AISD's "School Changes" Process Places Equity Front and Center

“Historically, this is a very racist city, and unfortunately, this school district is a part of that system"

Illustration by Jason Stout

At a "community visioning session" in early June, as part of the Austin Indepen­dent School District's "School Changes" process, parents turned out in force at Burnet Middle School in North Austin to press AISD officials for details on what kinds of changes the district aimed to make to their children's schools – or in many cases, their future schools – and how those changes might alter those children's future trajectories. It was one of the first opportunities for AISD families to engage with district officials as they worked on the multiyear School Changes plan, released in draft form last week, that could lead to a dozen school closures, a massive transformation of the kinds of programming schools offer, and a districtwide cultural shift.

The meeting also illustrated the uphill climb AISD – and Austin – will face in making the long-deferred "hard choices" the plan proposes to achieve greater equity in both access and outcomes across the district. Many parents urged district staff not to disrupt existing vertical teams and feeder patterns – the arrangements of campuses, programs, and attendance zones that determine the paths that Austin students follow from elementary to middle to high school.

Vertical teams (known in Austin by the names of their capstone high schools) are how AISD currently offers continuity in academic programs and extracurricular activities, which in turn creates communities that bring together families who participate in those aspects of school life. But some school communities in AISD have much stronger, more cohesive vertical teams – Anderson being one of them. Unlike most other vertical teams in the district, Anderson currently has only one middle school (Murchison) feeding into its high school, so there is a great sense of loyalty among its families – along with the exclusivity that comes with a narrow path to Anderson High, one of the best in the district.

The Chronicle interviewed more than a dozen parents at the visioning session, all of whom were "Murchison parents" – a label for parents of elementary students within the Anderson vertical team as well as those now attending the Northwest Hills campus. They were very concerned about changes to attendance zone boundaries – with the mostly unspoken but evident fear that their kids would get zoned out of the "good school" and into the "bad school."

That bad school was Burnet, where the session was taking place. Most couched their concern in indirect terms – talking of the benefits their child would gain by learning from middle school teachers who actively worked with high school colleagues to prepare students for higher-level coursework. Somewhat less subtly, they reminded district officials that they chose their current places of residence so their children would go to a particular school.

One couple, however, left the euphemisms at the door. The mother and father printed out a bar chart – made by them, specifically for the event – comparing Murchison and Burnet standardized (STAAR) test scores, the number of English language learners (ELLs) at each campus, the number of disciplinary actions doled out at each, and the funding of each by AISD. Burnet, which has failed to meet state accountability standards in two of the last six school years, had lower STAAR scores, more ELLs and disciplinary actions, and a greater investment from the district.

The calculation is simple: “Why should my kid have to go to a bad school so the district can say they’re being more equitable?”

Setting aside the questionable value of test scores for individual students as a measurement of a whole school's performance, their chart conspicuously left off a crucial metric: the percentage of economically disadvantaged students at each school, which for the 2018-19 school year was 21% at Murchison and 90% at Burnet. The difference is staggering, and the problems that can follow a child from a family struggling to make ends meet, compared to a child from a more affluent family, can be equally staggering. Managing those problems often leads to more important outcomes for those students than raising test scores.

But these parents did not share this concern. For them, and for many others throughout AISD, the calculation is often simpler: "Why should my kid have to go to a bad school so the district can say they're being more equitable?"

Reimagine, Reinvest, Reinvent

Convincing parents with high hopes for their child's academic future that they can receive an enriching and engaging education at all AISD schools is one of the end goals informing the complex chess maneuvers that make up the School Changes process. On Thursday, Sept. 5, the district unveiled drafts for 39 scenarios that its leaders will use as a starting point as they attempt to transform the district's operations over several years and on several fronts – or, to echo the School Changes tagline, to "reimagine, reinvest, and reinvent." The planning process that began in earnest in January 2019 is slated to culminate in November with votes on the scenarios by the board of trustees.

Photo by John Anderson

Taken together, the scenarios reflect a comprehensive attempt to remedy district inequities within three broad categories: "people," "programs," and "places." Major actions in each of these include increasing the district's teacher retention rate (people), expanding popular dual-language classrooms to more parts of the district (programs), and saving costs by closing aging campuses and investing in modern and modernized ones (places). Within each category are dozens of other proposals, some complementing others, aimed at achieving the same goals.

Closing schools has always been and was always bound to be the hardest pill for the AISD community to swallow, but the draft scenarios squarely face the reality that the district has lost 6,000 students over the last five years and is projected to lose 7,000 more over the next decade. Eleven scenarios include consolidating multiple school programs into single facilities, amounting to a total of 12 campus closures. (More details and map below).

