AISD: Possible future school closures, consolidations aim to address systemic inequities

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District says that recently released possible scenarios for future school closures and consolidations aim to tackle systemic inequality for Austin students.

On Thursday, AISD released a document highlighting the possible changes, including a timeline for a “recommended” plan, which would include the potential closures and consolidations of Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Sims, Maplewood, Metz, Palm, Pease, Pecan Springs and Ridgetop elementaries, Webb Middle School and Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

In a Friday panel discussion, AISD Board President Geronimo Rodriguez said, “School changes are part of the journey to ensuring all children get a good education. Making sure all Austin schools are good schools.”

The entire panel can be viewed below:

Rodriguez and the board — including AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz — continually underlined the district’s mission to level academic playing fields, saying the move was meant to overcome systemic inequity.

During the panel, Cruz explained while none of the plans are final, they will serve as dialogue-starters for the community to tell AISD what works for them and what doesn’t. Cruz said:

“[This is] about access and opportunity for all Austin children. All means all….access and opportunity for all Austin’s children.”

“As we move forward and get our students in the best spaces and really increase opportunity and access to academic programming, there will be school closures,” said Dr. Lisa Goodnow, AISD’s associate superintendent of Academics and Social and Emotional Learning, in an interview on KXAN News Today Friday morning. She emphasized that the district will continue to listen to parents and get feedback throughout the process.

“It’s a significant plan but it really is to engage the Austin community about Austin’s future and Austin school district’s future,” Cruz said.

Goodnow added the district does not expect teachers to lose jobs in the process. District leaders told KXAN they plan to work with teachers and faculty to ensure employment.

During Friday’s panel, Nicole Conley, AISD Chief of Finance and Business Operations, explained that none of the plans are about cuts only, but rather are about re-investing in communities in the right way.

“This is really about reinvesting the right way, so that our students can get some meaningful support and resources as a result of these relocations,” Conley said.

In addition to possible closures, the document also includes a look at repurposing school buildings as well as starting and expanding school programs across the district, such as engineering, computer science, dual language, legal studies and performing arts.

AISD leaders said they’re open to ideas when it comes to re-purposing buildings. Some of the ideas include affordable housing, art studios, childcare facilities, or art spaces for students. Additionally, the district says it will focus on mental health in schools.

MORE: KXAN’s Save Our Students: Solutions for Wellness and Safety

As part of the proposed draft plans, some campuses across the district will be renovated and modernized to create modern schools with flexible classrooms.

Of the dozen schools scheduled to close, half are on Austin’s east side.

Civil right attorney Jim Harrington worries the proposed consolidations will only make raising a family harder there.

“Especially for folks that are carrying two or three minimum wage jobs, to leave their work and come get their kids,” Harrington said.

So why is the district focusing on the east side?

Of the six schools there, Brooke, Maplewood, and Pecan Springs elementaries all received “poor” scores for the condition of their facilities in a 2017 report.

Meanwhile, Mets and Sims elementaries both have enrollment at 51% or less of capacity.

Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy is experiencing both issues.

From just these six schools alone, the district expects to save $67.4 million on deferred maintenance projects.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler weighed in Friday morning, saying “Preserving what is special about Austin requires us to direct change rather than seek to avoid change.”

“AISD has the difficult job of dismantling inequities, creating greater efficiencies, and reversing historical challenges to focus on academic impact to best serve students and our community,” Adler added.

In a letter posted to the district’s website, Superintendent Paul Cruz wrote:

“This is a massive effort for any organization, and for one like ours with 82 elementary schools, 18 middle schools and 17 high schools, it has been intense. We have been working around the clock since this spring to gather years of data, collect input and assess our needs with an eye toward future access and opportunity for our students.”

Goodnow said she hopes people see the possibilities and benefits in the scenarios as they develop.

“That’s really what we’re looking at — how we get every single student in the very best educational setting with the best teachers and more access and opportunity to our very fine academic programming in Austin ISD,” she said.

During the panel, KXAN’s Tom Miller asked the board where the message of correcting inequities gels with the fact that the majority of schools that would be affected are on Austin’s east side, which was answered by Rodriguez.

“There are people in the room who look like me. We were the exceptions to the rule growing up. If we focus [on investment in places where inequities exist], kids like me will be the rule and not the exception.”

The board does acknowledge, however, that the definition of “equity” needs to be solidified as any plans or discussions go forward and that equity would look different based on different areas.

Throughout all discussions, AISD has reiterated that nothing is final and all plans or timelines will only serve as starting parts for community input. No plan or timeline will be decided until a vote in the fall.

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