Thursday, October 27, 2011

Facility plans, school finance lawsuits on Austin trustees' agenda

By Laura Heinauer and Melissa Taboada | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011

At tonight's meeting of the Austin school board, trustees are set to vote on suing the State of Texas over education funding and on approving tax reappraisals of property damaged in wildfires earlier this year.

But discussions on facility planning could overshadow those and other agenda items.

At forums in the past several days, district officials released some of the most concrete proposals yet on recommendations for the use of schools and other buildings during the 2012-13 school year. Tonight's public comment session and a public hearing Tuesday will give the community a chance to present thoughts about the proposals.

Under plans announced Thursday, the district would create up to three district-managed charter campuses in the part of town that includes the Eastside Memorial High Schools at the former Johnston High School campus and schools that feed into Eastside. The IDEA Public School, a charter school, would have autonomy over academic programs, but the campuses would still be overseen by the district.

Earlier, district administrators said that they were looking at dealing with crowding in North Austin by moving the sixth grade out of Barrington, Brown and Walnut Creek elementary schools and adding a pre-kindergarten center at Dobie Middle School. One of three other options would reassign students at Ridgetop Elementary School, which would then become a dual language center for pre-kindergartners.

The district hopes the overall changes would strengthen schools in East Austin and free up space at overcrowded schools in the north. Under one long-range scenario, Brooke Elementary School in East Austin would no longer serve students after 2015.

The idea of moving the sixth grade from elementary schools is not new. Austin has just a handful of elementary schools that still have a sixth grade.

Many educators and researchers say that sixth-graders are psychologically and physically close to seventh- and eighth-graders. However some studies have shown that sixth-grade middle school students are more likely to be cited for discipline problems. Researchers have also found that elementary school sixth-graders have higher test scores than those in middle school.

Last year, when the Austin district kept sixth-graders who would have attended the struggling Pearce Middle School in their elementary schools an extra year, test scores shot up, officials said.

Moving the sixth grade to middle school would relieve crowding and "provide our sixth-graders with the full middle school experience," Austin chief of staff Paul Cruz said, explaining that sixth-graders in elementary schools don't get the middle school options of band, foreign languages and athletics.

The district first looked at creating an in-district charter school in 2001 with proposals from KIPP and Edison schools but ultimately backed off. The district is now ready to embrace the unconventional, officials say.

"I think it's time for Austin parents to have a choice," said Ramona Treviño, the district's chief academic officer. Something that offers " a proven track record of success in college preparation with high-poverty, Hispanic children," she said.

The school board aims to vote on a 2012-13 facilities plan in December. But some of the early recommendations are already under fire from a few people who could be affected.

About 200 people attended Thursday's presentation. One student, angered by a proposal that would house the charter school at Eastside, was in tears as he tried to express his concerns and briefly left the room.

Upon returning, 17-year-old Eddie Perez made his point: "You're not giving us a chance. Every year you're doing something different. If you choose one of those plans and it doesn't work, then in 2015-16, are you going to have another plan for the school? Are you going to do that yearly? Are you actually thinking about us?"

Similar sentiments were echoed across town.

Annette Lucksinger, a Ridgetop parent, said that by making the campus a pre-kindergarten the district would be turning its back on a dual language program that parents have committed to and is working. Enrollment is now up from 180 to almost 300 in two years, she said, and the school community is stronger than ever.

"This is my fourth year at the school — my third year to have to fight to keep it open — and it's frustrating having to put so much energy into saving the school again rather than trying to make it better," she said. "We're going strong and in a positive direction, and if you transplant us, that will all be lost."

Cruz said some parents will appreciate the plan because it allows siblings to stay together. He said studies show that students do better with fewer transitions. Combining Ridgetop with Reilly also would "provide a larger dual language school, making it a really enhanced option for dual language immersion," he said.; 445-3694; 445-3620

Austin school board meeting

Tonight's meeting, at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth St., will start at 7. Highlights from the agenda:

Administrators recommend that the board OK the reappraisal of property damaged in the Oak Hill wildfire in April. Values would be prorated from the date of the fire and would affect the 2011 tax roll, for which payment is due in January.

Trustees could vote to join one of multiple lawsuits expected over the state's school finance system. Administrators said in agenda documents that the district should join in suing because ‘the current system of school finance in Texas fails to address growth. Not only does it fail to fund growth in student population, it fails to meet the increasing needs of higher expectations and more rigorous standards required by the State and the increase in student needs such as poverty and limited English proficiency.'

Administrators are asking the board to approve contracts with Princeton Review and Catapult Learning for math tutoring services for sixth- and ninth-grade students at Burnet Middle School and Lanier High School. The estimated cost is $1.6 million.

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