Now a Charter School, Travis Heights Elementary Has More Autonomy, But Fewer Students

Apr 10, 2015

Enrollment at Travis Heights Elementary School has dropped by seventy students this year — about 13 percent of the student population. 

It's a uniquely diverse school in an increasingly economically segregated Austin Independent School District. 

The median home price in the neighborhood is $689,000, according to the Austin Board of Realtors. But last year, 76 percent of the students who attended Travis Heights were considered economically disadvantaged. 

As the school celebrates its 75th anniversary Saturday, parents, staff and alumni must also consider its future. As affordable housing complexes scattered around the neighborhood become more expensive, more low-income families are leaving Travis Heights for cheaper housing.

The drop in student enrollment comes as the school continues a relatively new chapter as the first in-district charter in Austin ISD. The Austin School Board approved the change in 2012, and the school become an in-district charter in 2013.

Travis Heights still gets federal, state and local funding, and it still has to abide by state accountability standards. But as an in-district charter school, it has more autonomy over how it runs itself academically.

Lisa Robertson is the principal at Travis Heights Elementary. She says she has more control over hiring teachers and staff, changing school calendars, and deciding what to teach when, which allows teachers to combine lessons from different subjects in different ways.

With at least 80% approval from parents and staff, Travis Heights Elementary became an in-district charter in the 2013-14 school year. Parents, teachers and staff run the school, but it's still a part of Austin ISD.

"Especially when you’re looking at science and language arts," Robertson says. "Usually it's created by a district and it’s not connected. Our district is moving toward project-based learning."

Project-based learning is a method where students learn how to solve real-life problems in their day-to-day lessons. Robertson says district bureaucracy makes it harder to make district-wide changes quickly. But as an in-district charter school, Travis Heights doesn't have to wait as long to make necessary changes or improvements.

It takes money to properly become an in-district charter. Last year, the school got an $800,00 charter school startup grant from the Texas Education Agency. Robertson says most of that money went toward professional development for teachers — and laptops for every student.

In-district charters also need a huge amount of parental involvement — a struggle for a lot of public schools. But Ulrich says that’s never been a problem at Travis Heights.

"That culture exists here and sustains itself as new people come in and are attracted to that. It’s not a school where you drop your kid off and not know what’s happening," says Jill Ulrich, a Travis Heights parent who helped organize the 75th anniversary party. 

Parents and neighbors also still believe education is the great equalizer among rich and poor students, and they're trying to preserve that part of the school's fabric. 

“There is a real sense of, 'we want this school to still be available and accessible to people who may not be making a lot of money,'" says Minerva Camarena Skeith, another Travis Heights parent. "Because when we come to a school that values us no matter what kind of income we have or our parents have, we can do great things."