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Commentary: Why small elementary schools are essential to the future


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 300-400 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. Currently, 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.

Villanueva is a professor of psychology and faculty fellow on diversity at St. Edward’s University. Her son is a student at Joslin Elementary.



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