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AISD delays, but keeps “new” LASA on table

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

The Austin Independent School District board of trustees heard a barrage of new academic program proposals for South Austin on Monday. But at the end of the meeting, the long-discussed idea of creating South Austin’s version of the district’s prestigious Liberal Arts and Science Academy remained on the table. Although board members had previously anticipated reaching a decision on the matter by December, they said they would not meet that goal.

AISD trustees have discussed South Austin residents’ requests for more rigorous academic programming for years now, eventually focusing more on Southwest Austin as a potential location for a new program when former District 7 Trustee Robert Schneider was on the board. Edmund Oropez, AISD’s chief officer for teaching and learning, said that demands for another magnet school in South Austin initially arose after the administration realized that more than 400 students attending LASA in Northeast Austin in fact lived south of the river.

Board President Gina Hinojosa said that the conversation has since evolved to include other academic programming possibilities, which prompted an AISD employee-led planning committee to look into a number of options. Monday, the committee recommended that programming in South Austin include one of the following options: expanded access to Crockett High School’s Entrepreneurship Program via transfers at $118,864 to $571,171 per year; establishment of two new academies at Austin High School and expanded access to curriculum transfers at $448,158 per year; establishment of an International Baccalaureate program and expanded access via transfers at $238,565 to $525,725 per year; establishment of an Advanced Placement Capstone Program at a rough estimate of $16,150 per year; or establishment of a magnet program at a rough estimate of $274,011 to $446,307 per year.

During AISD’s workshop discussion, some trustees said they viewed calls for more rigorous academic programming in South Austin as one solution for a variety of residential demands occurring throughout AISD. Some of those demands include expanding LASA’s enrollment capacity, which is currently capped at 1,000 students; finding a way to fill multiple empty high school campuses in South Austin; and addressing a lack of racial and locational diversity in LASA’s student population.

Board members managed to agree that they need to pick a problem to solve before deciding what additional academic programming in South Austin would look like. However, District 7 Trustee Yasmin Wagner said that the options presented Monday did not match what her constituents have expressed.

“What I’m hearing on the ground in Southwest Austin is that families there are very much enamored with and would very much like to be part of an experience like LASA,” she said. “We really don’t have anything else in our district that matches the success we’ve seen at LASA.”

District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon and District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias agreed, explaining that the ever-increasing demand for enrollment in LASA merits looking into its replication or expansion. Gordon also voiced concern over LASA’s lack of diversity, given that most of the school’s students come from more affluent areas, and he stated that LASA’s limited enrollment contributes to the problem.

District 4 Trustee Julie Cowan suggested possibly moving LASA to a more centralized location and providing a larger campus so the magnet school could expand its enrollment. She said that approach could potentially address both the capacity and the diversity issues at LASA.

Oropez said that while there are easily another 1,000 students ready to enroll in LASA, he was not sure how an expansion would change LASA’s effectiveness and culture. During the conversation, he also warned of the potential siphoning effect a magnet school can have on AISD’s overall teacher and student talent pool, pulling them away from other programs.

District 3 Trustee Ann Teich, who said she was against magnet schools, suggested looking instead into partnering with the University of Texas’ forthcoming medical school to create an academic program focused on the health sciences.

“I think that often, families think if their child is (gifted and talented), they have to go to someplace like LASA,” she said. “They don’t, if you really think about it.”

But At-Large Trustee Kendall Pace pointed out that Southwest Austin residents have said their AISD schools are not meeting student needs, and the location of the new program was key. “I want to honor the wishes of families in Southwest Austin,” she said. “We have dismissed their desires for years, and I don’t think that’s fair, and I don’t think that’s right.”

Nevertheless, District 6 Trustee Paul Saldaña said he believes residents are unaware of the existing academic programming already in South Austin. He added that schools might feel the administration is pushing programming on them if trustees decide to move forward with more South Austin academic options.

“I certainly have the impression that we are trying to give one community preferential treatment over another,” he said.

The AISD board will continue discussion, seek community engagement and, by May, hear more from AISD’s employee-led planning committee.

This 2014-2015 AISD's Liberal Arts and Science Academy's enrollment map shows where its students come from based on local high school boundaries.

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