The cafeteria of Bedichek Middle School in Southwest Austin was chaotic as almost 100 parents fought for the attention of AISD administrative staff. Some were still in work clothes; some were in T-shirts. Almost all of them were asking questions – and sometimes it got heated.
A district staffer had to pull a father into the hallway at one point when his language got combative.
This was the Austin Independent School District's first community meeting to explain plans to close and consolidate schools: Maps of different sections of the city were set up along the edge of the room; large signs displayed school data. But one concern brought passionate discussions from many parents here: whether their children would be sent to new schools.
That’s one possible outcome of this process – which nobody working for the district or living in its boundaries is thrilled about. The superintendent and school board said they are being forced to consolidate schools because of budget issues and declining enrollment. AISD hasn't announced which schools it’s considering closing – that announcement will come in September. It has said, however, that it won’t close schools in just one part of the city; it wants the changes to affect the entire district.
AISD says it wants to make schools more equitable, to make sure all students have access to good academic programs, sit in renovated buildings and have experienced teachers at the front of their classrooms. To achieve that equity, the district might have to redraw school boundaries that assign certain neighborhoods to certain schools.
Cameron Keller, who was pregnant with her first child, attended the initial meeting at Bedichek. She said she wants her child to attend the schools her neighborhood is currently zoned for, including Austin High.
“A large portion of the people that are here are concerned about switching from a high-performing school like Austin High to a lower-performing school,” she said.
Keller, and many other parents who submitted feedback to the district, said they think students from schools with low test scores could be rezoned to schools with high scores and vice versa.
“I think that sending high-performing students to combine with low-performing students … will only … look better on paper,” Keller said. “But I don’t think that socioeconomic balance and academics should replace each other.”
KUT obtained 450 anonymous responses parents submitted to the district about potential changes. The most common themes: Don’t disrupt the vertical teams students are already on (that is, the progression of elementary, middle and high schools assigned to a specific address); don’t close or change schools that are working; and don’t jeopardize property values.
“We, as a community, have invested so many property tax dollars,” Tara Pit, the parent of students at Barton Hills Elementary, said at a community feedback meeting in June. “It makes me kind of itch to think about the last few years and how much we’ve eked out, because we did it as an investment for our future and for our kids.”
Another parent wrote in an anonymous comment:
“I can assure you that our neighborhood is up in arms about the potential [middle school] and [high school] feeder change considering that many of us have paid over $1 million to live where we live and pump tens of thousands of dollars into property taxes. Looks like we will all be considering moving to North of the river or West of Mopac. Thanks for damage that this might cause.”
Property values are closely tied to schools and can change if a school isn’t ranked as high. The value of similar homes in the same part of town can vary by tens of thousands of dollars based on which school an address is assigned. Many families therefore buy homes in certain areas so their kids can attend certain schools.
“One of the main reasons that we purchased the house we did was because of being in the Bowie school district,” another anonymous parent said in comments to AISD. “Changing to Crockett would be very disappointing to us, detrimental to our children, and a blow to our house value/equity that we have worked hard to build.”
This concern is common in cities across the country; it’s how the real estate and public school systems have worked for decades.
As a result, AISD schools have remained extremely economically segregated – and, in many cases, racially segregated.
Fifty-three percent of kids in AISD come from low-income households, but few schools can say half of their students come from these low-income homes.
The only school that comes close to mirroring the district’s demographics is the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. The school tries to create a diverse student population through a lottery-based admissions process that takes a family’s socioeconomic status into account.
Most other schools in the district either have a majority of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches or a majority of kids who don’t. It’s even more rare for a school to mirror the racial diversity of the district. Most schools are either mostly white or mostly students of color.
Neither AISD nor the school board has proposed large-scale integration efforts, like busing in the ’70s and ’80s. But even tweaking a few school boundary lines could dramatically change the student makeup of a school – and that’s not what many parents planned for.
The fact that individual AISD schools don’t have much racial and economic diversity is no accident, according to educational anthropologist Kevin Foster, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin.
“We’re building in the new segregation,” he said.
One reason for this is that neighborhoods don’t include a variety of housing. Another is that legal segregation of decades past made it hard for generations of black and Latino Austinites to get high-paying jobs, afford houses in wealthy areas and send their kids to different schools.
It’s also about decisions made within the school system that cater to affluent – and often white – parents, Foster says.
“One of the things superintendents of the past have done is they have built the programming in that would retain the more affluent residents,” he said. “They’d get to go to this magnet school, they’d get to go to this specialized program.”
