AUSTIN (KXAN) - There are two ways to be a student at South Austin's Mainspring Schools . You can be a child from an economically disadvantaged home or you can be a child from a comfortable middle- or upper-class home. The combination is deliberate.
"One of the tragedies that poverty bestows on its children is limited language use," said Mainspring Schools Executive Director Rudi Andrus.
"There are studies showing that a child of poverty starts kindergarten having heard 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. We all know that language is what gets you to start reading and that reading is the basis of all future learning," said Andrus.
"So one of the things we seek to do at Mainspring is to give our kids a really language-rich environment."
So where do you find "language-rich" children? In middle- and upper-class homes, of course. But what's in it for those parents?
"If you live on an island someplace where everybody just looks like you, that's not the way the world is," said Dean Mohlman, picking up his daughter, Rose, after school.
"So I think it's a huge benefit for her to be exposed to all different colors of kids, shall we say."
"People realize that their children are going to live in a different world," said Andrus. "And they know that their children will grow up into an even more diverse world. And so they want that experience for them."
There's also another reason well-off families send their children to Mainspring: It's just a very good school.
"The research that my stepdaughter did on the school showed that it had a very good reputation," said Scott Pierson, grandfather to two students at Mainspring.
Indeed, the school is fully accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and there is a waiting list to enroll.
"We have classrooms with fewer children and more teachers," Andrus said, "so that every kid gets more personalized attention."
Teachers are generally better educated at Mainspring than in public schools, but they make less. They stay, according to Andrus, because they are given more freedom from bureaucracy in their classrooms.
"It's something that grandmothers have always known," she said. "Love your child; hold your child; talk to your child; read to your child."
So while financially secure families pay full tuition for their children, students from struggling family incomes can take advantage of subsidized tuition, thanks to money from the full-pay families and from government funds funneled through the Housing Authority of Austin .
Indeed, 25 percent of the student body comes from housing developments. Another 50 percent comes from low-income families living primarily in apartments around town. The rest are from the middle- and upper-income families.
For families struggling to get by, the standards are strict.
"In order to get these governmental subsidies," Andrus said, "families must be working or in school 25 hours a week, and they must complete rigorous paperwork in a very timely manner."
There is also a mandatory parent education program that puts mothers and fathers through a 13-week course on family communication and discipline techniques, among other things.
If a parent loses his or her job, the child faces withdrawal from Mainspring.
Yvonne Marinas has two children in the program. Two more have already graduated and gone on to public school.
"They still would have been OK, of course, but they wouldn't have been as outgoing. My children are very social," she laughed.
A $100,000 grant from the Humana Foundation is buying a new modular building that will be installed next to the school building. It will enable Mainspring to boost the number of students it serves from 53 to 86.
What all this buys is part of a future Austin, populated by smart, social, job holders and taxpayers.
"We get lower high school dropout rates," Andrus said, "which, of course, leads to higher employment, higher capacity to be a taxpayer, rather than a tax user; less involvement with the criminal justice system; greater chances of home ownership; less teen pregnancy; less drug and alcohol use.
"So a whole host of the social ills that, frankly, are just dogging our tax system and dogging the people that are trying to balance the state budget, can be eliminated with quality early education."
Ultimately, the director predicts, society will opt to include early childhood education in the public school arena.
"We haven't caught up with the science; science has proven [the need] and we just haven't caught up with the science yet."
Meanwhile, Mainspring winds itself up every day in support of its diverse student body and the families from which they come.
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