AISD Hires Stephanie Elizalde as Next Superintendent
New leader assumes helm amid pandemic, equity challenges
The Austin Independent School District has hired its new superintendent, Dr. Stephanie Elizalde. The AISD Board of Trustees approved Elizalde's contract in a special board meeting Tuesday night, with trustee LaTisha Anderson being the only member to abstain. Elizalde, who was named the lone finalist three weeks ago, is leaving her role as chief of school leadership for Dallas ISD to assume AISD command. Outgoing Superintendent Paul Cruz is scheduled to officially step down Aug. 31 as he heads to a new role as co-director of the Cooperative Superintendency Program in UT-Austin's College of Education.
"I truly am just honored, humbled, super excited, nervous like the first day of school," Elizalde told trustees at Tuesday's meeting. "I don't take this lightly. I know there are big shoes to fill and there are huge expectations and I wouldn't want to work for a board who didn't expect excellence."
Elizalde assumes her role with several challenges facing the district, the most immediate being school reopenings amid COVID-19 concerns. Last week, trustees voted to delay the first day of class by three weeks, until Sept. 8; students will then receive remote instruction for the first four weeks of the school year. (Those without access to technology may request on-campus accommodations.) At that same meeting, trustees voted unanimously to seek a Texas Education Agency waiver that, if granted, would allow for four additional weeks of remote learning Oct. 2-30.
Elizalde also inherits troubles that vexed the district before COVID-19. As the Chronicle has previously reported, parents and advocates implored AISD to conduct an external equity audit last fall following the board's controversial vote to close four elementary schools as part of AISD's districtwide School Changes plan ("Is There an Equity Audit in AISD's Future?" News, Dec. 27, 2019). In her report assessing that plan, AISD Equity Officer Dr. Stephanie Hawley, who was hired mere months before that fateful November vote, also called for an external audit "to establish a basic understanding of how equity affects the district's decision-making and policy development."
As AISD grapples with the pandemic, attention on the audit has receded. However, Monday night's board info session witnessed the first public meeting between trustees and Hawley since last fall, to discuss the possibility of an outside "equity assessment." Is that the same as an audit? As Hawley told the board, an audit is a tool to evaluate whether an institution is in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and "that's not what we're trying to do right now, because as you know, we can be in compliance with TEA and the feds and still get predictably disparate results." An assessment, on the other hand, aims to identify not only root causes of inequity but also the best practices to address those disparities. "It's not just enough to uproot bad practice," explained Hawley. "What are the good practices we need to put in?"
In addition to three focus areas Hawley identified – access to advanced and culturally inclusive curriculum; suspensions; and effective and culturally proficient teachers – trustees brainstormed other areas to address. Trustees LaTisha Anderson and Arati Singh voiced support for examining the human resources department's hiring practices, while Singh also drew attention to equity in school policing, special education, transportation, and school closures. The next steps for such an assessment will fall under Elizalde's purview.
Before Elizalde was named the lone finalist in July, several community groups created an equity-centered questionnaire for all superintendent candidates, which was never used. During public comment at Tuesday's meeting, a member of such groups, Perez Elementary School teacher Gracie Hopkins, reiterated their call for Elizalde to respond to the questionnaire. Hopkins said, "Our community is looking forward to getting to know you more and how we can align our visions for this school district. Dr. Elizalde, this district has broken down a lot of trust with families and with staff, and we're hoping your start with the district can be an opportunity to rebuild that trust and respect."