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AISD lays out options to relieve crowding in North Central schools

Monday, October 17, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

School administrators laid out new options to relieve crowding in North Central Austin elementary schools at a Saturday morning community forum, another attempt to get a handle on Austin Independent School District’s changing facility needs.


Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has re-booted AISD’s facilities master plan process, starting a three-month tour of community forums and public hearings to come up with boundary and program changes that best utilize existing school campuses and free up seats in critical early grades next year. The AISD school board is expected to vote on a list of choices in December.


Carstarphen is looking, short term, for an additional 1,000 elementary school seats in the North Central Austin area. She outlined three options to get there at an initial community forum at Dobie Middle School, receiving a mixed reaction from parents who were in attendance.


“This is where the rubber starts hitting the road,” Carstarphen told parents as she laid out the district rationale on choices to resolve crowding issues. “This is why we need the community to come together and think through this with us.”


North Central Austin is the area in AISD that encompasses Barrington, Brown, Cook, Graham, Hart, McBee, Walnut Creek, Wooldridge and Wooten elementary schools, plus the Read pre-kindergarten center. Area middle schools in North Central Austin include Webb, Dobie and Lamar.


“Our No. 1 problem is overcrowding in the North Central area so we really wanted to focus in this area first,” spokeswoman Erin Moore said. “We wanted to go to these schools, go to the parents and talk to them, and say, ‘Here are our issues. Here are some scenarios.’”


North Central Austin elementary schools are at a 2,600-seat deficit this year if portable buildings are taken off the table, Carstarphen said. Middle schools, on the other hand, are under-populated, and could easily accommodate another 400 students with new or expanded programs next year.


So Carstarphen outlined three options that juggle short-term space demands. All three options would take sixth grade students out of Barrington, Brown and Walnut Creek elementary schools and send them on to their respective middle schools. That would free up about 100 additional elementary school seats.


Carstarphen also suggested, under all three options, to use excess capacity at Dobie to create an on-site pre-kindergarten center that would take the existing pre-kindergarten students at Hart and Graham elementary schools. That decision would free up another 270 elementary school seats.


From there, the three options diverge. In one, pre-kindergarten students at Barrington and Wooten would be reassigned to the two-way dual-language program at Ridgetop Elementary. All of Ridgetop Elementary, in turn, would be reassigned to Reilly Elementary School, a plan that would free up 292 seats. Total relief would be an estimated 617 student seats. Austin ISD has no immediate plans for what to do with the empty Ridgetop campus.


In a second option, a portion of the crowded Barrington attendance zone would be rezoned to Webb Middle School in order to create a PK-8 model, which would free up 366 student seats. Total relief, combined with the two “should do” options, would be a total of 728 elementary student seats.


In the third option, students in the Barrington attendance zone would be moved to a pre-kindergarten center at Webb Middle School, which would free up 159 seats. Total relief would be an estimated 521 student seats.


Barrington is a common denominator in all the options because it is the area’s largest elementary school. This year’s enrollment is 1,104 students. Capacity on the campus, minus portables, is intended to be 556 students. Even when portables are added in, the campus is 214 students over capacity.


Carstarphen did note the school board would be moving forward, in November, on the purchase of land for a new North Central elementary school. That comes out of the 2004 bond issue. However, the new campus, which will accommodate up to 700 students, won’t be opening until 2013.


Parents had mixed reactions to the proposed options. Some were alarmed that pre-kindergarten students would be moved onto a middle school campus, although Carstarphen insisted facilities would remain separated. Ridgetop parents, in particular, were unhappy to be relocated, especially after building a school community committed to two-way dual language program. And one father suggested that AISD ought to pursue an on-site lab school with Austin Community College at Highland Mall, an option Carstarphen said she supported but which she expected to be years in the future.


“I’ve been very open about my interest in being in a partnership with ACC,” Carstarphen said. “But it is a shopping mall, and a lot of different people own pieces of it, from the dirt to the parking lot to the building to the air space.”


This fall’s three-month review process is short term in nature, intended to the get the school district through the next year with a minimal amount of disruption. The bubble of student enrollment is in the early grades, which must be accommodated as the students move through the school system.


Options such as the creation of pre-k centers make sense because they provide minimal disruption to students, Carstarphen said. Young children will not be moved. They will not know another campus. Some parents, however, were concerned about splitting up elementary school children between campuses.


Some had suggested making choices such as converting Webb into an elementary school campus, Carstarphen said. That might work short term, but those young students will eventually need more middle school seats.


One of the biggest problems AISD has is parent declarations of residency, Carstarphen said. Too many parents simply do not live where they say they live when they enroll their children in Austin schools.

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