News briefs from Austin, the region, and beyond
AISD Plans Dual-Language Program
After years of calls from parents and community groups to take bilingualism more seriously, Austin Independent School District will launch its first dual-language program this fall. Around 200 students, both native English speakers and English-language learners, will join a pilot program across four elementary campuses: Ridgetop in the central AISD Trustee District 5, held by board president Mark Williams; Perez in trustee Sam Guzman's southeastern District 2; Becker in Lori Moya's south-central District 6; and Wooten in the northern District 3, held by Christine Brister. Martha Garcia, AISD's director of bilingual education, explained, "What we want to do is create children who are bilingual and biliterate." Both Becker and Ridgetop will be accepting additional students for the program and will accept transfer applications beginning Feb. 6. The program will cost an estimated $150,000 per campus, including the hiring of a new director of dual-language services. Five other campuses – Blanton, Brentwood, Oak Hill, Odom, and Travis Heights – applied and will be considered for the second year of the project. "Elementary school is where you want to start," said Williams, "so it grows with the kids, and then you scale it wider as we become more effective." – Richard Whittaker
Council Considers Fire/Police Staffing Issues
Public safety issues simmered throughout Jan. 14's Austin City Council meeting, with items affecting police and firefighter staffing. Council approved creating a 20th commander position for Lt. Wayne Demoss, who was previously passed over for promotion by Police Chief Art Acevedo following allegations he had visited a Panamanian brothel while on vacation. Acevedo appointed another candidate to the position before a hearing examiner ruled Acevedo had improperly withheld the promotion, necessitating the additional commander position. Additionally, council directed the city manager to apply for a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. Four-person staffing on fire trucks is an industry safety standard, albeit one the fire department has struggled to meet in lean budget years. The SAFER grant application, due Jan. 15, was made "with the goal of securing the requisite funds to achieve full four person staffing once grant monies are accepted," according to the council resolution. The grant must now be federally approved and then accepted by the city; if the city does accept funds, they come with stipulations, including forgoing any layoffs. Ultimately, the grant is expected to result in 25 additional hires. – W.D.
When Push Comes to Poll
Republicans are touting a poll stating that, in a match-up for the Texas Governor's Mansion, either Rick Perry or Kay Bailey Hutchison would beat leading Dem contender Bill White. The Jan. 17 automated phone poll of 1,000 likely voters by Rasmussen Reports gives Perry a 10-point lead over White (50% to 40%) and stretches to 15 points for Hutchison's lead over White (52% to 37%). The main focus of the poll, said Rasmussen president and pollster Scott Rasmussen, "was about the Republican primary race" – that's why third-place GOPer Debra Medina was included, while Democrat Farouk Shami was not. Rasmussen has often been accused by watchdog groups like Media Matters for America of push-polling with leading questions. For example, 45% of respondents in this latest survey backed Perry's decision to not apply for federal Race to the Top education grants after the question cited his "concern about education guidelines from the federal government as a result of accepting the grant." Defending his methodology, Rasmussen said, "For the most part, it's people that don't like a particular question. More generally, they just don't pay attention to the details or they don't like the message that comes out of it." – R.W.
Homeless Count Needs You
An annual effort to count the homeless in Austin and Travis County is in need of volunteers. Conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a consortium of social service agencies and local governments, an accurate count is important to procuring federal Housing and Urban Development funds, which go toward low-income housing and other important services for the homeless. The count, which must be completed in one day, groups volunteers into teams "to survey streets, parks, campsites, bridges, underpasses, and other public spaces," says City Council Member Laura Morrison. The project takes place Thursday, Jan. 28, 4-10pm, and at press time ECHO was still short of the 300 volunteers needed. To learn more and sign up, visit www.traviscountyhomelesscount.org. – Wells Dunbar
Accolades for 'Austin Chronicle' Reporters
Jordan Smith and Richard Whittaker have once again brought honor to the Chronicle for their reporting and writing for the News department. Smith is the recipient of the 2010 John Jay Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting (single-story category) for "Imaginary Fiends: Believing the Children," her reinvestigation of the Fran's Day Care child abuse prosecution, published in the March 27, 2009 issue. And Whittaker is the recipient of the Silver Apple Media Award (print category) by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association for his series last summer and fall reporting on the state-ordered closing or "repurposing" of Pearce Middle School.
The John Jay Prize – sometimes called the Pulitzer for criminal justice journalism – is in its fifth year and is awarded by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice within the City University of New York. Past winners have included The Wall Street Journal, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, and the San Jose Mercury News. It's a double win for Smith, as she had previously been selected as one of the John Jay Center's 21 Reporting Fellows to attend the fifth annual H.F. Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, Feb. 1-2, where she will now also accept her John Jay Prize for Excellence. The conference brings together journalists, criminal justice practitioners, legislators, and academics from around the country; the fellows are selected based on their journalistic accomplishments and, more specifically, to support a story proposal for future publication. "Our annual awards represent the only formal national recognition of superior criminal justice reporting," said Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College. "This year's winners join our honor roll of journalists whose work has had a dramatic impact on their communities and the criminal justice system."
TCTA Silver Apple awards, presented since 1983, are judged according to how well the stories "promote understanding of teachers and education in Texas public schools" and are "informative, timely, objective, fair and accurate." TCTA will honor award winners in February in Fort Worth during the association's annual convention. – Michael King