Students have to apply to get into AISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, for example, and then meet certain academic standards. LASA is 50% white, 20% Asian, 19% Latino and 2% black. Only 8% of the students are considered low-income.
Some critics of LASA’s admissions process say not all students get the same information about the program, and the application process is a barrier for kids without the privileges more wealthy students have.
“Investing in specialized options [like magnet schools] is potentially beautiful,” Foster said. “Investing in specialized options that are only going to be available to certain segments of the population based upon things beyond a student’s control is repugnant.”
LASA has begun implementing a more holistic application process that considers factors like whether a student comes from a low-income middle school and whether they would be the first in their family to attend college.
Foster says the pushback to boundary changes is similar to conversations after Brown v. Board of Education and when AISD started busing. Parents advocated for keeping their children in neighborhood schools, with kids they’d already gone to school with.
These days, he says, the rhetoric is more coded. Nobody says race or socioeconomic status is a reason they don’t want their children to attend a different school; they say it’s about the quality of the school.
“It seems to me, sometimes people use race and class as a proxy for quality,” Foster said. “So, they’ll see a space and the space looks a little too brown, looks a little too black, and there will be assumptions about the quality of education in those schools. And then people will choose accordingly, they’ll buy real estate accordingly, they’ll locate accordingly.”
Many students who live in South Austin are zoned to attend Austin High, north of the river, but Crockett is actually closer. Parents have expressed concern that if the district redraws boundaries, making them more streamlined, their children will have to go to Crockett.
“I, and many others, do not believe Crockett High School provides the same level of college readiness as Austin High School, to which we are currently zoned,” one anonymous parent wrote in comments to the district. “And if the intention is to make it that way, I don't believe it will happen quickly and in time for my kids. I think if this happens, then AISD will see an exodus of families as many friends and neighbors have stated that they will not send the kids to Crockett High School.”
Here’s how Crockett and Austin High compare, using measures from the Texas Education Agency.
In most measures, they are within 10 points of one another; in one, Crockett does better; and in another, they tie.
A much more dramatic difference between Austin and Crockett is the racial and socioeconomic breakdown.
Foster says parents who want their kids to go to a school where students look like them or whose families have similar incomes are hoarding opportunities. A better question in a public school district, he says, is how to expand opportunities for everyone.
“Everyone is going to look out for their own,” he said. “The question is how do you define ‘your own’? If ‘your own’ is just your kids, if ‘your own’ is just your household, if ‘your own’ is just your block, if it’s just your neighborhood, if it’s just your city, if it’s just your side of the city, if it’s just your nation. Each of those opens up or constricts possibilities accordingly.”
Many parents who submitted responses to the district acknowledged there are students who are worse off academically than their own kids, and they encouraged AISD to improve those schools.
“Fix the problem schools in their areas and do not force families in great neighborhood schools to sacrifice when they don’t have a problem there,” one parent wrote.
Research shows throwing money and resources at a school with mostly low-income kids does not dramatically change outcomes for those kids. When every classroom is filled with students facing unique challenges, it’s hard for a teacher to make progress.
In the surveys parents filled out, many said they wanted more diversity. But to achieve economic and, consequently, racial diversity in more schools, there must be sacrifices like diminished property values or growing pains as the student population changes.
Laurie Solis, a parent who lives in South Austin, says she has been coming to this realization over the last few years. Like many of her neighbors and friends, she bought her house specifically so her kids would go to Cowan Elementary and Bowie High. A few years ago, when AISD announced it would build a new school in Southwest Austin to help with overcrowding, she was upset; she didn’t want to see students moved to the new school.
“This seems unfair, and why would you break up these schools?” she said. “That’s when I really started learning and getting educated on the AISD process.”
Solis joined a small PTA that looked at the achievement gap across the city. She started visiting other schools to see how they were trying to improve academics. That’s when she learned how economically segregated AISD is.
“I’ve literally been to a conversation at our Bowie vertical team meeting where the group was talking about how much money we fundraised – you know, $60,000, $50,000. They’re paying for their own teachers,” she said. “And then [I’ve] driven to a … Travis vertical meeting and they’re just happy if they can buy pasta and spaghetti sauce to feed their families.”
Solis says she realized so much of what she and her peers value about their schools is what they contribute to it. Now, as AISD tries to level the playing field, she says she’ll have a positive attitude if her family or friends are told they must go to a new school.
“I now feel very strongly that depending on the commitment of the family to be involved in their school or involved in their children’s education, every school can fulfill the needs of that kid and that family,” she said.