The Austin Chronicle

Austin at Large: The Oldest Story in Town

Will Austin ISD’s “School Changes” be our last chance to learn our lesson?

By Mike Clark-Madison, September 20, 2019, News

Seventeen years ago, I was attending my first Austin ISD back to school night, at Pease Elementary. (I remember it vividly, because I spent much of it sitting under the learning tree myself – outside on the phone, being barked at by someone at City Hall over something I wrote.) Our son – the same one I told you about a few weeks back – was the oldest kid in the class at the oldest school in town. We had other plans for him that year that had fallen through, long past AISD's enrollment deadline; we threw ourselves at the principal's feet to beg he be let in.

Why Pease? For us, it was simple; it's actually the closest school to my house, and we had neighbors with kids enrolled there. Our zoned school was (and still is) Campbell Ele­men­tary, which, when we first bought our house, was at its old location (what is now Garza Indepen­dence High School) in our neighborhood; it had since moved farther away, and we didn't know anybody there.

Yes, Campbell is a predominantly African American and Hispanic campus with lower family incomes than Pease. But it was also, at the time, a well-rated Blue Ribbon School, and we would have gone there if the Pease doors had been closed, rather than seek a transfer to Mathews or Lee or Maplewood. As we found, Pease was a pretty culturally and economically diverse – and thus interesting – school, allowing my son to have a cohort of diverse – and thus interesting – classmates with whom he moved all the way through AISD, graduating from Austin High. That path had its ups and downs, particularly in the already challenging middle-school years – at "9021O. Henry," as we called it, where all of AISD and Austin's equity issues play out on the daily.

Places Where Good Things Can Happen

Pease is all transfers, as you might know, since there aren't hundreds of school-age kids living near Downtown Austin (the few are zoned to Campbell, Mathews, or Sanchez). Everyone there, by seeking a transfer, had crossed at least an initial threshold of parent engagement, leading to an esprit de corps one still sees in today's Pease parents, who are working hard to head off the school's closure as part of the current AISD "School Changes 2019" process, just as they did during the district's 2011 school closing debacle.

That spirit is not the same as selectivity, such as that which begets exclusivity and then intentional inequity, which is what we all sadly know is what some AISD parents want for their kids even if they genuinely don't realize it. To the surprise and disappointment of some frankly status-seeking parents we encountered over the years, Pease is not a magnet school, just an intentional community. Its ability to stay mostly above the performance waterline over the years has, I think, offered a model worth noting for the district as it pursues a School Changes strategy that suggests more internal choice, driven by more differentiated and better-resourced programming among campuses, and will be an agent of change.

Little of that has much to do with the historic Pease building, whose built-in high-cost maintenance and low adaptability is certainly a factor AISD should consider as it goes through its School Changes process, as it is for the other 11 campuses on its closure list. The good things that happen at Pease could happen elsewhere. Some are, in fact, happening at the other old Central Austin campuses that are now home to lots of transfers, that are well past their design life (not as old as Pease, but not as well built either), and that are conspicuous by their absence from the closure list, on which Maplewood is really taking one for the team.

A New Size and a New Center

Do we have to ask why? We know why; it's the oldest story in town. It's not irrelevant to say, as Kevin Foster did in our story last week, that the School Changes map is simply reinforcing a legacy of educational segregation that we, as a city, largely and shamefully gave up trying very hard to undo decades ago.

At this present moment, though, it may be more relevant to say that while yes, AISD may know this – and I have little doubt that school board President Geronimo Rodriguez knows this – it wants to thread the needle now. It needs to bring forward proposals among the dozens of School Changes "scenarios" that can withstand political and community pressure now. It needs to begin the right-sizing and geographical recentering that is essential for equity now, processes that have been forestalled and held in abeyance throughout my own history with AISD and long before. For fiscal reasons, yes, but more importantly for moral ones, it has to start happening now.

The fact that, nearing two weeks after the School Changes rollout, an outrage bomb hasn't yet gone off with enough tonnage to alter the plan's trajectory suggests to me that I'm not alone in this reading of what lies before us. The much more significant question is whether we, as a community, will decide this is a stopping point – that this is enough change to align AISD properly with the city it now serves, and with what that city wants to be in the future. I hope we don't see this as Austin's last chance to learn its lesson.

Copyright © 2024 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.