Nils Juul-Hansen first heard parents in Highland Park griping about Lamar Middle School when his son was a second-grader.
“Crime, violence, not learning anything – the worst school ever. You just pick,” Juul-Hansen said. “It was so bad, I was like, ‘Are we talking about a school in the Bronx in 1980?’ The parents were that inflamed – it was that bad.”
Lamar’s reputation had many parents either sending their children elsewhere or seriously considering such a move.
Other neighborhood schools in Austin have had similar problems, adding to concerns that middle-class families could eventually give up on Austin schools, as they have in other urban school districts across the country, taking with them a crucial chunk of revenue, higher-performing children and strong political support for bond proposals.
As Austin has grown, so have the suburban school districts around it, which routinely post better test scores and have more affordable housing. That’s helped them lure away many Austin families. And those who stay have a broader menu of school options than ever before. The city is home to twice as many accredited private schools — there are now 67 — as a decade ago. Charter school options – and the buzz around them – have grown just as much.
The school district recently started tracking where elementary and middle school students go when they leave, and it has used a number of strategies to keep them. While a majority of the students who left last year enrolled in other public school districts, 20 percent of them — about 1,220 students — left for charter schools. An additional 27 percent — more than 1,600 students — either left for private schools or left the state.
This year, Austin is on track to shrink by about 1,200 students — marking the first time the district has seen a net loss in more than a decade. Most of that drain was at elementary and middle schools, district officials say.
The district has been marketing its schools with signature programs focusing on subjects ranging from math and science to fine arts.
At Lamar, that meant creating a fine arts academy like the popular program at McCallum High School, which Lamar feeds into.
Juul-Hansen joined a crowd of more than 50 parents in the cafeteria at Highland Park Elementary earlier this month to hear Lamar Principal George Llewellyn pitch Lamar, something he does about 20 times a year.
The crowd of parents — many more than at most PTA meetings — sat in small plastic chairs, listening closely as Llewellyn described how he’s worked to turn the school around. Llewellyn’s pitch, peppered with dry humor, included slides showing Lamar’s offerings of fine arts classes right next to McCallum’s. He showed off a wide-ranging menu of clubs and described an inclusive, caring environment at the school — he hates to see students sitting alone at lunch, he told the crowd.
Juul-Hansen was the first to speak as Llewellyn’s pitch came to a close.
“In just two years you have turned disaster around,” he said, leading the crowd in loud applause. His son will start classes at Lamar next year.
Fighting middle-class flight
The Austin school district so far has fought off a spiral that many other urban districts have succumbed to: Middle-class parents have more school options, and some choose to pull their children from public schools or move to the suburbs. Performance at the urban schools starts to suffer, and more and more parents start shopping around.
“It becomes kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Jennifer Holme, an assistant professor of educational policy and planning at the University of Texas at Austin. “These families probably have multiple options. They definitely have the money to make other kinds of choices. That gets to be a big dilemma for urban districts.”
Urban school districts across the country — which have suffered varying amounts of middle-class flight — have worked to combat that directly.
Chicago developed elite, selective-enrollment high schools to stop middle-class parents from leaving for the suburbs. In Houston, the largest school district in Texas, most white families left for the suburbs or private schools years ago. The district is now battling a loss of poor minorities to charter options. Dallas has seen similar flight.
The Austin school district still educates about 90 percent of the students in its boundaries — roughly the same portion of the population it has served all along — but officials are having to fight to keep it that way. This year’s projected drop in enrollment is new for a district long told to expect a “tsunami” of growth, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said.
Carstarphen says Austin’s rising cost of living has likely driven most of the flight. Families who can’t afford higher housing costs head to the suburbs.
That’s left the district paying closer attention to where — and why — those students leave.
“Within the public system, kids are being competed for,” said Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of federal and state advocacy and education at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “And that usually leads to more innovation and better service to the students. Hopefully it also leads to better results.”
That has been the case at many of the schools where signature programs have been put in place. Enrollment at Reagan High School, one of the first to receive a signature program — the early college start program — has grown from 806 students in 2010 to more than 1,200. Test scores at the school have also improved.
Students in the early college start program — also offered at LBJ High School — can earn up to 60 hours of college credit before they graduate from high school.
Lamar’s changing reputation
George Llewellyn has grown used to the warm reception he saw at Highland Park’s PTA meeting earlier this month. But having parents so enthusiastically buying into Lamar is a change.
With slipping test scores and an unacceptable rating from the state in 2011, the middle school in Austin’s Allandale neighborhood had developed a bad reputation among the mostly white, middle-class parents at Highland Park and its other feeder schools. From 2008 to 2011, enrollment at Lamar dropped from 780 to 565.
“It was almost a foregone conclusion that people were going to start making other plans by fourth grade,” said Holly Eaton, whose son is in fifth grade and is “absolutely going to go Lamar.” Eaton, who is the director of professional development and advocacy at the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, attended the PTA meeting this month to hear Llewellyn’s pitch.
Lamar’s bad reputation seemed to stem in large part from the fact that many students from lower-performing schools were transferring to the school under the district’s transfer policy, which allows students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods, Eaton said. The perception among some parents was that Lamar had been inundated with students from East Austin.
