Small el­e­men­tary schools’ suc­cess ig­nored in plan to close some sites

Austin American-Statesman - - VIEWPOINTS - BRIAN GREIG, AUSTIN JIM BROOKS, AUSTIN

The Austin In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict is cur­rently work­ing with its Fa­cil­i­ties and Bond Plan­ning Com­mit­tee, pri­vate con­sul­tants and the com­mu­nity to up­date its Fa­cil­i­ties Master Plan, a road map that will guide the dis­trict for the next 20 years. The school board is sched­uled to vote on the plan later this month.

The Fa­cil­i­ties and Bond Plan­ning Com­mit­tee, or FABPAC, has a clear vision for dis­trict fa­cil­i­ties that puts a premium on “mod­ern­iza­tion,” “new spa­ces” and other su­per­fi­cial tan­gi­bles. How­ever, it fails to ap­pre­ci­ate the in­creas­ing role small el­e­men­tary schools play in ur­ban set­tings, where there is in­creased com­pe­ti­tion be­tween pub­lic, char­ter and pri­vate schools.

From its in­cep­tion, the FABPAC vision for Austin ISD en­tails com­bin­ing smaller schools into larger mod­ern­ized build­ings and “re­pur­pos­ing” neigh­bor­hood schools to min­i­mize costs. Austin ISD’s bench­mark ca­pac­ity for el­e­men­tary schools is 522 to as large as 870 stu­dents.

It’s no sur­prise that the FABPAC is rec­om­mend­ing the clo­sure of sev­eral small schools, in­clud­ing our own neigh­bor­hood school, Joslin El­e­men­tary, where my son at­tends. Joslin is at 74 per­cent per­ma­nent ca­pac­ity but has been un­der-en­rolled by 1 per­cent, the equiv­a­lent of three stu­dents, for the last two years.

The FABPAC’s fu­ture vision has never in­volved small schools. What is con­cern­ing is that the FABPAC con­tin­ues to main­tain that its rec­om­men­da­tion to close Joslin is “ob­jec­tive and data driven.”

Con­sider what so­cial sci­ence tells us about small el­e­men­tary schools:

Data shows that ef­fec­tive el­e­men­tary schools have 300400 stu­dents, not 522-870.

Achieve­ment data in small schools is equal and of­ten su­pe­rior to large schools.

Stu­dents and staff have bet­ter at­ti­tudes than their coun­ter­parts in large schools.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, re­search on aca­demic achieve­ment tells us small el­e­men­tary schools are of crit­i­cal im­por­tance to mi­nor­ity- and low-in­come stu­dents. Two-thirds of Joslin stu­dents are Latino. Seventy-five per­cent come from low-in­come fam­i­lies.

The Ed­u­ca­tional Equal­ity Index is the first na­tional com­par­a­tive mea­sure of the achieve­ment gap be­tween stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies and their peers. In Austin ISD, there is a mas­sive achieve­ment gap. Joslin is one of only 10 schools rec­og­nized as hav­ing a small to nonex­is­tent achieve­ment gap.

Ad­di­tion­ally, last year Joslin was one of only nine el­e­men­tary schools in Cen­tral Texas rec­og­nized by the Texas Ed­u­ca­tion Agency for clos­ing the achieve­ment gap for low-in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents. This is a big deal, and yes, it is data-driven.

While progress un­der our cur­rent Austin ISD lead­er­ship is be­ing made, ves­tiges of the past re­main. Su­per­in­ten­dent Paul Cruz and mem­bers of the board of trustees have in­her­ited a school dis­trict that still con­tains rem­nants of in­sti­tu­tional racism. Schools like Joslin El­e­men­tary have been ger­ry­man­dered. Joslin’s at­ten­dance bound­aries have been re­peat­edly nar­rowed to boost en­roll­ment at other el­e­men­tary schools over decades.

Yet, Austin ISD has not ad­justed Joslin’s bound­aries once in the last 20 years to help its en­roll­ment. If Austin ISD is truly com­mit­ted to mod­ern­iza­tion, the first step is to use mod­ern best prac­tices in set­ting at­ten­dance bound­aries and for­mu­late ef­fec­tive en­roll­ment strate­gies for all Austin ISD schools.

