Public and Trustees Blast AISD 'Repurposing' Plan

Speed and lack of public input criticized in hearings

What do the quotations "Absolutely flabbergasted that no dialogue was established," "Planning was not done right," and, "Giving lip service about valuing the community" have in common? No, they're not the latest commentary from about the war in Iraq. They're what critics had to say at Monday's AISD board meeting about Superintendent Pat Forgione's plan to "repurpose" three schools and a professional development academy into early childhood centers and two new "concept" high schools.

Under Forgione's plan, the underutilized Becker Elementary would this fall become a center for 3- and 4-year-olds; elementary students would be redistributed to nearby Dawson and Travis Heights. The repurposing of Oak Springs Elementary and Porter Middle School would come the following year. While a dozen AISD schools are operating below 70% capacity, Becker, at just 41%, was targeted because of its low student ratio, proximity to other similarly populated schools, and what the district sees as slim chances for growth within the next five years.

Becker neighbors, who see Bouldin Creek a-hoppin' with strollers, beg to differ. Some 250 parents turned out for an emotional forum on the campus last week, and a couple dozen showed up at Monday's meeting to reiterate their dismay over AISD's failure to seek feedback before developing the plan. "Two minutes at a board meeting does not substitute for an active participation in this decision," said Lorie Barzano, co-chair of the Becker Campus Advisory Council and parent of a third-grader.

Forgione defended his strategy by inviting Mary Jane Gomez from Houston ISD to speak about their successes in implementing four early childhood centers. Gomez said the centers were wildly popular, with parents driving in from all over town to drop their toddlers off at the brand-new centers. "Build it, and they will come," she said. As trustee Mark Williams pointed out, however, the HISD centers were opened under vastly different parameters: HISD built new buildings with bond money rather than repurposing old ones, they filled the centers with students from a 2,000-student pre-K waiting list, and they offered open enrollment to students across town. Still, the basic argument for dedicated early childhood centers remained: Pre-K teachers could better focus on preparing their low-income charges than they can in elementary schools, where the emphasis tends to settle on older students who have entered the cycle of annual TAKS testing.

All that sounded dandy to the trustees, who praised most heartily the concept of early childhood centers. They were significantly less enthusiastic, however, about how Forgione intended to create them – on a warp-speed repurposing schedule – and the way the plan seemed to have emerged Athena-like from Forgione's skull and leapt jauntily onto the pages of the Statesman without anyone bothering to ask the community for input. Rudy Montoya echoed an earlier speaker's view that Becker's proposed transformation "does feel very fast," John Fitzpatrick commented on how "markedly absent" the planning commission's dealings with the affected schools has been up to this point, while Cheryl Bradley took the colorful metaphor route: "Right now I feel like the mortician preparing these people for the burial of a community," she said. Despite such concerns, the trustees' support for the early childhood centers, and a general consensus that the pattern of Central Austin underenrollment is financially unsustainable, suggests that the ongoing debate will be about when and how – not whether – schools will be repurposed.

The next public forums will be at Porter Middle School and Oak Springs Elementary on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, respectively.

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education, Austin ISD, Becker Elementary, Repurposing, Pat Forgione, Cheryl Bradley, Rudy Montoya, Mary Jane Gomez, Lorie Barzano

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