four out of 10 students statewide who entered the ninth grade in the 1994-95 school year never enrolled as seniors in 1997. This 4-to-1 difference between the official cumulative dropout rate and the number of students who disappear off schools rolls without a trace is what Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos refers to as the "evaporation rate."

School officials have traditionally explained undocumented student attrition as the result of students transferring out of state, returning to Mexico, or entering private or alternative education (such as home schooling or G.E.D. classes). Public schools don't have to report these exits as dropouts, but some legislators and academic researchers aren't buying the excuses.

"If you accepted all their excuses and cut the number in half, it's still unacceptable," says Tony Garrett, chief of staff to Dallas Rep. Domingo Garcia, who recently filed bills to require public schools to report attrition rates to parents, and to allow students more freedom of movement between public schools. Jay Greene, UT assistant professor of government, says that the real reason for the differential may be that schools are finding ways to avoid reporting dropouts, such as encouraging the parents of dropouts to sign forms indicating their kids plan to receive alternative education. The present accountability system relies too heavily on schools self-reporting data, says Greene. "They're the ones guarding the numbers, and there's pressure for them not to find any embarrassing things," says Greene.

TEA officials admit that they know little about what happens to students when they leave public schools, but they're trying to find out. Beginning in 1997, TEA began requiring schools to submit an annual "leaver record," which summarizes the reasons kids say they're leaving school. TEA Associate Commissioner Criss Cloudt says the new data should give the agency a better idea of how many students actually complete high school through a G.E.D. "The leaver record will help a lot -- we'll get a feel for whether what the districts are reporting to us makes sense," says Cloudt.

School districts have collected this data for years, but AISD officials say they've never before been asked to analyze it. TEA figures show that 6,439 students entered ninth grade in the Austin school district in the 1994-95 school year, but only 3,315 were seniors in 1997, despite double-digit growth in the area student population. Statistics in the IDRA report show that Travis County has one of the five highest attrition rates in the state. -- K.F.


Visions of Smart Growth

As part of its new commitment to "bring Smart Growth to the grass roots," the city last week wheeled out its "Listening and Design Workshop" visual preference survey to sparse and somewhat restive crowds downtown and at the new Ralph W. Yarborough Branch Library in Rosedale. Additional workshops will be held at selected branch libraries all over the city through the month.

A visual preference survey is a popular tool of progressive planners seeking to elicit citizen views on good urban design. As typically deployed (for example, at December's Partners for Smart Growth conference), the viewer is shown pairs of images and asked to rank the appeal of each. The two images will often depict a particular urban design element, such as a pedestrian crossing, handled different ways. The city's version is different, however; viewers see 70 images one at a time, and instead of ranking them, they are asked to indicate whether the project depicted would fit anywhere in their neighborhood, or in certain places, or not in their neighborhood but somewhere else in Austin, or nowhere in Austin.

The last options are a little confusing, since all 70 of the images are of buildings and streetscapes actually in Austin. In particular, Hyde Park, South Congress, and East Austin get a workout -- the corner of 43rd and Duval is pictured three times, and one can't help but thinking that the city should have charged some developers and entrepreneurs a product-placement fee. "We figured there was no point in putting in images that everyone knew were bad," says project coordinator Meghan Wieters.

At the Yarborough workshop, the reps from Rosedale, Allandale, and environs -- all, as they often repeated, "established residential neighborhoods" -- seemed more interested in giving the city planners the what-for about this Smart Growth nonsense than in actually participating. But going through the visioning process seemed to influence even such hardened perspectives. After kvetching about the triviality of "aesthetic" considerations that formed the stuff of the workshop, at the end, all expressed their distaste for the Gables at Central Park -- an animus born, as they acknowledged, of aesthetics.

The next workshop will be tonight, Thursday, March 18, at 7pm in the Oak Hill Library, 5125 Convict Hill Rd. For details on additional upcoming workshops, visit the city's Web site at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us or call Wieters at 499-6386. The results of the series of surveys will be presented (along with the survey itself, one more time), at the city's big "Neighborhoods and Smart Growth" conference on April 17.

There will also be a presentation to the Planning Commission on March 23, followed by "discussion meetings" at Yarborough on March 29 and at Twin Oaks Branch Library on March 30, about "Smart Growth strategies scheduled for City Council action in April." -- M.C.M.


Bradley Does Austin

Bill Bradley reportedly once lamented that if he were ever elected to the highest office in the land, he would be introduced as "a member of the two-time world champion New York Knicks and currently the President of the United States." But truth be told, that's an introduction the former U.S. senator from the great state of New Jersey would love to have. Bradley -- author, basketball star, scholar, statesman, and star of ESPN commercials -- bravely marched into enemy territory last week to stump for campaign funds (he raised about $100,000 at the Sheraton the night before), and meet with the family of James Byrd Jr. and Texas reporters.

Towering over a fold-away podium in a Congress Avenue law office's sitting room, Bradley met with a somewhat skeptical state press corps Friday and talked about a few of his favorite topics: civil rights, the NCAA Division I tourney, and of course, his presidential aspirations. Bradley faces an uphill battle against VP Al Gore for the Democratic nomination, but predictably, it was the rep of possible Republican candidate Gov. George W. Bush that Bradley had to contend with Friday. Bradley was asked about Bush's chances in the GOP primary, about the Democratic Party's chances in a Bush-loving Texas, and about who he'd rather meet in the general election: Bush or Elizabeth Dole. But Bradley downplayed the Bush buzz, saying he thinks Texas voters will choose the best candidate regardless of party politics, and that the GOP has several strong candidates in addition to the guv (he proceeded to list dang near every one who has thus far pondered entering the race). "I'm not in the business of handicapping the Republican primary," he added, with a grin. "I have one of my own to contend with."

As he wrapped up the little get-together, the conversation turned to college hoops. Bradley voiced his support for #2 seed Stanford to emerge the champ in the NCAA tournament (his alma mater Princeton didn't make the Big Dance this year). While his pick lost the next night, perhaps Bradley can find some symbolism in who knocked them off: underdog Gonzaga University of Washington. Go Bulldogs.-- L.T.

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