The Austin Independent School District's Board of Trustees voted to hire a new superintendent Tuesday night. Stephanie Elizalde comes to AISD from Dallas ISD, where she was the chief of schools. Elizalde started the new position immediately.
On her first day, she shared some of her initial thoughts on leading the school district.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
KUT: The pandemic has created so many challenges for schools this year. What can parents, teachers and students who are worried about this unprecedented school year expect from you?
Elizalde: There has to be a foundation of consistency that everyone can expect, but at the same time, there has to be some nimbleness to the organization to adapt to the different needs of different communities. So, I think we start off with the overall health concerns and then we have to individualize.
And that takes a lot of work, because it’s like – well, everybody is not going to get the same thing. The answer is that is correct, and we’re not going to apologize for not treating everyone the same. In my definition, fairness is not about treating everybody the same, it’s about treating them with what their needs are.
I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge along with communicating the information. Sometimes we might need to communicate that we don’t have an answer, but we need to communicate that, because if we don’t let people know where we are in the process, they’re going to create their own answers. They’re asking us for answers, and sometimes I’m going to have to say, "We’re looking at this, and because of these things we have to hit pause until we gather information from X, Y and Z, which I except on [this date] and we except to give you a decision here."
KUT: In the last couple of years here in Austin there has been a lot of discussion on equity. The district hired its first chief equity officer, and we learned this week there will be an equity audit of the district’s policies.
Austin is unique in its economic breakdown of families and racial breakdown of families. What is your philosophy of managing different expectations and needs of different communities? What are specific areas you’d like to study in terms of equity?
Elizalde: The challenge is to ensure that every child is getting what they need, based on what the needs are without other entities feeling that we have taken from their child to give to someone else’s child. Well, that requires a lot of introspection because we have to define the unit of analysis of when we say "our district." Is "our district" one particular side or one particular portion of our community? Or do we define "our district" as "our district"?
Looking at the curriculum, I know there’s quite a bit of autonomy campus to campus in Austin, but all the kids deserve the good stuff. So, I do think I need to have a conversation about how we determine actual instructional lessons that are rolled out, and again without becoming super prescriptive, because I don't think this is about prescriptiveness. I think it’s about holding us to certain quality control. Every kid should have access to this level of rigorous curriculum, and it should be culturally responsive and culturally integrated.
And then I think it’s important to look at the dollars we are spending on which campuses with which students – and not just the total dollars, but what are the dollars actually being spent on. Because we could be spending more money, but does that actually mean they’re getting more?
KUT: Last year, AISD closed four schools after initially proposing to close 12. It caused a lot of anger and distrust in the community toward the district. If closures are ever back on the table in AISD, how would you approach it?
Elizalde: I have had to be faced with doing school closures in Dallas ISD, and I would say the first time we embarked on it, we did not do a good job of bringing the community in on the forefront. We need to get the communities involved in the conversations upfront. Too often, even if it’s the right decision and it makes logical sense, there’s a lot of emotion involved in these decisions, as there should be. Everybody needs to feel valued.