By the time he finished the fifth grade, Jose Emiliano Castelan heard the rumors of hallway fistfights and academic struggles at the East Austin middle school he was zoned to attend.
Jose and his mother, Angelica Ramirez, found an alternative nearby. A small charter school, Austin Achieve Public Schools, was opening less than a mile away from the middle school.
It is no coincidence that more than half of Austin’s charter schools are located east of Interstate 35, near some public schools with a history of low performance, and only one exists west of MoPac Boulevard. Several charter-school operators target underserved students and their families and have carved out a niche in Austin by promoting individualized learning, magnet-like schools and smaller class sizes.
Enrollment in charter schools in Austin is expected to hit 14,227 when school starts this month — having more than quadrupled since the 2006-2007 school year — with hundreds more students on local waiting lists.
Most charter schools in Austin are primarily serving low-income students, the majority of them Hispanic, the fastest-growing demographic in the region and across Texas.
For Jose and his mother, the choice was simple. He has been at Austin Achieve for two years now.
“I’ve heard about the problems at other schools, and for me (Austin Achieve) has rules that keep problems in check,” Angelica Ramirez said in Spanish, noting the attentiveness of Jose’s teachers. “They find solutions.”
The growth of charter schools shouldn’t be alarming, said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. Compared with national averages, Austin’s charter schools still have a relatively small market, accounting for 6 to 8 percent of the total student population in the Austin area, Dunn said.
“It can be beneficial competition,” he said. “Some of the highest performing charter schools in Austin — KIPP, NYOS, Harmony — are focusing on kids for whom the traditional public schools didn’t provide a setting for which they could succeed.”
But advocates of traditional public schools say there is reason for concern, pointing to dwindling enrollment numbers and funding. They say the charter schools have had the same negative impact they warned about 20 years ago when the state first began authorizing them.
As it has in other urban districts across the country, the flight to charter schools has had a direct impact on the Austin school district, which battles low enrollment at some of its schools.
The 85,355-student Austin district shrank by nearly 1,200 students in 2013-14, the first decline in enrollment in more than a decade, even as the area brings in newcomers by the hundreds each week. The loss surprised district officials, who had expected an enrollment gain. They expect another loss of at least 400 this year. While the majority of students who leave head for other Central Texas districts, according to Austin district data, about 20 percent enrolled in charter schools.
“They do a good job of selling a product,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the Austin district’s largest labor union. “We need to have a strategy. The school district has to figure out a better way of communicating and marketing to parents and those moving into the city that we are, in fact, their best choice. That’s the challenge.”
The Austin district has now closed Pearce Middle School, where Jose had been zoned to attend. The campus, long plagued by academic struggles and low enrollment, will reopen as an all-girls leadership academy in August. The all-girls school is one of two single-sex campuses officials are launching to help turn around two struggling schools in the district. The single-sex schools and special programs, such as academic magnets and early college high schools, are part of the district’s strategy for creating school choice for parents within Austin’s traditional public schools.
Opponents of charter schools say they are pulling away badly needed state funding from traditional school districts; at about $7,400 apiece, the more than 14,000 charter students will equate to more than $100 million in state education funding to be sapped from area districts, primarily Austin.
While acknowledging that some are high-achieving schools — 8.5 percent of charter school campuses received the state’s highest rating in 2011 compared with 4.4 percent of traditional public schools — opponents say some charter schools make false promises to parents, have less oversight and are often run by groups with no background in education. Charters also disproportionately are rated among Texas’ worst schools, with 17.6 percent rated unacceptable by the state in 2011, compared with 4.9 percent of traditional public schools.
Austin’s charter schools, however, have rarely been closed for failure of state standards.
Two new charter schools opened in the city in 2013-14, and another, Montessori for All, debuts in August.
Several area charter schools promise a more rigorous, college-prep curriculum and give assurances that high percentages of students — particularly their minority students — move on to college. It’s a draw for parents who are seeking better results than the Austin district’s overall graduation rate of 82.5 percent and its graduation rates of less than 80 percent for blacks and Hispanics.
