Commentary: There is only ‘us’ in public education


“And so, how are the children?” That’s how members of the Masai tribe in East Africa greet each other. And the traditional response, “All the children are well,” signifies that all is right in the village, as long as the children are cared for and safe.

Like the Masai, we should care about how all of the children are doing — regardless in which Austin neighborhood they live, the color of their skin, or their family’s income.

At IDEA Public Schools, everything we do— from teachers to the executive director — starts with asking ourselves, how are the children. We place the success of our students above everything else and believe that no child’s future should depend on their ZIP code.

I’m asked frequently how IDEA impacts the traditional school districts in our community. The question we should be asking instead is “How are our children doing?”

At IDEA, our mission is to ensure that all of our students matriculate to and through college. We’re inspired every day by students who are overcoming daunting challenges on their path to success. Students like Denzel, who entered kindergarten at IDEA’s Rundberg Academy in North Austin last year with significant behavioral challenges. He spent most of the year receiving intensive academic and behavioral support. Being raised by a single mom and from a low-income background, Denzel and many students like him have the institutional deck stacked against them. But at IDEA we believe that all students, including and especially students like Denzel, are college material.

Today, Denzel is excelling in class, meeting daily academic and behavioral goals, and is on track to end the year above grade level.

Ashley, a sophomore at IDEA Allan College Prep in East Austin’s Montopolis neighborhood, is another student who inspires us. She’s the oldest of three children with a brother who’s in fourth grade at IDEA Allan Academy, and a sister who’ll start kindergarten in 2017. The children live with their mother and their father is incarcerated. Ashley’s mom drives to San Marcos to work every day, dropping her youngest child with a babysitter at 5 a.m. Ashley is responsible for getting herself and her brother up, preparing them for school, and making sure they arrive the bus stop by 6:50 a.m. In four and a half years at IDEA, they’ve never missed the bus — not once. Ashley is highly motivated to go to college to make a better life for her family. One day she wants to come back to teach at an IDEA school in her community.

IDEA Austin currently serves 2,500 students in grades kindergarten through 10th. It will expand to 11th and 12th grade in the next two years. This includes 12 kindergarten classrooms of students who are taking their first small steps to college. In two years, we’ll send our first class of IDEA Allan seniors to college. They will each take at least 11 advanced placement courses and will graduate from college at five times the rate of students with similar backgrounds.

Thanks to an investment from the KLE Foundation, IDEA will grow from six to 26 schools in the Austin area by 2022.

We are scaling our success because today, students in Austin who are low-income have less of a chance of graduating from college than comparable students in every other metro area in Texas. Let that sink in: Students who are economically disadvantaged in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas are all projected to earn college degrees at higher rates than similar students in Austin. Along the Texas/Mexico border, a student whose family earns about $30,000 is twice as likely to earn a college degree as a student in that bracket in Austin. This is unacceptable.

Austin is first in nearly every economic and quality-of-life ranking, but when it comes to educating children from low-income backgrounds, we are last. Austin can and must do better to ensure that every child has access to a great education. Closing the achievement gap and providing a college preparatory education is the best way to help our children succeed in life.

The debate over public charter schools versus traditional public schools creates a false choice for families in Austin. There is no “us” and “them” in public education. Like the Masai, in a kids-first culture, there is only us.

Tackett is executive director at IDEA Public Schools Austin.



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