Farewell to Allan
Eastside parents watch AISD and IDEA dismantle their neighborhood school
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At the farewell festival, Allan parent Dariela Dominguez was busy handing out free popcorn. "We've been very ill-informed," she said via a translator. "There's been lots of information really quickly, and the information to the parents has been very confusing." The hand-over has been ugly: The families and staff had until the beginning of June to take inventory, move everything out and get ready for a new school. There's no feeling that anyone at the district administration or at IDEA really cares that the Allan families are being forced to disassemble a community. "They're just saying, 'All right, leave,'" said Dominguez.
The dismantling of Allan has been particularly traumatic for the children. Dominguez said: "They don't understand what's happening, but the questions are starting to come from the kids. 'Why is there no library? Why are teachers packing stuff up?' They think the teachers are going to stay, so the parents are having to answer all these questions, and even the parents don't have all the answers."
She is typical of many bilingual parents in the community – her English is strong, but she still feels most comfortable replying in Spanish. She's worried that IDEA is only offering a bilingual conversion program, designed to move children primarily to speaking English. As far as she's concerned, the community wants and needs the kind of true dual language program that the district piloted last year. It's not just the Spanish-speaking students that are suffering, but their families as well: As the campus will be predominantly Anglophone, she said, "Spanish-speaking parents are going to feel less welcome."
This was always just supposed to be about Eastside High. But IDEA demanded a full K-12 system from AISD, arguing that it needed to intervene with underachieving kids at the beginning of their school careers. But if Allan is already an academically acceptable campus, why close it? "Exacto," said Dominguez. The parents are satisfied with this school, she said, and had worked hard to create a good campus. It may not be perfect, but it was theirs. She said, "Now IDEA gets to come in here and take the great parts of this school that we had."
Where there is clarity about new policy, often it has upset families. Traditionally, Allan parents have been allowed to have lunch with their kids – a small mercy for families where the parents may work multiple jobs or odd hours. They have been told in no uncertain terms that this freedom will end under IDEA, leaving parents to wonder how they are supposed to stay involved in the campus. That troubles Dominguez, but she's also worried about the lack of information about special education. She has a child in pre-K at Allan in the Preschool Program for Children With Disabilities, and with so few details about what IDEA will offer, she has already decided: Her child is going elsewhere.
With so many Allan parents leaving, IDEA has had to recruit students outside of the neighborhood. There's running frustration that AISD has done everything it can to ensure enrollment, changing the rules and the rhetoric when it pleases. It's not just about casting the net beyond the Allan and Eastside attendance zones, but about questionable tactics. There were great concerns that Allan parents would not understand that they had to opt out of IDEA Allan to remain at an AISD campus. As for rising fifth graders, they were given the option to transfer to Martin, but still had O. Henry as their diversity choice. Richey said, "This year on that fifth grade form it said, 'My child is going to Martin,' or 'My child is going to IDEA.' They did not even print the O. Henry option on the form." Parents who asked about their diversity option were simply told that they had to write in O. Henry themselves. Richey said, "If this is a program that the district is supporting and you've got all this buy-in from the up-aboves, why are you having to be so underhanded?"
Families felt bullied. School board members have heard from Allan parents who say they received multiple phone calls from IDEA staff about attending the school, even after they had submitted their opt-out or diversity choice forms. IDEA Senior Communications Manager Vanessa Barry put that down to a simple administrative issue, rather than any IDEA aggressiveness: IDEA did not have the list of which parents had opted out, so its staff was just reaching out to everyone in the attendance zone. She said: "It was more just an informational call, like 'have you heard of IDEA, do you have any questions about IDEA,' and throughout that process we did learn that some parents had submitted their opt-out letter, and we were like, 'OK, that's great, thanks for letting us know your decision, and we won't call you back.'"
Out at Third
Yet AISD administrators were aware of the unprecedented scale of the IDEA push. In a Feb. 20 email to district Public Relations and Multicultural Outreach Director Alex Sanchez, Chief Schools Officer Paul Cruz wrote, "We have already done more outreach than we have done for other school choice/enrollment options." Still, when IDEA finally closed applications, it was oversubscribed for the 2012-13 school year, and so had to have an admission lottery. Down in the Valley, IDEA holds public lotteries – a common event among charter schools, eager to promote themselves as the golden ticket out of "regular" public schools. Instead, the Allan lottery was computerized and took place on May 17 behind closed doors at AISD's Skyline Building. Why the change? According to Randazzo, that's how AISD carries out its lotteries. "We recognize that we're in a partnership," he said. "This is the policy that the Austin ISD board and leadership team has adopted, and we wanted to honor that process."
Vincent Tovar, spokesman for the advocacy group Pride of the Eastside, has a different theory for why there was no dramatic public lottery: Even with the massive PR push and districtwide recruitment, Tovar notes, IDEA Allan barely made its enrollment numbers. With 675 applicants for 600 seats, students had a nine in 10 chance of being accepted. The odds were even better in second grade, with 127 applicants for 125 seats. Tovar said, "You're going to fill up a gym and have two people left behind? Why don't you just flip a coin?"
A year ago, Tovar was just a regular parent with kids at Govalle. Now he's helping mobilize and educate the East Austin community about what IDEA is really like – a job he says the district should have been doing, but failed to do. To him, IDEA's takeover of Allan is an act of educational eminent domain: "When they make phone calls saying stuff like, 'Don't you want your kid to go to college?' They're oblivious to the fact that there are people here who support schools, and these people are the communities that feed into these schools. They make it seem like we don't exist, because they're not from here and they don't know the community." For Tovar, the situation reminds him of a kid playing baseball – the Allan neighborhood hit a triple and then, "One of the other kids comes over and says: 'You're out. We moved third base.'"
IDEA has argued that it is actually helping reinforce the district, by attracting non-district charter school students to its in-district charter. Randazzo has been very bullish on the question of these recaptures: Out of the 675 applicants to IDEA Allan, 70 were students whose parents had removed them from AISD for the last academic year, having either sent them to a charter or private school or homeschooled them. However, rather than attracting students back to AISD, IDEA's entry has come as enrollment in the Eastside Vertical team is actually dropping. Tovar said he's hearing from some motivated parents that they are transferring their kids to KIPP, Southwest Key, or other charter schools outside the district, and that the "colonization" of Allan by IDEA was the final straw for them to quit AISD. He said: "That's great. Let's form elitism among the poor, and now let's do it under the auspices of AISD."