What if the Austin school district could create innovative schools from existing classrooms that are so attractive and cutting-edge, students would want to be in school and learning? School trustees are embarking on that path to attempt to address a myriad of challenges the district is facing over the next 20 years.
Typically, school trustees have approached such challenges piecemeal, which has spurred confusing policies. They have called bond elections to build new schools to address crowding in some areas of town, while proposing to shutter schools in East or Central Austin that are woefully underenrolled. They have rolled out single-gender schools to address campus safety and low academic performance in two middle schools. But those schools still are half empty. In a more successful fix, the district has put dual-language programs in schools to fill empty seats.
Trustees mostly handle the big challenges from a crisis mode. They face intense competition from charter schools, aging campuses that require extensive maintenance and minority flight in which Latino and African-American students are fleeing the district by the hundreds.
Such trends along with an affordable housing crisis have combined for three successive years of enrollment losses for the Austin school district. In that period, the district has bled about 3,000 students, moving it from the fifth-largest district in Texas to the sixth, with 83,591 students.
To be sure, there are some dynamics beyond the control of Austin school officials, such as Austin’s high housing costs and the state’s school funding system. Nonetheless there are meaningful measures that the district can employ to manage its challenges. The first step is to recognize that the challenges are interconnected, and therefore, best addressed as a whole. The next step is to move beyond a piecemeal approach.
Last week, we welcomed action by trustees to do exactly that. The expertise for that kind of planning and approach comes from Washington-based Brailsford and Dunlavey, Inc. School trustees voted to pay the firm $934,453 for the first year of planning. The firm, which opened an Austin office, has provided similar expertise to several urban districts elsewhere, including in Baltimore and Los Angeles. Some have criticized the cost. In our view, it is a worthwhile investment if it helps trustees and Superintendent Paul Cruz get in front of shifting trends instead of being pulled in different directions.
Austin ISD school board president Kendall Pace explained it this way: “We can’t just look at bonds (for new schools) in a vacuum or closing schools in a vacuum or shifting students from high-performing campuses to low-performing ones in a vacuum. We have to look at facilities in a much broader way to keep students and families in the district who otherwise will be motivated to leave.”
That is especially true considering old and new challenges:
Enrollment: Austin schools lost 1,200 students for this school year. Declines will continue over the next decade with Austin schools projecting enrollment losses of about 6,100 students, or 7.4 percent, according to district figures. A new trend is seeing the biggest losses among black and Latino students and gains in gifted and talented, Asian and white students.
Those trends won’t be experienced uniformly. Crowded schools in Northwest and Southeast Austin will become more crowded, while centrally located schools will continue losing enrollment, gentrification will continue pushing out low-income families and more single-family homes will be replaced by condos and upscale apartments. That trend will exacerbate the district’s doughnut.
Charter schools: Those privately run public schools in the Austin area grew their enrollments from 1,797 in 2005-06 to 15,112 in 2014-15. About 1,300 Austin ISD students were enrolled in charter schools in 2014-15, according to state figures.
Recapture: The Austin district will surrender about $270 million in local tax revenue to the state this school year to comply with Texas school financing laws. That is estimated to climb to about $380 million in the 2016-17 school year and higher in future years, according to district figures. Though the district is categorized as property-rich based on the value of its property, nearly 60 percent of its students are from low-income households.
Aging schools: The district has more than 50 schools that are more than 50 years old and five campuses that are 100 or older.
Pace said the goal must be to reinvent education using school facilities to help accomplish that. She has a point.
For instance, parents and students have fled historically low performing Martin Middle School and Eastside Memorial High to attend higher-performing O’Henry Middle School and Austin High. That has decimated attendance at Martin and Eastside Memorial while creating overcrowding at O’Henry and Austin High.
That trend also has hurt overall student performance at the schools because it is the most-motivated students and parents who are the most likely to leave lower-performing schools.
Though the district has tweaked its transfer policies, such actions have backfired in some cases with parents — faced with enrolling their children in lower-performing schools — have left the district for charter or private schools.
Those trends affect Austin ISD’s budget. Fewer students means fewer school dollars, but utility expenses remain the same. When schools are overenrolled, the district pays to erect portable classrooms on the campuses. Using district facilities can also help with teacher compensation if some facilities are transformed into housing for teachers, Pace said.
Planning schools from that context will not only improve them, but build consensus among a skeptical public for future capital projects. That change is overdue.