Enrollment Stalling, IDEA Gets Magnetic

IDEA begins recruiting districtwide, magnet-style

Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis
Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis (Photo by John Anderson)

Last fall, when the Austin Independent School District first proposed handing campuses over to IDEA Public Schools, it was sold to parents and trustees as a way to save the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team. Now the district argues that the IDEA Allan campus is a new tool for dealing with overcrowding, and teachers are becoming increasingly concerned that Allan will become another magnet – recruiting the best students away from their campuses.

On March 19, fifth-grade students at Pickle Elementary were summoned to what was in essence an early-morning sales pitch by IDEA staff for its new in-district charter. Education Austin has called the event an "assembly," but in an email, IDEA Senior Communications Manager Vanessa Barry said that term "is incorrect. They are fifth grade student presentations." Whatever it might be called, the gathering raised more than a few eyebrows – especially since Pickle is a feeder elementary for Reagan, not Eastside. It now turns out this was one of 12 such student gatherings conducted so far. They've taken place in elementaries in the Akins, Lanier, LBJ, McCallum, Reagan, and Travis vertical teams, and IDEA has plans for up to four more. Barry explained, "The goal for the presentations is to educate students on their options for the upcoming school year and answer any questions students may have."

In the 2012-13 school year, IDEA Allan will hold first, second, and sixth graders. Families within the Allan attendance zone who do not want their children to attend the charter school had until March 9 to opt out. After that, IDEA was allowed to recruit from across the district. AISD Chief Academic Officer Ramona Trevino said that IDEA Allan is simply acting like any of the district's magnet middle schools – Kealing, Fulmore, the Liberal Arts & Science Acad­emy – and the Ann Richards School. As schools of choice, they get to hold recruitment events at other AISD campuses. She said, "When the board approved the in-district charter, it went into that bucket of academic options."

However, when IDEA initially made its pitch to AISD – explaining why it should be given the complete Eastside Memorial Ver­tic­al Team – the charter group said its model only works by being geographically based. Now its enrollment numbers are looking shaky, and it's relying on districtwide recruitment. Education Austin co-President Ken Zarifis was unimpressed by this policy switch: "They want to compare [IDEA] to Kealing, they want to compare it to LASA, so you're saying 'It's a magnet.' It's not a magnet – it's a neighborhood school that can't make up its numbers."

IDEA is not planning to hit all 80 AISD elementaries in this year's sales pitch; it's visiting only a short list handpicked by Trevino and AISD Chief Schools Officer Paul Cruz. The criteria is an unexpected one – overcrowding. For example, Pickle has permanent capacity to hold only 617 students, but had 740 enrolled at the start of the 2012 academic year. Zarifis questioned that logic. Calling the additional transportation issues (Allan is several miles southeast of Pickle) impractical, he said, "To reach out that far just seems like a desperation measure on their part, because the Eastside community has said, 'We don't want you.'"

The timing of the Pickle meeting is also problematic. Under the timeline set out by the district, IDEA could not start taking applications from outside the Eastside Memorial vertical team until after March 30 – well after these pitch meetings started. AISD board President Mark Williams said he was not surprised that IDEA was having recruitment problems, especially among the youngest students. "People generally feel that their elementary schools are pretty good," he said. The closer kids get to high school, the more likely their parents are to transfer them to a charter program: "The transition of fifth grade to sixth grade is where you see people start to make that choice."

But the situation raises the old question: Why did the district bring IDEA to Austin in the first place? The original proposal was to create the latest and hopefully most definitive restructuring of Eastside Memorial. After a seemingly never-ending series of reforms and staff overhauls and repurposings inflicted by the Texas Education Agency and AISD, IDEA was supposed to be the final format for the Allan campus. Then it became the entire Eastside Memorial Ver­tical Team, from pre-K through 12th grade. IDEA pushed hard for a vertical team takeover, arguing that it needed a geographic base to make this project work. However, Pickle belongs to the Reagan Vertical Team, not Eastside. It is also one of East Austin's better-performing elementaries, achieving "recognized" status under the state accountability rules for the last two years. Zarifis said he was deeply concerned that the charter may be trying to skim the best students from perfectly good campuses. "The district says that IDEA is part of the family now," he says. "I don't know if it's a drunk uncle that's moved in, because they're not playing by the same rules."

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