Out of the 12, seven sit east of I-35, a near-balance that reflects the immense pressure district planners are under to ensure that closures straddle Austin's socioeconomic East-West divide. However, nine of the schools have populations with more than 60% of students considered economically disadvantaged, with five at rates of 90% or higher. As Eastside education activists have already pointed out, none of the 12 schools are west of Lamar Boulevard, where one now finds those schools – like Murchison – serving the wealthiest parts of the district.

For each closure scenario, the district has laid out options to improve the "receiving schools" with facility upgrades, additional programming, or both. If Maplewood Ele­men­tary is closed, for example, the school's popular arts-focused curriculum would be transplanted to the nearby Campbell Ele­men­tary campus. Maplewood families would also have the opportunity to transfer to Black­shear Elementary, which also emphasizes fine arts, and which would offer a new digital media program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. As with most of the closure scenarios, the future of the Maplewood campus is left undefined, although the draft document notes it could be converted into a "new, beneficial space for the community."

In all, staff projects that the proposed closures and consolidations will save the district about $240 million in capital costs (accrued over decades of deferred maintenance) and free up about $10 million annually in AISD's operating budget to reinvest in other campuses and programs. To soften the sting of proposed closures, district officials have said the money and resources from a closing school will "follow the students" to their new school – meaning any operational dollars saved by closing Maplewood, for instance, would be reinvested into Campbell and Blackshear.

Attendance zone changes will also be considered throughout the entire district, not just in the closure scenarios. AISD Operations Officer Matias Segura said boundaries could be tweaked to act as "relief valves" for overcrowded schools, but stressed that most of the changes would be minor: "We're not going to get a campus that's at 120 percent [capacity] down to 100 percent," he said. "That's not going to happen, and we don't want to move kids just to move them."

Any boundary changes at all will cause a stir among parents, like those from Murch­i­son, concerned about disruption to vertical teams, but district officials insist that their goal is to strengthen those teams and increase programming continuity within them. One example is a new initiative the district calls "Pre-K to Pre-Med." The program would focus on medical professions from pre-K (mostly through introducing young students to STEM curriculum) all the way up to the Health Professions program offered at LBJ Early College High School. Students would engage in learning focused on "health, wellness, nutrition, and preventive care" as they progress from primary to secondary schools.

Shared Sacrifice?

But for other parents, the talk of merely "tweaking" attendance zones is not going far enough. "I was disappointed [that the district] didn't take a more radical approach to redrawing boundary lines," Vincent Tovar, a battle-hardened education activist in East Austin, told us of the scenarios. "The sacrifice should be shared all around the district, but I don't see that happening yet."

Others are less optimistic that it will happen at all. Kevin Foster, an AISD parent and UT professor, told us that the "basic framing" of the plan showed a lack of vision and strategy. By proposing the majority of school closures in East Austin, the district is basically ceding that territory to charter schools, which have moved aggressively into that part of the city, and accepting shrinking enrollment as reality instead of strategizing for how to grow schools. As well, the district is doing little to prevent economically disadvantaged students from bearing a disproportionate impact as a result of the disruptive closures.

Moreover, Foster said, the scenarios carry a goal found "unspoken and unwritten" in decades of city planning: protection for affluent communities, with everyone else coming as an afterthought. "I don't see how our thinking here is fundamentally different from the previous 150 years of Austin policymaking," Foster told us. "The plan looks like we made sure to protect the already privileged, and then do the best we can to help everyone else after the fact."

Several, including three AISD trustees, have pointed to the fact that two small elementary schools in affluent Austin neighborhoods – Barton Hills and Zilker – were spared in the scenarios, although Barton Hills had been identified for closure in 2011. As District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias asked at the board's meeting on Sept. 9, "If small schools are inefficient in East Austin, are not small schools inefficient in other parts of Austin? How can it be that Zilker and Barton Hills are not on the list of [closures]?" Trustee Amber Elenz, whose Dis­trict 5 includes the two schools, acknowledged that the schools had small student populations compared to others, but pointed out that both are considered overenrolled by district standards, whereas the School Changes scenarios identify campuses that are both small and underenrolled for closure.

Trustees Jayme Mathias (District 2) and LaTisha Anderson (D1) (Photo by John Anderson)

The Monday meeting allowed the board to have its first public discussion of the scenarios since their release last week. Trustees representing parts of the city's "eastern crescent" – Mathias, District 1's LaTisha Anderson, and D3's Ann Teich – echoed some of the concerns coming from the communities they represent: why their districts have the majority of proposed closures, and why the scenarios didn't include a more transformative approach to redrawing attendance zone boundaries. (Segura said more details on boundary adjustments were coming, but staff needed clearer direction on which scenarios the board favored before proceeding because each scenario could have a different impact on boundaries.)

