Austin charts new charter school territory

Before the Christmas holidays, the Austin Independent School District severed its relationship with a charter school company that had just begun implementing its curriculum in four grades at Allan Elementary, a school in a working class, predominately Latin American neighborhood in East Austin. The decision to cut ties with IDEA, which operates a chain of charter schools in Texas, came after parents, other community members, and Education Austin, the teachers’ union, organized an effective campaign against IDEA’s takeover of Allan.

Hours after that decision, the board approved a proposal to make another elementary school (Travis Heights Elementary) a charter school. The Travis Heights charter school project, also known as the Innovation School Project (ISP) was the culmination of a two-year project organized by Education Austin and Austin Interfaith, a community organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. The project was funded by an American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund grant.

The major difference between the two charter projects is that the Travis Heights project involved the community from the beginning.”We made a concerted effort to make sure that everybody was involved in the process: parents, teachers, the superintendent, her upper-level team, (and) school board members, said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin. “We were constantly talking to everyone.”

In October, 90 percent of 400 households in the Travis Heights attendance zone were contacted and asked if they supported the conversion of Travis Heights into a campus-based, in-district charter school; 99 percent said yes; 97 percent of teachers and staff also said yes.

IDEA, on the other hand, ignored the community around the two schools that it proposed taking over–Allan and Eastside Memorial High School. Instead, it sought and won support of Austin’s business establishment, and then lobbied the school board and the district’s superintendent.

As a result, IDEA’s proposal, which included taking over grades K-two and grade six in 2012 and then phasing-in the complete takeover of Allan and Eastside Memorial, immediately ran into opposition from parents and teachers at the schools.

Parents objected to IDEA’s pre-packaged, ready-made curriculum that was narrow in scope (e.g., it did not include music or art classes) and emphasized rote drills aimed at improving students’ standardized test-taking skills. IDEA argued that its curriculum would make students college ready by the time they graduated from high school.

Teachers recognized how IDEA’s narrow curriculum would diminish their students’ education opportunity. They also knew that if they were able to retain their teaching positions after an IDEA take over, they would lose their classroom autonomy and their pay and benefits would be reduced.

When the school board held hearings in 2011 on IDEA’s proposal, a broad coalition of parents, community members, teachers, and students turned out to testify and demonstrate against IDEA; nevertheless, the school board approved IDEA’s plan.

The board, however, did allow students at Allan to opt out of IDEA’s charter school and attend other nearby public schools. Of the 350 students affected by the board’s decision, only 46 chose to remain at Allan.

To fill up its charter classrooms, IDEA had to advertise extensively to get students outside of the Allan and Eastside Memorial attendance zone to attend the new charter school.

In November 2012, a slate of school board candidates opposed to IDEA’s plan was elected, giving IDEA opponents a majority on the board. In December, the new majority ended the district’s relationship with IDEA.

At the same meeting, the board set out on a new course by approving the Travis Heights ISP charter.

Travis Heights and Allan have similar demographic compositions. The students at both are predominately Latin American (91 percent at Allan; 68 percent at Travis Heights) and most come from low-income working class families (91 percent at Allan and 77 percent at Travis Heights).

ISP supporters at Travis Heights call their new curriculum service learning. It teaches math, science, language arts, and social studies in the context of solving community problems. For example, a teacher may develop lesson plans around solving a community problem such as water conservation, and students will apply what they learn in class toward solving the problem.

The school will retain and expand its music, art, and physical education programs and look for ways to integrate these programs into the service learning curriculum.  Teachers, staff, and administrators will also be retained and will have the same pay and benefits they now have.

There is also a dual language component to the curriculum. The goal is to make as many students as possible proficient in two languages. Dual language instruction will be maintained at its present level and then gradually expanded.

There will also be an emphasis on teaching digital technology that students will use to help solve problems that they are studying.

“This is the right way to innovate, together, rather than being dictated to,” said Zarifis speaking about Austin’s newest charter school.

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