When Juan and Rachael Torres bought their house two and a half years ago, they chose a specific neighborhood in Southwest Austin, Oak Parke, not just because of the quality of the schools, but because their three children would attend schools with the same kids until they graduated from high school.
Parents and staff of the Austin Independent School District call this progression from elementary, middle and high school a “feeder pattern,” and a child’s address determines the sequence of schools.
In many cases, children who all attend a school together have different feeder patterns assigned to them, so they get split up when they transition to the next school. The Torreses wanted to avoid that, so they bought a house believing their kids would attend Baranoff, Bailey and Bowie with pretty much the same kids all 12 years.
Now, under a proposal to change school boundaries in Southwest Austin, their address would be re-zoned from Baranoff Elementary to Kocurek Elementary. Students at Kocurek traditionally end up going to Akins High School, but Oak Parke kids would go to Bowie.
Torres said he's concerned the small amount of kids in his neighborhood will be outliers.
“So it ends up creating a feeder pattern for just eight kids per class that aren’t going to start elementary and finish high school with the same kids,” he said, adding that his family may consider other options for schooling.
Troy Miller's children could be transferred to Kocurek from Baranoff, too. He said he's worried about his children having to cross busy roads like Slaughter to get to the new school, but has similar concerns about his children going to different high schools than their friends.
“You form a sort of fairly strong base in elementary school that you carry with you,” he said. “I’m concerned that base is still going to disappear. Three years at middle school is nothing compared to six years in elementary.”
The school board will vote on plans to redraw school boundaries Monday. It's part of AISD’s school changes plan, which aims to re-work the entire district. The process could tell the district a lot about what future boundary revisions look like.
Southwest Austin grows in population every year and is one of the areas of the city undergoing massive development catering to people with children. Because of that, schools are overcrowded.
The 2017 bond allocated money to build a new elementary school in the area. Once that new school was approved, the district asked its community-led Boundary Advisory Committee to look at how to redraw boundaries to assign kids to the new school.
The committee spent 11 months working on a plan and submitted a recommendation to the school board for approval.
Reedy Spigner, an East Austin resident who serves on the committee, said he supported the final recommendation after talking with the community and looking at the data.
“I wanted to make sure that not many students were affected by the boundary changes,” he said. “That was my thought on the process: We don’t want to make it affect too many students to where they have to uproot and go somewhere else, which could affect how they perform in school.”
But AISD administration and Superintendent Paul Cruz didn’t think the committee's recommendation was dramatic enough.
Cruz recommended an earlier plan for the board to vote on. It’s that plan that would move the Oak Parke neighborhood – and families like the Torreses and Millers – to Kocurek.
Beth Wilson, executive director for planning and assets management for AISD, said Cruz introduced the second proposal because the committee hadn't planned far enough in the future.
“It was felt that both Baranoff and Kiker did not get enough relief according to the initial plan,” she said.
On Monday, the school board will consider both recommendations and vote on one.
Spigner said it felt disrespectful for the superintendent to propose another plan after volunteers spent almost a year coming up with a boundary solution. He said it was as if the district just let the committee go through the motions so AISD could say it got community input.
“Basically we did all of the work for them per se, and then to come in and change it, that’s really discouraging,” he said. “We did this work listening to the community, thinking about the students, taking a lot of thought into this process, because we wanted to make sure it would be best for the students in the community.”
Wilson said the district is going to reevaluate how to use the committee going forward.
As part of its "School Changes" plan, AISD said it would look into boundary changes and feeder patterns. These ideas aren't fleshed out yet, so much of the discussion since it released its plan has been around closures and consolidations.
Many critics say AISD should redraw boundaries before closing schools. That's coming next, Wilson said, adding that the district is committed to evaluating feeder patterns.
“We’d like to improve the situation where we have fewer splits throughout the district,” she said.
But the disapproval among Southwest Austin residents could foreshadow pushback against districtwide changes. And the concerns around transportation and feeder patterns are not the only things concerning parents about switching to Kocurek.
Kocurek is one of only a few schools in Southwest Austin with a high rate of kids living in poverty or who are economically disadvantaged. High poverty often equates to low test scores.
Many who have spoken against this boundary change at community meetings have referenced those scores.
Half the students in the district are economically disadvantaged, but that isn’t reflected in individual schools. Poor students are at school with other poor kids, affluent students are at schools with people from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. These high-poverty and low-poverty schools are often within a few miles of each other, meaning a slight boundary change has the potential to racially and economically integrate AISD schools.
As the district takes a broader look at boundaries, Wilson said, this type of integration is something it wants to consider.
“We may be starting to look at balancing ethnic diversity or socioeconomic diversity,” she said. “Looking a little bit more closely at the populations instead of just numbers.”
One reason AISD staff want to update boundaries across the district is to streamline feeder patterns. Parents in Oak Parke are worried about their children being split up from their friends, but that wouldn't be unique. All over the district, and especially in East Austin, students are separated into different schools at every transition.
For example, Martin Middle School feeds into five different high schools. That’s where Emily Sawyer sends her son, and because of these inconsistencies, she’s in favor of districtwide boundary changes. But she said parents would have to be open to sending their kids to schools they might not currently consider.
“We’re not going to help struggling schools unless we invest in them,” she said.
It's not just about district funding, she said; families must be open to attending different schools. “I don’t think that personally we will fight to invest in them unless we have a personal stake, which means sending our kids to them.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to make it clear the plan Superintendent Cruz proposed was not his own.