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Education

Northeast Austin Residents Could See More Than Just a New School at Mueller

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
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Residents met over the weekend to discuss the construction of a new school in the Mueller development.

There are ten acres of land set aside for a school in Northeast Austin’s Mueller neighborhood. But what if the Austin public school district did more than just build a school? That's what residents were asked to consider at a community meeting at Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy this weekend. 

“The idea came up for a multi use campus, smaller buildings serving a wider range of needs," said UT Austin Professor, Kevin Foster, who was asked by Austin ISD to lead the conversation about the future school in Mueller. Instead of building just one school, Foster tossed out ideas like building multiple schools, adult learning centers, community meeting rooms, or affordable housing for teachers. At first, it seemed that people didn't know how to react. After Foster's opening, people split up into small groups to discuss the ideas.

“I’d like to understand the teacher housing a lot more. Is that a reduced rent?" asked one Mueller parent in one of the break out groups. Windsor Park resident Meghan Dougherty questioned the focus on multi-use campuses.

“I feel like when school districts...try to do too many things, that they lose focus on their ultimate mission," Doughterty said. "So I’m just worried. Why are we including resources? What would be the goal?"

If anything, the groups demonstrated just how difficult it’s going to be to decide what to do with this land. Some group members, like Jennifer Sperandeo, want the new facility to benefit all of Northeast Austin.

“I want whatever is going to make those Mueller parents and say I can’t wait to send my kids to this Austin school and then onto this Austin high school," Sperandeo said. She has a kindergartner at Blanton Elementary School. Sperandeo said she wasn't sure she was going to put her child in public school until she enrolled him in a local pre-K, where she connected with the community. 

No one explicitly disagreed that the land at Mueller shouldn't benefit the region as a whole, but getting everyone in Northeast Austin invested in the neighborhood schools means convincing some residents in Mueller, and outside, that the existing schools in the area are good enough. 

"No one wants their kid to be the social experiment. So, we would have to group up together and say we would all have to do this. And the will is just not there."

  Historically, some of the schools have a bad reputation and that stigma can take years to erase.

"I think if you look at vertical track, especially for Mueller, the parents don't want their kids ending up at Reagan[High School]. That's fact," said one Mueller parent who recently moved to the neighborhood. Historically, Reagan High School has struggled academically, but has seen some improvement and increasing enrollment with a new Early College High School program.

Brendan Farrell moved to Mueller six months ago. His kids aren't school aged, but he said most of the people he knows in the neighborhood are sending their children to private or charter schools.

“No one wants their kid to be the social experiment," Farrell said. "So, we would have to group up together and say we would all have to do this. And the will is just not there.”

Farrell said he would like to see an elementary school built on the Mueller land.

“That would garner more community support around Mueller neighborhood as opposed to sending their kids farther away to a charter school. I don’t think you’re going to get the Mueller neighborhood involvement for the most part.”

But not all residents agree. Dusty Harshman moved to Mueller eight years ago and he said he's frustrated by the narrative that parents in Mueller do not want to send their children to the neighborhood schools.

“We probably attend our public schools in greater numbers than others in Northeast Austin," Harshman said. "So when perception is discussed of, ‘You guys aren’t even going to attend public schools why are you talking about this?’ I think that’s a bit of a misperception.”

LeTonya Pegues agrees that families in Northeast Austin but outside Mueller cannot be ignored. She said that's sometimes hard for people to remember.

“I heard a segment of our conversation [Saturday] that was more like about 'Me, me, me' versus 'We, we, we.' Sometimes people forget about that. It’s really about the common good and what’s best for entire region. I think Austin has had a challenge with that.”

Pegues said there are many families in the northeast region who don’t have the opportunity or means to send their kids to schools that are considered “better” like charter or private schools. She said the community needs to make sure all students have access to a good education.

“Austin. we’re progressive," Pegues said. "We’re out there for the dogs, the cats, the salamanders, the trees. But yet I think we’ve got to do a better job at making sure those voices aren’t as loud as far as education concerned, but they’re still heard in a great way.

Austin ISD is holding a second meeting on March 3 at the Millenium Youth Center. The plan is to take all the feedback and make recommendations to the Austin School Board. The board will decide exactly what will go on the land. 

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