Jodi Leach, a former Highland Park teacher who now runs a private preschool in Northwest Austin, was one parent looking at other options. Leach considered three private schools and even thought about selling her home to move a short distance north so her daughter would be zoned to attend Murchison Middle School.
Her daughter wanted to stay with her friends, many of whom were continuing on to Lamar. The Leach family sat down and made a list of Lamar’s pros and cons. Jodi Leach had heard of a growing movement among parents to reclaim Lamar as a neighborhood school. A plan was in place to make it a fine arts academy when her daughter started sixth grade, and Llewellyn was tapped to run it.
Llewellyn quickly worked to align the curriculum at Lamar with classes offered at McCallum, one of the district’s most popular and top performing high schools. Many parents would send their children to a private middle school before enrolling them at the public high school. Aligning curriculum at the two schools — which even share some staff — was key to recreating the connection between Lamar and McCallum in parents’ minds, Llewellyn said.
Llewellyn also boosted foreign language offerings at the middle school — which now has classes in Japanese, French and Spanish — and he added more rigorous math classes.
The Leaches weren’t alone in their decision to stick with the school. Attendance from Highland Park has nearly tripled. Other feeder schools have seen similar growth in the number of students they send to the middle school.
Lamar is even pulling students back from private schools — about 40 students left private schools for the middle school this year, Llewellyn said. Lamar’s enrollment has swelled by 160 students this year.
Performance at the school has also improved. The state gave Lamar an acceptable rating this year, as well as academic distinctions in reading and English language arts.
“Now you’re seeing people say, ‘I want to make sure I’m at Lamar,’” said Leach, who is now president of Lamar’s PTA.
More and more options
While signature programs like the fine arts academies at Lamar and McCallum have helped keep neighborhood students, the district is fending off leakage to a broader, more diverse array of options than ever before.
This school year, the private Magellan International School earned an International Baccalaureate accreditation, allowing it to offer the popular international learning program offered in many public schools.
Magellan offers a full Spanish immersion program, and students start learning Mandarin in third grade. The school was started just four years ago as an elementary school with just more than 40 students. Enrollment has since jumped to more than 300 as the school has added more grades. It will eventually offer classes through the 12th grade.
The school will likely compete for enrollment with some of the Austin school district’s best and most popular schools, including Anderson High and Murchison Middle School, also International Baccalaureate schools.
Magellan’s founder, Erin Defosse, said he didn’t create Magellan to compete with the school district — rather he saw a hole in the market for a language-intensive, international curriculum that he thought the school could fill. The school also offers scholarships for those who can’t afford to attend.
“There is a market clearly, just by the growth of the school,” Defosse said. “I see us co-existing very nicely with the other school options in the community.”
The school district launched a dual language program in 2010 that is now available at 65 schools where students are taught in two languages: English and any of a list of other options, from Spanish to Vietnamese.
Doss Elementary, just down the street from Magellan’s preschool campus, offers five languages.
Experimenting with charters
The growth of charter schools in Austin has led the district to experiment with partnering with charter operators, or opening its own. Supporters see in-district charter schools as a way to encourage innovation and give campuses flexibility.
Austin has become a leader in accepting in-district charters, David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association, said in May as officials and parents at Small Middle School in Southwest Austin started a push for what could be the district’s next charter. Dunn pointed to Small, Travis Heights Elementary, Premier High School at Lanier and the district’s attempt to establish an IDEA charter program at Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School as examples of Austin’s willingness to experiment with charters.
The Austin school district took an early stab with IDEA Public Schools. Their partnership to run Allan Elementary and eventually grow to operate Eastside Memorial High School created a heated controversy that led to turnover on the school board. The new trustees terminated the district’s contract with IDEA.
The charter operator headed to South Austin, kept the name — IDEA Allan — and took 555 of the district’s students with it.
The district’s latest stab has been more successful. A homegrown charter at Travis Heights Elementary started classes for the first time this year. School board members lauded the process that Travis Heights used to gain community support for its charter program. The move to turn Travis Heights into a charter school had the enthusiastic backing of the school’s parents and teachers.
The push to turn Small Middle School into an in-district charter is still gaining momentum.
“I definitely think it’s indicative of a bit of a shift,” Dunn said. “The district is being responsive to the fact that there is clearly a demand on the part of parents.”
Where are they now?
The district has started tracking where elementary and middle school students who left the district went. From the 2011-2012 school year to the next, more than half of the students left for other Texas districts.
Location | Elementary | Middle | Total
Del Valle | 422 | 100 | 522
Eanes | 38 | 14 | 52
Elgin | 50 | 11 | 61
Hays | 232 | 58 | 290
Lake Travis | 48 | 6 | 54
Leander | 118 | 32 | 150
Manor | 202 | 53 | 255
Pflugerville | 363 | 83 | 446
Round Rock | 273 | 51 | 324
Other districts | 773 | 199 | 972
Charter schools | 1,079 | 141 | 1,220
Other* | 1,337 | 279 | 1,616
*Includes students who left for private schools or left the state.
This is part of an occasional series by American-Statesman reporters chronicling how Central Texas’ rapid growth is changing the way we live.
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