The Austin Chronicle

Community-Backed Charter in Travis Heights Goes to the Board

By Richard Whittaker, December 14, 2012, News

As the Austin Independent School Dis­trict considers showing one Eastside in-district charter school the door, trustees are considering opening a new charter in South Austin. But unlike IDEA Allan, which many feel was forced on the Allan neighborhood, the plan for a new charter at Travis Heights Elementary has been formulated and presented by the local community.

If the district's board of trustees approves the proposal from the Travis Heights neighborhood at its Dec. 17 meeting, it would be AISD's third in-district charter. Aside from IDEA Allan, last year the district contracted Responsive Education Solutions to run a graduation credit recovery program at Lanier and Travis high schools. But unlike either of those, the pre-K through grade 5 Travis Heights Innovation School Project isn't by an outside charter group. Instead, it is a collaborative proposal developed by the neighborhood, the school itself, employee union Education Austin, and local nonprofit Austin Interfaith. It would still be the same students and same staff on the same campus: However, rather than taking edicts from AISD central administration, the campus would have a governing board with parents, teachers, and a seat each for Education Austin and Austin Interfaith. According to Sheryl Fisher, parent of a fourth grader, this would give the campus a degree of autonomy on decision-making, from classroom size to lesson plans to lunchtime menus. She said: "We don't lead with 'charter.' This is a campus community-based school."

In 2011, AISD trustees voted unanimously to adopt a policy to open in-district charters, and earlier this year the district joined the Austin District-Charter Collaboration Compact, a collaborative agreement with leading local charter groups, backed by Gates Foundation money. However, the Travis Heights proposal predates that policy. In 2010, Education Austin won an Innovation Fund grant from the American Federation of Teachers, and, along with Austin Interfaith, started looking for the right campus to convert into a community-led charter.

The proposal has been shaped by the Travis Heights community, and the charter backers say they have the numbers to prove it. In developing their plan, they sent a survey out to families via their students: Half of all families replied, showing clear support for measures like volunteer commitments and flexible scheduling. However, families were split down the middle on school uniforms, so that's been tabled until they can get a clearer message about what the community wants. That may even change over time, as may everything from the length of the day to lesson plans.

According to Kim O'Driscoll, a parent with kids in kindergarten and first grade at Travis Heights, the community was looking for "more critical thinking, more hands-on learning, more project based learning. There was a desire for more integration of technology, not to replace teachers, but as a supplement, especially for those [who] aren't exposed to technology beyond game playing or telephones." Fifth grade teacher Mary Friedman said, "We want to teach in a way that's engaging for the students, and that varies depending on what students we have."

AISD District 6 trustee Lori Moya has been involved with the Travis Heights proposal since very early in process, observing the community's information-gathering and guiding the community to answer some questions it might face. She was initially concerned that the plan would take students out of the Travis High vertical team, but she said she was impressed how they stayed true to its signature digital media programming. For the board, she sees it as the first real implementation of their campus-initiated in-district charter program. She said, "It's going to almost be like a pilot for seeing how giving campuses a certain level of autonomy works."

The Travis Heights plan is part of the district's second Annual Academic and Facilities Recommendations: Intro­duced by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, these are intended to take established policies – like charters and single-sex schools – and develop them further, with deadlines and budgets attached. With a new board, reshaped heavily during the Nov. 6 election, policies may also change. The IDEA contract is likely to be heavily reshaped on Dec. 17, as the board considers suspending its planned expansion to the Eastside Memorial campus. Moreover, the plan for a new boys' academy seems to be on hold, as the new trustees' vision diverges from that of the project's big philanthropic backer, the Moody Foundation. As for trustee Cheryl Bradley's plan to turn Pearce and Garcia middle schools into single-sex schools covering most of East Austin, that seems to have collapsed completely.

When they vote on the proposal on Dec. 17, trustees can expect a very different experience from when they forced IDEA on the Allan neighborhood in 2011. Back then, families lined up in the rain to speak against it: This time, to even get the item on the agenda, the plan had to be backed by 80% of families and staff, and their petition exceeded that target.

The 2012 AAFR

Category A, most likely to be implemented for 2013-14 school year:

Dual language program expansion and extension

Continue Responsive Education Solutions contract at Lanier and Travis High Schools

School for Young Men

In-district charter at Travis Heights

Category B, more likely to be implemented in 2014-15:

Garcia and Pearce Middle School program redesign

Category C, still being vetted:

Programming & facility changes to Eastside Memorial Vertical Team

South High School (AISD got voter approval to buy land in 2008)

Category D, for consideration by Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee:

Renovations for Rosedale and Clifton Career Development Schools

Renovations for Fine Arts Program

Parity and equity in career and technical education

Renovations and improvement for Secondary Athletic Program

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