The Austin Chronicle

IDEA Still Trying To Fill Seats

By Richard Whittaker, July 13, 2012, News

At the start of the summer, IDEA Public Schools proudly proclaimed it had so many applicants for the new IDEA Allan campus it was having to turn kids away. Less than two months later, the Austin Independent School District's highly touted in-district charter is already looking for more students to fill seats for the upcoming school year.

Neighborhood activists first became aware of the empty seats at IDEA's Summer Celebration on June 30. A flier was being distributed, stating that "IDEA Allan still has limited spots open for Kinder, 1st, 2nd and 6th grade." Families are offered a free school uniform for every pupil they refer to IDEA and who successfully applies for and registers with the charter school. How many seats are empty? IDEA won't say. When asked, IDEA Senior Communications Man­ag­er Vanessa Barry simply said that numbers are "very fluid," but added that "we are confident that we will open with a full campus in August."

The situation was very different in May. IDEA and AISD were eager to announce that, not only was IDEA Allan full, but it was oversubscribed. There were 675 applicants for 600 positions, and so a lottery had to be held. However, the waitlist was smaller in some grades than others. For example, there were only 127 applicants for 125 seats in second grade, so only a handful of transfers out would leave empty seats. However, IDEA is now advertising vacancies at all grade levels: Considering their numbers claimed a waitlist of 43 students for 225 sixth grade seats, that means 16% of the rising fifth graders who originally signed up have opted to go elsewhere.

So what has happened to all those children? Barry said that while there are "hundreds of families who are elated that their children will have the opportunity to attend IDEA Allan," some have had to drop out. She blamed "family moves that are associated with a tragically high student-mobility rate." However, under a recently signed deal, AISD is offering transportation for all IDEA kids, so many should have been able to stay enrolled if travel were the only issue.

Though it is recruiting districtwide, IDEA Allan sits in trustee Sam Guzmán's district. He was one of the most vocal advocates for the campus and was surprised by the continued drive to fill seats. He said, "My perception was that they were already full, but them recruiting would run counter to that." Guzmán blamed the enrollment problems on the boycott organized by Pride of the Eastside and said he was disappointed that local children would not have access to the opportunities that IDEA might provide. But he was most concerned that recruitment seemed to be districtwide, rather than concentrating on the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team. According to the most recent numbers, issued the day before the May 17 lottery, only 39% of eligible students within the Allan and Eastside attendance zones had signed up for IDEA. Neighborhood enrollment was so low that, on lottery day, 446 of the 600 seats at IDEA Allan were opened up to kids outside of the Eastside. Guzmán said, "My thought all along was that it was meant for the kids in that vertical team first and exclusively."

At this point, it is unclear exactly where those kids exiting IDEA Allan have gone – if they've gone to another AISD school, another district, a charter, a private school, or simply left the school system. That lack of tracking frustrates both critics and supporters of AISD, including Pride of the Eastside spokesman and Govalle PTA President Vin­cent Tovar. His concern is that IDEA is supposed to be acting as a part of the district: Instead, their aggressive and seemingly perpetual recruitment campaign further challenges the claim that there is demand for IDEA. "Where's the need?" he said. "If they can't make the numbers, then there's no need."

Tovar has been extremely critical of IDEA's recruitment techniques, which range from spending money on advertising billboards to the new uniform offer: If they are so popular, he argues, why are they bribing families with promises of clothes? He was most critical of high-pressure phone calls to families, even after they had opted for other schools. Previously, IDEA blamed a communications failure between the charter school and AISD, but Tovar said there were "no excuses. These families are already getting bombarded by KIPP, by Southwest Key, who are trying to siphon off kids into what are effectively private schools."

For Tovar, this lack of transparency bodes ill for the future, especially since IDEA is planning to expand its presence in Austin. It currently runs 10 campuses in the Rio Grande Valley, but CEO Tom Torkelson has publicly stated that he wants 36 new campuses in Austin, San Antonio, and the Val­ley by 2017. Their expansion plans are obvious, and few doubt that any growth would be at the expense of other AISD campuses. Yet the district has given parents and teachers no sign of what is around the corner. He said: "Businesses have five-year plans, but what we're seeing is that, for this year, all schools are open. After that, who knows?"

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