AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students, parents, teachers and administrators all took turns speaking for nearly four hours on Tuesday, sharing their personal anecdotes and concerns regarding equity and community relations with the Austin Independent School District.
The district hosted the summit, encouraging people to provide feedback in the chat-box while three separate panels of speakers answered prompts and discussed potential improvements for various underrepresented groups, including minority students and economically disadvantaged families.
Several topics were more prevalent than others, including a reported failure for the district to adequately provide timely technology to students during the spring semester, an apparent lack of trust between the district and minority families and a lack of consistency in delivering quality education, particularly to unmotivated students.
One math teacher from Mendez Middle School said not every child is given the same resources or the same opportunities as others. He said he empathizes with the economically disadvantaged students, noting that basic biological needs aren’t being met at home, and that the district should accept more responsibility in ensuring that is taken care of.
“I’m talking about food and water. Like, ‘Am I going to eat tonight?’ If that’s on my mind in school, I’m not going to pay attention to the teacher. So when we are talking about equity at school, that’s where we need to start with. We need to answer for the basic things that we know affect education,” Alfred Bradford said.
Educators say the pandemic highlighted some of these issues that have historically existed for years.
“COVID-19 was like a dye put on and you saw all the cracks,” one panelist noted.
Various district administrators were among the final panelists to speak during the summit, including Dr. Stephanie Hawley, AISD’s Chief Equity Officer, Nicole Conley, AISD Chief Financial Officer, Chief Ashley Gonzalez with the AISD police department and Geronimo Rodriguez with the AISD Board of Trustees.
Rodriguez said executive summaries are being created to allow feedback from community members to be streamlined to decision makers. Reyne Telles, the executive director for AISD’s communications department, said he has continually asked for $100,000 in increased translation and interpretation resources for ESL families. AISD PD is actively recruiting minority officers and has promoted several female officers to various high-level positions.
Hawley said its up to the district to own up to its mistakes and move forward from there.
“In order to rebuild trust, you have to name the things that we have done wrong,” Hawley said. “We are building relationships so that we can get equitable outcomes. We have to hear from the people who we don’t serve well and that is mostly our black and brown and low income communities.”
Hawley said having these conversations are important while the district and the board of trustees continues to work on and develop a consistent and fair equity and strategic plan. Hawley said the plan is it its first iteration and she is anxious to take action with it.
“If you have positional power like our district does, we must listen loudly and then we must act. We can’t just listen and nod. It needs to show up in policy and it needs to show up in plans. Otherwise we are just wasting people’s time,” Dr. Hawley said.
There will be another special summit on September 15 to discuss special education, increasing cultural proficiency and to find out what Education Austin, the union representing AISD teachers is doing for the Black Lives Matter movement.
AISD Action Steps
Different AISD department heads shared some of the active steps they’ve taken to address equity.
Geronimo Rodriguez, the president of the board of trustees, said he is focused on finding a superintendent that supports equity and will help the board create an equity assessment. He wants the board to support a leader that removes barriers to ensure success. He recognized the disproportionate impact school suspensions has on students.
Chief Ashley Gonzalez with the AISD police department said he is recommitting to working harder on building relationships with the community. He said following the recent protests against police brutality, he pulled out all of the AISD PD policies and made sure they were in compliance. He said officers are receiving additional training and certifications on deescalation and engaging with students. The chief mentioned multiple female officers who have been promoted recently.
Kevin Schwartz, the technology officer said 10,000 new hot spots have been purchased. He said his team is working on addressing connectivity issues, meaning families will get the technology they need and the district will be more physically engaging with the families who are hard to find or may move frequently.
Reyne Telles, the executive director of the AISD communications team, said he has made repeated attempts to break down language barriers for families whose primary language is not English. Telles said he has repeatedly asked for more than $100,000 to provide additional translation resources for ESL families. The Tuesday summit was available in 10 languages: Arabic, Burmese, Dari, Pashto, Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Vietnamese, Spanish, American Sign Language (ASL), and English.