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How Travis Heights Elementary Could Change Schools in Austin

More than 86,000 students in the Austin Independent School District returned to school this week. But at Travis Heights Elementary School, teachers, parents and students are starting a new chapter in the school’s history as the first in-district charter school in Austin. 

If the model catches on, the school could also change how things in the district work, with teachers and administrators having more control over curriculum, scheduling, the budget and even what's served in the cafeteria. 

Principal Lisa Robertson says the independence from AISD also allows for so-called service learning projects — a year-long classroom effort to serve the community.

“We really want our children to be able to tie in what they’re learning into community and be citizens," Robertson said. "Every classroom has a theme for the year so that’ll be a nine week to year-long project they’ll be working on.”

The school also offers a dual language program and a blended learning program, which uses online teaching and technology to teach students who learn at different paces. But to become an in-district charter, the school needed 80 percent of parents and teachers to support the project—plus the help of a three year, $35,000 grant from the American Teachers Federation.

Ken Zarifis, fromEducation Austin, the union that represents most Austin teachers, said an in-district charter is a grassroots way to bring innovation into the classroom.

“This charter doesn’t turn the world upside down. It creates space for teachers to teach, for kids to learn, but to do it more creatively, not being told how many tests you have to take, but do what’s best for kids and how they want their kids taught.”

But not all schools in the district have such an involved community. Dr. Jennifer Holme is a professor at UT Austin who studies charter schools.

She says her research shows creating in-district charters doesn’t exacerbate inequities that exist between schools. But new ideas that come from those schools don’t always transfer to the rest of the system.

Districts should be mindful of if they’re creating in district charters that the charter operators and people running schools if they have something they’re doing not to become isolated, but to remain part of the system and remain a part of the conversation,” Holme said.

To remain an in-district charter, Travis Heights will have to maintain nearly perfect attendance rates and high standardized test scores. The school must put together a progress report for the district in December.

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