Family Flight

Is AISD abandoning its shrinking schools?

A packed forum of Becker parents, teachers, and neighbors
A packed forum of Becker parents, teachers, and neighbors (Photo By John Anderson)

Becker Elementary is a place full of history, obvious in the art-deco detailing on the building's brick facade. The first Becker Bobcats started learning their 'rithmetic in 1936; the grandparents of many current students themselves walked to Becker beneath the oaks of Bouldin Creek. Becker is full of memories and stories: The gym was built atop a cemetery, so some say a ghost named Constance roams its halls. If so, she passes colorful murals – birds and giraffes, astronauts and football, the requisite Tyrannosaurus rex – all painted and carefully signed by Bobcats past.

Becker's 70 years of elementary school history may come to an end this year. For while the school is full of history, it's not full of students. With less than 250 children on a campus built for 550, it's the second most underenrolled elementary in AISD. Invoking the gods of Fiscal Prudence and Efficiency, Superintendent Pat Forgione has proposed transforming Becker into an early childhood center, a cutting-edge model of special education inclusion designed to get 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities on grade level by kindergarten. Becker's kindergarteners through fifth-graders would move to nearby Travis Heights and Dawson elementaries, which are themselves three-fourths full. Those changes are only part of a larger plan to "repurpose" four facilities: Oak Springs Elementary and the Lucy Read school, now used as a professional development academy, would also become pre-K centers; Porter Middle would house two small "concept" high schools. Because Becker has had the first public debate and would be the first to go – possibly closing this fall – it has become the center of the controversy. (Its location in the politically powerful 78704 ZIP code doesn't hurt either.)

AISD says the repurposing plan is a way to make more out of less in a brutal state school-finance environment. Under Texas' redistributive system disdainfully known as Robin Hood, AISD's revenue is flat, even as teachers need raises, utility costs increase, and a growing population of low-income and immigrant students require extra services like tutoring. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't want to bring new things into the district that best practices say are good for all children," Forgione told the Becker community at a public forum.

Becker's neighbors, however, see abandonment, disrespect, and penny-pinching tunnel vision. "Becker is not just a school, it's a family," parent and alumna Marie Dominguez told AISD representatives at the same forum. "You need to bring more kids into this school, and let's build it up again into a blue-ribbon, number-one school like we had it."

It's not a bad idea, bringing in more kids – if, that is, you can find them. Even as students keep spilling out of the cul-de-sacs and into crowded exurban schools, enrollment all over the center city is flat or declining. AISD has long been intimating that this imbalance can't continue unchecked forever. The question is whether repurposing is the only – or best – way to correct it.

Smaller Is Better?

When school lets out at Becker Elementary, West Milton Street fills with parents who collect youngsters, exchange greetings, and (this week) complain about the repurposing plan. Standing at the curb, Demetria Batts, a mid-30s African-American woman in a sparkly blouse and a bouncy strawberry ponytail, chatted with Bea Diaz, who sat behind the wheel of her stately blue Dodge waiting for her granddaughter. Both were outraged. "I don't think they're being considerate of our feelings," said Batts. "I think they already had their plans set and just brought it to us at the last minute."

Diaz, a Becker alumna herself, said the plan is particularly painful for her. "This is the third generation and now they're going to close it," she said. "It's not right."

The parents' concerns are more than mere sentiment. Nearby, Veronica Arteaga herded her three Bobcats to her truck. She's a resident of Meadowbrook public housing projects, and says many of her carless neighbors are worried. Some Meadowbrook residents have asked in the past for a bus to Becker so their children don't have to walk the half-mile to school. But those parents know they can always walk to Becker in case of an emergency, which would be more difficult if their students were bused to Dawson (1.2 miles) or Travis Heights (1.7 miles). The extra distance also discourages parental involvement. Arteaga, for example, eats breakfast at the school with her boys each day when she drops them off, which she says makes her feel more connected to their education.

