Repurposing Ain't Pretty
Parents lay into AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione
Whatever one may think of Austin ISD Superintendent Pat Forgione, it's hard not to be a little awed by his ability to take an insult. At a pair of forums last week to discuss plans to "repurpose" three underenrolled schools, dozens of parents called the superintendent everything from greedy to heartless to downright racist. Throughout it all Forgione nodded and took notes, his head cocked and eyebrows arched as if he were listening to nothing more disturbing than fourth-graders interpreting Christmas carols. With all the nodding and concerned brow-furrowing, he appeared the embodiment of engaged, active listening; but despite the overwhelmingly negative response to his plan, he made clear at each forum he remains convinced it's the best way to get the most learning out of AISD's scarce dollars.
At the two forums, Tuesday at Porter Middle School and Wednesday at Oak Springs Elementary, Forgione made the same pitch as he did in January at Becker Elementary: The three schools are among the most underenrolled in Austin, and half-full schools cost the district in staff and utility costs. By transforming Becker and Oak Springs into dedicated pre-K centers and launching in Porter a pair of new "concept" high schools, Forgione said, the neighborhoods wouldn't be losing schools as much as they would be gaining the district's newest educational opportunities. "It's not trying to close Porter," he told the crowd of about 120 on Tuesday. "It's not trying to save money. It's trying to be efficient so we can do new things."
The distinction was lost on many parents, who praised their schools and criticized Forgione for not seeking their input sooner. At Porter, some questioned the proposed concept schools: a young women's academy serving sixth through 12th graders and an international school that emphasizes Asian languages. AISD promises that its high school redesign process, currently under way in every high school in town, will bring similar academies to every school in the district Akins students will soon have a high tech academy, for example, and one school is considering a young men's academy. However, these two ideas are proposed by outside institutions willing to give start-up grants to get them off the ground: $250,000 from the Asia Society for the international school, and $1 million from a Dallas philanthropist for the Young Women's Leadership Academy. This outside involvement bothered parent Irma Flores-Manges. "We're bowing to money," she said. "The Asian community is willing to give you $250,000, and they have money. The people being displaced are black and Hispanic kids, and we don't have money."
At least one attendee, however, thought that Porter has struggled long enough, and considered it an act of mercy to put the school out of its misery to make room for something better. "Parents and students are choosing more and more creative ways to get their students out of Porter and into other schools," Chris Thomasson said. He urged AISD to close Porter even sooner than the proposed target of Fall 2007. "It seems to me the best thing to do would be to move these students as quickly as possible into a better atmosphere. The atmosphere at Porter, in my opinion, has gone from bad to worse."
From bad to worse is a good way to describe what happened the following night, when Forgione traveled into central East Austin to hear from parents at Oak Springs, a predominantly African-American school across from the Booker T. Washington housing projects. Forgione argued that the dedicated pre-K center would get more neighborhood kids into early childhood programs that help ensure future academic success, but attendees were unconvinced that the plan would help AISD correct a history of failing minority students. The AISD trustees will decide by the end of February whether to move forward with Forgione's plan. at a pair of forums to discuss plans to 'repurpose' three underenrolled schools