Most of the board discussion focused on specific scenarios, with trustees seeking to understand how each would impact school communities. Anderson, for instance, wondered why Northeast ECHS (formerly Reagan High) was identified for possible conversion to a grade 6-12 campus and wanted more detail on what that transformation would look like for families, staff, and faculty. Teich took issue with how the proposed closure of Webb Middle School was rolled out; the school community and staff were not informed until late in the day Thursday, just hours before media reports revealed the proposed campus closure. Webb has been engaged in developing a specialized improvement plan intended to reinvent the campus and its culture. But now the faculty, staff, and families are unsure of what will come next, given that the school could be closed in 2024. Teich told district staff at the meeting that if school communities were not more involved in the plans going forward, implementing them successfully would be impossible. "We need to do more internal and external community engagement," she said, especially at a school like Webb that is focused on its future.

Heading Off Another Firestorm

The recurring call for persistent and thorough community engagement appears to be one that AISD is heeding seriously. Every­one involved remembers the unmitigated disaster of eight years ago, when the firestorm over AISD's list of schools to be closed, none of whose communities had seen any engagement or been asked for their input beforehand, led in part to the resignation of then-Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who now leads Atlanta's public schools. Although the list of schools on the chopping block has not changed much since 2011, AISD has tried to be much more deliberate about involving the community in its School Changes process.

First came the district's Budget Stabil­iz­a­tion Task Force, which concluded its work earlier this year and focused on the need to right-size AISD in the face of prospective multimillion-dollar ongoing deficits. Trus­tees then established guiding principles to be used when making decisions regarding school changes; district staff held workshops, visioning sessions, and finally "think tanks," where volunteers spent seven hours analyzing data, survey results, and comments to brainstorm ideas that Segura's team used to generate the 39 scenarios. This ongoing engagement aimed to provide sufficient opportunities for the community at large to participate, without giving traditional interests and AISD power centers a chance to dominate the conversation.

According to AISD, the listening is not over. On Friday, Sept. 6, Superintendent Paul Cruz told reporters that now, with the draft scenarios being made public, it was time for "dialogue and discourse" with the community. When pressed specifically on how the current process would improve the district's poor track record on that front, Cruz said, "We're going to meet directly with schools, teachers, and parents. ... It will be community conversations, going directly to impacted communities to talk about the 'why'" of the plan.

Board President Geronimo Rodriguez answered the same question with an acknowledgment of past failures. "We can always do better," he said, praising the $150 million now being invested in Eastside schools as part of the $1.05 billion 2017 bond program. For Rodriguez, the son of migrant farm workers, the needs of marginalized communities "are top of mind. A big question for the board is, 'What is our definition of equity?' That's what school changes are all about – making sure that every child has an opportunity to graduate college-, career-, and life-ready."

A "Process of Restoration"

"Equity" can be a squishy word, with as many definitions as people defining it, but for Stephanie Hawley, AISD's first-ever equity officer, the answer is clear. "Equity-mindedness is always looking at the margins to see who isn't benefiting from the system," Hawley told us in her office at AISD's new HQ in South Austin. "Who are we not serving? How are we not building on their strengths? We'll know we've achieved equity when [a student's] success and the way [they] fare is no longer predictable based on race or any other human difference."

Hawley hopes to realize that goal at AISD by retraining the entire organization, from Cruz's executive team down to the classrooms and campus support staff, to approach student learning in a "culturally proficient" way. That includes acknowledging the legacy and reality of segregation in Austin. "Historically, this is a very racist city," she said, "and unfortunately, this school district is a part of that system. But we are in the process of restoration."

AISD Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley (Photo by John Anderson)
“Historically, this is a very racist city, and unfortunately, this school district is a part of that system. But we are in the process of restoration.” – AISD Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley

Hawley pointed to one scenario in particular as an illustration of AISD's seriousness about acknowledging its institutional role in perpetuating historical inequities among Aus­tin's white, black, and brown residents, and how they are actively working now to rectify that history. The "Districtwide Cultural Proficiency and Inclusivity" scenario is defined as "a comprehensive, multi year plan to ensure all students – regardless of race, gender, language, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and other human differences – will be led, taught and supported by culturally proficient teachers, staff and administration."

Hawley does not see this scenario as a mere gesture toward a worthy goal that's impossible to actually attain. With faculty and staff better equipped to understand their own cultures and those of the students they teach, she said, students will feel a greater sense of belonging at school. Moreover, Hawley explained, true cultural proficiency creates understanding of power dynamics between cultures and their effects on students. "Particularly if you're from a culture that has dominant power," she says, "you understand your position and adverse or positive impact on people who don't share your power."