"If they move him way out to Travis Heights, I'm not going to be able to do that," she said. "I'm not going to drive him over there. Gas is really expensive these days."

These were the sorts of comments elicited in a packed forum the week before, when some 250 parents jammed into the brown-bricked Becker gym. The line of speakers stretched down the entire length of the gym, questioning the need for a pre-K center when Becker already has a fine early childhood program, and praising Becker's location, small size, and familylike environment.

Unfortunately, the latter is also the problem. As of January, Becker had only 226 K-5 students in a school built for 550, or 30-odd students in each grade. Those small classes are great for students, but bad for budgets. The fourth grade, for example, has 23 students: one more than the legal limit of 22 elementary students per teacher in force for most of AISD's 44,000 elementary students. As a result, Becker has two fourth-grade teachers, serving 10 and 13 students each. Principal David Kauffman refers to this as one of the "joys" of the school, and recognizes that the Becker students, about half of whom come from the Meadowbrook, deserve small classes as much as anyone. Still, his joy is not untroubled. "Are we somehow benefiting at the expense of other kids who are equally deserving?" he asks, looking genuinely perplexed. "I want to fight for this community. I want to fight for what they need. But we also need to understand it's happening in the context of a district that's trying to meet the needs of all kids."

By rolling Becker students into other schools, AISD can move its principal, librarian, and many teachers to the new elementary school slated to open in far southeast Austin this fall. (Forgione speaks of moving the Becker team en masse southeast, but has not yet taken a head count of how many really want to move that far.) Porter's and Oak Springs' staff would also be moved to new northeast schools the following year. All told, the shuffling could save some $1.75 million.

Because the proposed pre-K center will still need teachers, utilities, custodians, and so on, the "savings" aren't quite as dramatic as they seem in Forgione's enthusiastic oratories. (Forgione did not have exact numbers – or even estimates – of what the new pre-K programs would cost when he unveiled the proposal.) Still, they're there. When AISD predicts its $548 million budget can only grow by $20 million through 2008-09 – enough for maybe a 5% raise for teachers who went raiseless last year, but that's about it – it's hard to justify leaving any potential savings on the table.

Starting a Movement

This should be troubling algebra in much of Austin. A dozen elementaries are below 70% capacity (the district's cutoff for "underenrollment") and about 20 more are below 90%. The most pronounced pocket is in central East Austin, but it also strikes older suburbs, like the Sunset Valley area. Many of those that remain full, such as Zilker, do so only by sucking transfers from other schools, in sort of a voluntary, market-driven version of the efficiency Forgione hopes to achieve.

Although students of all races take advantage of the open-transfer policy, the overall pattern undermines diversity – the vast majority of Austin's white and middle-class students are congregated in majority-white schools with few poor students, leaving all-minority schools behind. Becker exemplifies the trend: In a census tract that's 60% white and increasingly tony, Becker is 95% black and brown, and 90% poor. About 20% of the students in the Becker attendance zone attend other AISD schools. (It bears noting that 32 Becker students are also transfers from other neighborhoods.) As long as white and middle-class parents remain reluctant to send their kids to majority-minority and majority-poor schools, the Anglificationa and gentrification of previously poor and minority neighborhoods is likely to drain neighborhood schools.

Only a single comment supported the proposed repurposing plan defended by AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione
Only a single comment supported the proposed repurposing plan defended by AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione (Photo By John Anderson)

A few schools, however, have maintained both significant diversity and middle-class buy-in – Maplewood and Travis Heights are two – and have become the stuff of legend for idealistic parents who value diversity and want to create "another Travis Heights" down the street. The irony of the Becker proposal is that it comes at a time when the beginnings of just such a movement is afoot. Inside Becker, Kauffman had been working with neighborhood parents to develop enticing new arts and environmental programs; in the neighborhood, new mother Shay Roalson was scheming with a neighbor about ways to get their neighbors to invest, via their children, in Becker. "We ended by saying, 'We need to form a coalition! We need to start a movement! We need a snappy name!'" Roalson said.

