The Austin Chronicle

Farewell to Allan

Eastside parents watch AISD and IDEA dismantle their neighborhood school

By Richard Whittaker, June 1, 2012, News

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?!?"


Preconceived IDEAs

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."


Collateral Damages

Education Austin President-Elect Ken Zari­fis called the process "just another chapter in the disregard for the community in Austin." To him, the low enrollment from the Allan, Martin, and the Eastside community was a clear sign that Eastside Memor­ial Vertical Team is rejecting the district's plan, and so the districtwide enrollment figure level "justifies [IDEA Allan's] existence. It doesn't address any of the inequities or the problems they were speaking of."

Zarifis is also concerned about the quality of teachers that IDEA will place on its Austin campuses. First, there is the long-running fear that IDEA is propped up by newly graduated college students on Teach for America placements, rather than qualified and experienced teachers. Second, that their hires will have no understanding of the real needs or history of the East Austin community. IDEA's leadership is in place, and three of the campus' four senior administrators are TFA alumni: Assistant Super­intendent of Instruction Reynaldo Flores, College Prep Principal Amanda Marquez, and Assistant Principal of Operations Ale­jan­dro Delgado. Of them, only Delgado is a native Austinite. None of them has taught at an Austin campus, and that is reflected in the staff they are hiring. As of May 16, IDEA had filled only 12 of the 37 teaching positions advertised for the fall, and only half of those hires are from AISD.

What has angered parents most is how freely IDEA and AISD have changed the rhetoric about what the in-district charter is supposed to do. For all the district's claims that there were open discussions about IDEA for over a year, parents feel they knew nothing until the deal was effectively signed and sealed. The concept of a deal with the charter group first came before the board in March 2011 (see "Which (East) Side Are You On?," June 24, 2011), but in the least transparent fashion possible: an extremely vague proposal for an "In-District Charter Collaboration," passed without debate or discussion as part of the consent agenda. As Richey noted, staff and parents were more concerned with the ongoing mass layoffs of 8% of district staff and the catastrophically mishandled Facility Master Plan process. For anyone who was paying attention, the discussion was all about Eastside; it was not until Oct. 20, 2011, that the district started sharing its plan to first hand over Allan Elementary to IDEA.

From day one, IDEA argued that it had to take over an entire vertical team; only by having children from kindergarten through grade 12 could they work their magic. This project was all about saving the Eastside, the mantra went – yet the latest argument from the district and IDEA is that its recruitment policy is about providing overcrowding relief elsewhere in the district (see "Enroll­ment Stalling, IDEA Gets Magnetic," April 13). Recruitment came in three stages: First, tier one from within the Allan attendance zone, then tier two around Martin Middle School, and then the districtwide tier three push.

Even though the emphasis was supposed to be on Eastside Memorial, Randazzo said, "There was always a sense, and this was written into the contract, that over time we would recruit what we call tier three." He argued that the school is still keeping close to its core mission, as approximately 85% of the students attending in the new school year will live east of I-35. However, of 675 applicants for 600 seats, only 175, or 26%, came from the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team. IDEA pushed an aggressive recruitment campaign around town, including television ads, highway billboards, and a series of assemblies targeting rising fifth graders. Of 16 elementary schools contacted for such IDEA-led sales meetings, five were west of I-35. Every single one of the 16 was at least "academically acceptable," according to the state accountability rankings. Four – Bar­ring­ton, Hart, Perez, and Pickle – were classified as "recognized" in 2011, while Graham achieved the rare distinction of being dubbed "exemplary." None were the kind of "failing" campuses that IDEA was nominally brought in to fix.

Many families in East Austin are baffled as to why the district is working so much harder to ensure IDEA's success than to protect its own campuses. After all, the same AISD board that had vigorously and repeatedly rejected offers for Eastside from Austin-based charter group Southwest Key (see "All Key and No Lock," April 8, 2011) seemed inflexibly determined to hand Eastside and Allan over to IDEA. Moreover, the same board that bowed to public pressure not to close underenrolled neighborhood schools in West Austin was quite happy to shutter Allan and turn it into a districtwide experiment. Richey said, "It's not even conceivable that this would happen at Gullett or Casis or Hill." For her, it was just proof that the district always intended to shutter this campus because it was "an easy target." She said, "It was never 'Allan's not on the table.' Plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D – all of them involved us being closed."

This is just the beginning. In 2013, IDEA will add third grade to Allan, and begin its takeover of the Eastside Memorial campus by transferring the College Prep there. Staff at Martin Middle School are already alarmed about what this will mean for them and for their enrollment, and how much of a hard sell they will see next year when IDEA is recruiting for both sixth and seventh grades. The ripple effect of IDEA's recruitment is already being felt, as Martin has been told that it will lose teachers due to under-enrollment. Education Austin's Zarifis said: "We knew that would happen, because they're siphoning off Martin. So not only did they knowingly sacrifice Allan, now they're knowingly sacrificing Martin."

What's frustrating for Tovar is that the message from the East Austin community has been clear: Get IDEA out of Allan. On a daily basis, he said, parents ask him, "'How can we get our school back? What needs to happen?' It's sad, because they're powerless in their own school."

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