IDEA wins big fed­eral grant as district con­tract at risk


Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Alexan­der and Melissa B.Taboada kalexan­der@states­ mtaboada@states­

The char­ter school net­work at the cen­ter of a tense dis­pute with some Austin school board mem­bers won a highly cov­eted fed­eral grant aimed at fos­ter­ing ed­u­ca­tion in­no­va­tion.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion on Tues­day awarded IDEA Pub­lic Schools $29 mil­lion over four years to be used at its schools in the Rio Grande Val­ley and San An­to­nio. The Race to the Top District com­pe­ti­tion drew 372 school district ap­pli­cants from across the coun­try that were seek­ing a piece of the $400 mil­lion pot of grant money.

IDEA was one of 16 win­ners along with Har­mony Pub­lic Schools, an­other Texas-based char­ter school sys­tem. Har­mony, which op­er­ates five

schools in Austin and 38 across the state, was awarded about $30 mil­lion.

The na­tional an­nounce­ment by U.S. Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Arne Dun­can comes less than a week be­fore the Austin In­de­pen­dent School District board of trustees is to de­cide whether to con­tinue the con­tract for IDEA Al­lan, a part­ner­ship at the former Al­lan Ele­men­tary School in East Austin.

Tom Torkel­son, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of IDEA Pub­lic Schools, said dur­ing a con­fer­ence call that the award is an­other val­i­da­tion of the char­ter school sys­tem’s ap­proach and casts doubt on the judg­ment of the Austin school trustees who are threat­en­ing to end the part­ner­ship in its in­fancy.

“I would hate to see the board go down as the most knee-jerk re­ac­tionary board in the na­tion,” Torkel­son said in a con­fer­ence call af­ter the an­nounce­ment.

School Trustee Jayme Mathias ques­tioned whether the grant award was based on “merit or be­cause of friends they’ve built in the De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.” The head of IDEA Al­lan pre­vi­ously worked for the de­part­ment, he said.

“IDEA’s num­bers are not good. If you’re go­ing to call your­self col­lege prep, your num­bers should jus­tify that,” said Mathias, who added that IDEA has used its part­ner­ship with Austin to bur­nish its im­age.

Mathias was one of three new trustees elected in Novem­ber who openly op­posed con­tract­ing with IDEA. He said it was the pre­vi­ous board that made a knee­jerk de­ci­sion to bring in a char­ter school against the wishes of the com­mu­nity.

Torkel­son said IDEA’s in­ter­nal track­ing shows that 90 per­cent of its grad­u­ates are in col­lege or have grad­u­ated from col­lege while pub­licly re­ported data show 85 per­cent of IDEA stu­dents have done so.

He added that it was im­pru­dent for a pub­lic of­fi­cial to sug­gest that Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment of­fi­cials acted im­prop­erly be­cause the grant ap­pli­ca­tions were eval­u­ated and scored by in­de­pen­dent peer re­view­ers.

Austin school board mem­bers on Mon­day will bring up for re­view the district’s con­tract with IDEA Pub­lic Schools. The board could vote to con­fine the char­ter school to Al­lan Ele­men­tary for one more year, in­stead of al­low­ing IDEA to con­tinue on its cur­rent growth plan by ex­pand­ing into East­side Me­mo­rial High next year.

IDEA started at Al­lan Ele­men­tary in Au­gust, af­ter months of protests and in­tense de­bate over the district’s de­ci­sion to part­ner with the char­ter op­er­a­tor. The school serves 544 stu­dents in kinder­garten through sec­ond grades and in sixth grade.

The district’s agree­ment with IDEA states that if of­fi­cials from ei­ther party wish to leave the part­ner­ship, they can do so by giv­ing no­tice by Dec. 31 of the year prior. If board mem­bers don’t make a de­ci­sion by the end of this year, IDEA will con­tinue to build out its model for at least one more year and ex­pand into more grades at Al­lan and East­side Me­mo­rial.

Last week, some board mem­bers said if IDEA was un­will­ing to make changes to the con­tract and stay at Al­lan for at least one more year, they might have to re­think the part­ner­ship.

None of the grant money is specif­i­cally ear­marked for IDEA Al­lan, but the school will ben­e­fit in­di­rectly since many of the tech­nol­ogy and other in­vest­ments will touch all 28 schools.

“It’s sort of a good news, OK news story in terms of how this ben­e­fits stu­dents in Austin,” Torkel­son said.

The district-spe­cific Race to the Top con­test fol­lowed an ear­lier $4 bil­lion state com­pe­ti­tion. Texas of­fi­cials opted not to ap­ply for the grant be­cause they said it un­der­cut the state’s con­trol of its pub­lic schools. away free,” said Delisi. He said shops could hand out prepack­aged bot­tled water with­out a health per­mit.

The jugs must be washed, rinsed and dried be­tween uses, and health of­fi­cials need to know the water and ice are coming from safe, clean sources. “We’re really in­ter­ested in pro­tect­ing the pub­lic’s health,” said Dr. Phil Huang, med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the health de­part­ment.

Ruth Eng­land, co-owner of Rogue, which has main­tained water cool­ers near In­ter­state 35 on week­ends for about four years, says her shop won’t pay for per­mits to put out water. “Aren’t we pro­vid­ing some­thing free that ev­ery­one takes ad­van­tage of?” she said. “It just seems silly. We don’t want to in­cur an ex­tra ex­pense.”

Long-term, park of­fi­cials say they’d rather have more water foun­tains than water cool­ers on the trail. But the ex­ist­ing foun­tains don’t al­ways work, and the city shuts them off when it freezes to pre­vent pipe dam­age.

The Trail Foun­da­tion in­stalled 10 water foun­tains at the John­son Creek Trail­head un­der MoPac Boule­vard (Loop 1) ear­lier this year. An­other bank is planned as part of the Au­di­to­rium Shores trail­head re­vi­tal­iza­tion, sched­uled for com­ple­tion in mid-2014. Water will also be avail­able at the east end of the board­walk be­ing built un­der In­ter­state 35, pro­jected to open in 2014.

In the mean­time, Car­rozza ad­vises run­ners to stay hy­drated by us­ing the ex­ist­ing foun­tains, car­ry­ing their own water or keep­ing a bot­tle in their car.

“At the end of the day this is im­por­tant to us,” Hens­ley said. “We want water on the trail.”

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