AISD Equity Report Hits Home Hard

Was the School Changes process doomed from its inception from an equity perspective?

AISD Equity Officer Dr. Stephanie Hawley (Photo by John Anderson)

The rocket that was launched last month at Austin ISD when its board of trustees voted to close four elementary schools found its target this week, with the public release of the "Austin ISD 2019 School Closures Proposal: Equity Analysis of Process, Principles & Practices." The report by AISD Equity Officer Dr. Stephanie Hawley was controversially not made available to the board in advance of its Nov. 18 vote to shutter the Brooke, Metz, Sims, and Pease campuses (district staff said at the time that it remained incomplete); Hawley herself addressed the board that day, calling the School Changes proposal "a map of what 21st century racism looks like." Three of the four campuses to be closed are in East Austin; most of the students attending the four schools are economically disadvantaged.

Hawley was hired by AISD, from a similar role at Austin Community College, precisely to do this work – and with much fanfare. Her report pointedly includes the statement Board President Geronimo Rodri­guez made in February before Hawley's hiring, committing the district to viewing its School Changes process "through an equity lens" as it sought to create "21st century learning spaces," and to "interrupt practices that negatively impact struggling students," especially as related to those students' identities. However, Hawley says in her report, "School closures and consolidations are not equity strategies. They are short-term and often short-sighted approaches to cost savings that are seldom reinvested in programming in the very school communities that are displaced and dispossessed."

So was the School Changes process doomed from its inception from an equity perspective? Assuming that an equitable strategy is one that necessarily gains community buy-in, Hawley's answer would be yes. She describes a lack of clarity about the district's objectives for closing campuses – not just in communicating to parents and students the scope of AISD's fiscal challenges, years of declining enrollment, and mismatch of facilities and students, but in explaining why these factors are problems that those schools and communities must bear the brunt of solving. "Many community members and many adversely affected communities were not actively involved in conversations about the district's specific financial problems and goals or the design of an inclusive problem-solving process," the report states.

Such concerns are not uncommon whenever AISD, or the city or other governments, has to consider choices that create winners and losers; what Hawley's analysis calls out without evasion is that this is "white supremacy culture." Her job is to change that and turn this mess into a learning opportunity: "As leaders, we are eliminating white supremacy's either/or thinking [and] are learning that communities are a vast source of viable solutions that support the district's goals. We are also relinquishing habits of toxic elitism that value hoarding information as we did with the rollout of [School Changes] Version 1.0, resulting in the exclusion of our key staff and historically underserved families. White supremacy culture avoids open conflict, and we are learning how to civilly engage with communities who do not agree with our tactics and goals. Our families and communities are pushing us into an authentic growth mindset for greater vision."

At its meeting Monday night, the board of trustees told AISD administration to read and reflect on Hawley's words and do better next time; the initial School Changes proposal included eight other schools whose fates will be decided over the next several months. Hawley thinks they can do it: "Decisions can be made for a win-win-win for vulnerable children and families, the district, and the greater community. Those kinds of decisions require ... disrupting the status quo policies and habitual responses to financial and enrollment challenges that uphold racism in the system [and create] predictable disproportionate harm and displacement of students of color."

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Austin Independent School District, Equity Analysis of Process, Principles and Practices, School Changes 2019, Stephanie Hawley, Austin Community College, Geronimo Rodriguez, AISD Board of Trustees

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