“From the beginning, they started talking to her about college. That’s already her mindset,” said parent Sandra Araujo, whose 11-year-old daughter, Nicky, just completed her first year at KIPP Austin Public Schools. Ninety-three percent of KIPP Austin students went on to college in 2012.
Araujo says her daughter frequently came home bored from two traditional elementary schools she attended in South and East Austin. Since she switched to KIPP, Araujo has noticed a dramatic change. Nicky’s vocabulary flourished. She became an avid reader and began assisting peers with work at school. But more, Nicky became focused on pursuing a college education after the charter school took her on her first college visit.
“I would have never thought that she’d be so into school,” Araujo said. “Before I was always pushing her to go that extra mile. Now, she’s pushing herself.”
Others are migrating to charter schools because they feel their children are getting more attention.
Aisha Garza said she and her husband sent their eldest daughter to IDEA Allan after feeling like a number when they visited a middle school in the Austin district. By contrast, staff at IDEA Allan welcomed them warmly, using her daughter’s first name and asking about her interests.
“Their approach is what makes the difference,” Garza said. “She’s an individual here. I can’t say enough good things about this school. I love the work ethic.”
Garza said classroom instruction at IDEA is less formulaic than what she’s seen in traditional schools. If a lesson doesn’t work in class and students don’t grasp the material, she said, they change the way it’s taught.
Two weeks ago, Garza navigated IDEA’s new student registration alongside dozens of other parents to sign up her two sons. Garza was fortunate, as the charter school turned away more than 1,200 students.
Taking them back
The Austin district has launched an array of efforts in recent years to retain students, offering more options, branding schools with magnet programs, partnering with charter operators to run programs at a handful of schools and maintaining a liberal transfer policy. The district works with Responsive Education Solutions, a charter school operator, to run two dropout prevention programs at two high schools. The district also allowed Travis Heights Elementary to become a community-grown, in-district charter, run with the help of Education Austin and Austin Interfaith.
Those offerings have helped win back some parents.
After touring a charter school in South Texas, Hilda Villalobos-Alvarez two years ago decided to pull her son from the Austin district and send him to a local charter school for sixth grade. But she said her son’s teachers were inattentive, his grades suffered, and the charter school didn’t offer athletics or extracurricular activities. The school also had limited parental involvement and lacked a PTA.
She re-enrolled him in the Austin district at Martin Middle School after a year. She said the teachers and staff are engaged, and the curriculum is rigorous. His grades flourished, he takes pre-Advanced Placement courses and plays sports.
“I wanted to see what the difference would be between a charter and AISD. It was an experiment,” Villalobos-Alvarez. “It wasn’t the same. I hated to put my kid through that, but that was the only way to know the difference.”
The National School Choice Week group in January touted the Austin district as a national benchmark for choice-oriented policies.
Andrew Campanella, president of the group, said at the time that people too often think of school choice as something that is divisive or negative toward the public school system, but he considers it something that lifts up the traditional public school system.
Charter schools: A primer
A state-issued charter allows a private, nonprofit entity to run a school with state dollars, though a handful contract with for-profit management firms, a move that draws criticism from opponents. While the schools must meet academic accountability standards, the state exempts them from other requirements, such as teacher certification and class sizes, making way for more innovation.
Statewide, about 178,000 students, or 3.5 percent, attended more than 550 charter schools in 2013, with an additional 100,000 on waiting lists, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association.
Texas caps the number of charters at 225, although a charter operator can run more than one campus under a single charter. The state, which opened the doors to charter schools in 1995, has allowed for more charters per year and will increase the cap to 305 by 2019. The state has put in place tougher rules for poor-performing charters, with a new law requiring the Texas Education Agency to shut down charters for failing to meet academic or financial standards for three consecutive years; the charters can appeal the decision to the agency.