With school fi­nance is­sues, de­ferred main­te­nance costs, and a fore­cast of de­clin­ing en­roll­ment due to ris­ing hous­ing costs, Austin ISD has been dealt a dif­fi­cult hand. Yet, at a time when Austin ISD des­per­ately needs in­creased com­mu­nity sup­port, the FABPAC’s rec­om­men­da­tions for schools like Joslin threaten to de­stroy com­mu­nity part­ner­ships with neigh­bor­hoods that are es­sen­tial to Austin’s fu­ture.

If Austin ISD does not want to lose fam­i­lies to char­ter and pri­vate schools, now is the time to ex­am­ine why par­ents are choos­ing Joslin. It’s at­tract­ing nearly 40 per­cent of its stu­dents from other schools through­out the city.

While FABPAC doesn’t ac­knowl­edge the value of small schools in Austin ISD’s Fa­cil­i­ties Master Plan, the good news is it can only make rec­om­men­da­tions. The su­per­in­ten­dent will be mak­ing his own rec­om­men­da­tion and ul­ti­mately our elected board will de­ter­mine the fate of small el­e­men­tary schools in Austin ISD.

Small el­e­men­tary schools like Joslin and oth­ers that are clos­ing the achieve­ment gap are al­ready “rein­vent­ing the ur­ban school ex­pe­ri­ence.”

As a proud grad­u­ate of small pub­lic schools in East Austin, I can say that when plan­ning the fu­ture of Austin ISD, we should cel­e­brate and sup­port small schools, not close them.

Re: Feb. 20 com­men­tary, “Wear: Could Jol­lyville Road driv­ers sur­vive a ‘road diet’?”

I ap­plaud reporter Ben Wear for tak­ing the time to study the ef­fect of the Austin’s “Great Streets” or “road diet” pro­grams, re­veal­ing that they al­lo­cate 40 per­cent of roads to bikes, whose rid­ers con­sti­tute 0.3 of 1 per­cent of traf­fic vol­ume, as Wear ob­served on a Wed­nes­day morn­ing on Jol­lyville Road.

It is time to stop this so­cial en­gi­neer­ing and re­quire the city’s trans­porta­tion de­part­ment to prove ac­tual need be­fore spend­ing mil­lions of tax­payer dol­lars to push its avowed goal of slow­ing traf­fic and re­duc­ing au­to­mo­bile use. Why slow traf­fic from MoPac into down­town? Stop al­low­ing build­ings, like the new ho­tel on Congress Av­enue, to have no park­ing. Use the $4 mil­lion an­nu­ally in cen­ter city park­ing me­ter re­ceipts to im­prove down­town park­ing.

When there is ad­e­quate pub­lic trans­porta­tion we can talk again, but Cap­i­tal Metro’s plan re­duces ser­vice to many ar­eas, not in­creases it.

Re: Feb. 19 com­men­tary, “Steven­son: Here we go again — fight­ing vouch­ers at the Texas Capi­tol.”

Thank you, Sara Steven­son, for so clearly and thought­fully de­ci­pher­ing the ob­fus­cated Se­nate Bill 3 au­thored by state Sen. Donna Camp­bell. This pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to re­di­rect state fund­ing for pub­lic schools — which must, by law, ac­cept and ed­u­cate each and ev­ery child that walks through its doors — seems to go hand in hand with State Sen. Don Huffines’ Se­nate Bill 703.

SB 703 is de­signed to sup­press pos­i­tive voter par­tic­i­pa­tion in lo­cal school dis­trict tax elec­tions. Iron­i­cally, th­ese elec­tions are now more im­por­tant than ever, since the ma­jor­ity of the cost of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion has shifted from the state to lo­cal in­de­pen­dent school dis­tricts over the past 30 years.

If the sen­a­tors are truly in­ter­ested in the goal to “im­prove pub­lic schools and over­all aca­demic per­for­mance” for all Texas school-age chil­dren, why not in­tro­duce bills to put their money where their mouths are and al­low lo­cal school boards the abil­ity to lower lo­cal tax rates?

DEB­O­RAH CAN­NON / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Montser­rat Garibay (left) presents a “Know Your Rights” train­ing ses­sion last month for Ed­u­ca­tion Austin to teach peo­ple how to han­dle im­mi­gra­tion arrests.

Vil­lanueva

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