SXSW EDU Takes on School Board Wars and Mental Health on Campus

Speakers take on top educational problems, March 7-10

AISD first day of classes for the 2021 school year (Photo by John Anderson)

Two years after South by Southwest was canceled at nearly the last minute in the early days of the COVID pandemic, the conference's school-focused opening act is back to discuss the main challenges facing education in a post(ish) pandemic world. From mental health to remote learning, there's hardly a topic at 2022's SXSW EDU that wasn't affected by the pandemic's massive upheaval on the education system.

A particular focus at this year's conference is children's mental health; educators, including in Austin, have said that's what's driving cascading declines in test scores, employee morale, and enrollment and daily attendance. In late 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a "national state of emergency in children's mental health."

Hip-hop legend Darryl "DMC" McDan­iels, co-founder of RUN-DMC, has opened up about his own mental health struggles and in 2006 co-founded the Felix Organ­iza­tion, a nonprofit that works to provide inspiring opportunities and new experiences for children in the foster care system. McDaniels is also an investor and mental health advisor of Uwill, a startup that connects college students with teletherapy; the company says demand for mental health services on campus has grown seven times faster than college enrollment. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will keynote on how to structure education to address the socioemotional needs of students going forward, with assistance from American Rescue Plan Act funding: "We have the opportunity now to redesign schools & make sure that mental health services are a core part of school's DNA," Cardona said in a tweet early last year.

Since the last time SXSW EDU had a physical presence in Downtown Austin, school boards in Texas and nationally have become battlefields for ultra-conservative politics. New laws in Texas in 2021 include a (somewhat toothless) ban on "critical race theory," the umbrella term for discussions of America's racial history and realities that might make white kids (or old white GOP billionaires) uncomfortable. Programming at SXSW EDU includes both deep dives into specific fronts of the current culture wars and ways to turn back the tide of disinformation that is washing over local schools.

Mike Hixenbaugh and Antonia Hylton, NBC News journalists whose 2021 podcast Southlake chronicled racism and reckoning in that affluent Dallas suburb's Carroll ISD, will discuss the current environment with other reporters and in other districts (including, perhaps, something similar in Round Rock ISD). The multiyear crusade in Leander ISD to get "obscene" (i.e., LGBTQIA-affirming) books out of classrooms and libraries will be touched on by the district's library coordinator Becky Calzada, in one of several panels about implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices in classrooms; another features Austin ISD Trustee Kevin Foster. British Robinson, the president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, will discuss how DEI practices can be furthered with increasing reading levels. *

Other big-name speakers to watch for at this year's conference include: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who will discuss climate action at the K-12 level; Zaila Avant-garde, who in 2021 became the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee; and former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, whose foundation is helping encourage students to become leaders in web development.

The SXSW EDU Conference & Festival takes place Mon.-Thu., March 7-10, at the Austin Con­vention Center and other Downtown venues. See for full info.

* Editor's note Friday 3-4 2:45pm: This story has been updated since publication to add Antonia Hylton's name as a co-panelist with Mike Hixenbaugh.

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South by Southwest, SXSW, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, RUN DMC, Miguel Cardona, American Rescue Plan Act, Mike Hixenbaugh, Chelsea Clinton, Education, Round Rock ISD

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