AISD's New Equity Officer Sees Chance To Fix Inequities Of The Past Through School Closure Plan

Sep 17, 2019

Stephanie Hawley was hired this summer as the Austin Independent School District's first equity officer. The position is intended to help ensure all students have an equal shot at academic success – a request many have been making for years.

Hawley comes to AISD from Austin Community College, where she was the associate vice president for the Office of Equity and Inclusion. She started her new job as her colleagues were finishing up a draft proposal to close 12 schools and expand programs throughout the district.

Although she had limited input in the process, she told the school board at a meeting last week that the plan to modernize buildings and shift academic programs is necessary in a district that has long neglected schools with high populations of low-income students.

"There's been a deep systemic racism in this city and in the district, and we're trying to interrupt that," she told the board. "So this is a great opportunity for us to interrupt and change the system."

Hawley says while many people are upset about the potential school closures, other parts of the plan could have a huge impact. One thing she says she's excited about is requiring all AISD staff to have ongoing cultural proficiency training to help them interact with students from different backgrounds and recognize biases. 

"To get an entire district understanding their culture and how they're making decisions that are having negative impact, that's a game changer in it of itself," she says.

Listen to an interview with Hawley as she discusses her take on the proposed school changes ahead of KUT's live show with district officials on the subject Wednesday. 

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Stephanie Hawley: It's difficult to write proposals to change a system until your consciousness changes – and by consciousness, I mean both your heart and your head. So our proposals were written out of a consciousness and a deep generosity, from my observation. People wrote and drafted these things with the belief that we would be giving access and opportunity to students who were historically underserved.

The intentions are that we would be moving 10,000 – over 10,500 – students who were identified as low-income into modern buildings, and they would have access to programs that they had never had access to. That was the intention, but it's not about intent; it's about impact.

KUT: Right now, I think the impact is what's at the forefront because a lot of the talk is about what's going to be closed. It's that the closure impact that all is falling east of MoPac and east of I-35, and people are saying, "Wait, the district said everybody would be impacted." And right now that impact doesn't look equally distributed.

Hawley: What that map does, though, is it illuminates historic racism. The team proposed: Let's take care of this. This is a community that's been historically underserved. Let's get a new building. We have low numbers of students in a building that's built for twice the number of students. We started looking at things in a different way and saying, "Wow, we need to take care of these spaces, because they have been neglected over time."

If you look at closures and consolidations as negative – that's where the problem starts. What people didn't understand – and that was on us to communicate - was the intent was to provide modern buildings and to put in programming that we had never done for the East Side of Austin.

So, when the headlines say closures – and I winced when I saw the first headline, because they didn't lead with "District agrees cultural proficiency will be across the district" or "multicultural studies will become a part of the middle-school curriculum." No one led with the programming. No one led with modern buildings. They led with what the concern was, and I certainly understand that. I'll have to say we did not tell our story well in terms of what the intention was, even though it's in the front part of the plan for sure.

KUT: Are you comfortable and confident though that if we were to speak five years from now that this proposal – let's say most of it is implemented after public feedback – that it would get the district on a road to better serving students from an equity perspective?  

Hawley: There are parts of the plan that I believe would do that.

KUT: What parts?

Hawley: What I just mentioned – the culturally proficiency. Because to get an entire district understanding their culture and how they're making decisions that are having negative impact – that's a game changer in and of itself. If we did nothing else – because we would make different decisions; we have a different policy – if we were culturally proficient, this proposal would look different.

So, I say to you that there are parts and pieces of this plan that will make a huge difference. Others – I haven't been here long enough, don't have enough information and haven't listened to enough people to be able to tell you.

KUT: Is the district doing this at the wrong time then? Should they have spent more time thinking, changing consciousness, getting training and understanding, and then start this process with a different mindset, rather than start the process and then start digging into the work of changing consciousness and mindset?

Hawley: Well, in an ideal world – what you just proposed – in an ideal world that would be the way it would be done. However, we're not in the ideal world, and it's hard for you to propose district-wide cultural proficiency if you don't know. So, we're in that place of – I don't know what I don't know. And that's why I told you there are parts of the plan I couldn't tell you whether or not they're going to do what we intend for them to do, because I don't know what I don't know. I've got to go listen to parents and students and teachers so I can see what I can't see and know what it is I don't know.

And so I think our district leaders were really bold in terms of wanting to set out on this, but at the time they set out on it I don't think they knew the need for the change in consciousness, because we've all been socialized in school to certain ways of thinking. We've been socialized to our biases, so how would you know what you need to do before you go in to begin to do something that you hope will change lives? But how would you know that you need to change your own mindset before you set out on this journey? No way to know that.