Farewell to Allan
Eastside parents watch AISD and IDEA dismantle their neighborhood school
From Shady Lane, it looked like any elementary school festival. Children played in a bouncy castle or lined up for the choo-choo train making loops around the campus. Parents and teachers hugged and handed out free ices, waiting patiently in line for the cheerful clown tying balloon animals. But if you walked around to the front of Allan Elementary on Gonzales Street, you would see the school sign, telling you that this was the "Allan Elementary Farewell Festival." Teachers and parents had gathered on May 19 for one last hurrah. On June 1, their neighborhood school will be taken away from them and handed over to IDEA Public Schools. Next year, the same thing will happen to Eastside Memorial High School, as IDEA starts to build a pre-K-12 in-district charter that they claim will permanently change East Austin schools.
Denise Richey sat on a blanket under a tree. Her infant daughter sat by her, happily unpeeling a banana. A gold heart was painted on the little girl's face – gold and green, the Allan colors. Richey has invested the last seven years of her life as Allan's librarian; prior to that, she spent five years at Govalle. "My entire tenure with AISD has been on the Eastside," she said. "The only time I took a leave of absence was to pay to go to grad school, to further my own education so I could be one of what they called a 'highly qualified educator.'" Even though she lives in the Brentwood attendance zone, she decided to transfer her daughter to Allan because she believed in the school. Now she and her colleagues, some of whom have been loyal employees of AISD and Allan for two decades or more, are being shoved aside and must watch as the community they helped build is vaporized to make way for IDEA. "It doesn't seem fair," she said.
For the Allan community, IDEA Allan isn't a school, or an option, or part of a portfolio of educational choices. It's a pipe bomb, rolled into the heart of their neighborhood. Instead of binding them together, it has created a new diaspora. On March 9, AISD announced that, out of the 166 students living within the Allan Elementary attendance zone, only 67 had chosen to attend IDEA Allan in the fall. The rest have scattered to the winds: 49 to Govalle, 36 to Ortega, and 14 to other campuses across the district. The consensus is plain: AISD has betrayed them, betrayed everything they have worked for, and handed their beloved neighborhood school to a charter school organization with a rocky history and no experience in East Austin whatsoever. For Richey, there's only one word for how the community feels: "blindsided." She continued, "The district threw us under the bus. It was like, 'You have failed, as a professional and as a community, to provide for these students. You're out, and we're going with complete strangers.'"
And that raises the big question: Exactly what is AISD getting with IDEA Allan?
Boot Up, Books Down
What it's not getting is a regular elementary school. Of course, that's supposed to be the point, that IDEA will change the game in East Austin. But parents are finding out exactly how different it will be. First off, instead of a pre-K-5 elementary, next school year will see three different units at Allan. IDEA will run K-2 under the name IDEA Academy, while the rising fifth grade cohort enters IDEA's sixth grade College Prep. Meanwhile, AISD will run a pre-K unit, but details of exactly how that unit will cohabit with IDEA are scarce or non-existent. The IDEA kids will be easy to recognize, since the charter operator requires all students to wear grade-specific, color-coded uniforms.
And then there's what's happening inside the classroom. Instead of a traditional teacher-student system used in most AISD classrooms, IDEA has adopted a computer-dependent "direct instruction" model. IDEA Chief Growth Officer Matt Randazzo compared the Better IDEA system to other computer adaptive education and testing like the GRE or GMAT: The software, through a mix of easy and harder questions, discerns the achievement level of individual children. That way, he said, IDEA has built an "instructional program that focuses on really differentiated instruction, meeting a student at their individual skill level."
IDEA only recently adopted direct instruction, introducing it into its schools in the Valley last year. IDEA Academy Principal Angie Arismendi, who will look after the K-2 students, said they're working with the National Institute for Direct Instruction to ensure a smooth rollout in Austin. She said, "The lessons that we've learned are centered more around communication – communicating more with families, more with our partners – to help families understand how we're servicing children and how that looks a little different to what families are used to." But there's a bigger question for AISD than just how the program is sold to parents. The whole argument for getting IDEA to run the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team was that it reported seemingly stellar results in closing achievement gaps and getting students into college. Now not only have those results been tested and found lacking by outside researchers (see "Uncontrolled Experiments," Dec. 9, 2011), but they were achieved under a different and much more traditional instructional model than what IDEA is bringing to Allan.
Then there's the question of who will be running the classrooms. Unlike AISD staff, who operate under one-year contracts, all IDEA employees are at-will staff – something AISD Board President Mark Williams was unaware of until the Chronicle informed him of IDEA's employment policies last November. That makes IDEA Allan a union-free enclave – one where staff can be fired without notice or reason – within a district that has a formal consultation agreement in place with Education Austin.
The list of unsettled variables is long, with details still scarce on key issues like special education and bilingual provisions. IDEA has promised that there will be fine arts instruction – but it will not be hiring a fine arts teacher. On publicity fliers, the group simply says that "athletics and other enrichment activities are available" but it will not be providing them. Instead, it will come through AISD but, like so many parts of this deal, it remains unclear what will be offered. Randazzo said, "We've had some great teachers from Eastside Memorial say, 'Hey, we'd love to tutor your students at Allan this first year, so we'll have an opportunity to get to know the kids we're going to be serving." However, what he called "a robust discussion" has concentrated on afterschool programs and the volunteer spirit of teachers at regular AISD campuses.
The change in curriculum means structural changes must be made before the hand-over. "The facility is in pretty good shape," said AISD Director of Construction Management Curt Shaw, but there are still two major projects to be undertaken. First, two of the largest classrooms will be converted into computer rooms for direct instruction. Next, the freestanding classroom wing currently housing the family resource center will be renovated to become a pre-K center. AISD will run that in 2012, Shaw said, "but in future years, if everything moves according to plan, IDEA will take over administration of the pre-K program."
Shaw's staff has also helped clear out the Allan library: All of its books have been boxed up and marked for distribution to other elementaries, and its freestanding shelves have been shipped out. IDEA does not need them, because it doesn't plan to have a traditional library. If the board was unaware of this, they were informed in no uncertain terms by Eastside Memorial parent Toni Rayner, who blasted them with an email. "The rest of AISD has just began a year of celebrating '100 Years of AISD Libraries and Librarians,'" she wrote, "and you okayed a 'New' campus with no library?!?"