These positions will sound radical to some and long overdue to others, but the district is clearly eager for someone with Hawley's experience, expertise, and vision to weigh in on how it should proceed down its daunting path. Hawley told us that since she officially started in August – coming from Austin Community College, where she spent nearly a decade in similar roles as part of an education career stretching back 30-plus years – she has spent more than 70 hours in School Changes meetings, poring over district data with other officials, and pushing for a systematic culture shift at the organization.

Whether Hawley, Cruz, Rodriguez, and other AISD leaders can bring the rest of Austin on board remains to be seen. Parents at schools marked for closure are already digging in and ready to fight to keep their campuses untouched. For those parents, the district says they are listening to their feedback. "Not everybody is going to be happy with what we decide," Hawley said. "But if parents take away one thing from what we're doing, it should be that we are listening and co-creating solutions with them."

AISD Trustee Districts

1: LaTisha Anderson

2: Jayme Mathias

3: Ann Teich

4: Kristin Ashy

5: Amber Elenz

6: Geronimo Rodriguez Jr.

7: Yasmin Wagner

(Cindy Anderson, Arati Singh, At-Large)

Proposed Closures and Consolidations

1 & 2. Sims and Pecan Springs elementaries (consolidating with Norman): Norman students began attending class at Sims this school year while construction funded by the 2017 bond gets underway at the Norman campus on Tannehill Lane. When the renovated Norman campus reopens (as Norman-Sims) in 2021, students from Sims will attend school there, along with Pecan Springs students living south of 51st Street; the remainder of the students in the Pecan Springs attendance zone will attend Winn Elementary School.

3. Maplewood Elementary (consolidating with Campbell and Blackshear): The Maplewood campus will close, and the facility will be converted into a "new, beneficial space for the community." Maplewood's students and arts-focused curriculum will eventually move to Campbell, which will undergo a modernization project, slated for completion in 2024. Campbell students will be able to stay there with the new Maplewood programming or transfer to Blackshear Elementary (with its own modernization completing in 2024), which will be a fine and performing arts academy with a digital media program.

4. See 13.

5. Webb Middle School (consolidating with Dobie): Webb will close, and its students will be transferred to the modernized Dobie campus, set to open in 2024.

6. Brooke Elementary (consolidating with Linder and Govalle): Brooke will close, and its students living north of Lady Bird Lake will be transferred to Govalle, which is undergoing a renovation set for completion in early 2020. Students living south of Lady Bird Lake will attend Linder, with its own renovation project set for completion in 2024.

7. Palm Elementary School (consolidating with Perez): Palm will close, and its students will be sent to Perez, with some Perez students reassigned to Langford. Perez and Widén (along with Paredes Middle School) will become "outdoor leadership schools," with the incorporation of nearby parks and green spaces into the culture and curriculum at each school.

8. Metz Elementary (consolidating with Sanchez): A modernization project at Sanchez will complete in 2021, at which point Metz will close and its students will transfer to Sanchez, less than half a mile away.

9. Ridgetop Elementary (consolidating with Reilly): Ridgetop will close and its students will move into a modernized Reilly campus, set to open in 2024. Students will participate in a two-way dual-language program, where they will learn in either English, Spanish, or Mandarin.

10. Pease Elementary: AISD would close its last Downtown campus, the oldest in the district, and its students – who are all transfers from other attendance zones – would be able to move to Zavala, east of I-35, after facility improvements there. A deed restriction on the property, enforced by the state, requires that the facility be used for educational purposes.

11 & 12. Joslin and Dawson elementaries (consolidating with St. Elmo and Galindo): Joslin and Dawson will close, and their students will go to renovated campuses at St. Elmo or Galindo, both opening in 2024. St. Elmo's new attendance zone includes families south of Ben White Boulevard; Galindo's new zone will cover the area north of Ben White.

13. New Northeast Middle School and 4. Sadler Means Young Women's Leadership Academy: Slated to open in 2022, students in attendance zones for Jordan, Overton, Blanton, the northern edge of Pecan Springs, and the southern edge of Winn will be zoned for the new middle school (likely to be located near Mueller). Attendance zones for the new school will be reevaluated closer to its opening date, and students from the new Norman-Sims campus and the current Maplewood zone may be included. The all-girls Sadler Means will close, and students will have the option of attending Ann Richards or their new assigned school. Resources that would have gone to Sadler Means will be reinvested into Dobie, Lamar, and Martin middle schools.

14. New Southwest Elementary School: A new elementary school will open at 12801 Escarpment Blvd. in late 2020, providing relief for Kiker and Baranoff elementary schools. Attendance boundaries for Kocurek, Cowan, and Boone elementary schools will also be adjusted.

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AISD, School Changes, Jayme Mathias, Anne Teich, LaTisha Anderson, Meria Carstarphen, Stephanie Hawley, Murchison Middle School, Burnet Middle School, Anderson High, Matias Segura, Paul Cruz, Geronimo Rodriguez

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