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AISD trustees must be culturally competent to face district challenges

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, declared education “a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Yet, more than 60 years later, the majority of Austin Independent School District campuses are once again economically and racially segregated, and with few exceptions schools that struggle the most are the ones with the most black and brown children.

That could finally be changing. The efforts of some members of the school board to bring integration to the forefront includes a recent proposal to tie the annual evaluation of Superintendent Paul Cruz to successfully reducing school segregation.

The board will vote on Monday whether to include integration goals — for which some measurements have yet to be determined — in Cruz’s 2017 evaluation score card. The vote should be a resounding “yes.” But it will take the entire board’s willingness to truly embrace integration for any plan to work.

READ VIEWPOINTS Q&A: Elections 2016: AISD trustee candidates answer our questions

Integration solutions for the district are overdue. To get there, successful policy will require a level of cultural competence from all district leaders — including the superintendent to the members of Board of Trustees. Understanding different student life experiences is critical for meaningful change. And the variations in life experiences are as vast as the student population itself.

To that point, the issue of integration of Austin schools through voluntary methods has become a central issue in two contested races for school board that voters will decide on Nov. 8: The at-large District 8 seat and the District 2 seat that covers East and Southeast Austin.

In 2015, more than 70 percent of the Austin Independent School District’s student population were children of color. Latino students made up the majority at 59 percent, while African-American students make up 8 percent and Asian students 4 percent. More than 94 languages were represented in Austin classrooms.

And yet, you need only walk into just about any school in Austin to see that the district has a long, difficult journey to eliminate the divide that separates low-income students — who happen to be mostly students of color — from white, affluent students. Here, white students may make up only a quarter of the district’s demographics, and yet they are the majority at 32 schools, largely on the city’s west side and in the district’s coveted magnet programs, according to the district.

While part of the issue is the city’s increasing socioeconomic segregation and affordability crisis, some responsibility lies with reluctance by past district leaders to take on the issue. And while some members of the current administration have been willing to face difficult political backlash associated with the transformation required for integration, upcoming changes to the board do not go unnoticed: For the first time in 20 years, the nine-member board could include only two minority trustees.

In the past two decades, an average of four minority trustees have filled seats on the board. The 2010-2012 term gave the board its highest number of minorities members with six. Currently, only three minorities sit on the board: Former President and at-large District 8 representative Gina Hinojosa, current Vice President and District 6 Trustee Paul Saldaña and Trustee for District 1 Edmund “Ted” Gordon.

However, with the departure of Hinojosa, who is all but certain to take the state representative House District 49 seat following the Nov. 8 election, the board could lose another voice for minority students.

With possible decreasing diversity on the board, cultural competence by all members becomes more essential. As the policymakers of the district, board members are entrusted to be able to navigate how and what our children are taught — that includes understanding what works best for children of color who have for too long been underserved. Yes, in a perfect world the board would mirror its diverse student population. That said, the ethnicity of a trustee is not as important as his or her cultural awareness and sensitivity — an attribute, by the way, expected of all Austin teachers.

It is with cultural competence and focused attention on proven student success models that current and potential new board members can continue the slow-building momentum to voluntarily desegregate schools without forced busing. Otherwise, distrust within the community emerges when cultural competence and sensitivity is absent.

For an example of how the board’s disconnect can quickly become problematic, you need only look at the trustees’ recent questioning of the effectiveness of the district’s dual-language program, a program in which non-English-speaking students receive instruction in their native language. The method is the most successful way to teach these students according to multiple research studies, including a 2015 study by the Houston Education Research Consortium.

Instead of suggesting dual-language doesn’t work fast enough for students, trustees should be asking what it takes to fund, implement and track a well-designed program that would deliver desired results and be uniformly replicated throughout the district. To see the value of such programming takes a level of sensitivity and understanding that goes beyond numbers.

Let’s be clear, meaningful integration is not just about the physical transfer of students from one school to another. Integration means quality education for all. Quality programming, be it dual-language or a liberal arts education, will deliver that excellence in education. It’s an excellence from which everyone benefits. Quality programs can help attract students to underenrolled district schools, close achievement gaps and provide Central Texas with an educated workforce.

Most members of the current board get it. Along with possible integration goals for Superintendent Cruz — which we support — trustees have said they will look to place high-demand programs in schools with large numbers of low-income children of color with the hope that more middle-class and more white students will transfer to those schools, the American-Statesman’s Melissa Taboada reported.

The trustees’ proposal for an integration pilot plan in East Austin’s District 1 is a good start. Though details — including how and by when — have yet to be determined, the plan signals to communities of color the board’s willingness to desegregate schools.

It’s time that economic and racial segregation ended in the Austin Independent School District. Trustees — current and incoming — must now focus on how to deliver quality education to all children in the district.

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