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AISD begins South Austin academic talks

Friday, September 18, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Even if the Austin Independent School District trustees come to an agreement in December, a new, advanced academic program in South Austin probably will not open its doors until the 2017-2018 school year, said Superintendent Paul Cruz.

At the board’s dialogue meeting Monday, despite the lack of District 7 representation, AISD trustees began discussing what a South Austin advanced academic program would look like. The South Austin region is composed largely of trustee Paul Saldaña’s District 6 and former trustee Robert Schneider’s District 7.

“One of the things we noticed is that our parents are not familiar with our programming at all, with the exception of things like advanced placement and dual credit,” said Interim Chief Schools Officer Edmund Oropez. “This is not just limited to South Austin, this is throughout the district.”

Oropez used a recent AISD South Austin survey to formulate this conclusion. He said he believes the lack of knowledge is a result of the number of new people moving to Austin in recent years.

Nevertheless, South Austin residents have long been adamant about creating another advanced academic program in their area similar to McCallum High School and Fine Arts Academy or Anderson High School’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program. At past meetings, South Austin residents have mentioned wanting another program like AISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, a prestigious magnet school also known as LASA.

However, District 3 trustee Ann Teich pointed out that many LASA parents oppose creating another LASA-like school and say it will end up hurting the already established magnet school.

“You might not have the critical mass (of students) to be able to offer some of the specialized courses that (LASA does),” Oropez said. “You might not be able to have the staff to do it, so that makes it difficult (to duplicate the program).”

Oropez said that mirroring Anderson’s IB program – whose students’ SAT and ACT scores were similar to those at LASA – would be more feasible and less expensive. However, AISD will miss out on state funding for student transportation if it does not create a magnet school. According to AISD, LASA receives $727,000 a year to bus students from around the district to the school.

“I just want to speak up for the International Baccalaureate program as a fabulous advanced academic offering, and the reason is because it fits very, very nicely in a comprehensive high school,” added District 4 trustee Julie Cowan.

Cowan explained that the program allowed for a flexibility of options for students and teachers, who could alternate between regular and advanced coursework.

But District 1 trustee Edmund Gordon pointed out that it is AISD’s LASA magnet school that is consistently ranked as one of the most prestigious and rigorous high school programs in the nation, and that AISD’s other programs – while ranked – have not beaten LASA.

In addition, the 1,000-student school – which is located on the LBJ High School campus – is consistently turning away qualified applicants capable of high-level work because the campus does not have enough space, Gordon said.

According to AISD, 481 applications were submitted to LASA in 2014, but only 333 students were accepted. Oropez said AISD has been rejecting more students who met the same standards as students accepted in prior years because the academy has fewer seats available.

“It is a program many aspired to and certainly sets you up for a certain level of achievement,” Gordon said. “One of the things that’s very disturbing to me, because I’ve had this happen in my own life, is that there are certain institutions that are so elite that in order to maintain their elite status, they feel they need to limit access to that institution. That’s what I think is happening here.”

Gordon said AISD should be thinking about how to expand this very successful model to any student who is willing and able to do the work instead of talking about other programming.

Pointing to a map provided by AISD, Gordon added that LASA’s student population mainly consists of students from West Austin, traditionally the more affluent side of town, although the campus is located within District 1 in East Austin.

“Not everybody is interested in that kind of work; not everyone can do it,” he said. “(But) particularly, if we are excluding kids of color or kids of lower socioeconomic status from those schools that are able, we are not an equitable school district.”

In 2014, LASA’s student population was primarily white, at 56.4 percent, followed by a nearly even split of Asian and Latino students. Only 9 percent of its students were economically disadvantaged, whereas most nonmagnet schools in the area have much larger economically disadvantaged student populations. Only 28 percent of its students were from East Austin.

According to the AISD communication office, most District 6 and 7 high school advanced academic programming includes advanced placement courses, dual credit courses and a program called OnRamps, which allows students to dual-enroll in courses designed by University of Texas faculty.

Monday, AISD trustees asked staff to provide costs associated with LASA and an IB program, more details regarding the weighted funding for magnet schools and the percentage of students qualified for LASA but turned away.

The board will discuss South Austin academic programming several more times before it is slated to make a decision in December.

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