Hunting down the 40 wayward Bobcats in Bouldin Creek would no doubt enrich the school and the neighborhood. What it wouldn't do is fill Becker's halls. The answer, in a nutshell, is more babies, but it remains to be seen whether the neighborhood can deliver them.

Babies by the Numbers

Drive east on William Cannon, and eventually you get to a place where the subdivisions give way to pastures; where cattle still plod, and where a red-tailed hawk might float overhead. Just before the city stops is a subdivision called McKinney Heights, where homes of up to 2,000 square feet remain available "from the 120s!" Just up the road is Palm Elementary. This, and places like this, is where the children are.

At 152% of capacity and just under 1,000 students, Palm is the most overcrowded school in AISD. Built in 1986, its slanted blue roof bakes beside trees not yet full enough to do much good. Behind the school is a shaded playscape in Crayola colors, and arranged in a half-moon around it are the portables: 26 classrooms, accommodating more than 300 students.

One in four students districtwide studies in a portable, so AISD officials are typically quick to point out that plenty of quality learning goes on in the ubiquitous beige blocks. The crowding, however, does have an impact: There's less room to display student projects, children work at tables literally overflowing with their books and papers, and many activities that require movement must be done in the "pods," Palm's euphemistic term for the hallways. Lunch shifts begin around 10 and end after 1. All do their best, but the situation is far from ideal and certainly not equitable. "We're graded the way smaller schools are graded and that's not quite fair," said Palm teacher Nancy Tabatabai. "We're stretched really thin."

The situation will improve when the new southeast elementary school – the proposed destination for Becker's staff – opens this fall, but even then Palm will remain a big, full school with the kind of crowding found everywhere land is cheap and houses are enormous. It's a trend that started when everybody and his condo-flippin' granny went apeshit for real estate, and it plagues cities nationwide, especially those cultural meccas that attract child-free kids of all ages.

Forget white flight: Now, the trend is family flight, leaving central cities increasingly to singles, child-free couples, and empty-nesters. According to the latest census data, the average household size in 78704 is 2.04, while in southeast Austin the average household size is a more Cleaver-like 3.35. (And those numbers are from 2000, before the market went totally to Venus.) The issue is not only cost, but space as well – the charm of tiny, historic cottages wears off as the kids get waist-high, such that many children born in Austin move elsewhere by kindergarten: The 6,850 kindergarteners enrolled in AISD in 2004, for example, were what remained of more than 10,000 babies born in town five years before.

Thus, the same single-family homes that kept central Austin schools full a generation ago are now coming up short. Blame the singles and the child-free. Blame small modern families, and their taste for big houses. The causes are many, but the end result is half-empty schools.

Could Bouldin – and other neighborhoods – reverse the trend? Maybe. Thanks to infill, a city density survey shows Bouldin Creek adding some 150 housing units in the last five years. Just up the street from Becker, for example, a tall, angular glass-and-concrete dwelling stands out among the neighborhood's traditional cottages like a transporter for beaming Scandinavian spacemen to Marfa. It's from homes like these that Bouldin Creek promises to breathe new life into Becker; many residents say a baby boom is already under way. Six years out from the last census, city demographer Ryan Robinson won't say they're wrong. "It would go against the overall trend," he said. "But there may be something to it. I just don't know."

Still, AISD demographer Dennis Harner doesn't see much to suggest they're right: The 626 births in 78704 in 2003 are fewer than the 678 in 1990. (In 78702, central East Austin, the decline is even steeper: 578 to 423, or 26%.) Maybe a baby boom did begin abruptly in 2004, or maybe one is just around the corner. But when schools are shrinking throughout the city and AISD has outlying students to serve today, the question is how long the district can (or should) wait to see who's right.

