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Austin ISD Parents Prepare for Fight Against Possible School Closures

Qiling Wang for KUT
Parents of Ridgetop Elementary are concerned about a possible school closure.

About 30 parents and students in neon green T-shirts gathered on the playground at Garrison Park in South Austin, gearing up to walk over to a community meeting at Crockett High School. The group planned to ask Austin ISD not to close their neighborhood school, Joslin Elementary. 

Joslin is one of 10 Austin ISD schools slated for closure as the district reviews its plan for all of its 130 schools. 

“I wish they wouldn’t sell the school. I wish they would not, like, not take the school," said first-grader Amelia Kuzmanovski. 

The Austin Independent School District just wrapped up nearly two weeks of community-engagement meetings to review the schools. Right now, 10 are on the list for possible closure, and many parents at those schools are mobilizing against the proposal.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
Parents and children who attend Joslin Elementary School march from Garrison Park to Crockett High School to voice concerns about the school's possible closure.

The district is reviewing its Facility Master Plan, which looks at facility conditions and demographic and population trends, and lays out proposals for which schools should be upgraded, where to build new schools and which ones should close.

The district says any school closures wouldn’t happen for another five to 15 years, as other schools are modernized. The goal is to adapt these buildings for 21st-century learning, with larger classrooms and more room for technology. But the district also wants to minimize operating and capital costs. That’s where some parents have concerns.

“When the numbers don’t work, when the budget doesn’t work, you don’t close neighborhood schools. You need to adjust the boundaries, you need to change district policies," said Kate Mason-Murphy, a Joslin Elementary parent and former AISD teacher. “They’re not taking in account cultural, they’re not taking into account community and what they’re looking to do is split this whole community up three ways.”

Mandi and Matt Richey bought and renovated their home specifically to send their kids to Joslin. They walk their son, Emmett, there every day. 

“Finding a place where you can leave your most prized possession and know that they’re safe, that they are emotionally cared for, mentally cared for, academically challenged, that is worth all the money in the world," Mandi Richey said. "I love the fact that it is diverse. I grew up in a white, affluent suburb of Pittsburgh and I did not want my kids growing up [thinking] that the world was white.”

Two-thirds of students at Joslin are Hispanic and a third are learning English as a second language. Seventy-five percent of students come from low-income families. Last year, the Texas Education Agency recognized the school for improving test scores among low-income students. That diversity is easy to find in many Austin public schools, but Richey says Joslin has a lot of veteran teachers.

She says walking to school helps Emmett prepare for the day.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Mandi and Matt Ritchey, walk their son, Emmett, to Joslin with their daughter, Hazel.

“He does really well when he moves in the morning 'cause he’s just an active boy and it gets his brain working," Richey said.

But Joslin is losing students as the area gets more expensive to live in. The school is slightly under-enrolled. Parents say that’s because the attendance boundary is too small. Demographers project few students will move to the area in the next 10 years, but parents disagree with those projections. Richey points out new families on the walk to school.

“That house has a small child. This green one has a small one – like eight months, tiny," she said. "So, potential Joslin Jaguars."

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT
Dawson Elementary School is also on AISD's list for possible closure.

Austin ISD hired a consulting firm to review each campus. The schools were scored based on physical condition and whether they could sustain future academic programming. The district also considered enrollment and demographic projections. That’s one reason Dawson Elementary School is on the list for possible closure.

“In this school boundary, based on ZIP code, there’s also four schools total and they’re all being challenged based on just the lack of students," said Dawson parent Tali Wildman. 

Wildman is in a unique position. She’s on the committee that will recommend whether to close schools, known as FABPAC. She is also the only person on the committee with a child at a school that may close.  

“At the core of that isn’t necessarily the school itself or the lack of people moving to Austin. It’s ultimately the lack of affordable housing," she said. "And where there is not affordable housing, there aren’t families, and where there aren’t families, there aren’t kids."

In the gym, teacher Charlotte Edwards stood with a mother and watched as a group of students hugged each other; a few are crying.

“Camille is transferring schools," Edwards said. "They moved and it’s her last day. And the students, they’re trying to … I think maybe they think, if they hold onto her long enough, she can’t leave. I tried that, too.”

The family moved to a cheaper place in Southeast Austin a few weeks ago. They kept their daughter at Dawson, but the commute became too difficult.

“We have so many families who are multigenerational Dawson families," Wildman said. “There are people across the street that are now second-, third-generation homeowners in their little shoebox houses that are sending nieces, nephews, grandkids and encouraging them to go where their families went. We built a community and tight-knit structure.”

Wildman doesn’t think Dawson should close, but she thinks the district needs to look at how to use its space for future learners.

“When I started this project and my involvement it was very much an attitude as a parent of – 'The space my child learns is irrelevant as long as she has a good teacher. She’ll learn how to read, write and do math,'" Wildman said. "Once you start seeing some of these modernized spaces and new schools and the tools available to kids in these spaces, you start rethinking that.”

It’s the end of the school day at Ridgetop Elementary in North Central Austin. Ridgetop prides itself on its strong dual-language program, integrated through every grade. That’s why Caroline Enriquez transferred her son there.

“The community is fantastic," Enriquez said. "The blending of Spanish and English has been something that was really important and that we valued so much, and to have that be a prominent feature of this school and [something] it’s really founded on was essential.”

Credit Qiling Wang for KUT
Ben Wright says he likes the small size of Ridgetop Elementary, which his daughter, Rosie, attends.

Ridgetop has about 330 students, a large number of whom transferred in for the dual-language program. In 10 years, even fewer students are expected to come from the neighborhood.

Ben Wright, who lives nearby, says he loves that his daughter, Rosie, attends a small school. Austin ISD documents show the district wants future elementary schools to serve between 522 and 870 students, something he strongly opposes.

“This idea that small schools are bad and inefficient and we need to consolidate our children into these large conveyor belts ... I just have no interest in paying large amounts of property taxes to send my child to a very large school," he said.

“If the plan that they’re putting forward was less prescriptive, I would think the community meetings had more value," Wright said. "The plan doesn’t have a lot of options, and so I really just sort of think that brings into question the whole nature of these meetings. I feel like we’re having the news broken to us nicely and gently, rather than being asked what we want to do.”

The Austin School Board will hold a public hearing on the Facility Master Plan on Feb. 13. Then, the district will host another series of community-engagement meetings. The board is expected to vote on the plan by the end of March.

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