Austin ISD is banking on bond to boost enrollment, turn around schools

1:53 p.m Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 Local
Tenth-graders Joshua Richey, from left, Paul Bernhardt, Ethan Bylsma, Emily Calzada, Conner Guetlein and Jason Hanley work on a World History project in an open and collaborative learning space at Glenn High School in Leander on Thursday September 14, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Natural lighting, movable furniture, state-of-the art technology, and open and collaborative learning spaces. That kind of learning environment is what Austin district leaders envision for their campuses of the future.

The average Austin school building is 40 years old. Many of the classroom spaces still resemble industrial-era classrooms with their front-facing rows, a single wood door to enter and no windows.

In November, Austin voters will decide on the first in what is expected to be a series of bond packages aimed at modernizing the district, following a path already taken by many urban school districts across the country. The $1.1 billion bond measure will tear down old campuses that have outlived their usefulness and rebuild them. Other tired schools will get a facelift.

But district officials say it’s about more than looks. As they talk about needs for the bond, school leaders emphasize that the new facilities will help them retain students and even attract some back to the district, which has lost 3,500 students since 2012. Austin has increasing competition from charter schools and districts in Austin’s suburbs, where housing is cheaper and academics often rank higher. Many of the campuses in Round Rock and Leander are new, with all the bells and whistles Austin wants for its own kids.

READ: What’s the tax impact of Austin’s $1B bond for schools? Hint: It’s not $0

While similar school construction efforts have met with mixed results, some experts say there is a link between academic achievement and the school environment. Leaders in the Austin schools are banking on it.

“No one can tell me that environment doesn’t mean anything,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer who is overseeing the bond program. “You know air quality, lighting, working conditions for teachers. Those all make a difference. The look of it changes your mental attitude. There are studies that say building conditions affect kids and their psychological attitudes and their academic performances. My hope is that people will say this is our chance to invest in our future and give our kids something great.”

In Houston, new magnet attracts

Houston is about halfway through its 2012 $1.89 billion bond measure. It’s too early to determine whether the new buildings will be a game-changer, said Trustee Mike Lunceford, who has been involved with the district for a quarter of a century, and has been on the school board for 8 years.

But the modern campuses and furnishings are conducive to project-based learning that teaches students to work together in small groups toward a goal.

“The way kids learn today is a lot different,” he said. “The new buildings are more accessible to the type of education kids are getting today.”

At least one Houston high school, the former Reagan High, which was renamed Heights High School, went from being underenrolled a decade ago to having students on a waiting list for its magnet program.

Jay Janner/American-Statesman Staff
Students walk to class at Glenn High School in Leander on Thursday September 14, 2017. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Houston Trustee Anna Eastman attributed other factors to the school’s turnaround than just the modernized building: neighborhood changes, consistency in campus leadership and new academic offerings, including the ability to earn an International Baccalaureate diploma.

“Parents want to make sure kids are learning and having the best academic experience,” Eastman said. “It’s easier done when you have a new building, especially one that is ready to accommodate 21st century learning, but I don’t think it’s the only thing done that makes the whole difference.”

In Austin, Trustee Julie Cowan said as greater percentages of the district’s operations budget are required by the state under the Texas school finance system, the district can no longer afford the Band-Aid approach in fixing the aging facilities. While “it’s not going to be the cure-all,” she said, if voters approve the bond measure, the investment will stretch 50 to 75 years in those new learning spaces.

“It’s what our children deserve,” she said. “It’s what we’re competing with. It’s time to modernize.”

A California success story

On the West Coast, an overhaul of campuses throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s largest school construction program at $19.5 billion and 131 new campuses — produced dramatic outcomes, according to Bruce Fuller at the University of California at Berkeley.

Students moving from dilapidated and severely overcrowded elementary schools into new schools made academic gains equal to about 35 extra instructional days, his research revealed. Secondary students also saw gains, but not to the same extent, he said.

The students told Fuller and the other researchers that they felt like the educators cared about them by putting them in a better environment, Fuller said.

“We found the construction of new schools had quite a strong effect in lifting the achievement of kids who came from old and overcrowded schools,” Fuller said. “The overall signaling of better conditions we think explains the bump in student engagement and achievement.

“The one thing we heard from the students was that they felt in a newer renovated school that the grownups actually cared about them.”

Another independent study by Yale University doctoral students had similar conclusions, suggesting that new school construction in New Haven, Conn., lifted academic scores, as well as boosted enrollment.

Others explain new buildings can’t bring improvement in a vacuum. Shiny buildings still require strong campus leadership, teachers and academic programs, said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, the D.C. nonprofit that has worked since the mid-90s to improve public education, with an emphasis on facilities.

Filardo started an organization to work to modernize Washington’s schools, some of which were closed for fire violations and asbestos. About $4 billion has been pumped into new facilities. Filardo said she’s starting to see a turnaround, but cautioned that gains can be lost.

She pointed to H.D. Woodson High School, which reopened in 2011 after its $102 million rebuild, which featured lots of open space, including a central atrium. Enrollment initially grew. But the school didn’t invest in necessary programming, Filardo said, and did not retain the bump in students.

“It takes people, it takes programs and it takes modern facilities to support them,” she said.