Weighed in the Balance

At the most recent Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 23, the general sentiment was that AISD can wait a little longer. While the trustees were enthusiastic about the idea of pre-K centers, they questioned whether "Becker" and "immediately" were the right answers to "where" and "when" the first should be launched. Instead, some suggested the district postpone the Becker decision for a more thorough engagement with the community, and focus instead on the plan to move the pre-K programs from the overcrowded Cook, McBee, Walnut Creek, and Wooldridge elementaries into Lucy Read, which isn't currently used as a school. This plan would allow AISD to pilot the pre-K center without closing anyone's school, and to relieve overcrowding to boot.

The trustees may have had concerns with the rapid pace proposed for the plan. They may have been irate over the way it was announced without first engaging with leaders from affected campuses and neighborhoods. However, they also seemed resigned to the fact that chronic underenrollment can't be avoided forever. Easy solutions remain elusive: Many suggestions from the Becker community, such as expanding Becker's boundaries or busing in students from nearby overcrowded schools, merely shift the disruption and upheaval community members fear onto someone else's kids.

Still, an extra year would give the Becker community a chance to count its children and recruit would-be Bobcats. In fact, the fuss could be good for the community's efforts, as parents considering sleeping outside AISD headquarters on Feb. 3 to be first in line for a transfer may see, in the passionate support for Becker, strengths that don't show up in test scores. (On the other hand, a perception that the school is doomed may only hasten their flight.) Parent Gordon Leff, who enrolled his kids in the Austin Jewish Academy in part because of Becker's negative reputation among his neighbors and in part because he thought "a little dose of Judaism would be good for them," said the fight for Becker has given him a lot to think about. "What I saw [at the public forum] were parents who are absolutely as committed to their children's education as the parents I deal with who pay a large sum of money to send their kids to school," Leff said. "I was very impressed with the parents I saw last night. I would like to be associated with that group of parents."

Becker parents aren't the only ones who should be thinking about these issues. Throughout the city, parents accustomed to thinking of "competition" as the way you get Junior into that trendy elementary now have another definition to add to their thesaurus: schools competing to attract enough students to stay open.

In the end, the district's debate over school closings – either the currently proposed schools or others, either now or down the road – has implications that extend far beyond the neighborhoods that stand to lose schools. Because school locations influence urban growth, many have called on AISD to help Austin achieve Envision Central Texas goals of denser cities by keeping central schools open. However, as Becker alumnus and City Council Member Lee Leffingwell points out, the effort requires balance. "Recognizing that AISD has very severe financial constraints, I do believe AISD has a responsibility to help achieve overall community goals such as [ECT]," he said. "I hope we can find a way – that's mutually satisfactory to neighborhood and the overall community goals – that doesn't impair AISD's ability to deliver a good education."

Part of that balance is recognizing that AISD can help attract families to the urban core, but it can't do it alone. For one thing, those families need places to live. Assuming we're not about to force all the singles and the child-free to move to Circle C, that means more houses. So, it's ironic that some of the same groups citing Envision Central Texas as one of the moral imperatives for AISD's keeping schools open are often at the forefront of opposing density. South Austin neighborhood groups, for example, have fought condo projects in the area, even those on existing commercial corridors. (Granted, condos aren't exactly prime baby habitat, but it seems at least worth the gamble that they'll reduce competition for more stroller-friendly stock.)

If Austin is to achieve ECT, then, keeping neighborhood schools open is only part of the equation. The two processes feed each other, as greater density fuels the schools, and beloved schools like Becker give parents a reason to stay. end story

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AISDBecker Elementary, Austin ISD, Pat Forgione, Marie Dominguez, Shay Roalson, Lee Leffingwell, David Kauffman, Ryan Robinson, Dennis Harner, Gordon Leff, Nancy Tabatabai, Palm Elementary, Becker Elementary, Bouldin Creek, shrinking schools, Veronica Arteaga, Bea Diaz

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