Austin ISD Changes Tone On School Closures During First Week Of Public Meetings
The Austin Independent School District is wrapping up its first week of meetings in communities affected by its proposal to close 12 schools, listening to parents who at times yelled and cried as they asked for clarification.
District staff went to six schools – and will be at Austin High on Saturday – to get feedback on the proposal.
The week started off with the district trying to explain its reasoning for the proposal, repeating the same talking points it has used since the plan was announced. During the first two meetings, parents at Pease and Metz elementaries said they were frustrated with the repeated rhetoric and weren't getting answers.
The setup of the meeting looked dramatically different Wednesday morning at Sims Elementary, with chairs in a circle and the district ditching its presentation to work in small groups.
By Wednesday night, the tone went from robotic to empathetic. AISD’s Operations Officer Matias Segura, who led work on the proposal, apologized to parents at Webb Middle School.
“We did not do a good job of communicating this to the communities,” he told the crowd after many shared that they had heard Webb might be closing from the news. “We are very, very sorry for the hurt we caused. We are committed to improving. We are listening so we can improve.”
Why Our School?
The main question parents asked was why their schools were chosen. Many wanted to know what was bad about them.
The district said this wasn't a punishment and that many of the schools are doing well. Officials told parents they didn’t consider one factor – like enrollment, test scores or the age of a building – but looked at all those things.
This didn’t seem to satisfy parents.
Some said they felt tricked by the district, because they had voted for the 2017 bond thinking they'd get upgrades at their schools.
Brooke Elementary parents and teacher aide Margaret Perez said she also felt the district was dishonest with the school. A few years ago, AISD considered Brooke for closure because of under-enrollment and gave it a plan to try to attract more students – and it has.
“I mean, it’s not just we made it by one or two” more students, Perez said. “We exceeded that goal. So, it’s just really disheartening.”
Some communities also worried about transportation if students are sent to new schools.
“How are y’all gonna transfer children from Webb to Dobie if the change does happen?” Manuela Cisnaroz asked at Webb Middle School’s meeting.
The district said it would provide buses for students who live more than 2 miles away from a new school. One of the schools Brooke students could go to is less than 2 miles away, but some parents said they don’t have cars so they are worried about getting their kids there.
Fear Of Adjustment
Webb Middle School has a program geared toward recent immigrants, and teachers said they worry about putting those students through another massive change in their lives.
Parents Veronica and Austin Taylor have a 6-year-old in Brooke Elementary School's Life Skills class, which is geared toward students with special needs. He struggled a lot at the beginning of the year because he has autism.
“We didn’t think we were going to survive at first because he was just walking in circles. He made a little path outside and was walking in circles saying, ‘Stay home?’” Veronica Taylor says.
The Taylors say going to another new school will disrupt the progress he finally started making at Brooke.
A Pushback To Modernized Schools
Every community this week expressed passion for their schools and disappointment that their schools were chosen. Families talked about teachers, programs and services they love. Many said they don’t want a modernized building with new technology, that they are fine with current buildings.
But the district pushed back, saying when principals have to spend all day dealing with a broken air conditioner, for example, they aren’t focused on helping teachers and students.
Click on the threads below to see live tweets of parent concerns and the district’s response during each meeting:
I’m at Pease Elementary school for the first community meeting with @AustinISD staff about potential closures. District staff broke up the crowd into tables, and when they said there would be no Q&A section everyone yelled “NO” and are now arguing about the format— Claire McInerny (@ClaireMcInerny) September 23, 2019
GOOOOOOOOD MORNING I’m at the next @AustinISD community meeting re: school closures. today district staff is at Metz Elementary, which is slated for closure. The plan would have them consolidating with nearby Sanchez Elementary. pic.twitter.com/UjsHZsy0LH— Claire McInerny (@ClaireMcInerny) September 24, 2019
Another morning, another school changes meeting. Today district staff are talking to parents and community members at Norman/Sims Elementary. The Sims building is proposed for closure. Currently, both schools are co existing as Norman undergoes a renovation from the 2017 bond. pic.twitter.com/C4hM6WilVq— Claire McInerny (@ClaireMcInerny) September 25, 2019
Webb Middle School
Tonight I’m at the Webb Middle School meeting, where AISD is talking with parents and the community about its school changes proposal. Webb is one of the 12 schools proposed for closure.— Claire McInerny (@ClaireMcInerny) September 25, 2019
(I found this dope mural when I went to pee. I love this tiger she looks sassy) pic.twitter.com/YikiQQBrFZ
Correction: A previous version of this post said the school Brooke and Sims students would go to is less than 2 miles away. One of the schools Brooke students could go to is farther.