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AISD looks into becoming “innovation” district

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

On Monday, the Austin Independent School District board of trustees heard a proposal that could provide the district with more flexibility in its establishment of school hours, student-to-teacher ratios and teacher benefits, among other things. According to AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz, the move – pursuing designation as a “District of Innovation” – could give AISD the wiggle room it needs to implement novel changes.

Texas lawmakers created the “District of Innovation” concept in the most recent legislative session. In short, it allows public school districts – or parts of them – to operate in a manner similar to charter schools. Presenting the concept to trustees at their board dialogue meeting Monday, Cruz said AISD could seek the District of Innovation designation at the campus, primary school, secondary school or district-wide level.

“It might help us in some ways to really do some things differently,” Cruz said, “including provide more autonomy (to campuses and the district). The essence here is something that I really like, and that’s local control: the district, with this board of trustees, determining what’s best for our kids.”

According to an advisory memo put out by the Texas Association of School Boards in January, a school district might want to seek the new designation in order to pursue innovations in curriculum, instruction, governance, parent or community involvement, development of the school calendar or budgeting.

Districts of Innovation are exempt from the usual requirements – e.g., uniform school-year start dates, minimum minutes per day of instruction, class-size ratios, student discipline, teacher certification, benefits, contracts and appraisals – that govern traditional public school districts. (However, Districts of Innovation still must adhere to most requirements related to testing, bilingual and special education and most prekindergarten services.)

This flexibility could allow AISD to implement new practices similar to nearby charter schools. For example, Austin Achieve Public Schools keeps kids in school for a longer calendar year and school day.

To become a District of Innovation, a campus, school subset or district must submit a detailed innovation plan to the Texas Education Agency for approval. Those plans must first be approved by the school board. Cruz noted that no AISD schools have made requests to take on the designation, likely because the concept is so new.

After hearing an explanation of the concept, AISD trustees were hesitant but intrigued, noting the extreme flexibility of the law with regard to the new designation.

“I’m comfortable with us moving forward, but I have a few concerns,” said District 3 Trustee Ann Teich. “With the exemptions, I want us to look really at … class-size ratio, student discipline, certification requirements and the teacher appraisals. To me, those are areas I wouldn’t be comfortable exempting us from.”

At-Large Trustee Gina Hinojosa said she would be more comfortable approving specific campus plans, given the flexibility of the new concept. She also said she shared Teich’s concerns about exemptions.

District 2 Trustee Jayme Mathias added that AISD has “villainized charter schools for taking public money but not playing by the same rule book. … It’s intriguing that we’re being allowed this flexibility, and we should at least explore it and see what it looks like.”

Mathias said Spring Branch Independent School District in Greater Houston has already resolved to become a District of Innovation. Although planning and implementing the changes has taken “considerable work,” he said, the process so far appears to be providing more flexibility and possibilities.

District 4 Trustee Julie Cowan added that becoming a District of Innovation might allow new teachers to buy healthcare insurance from the public marketplace and use more of their paychecks to pay off student loans if they desired.

Cowan and District 5 Trustee Amber Elenz also noted that the new designation could allow AISD to change its school start date in the fall or even adjust its class times to avoid rush-hour traffic.

“I’m interested in this, especially as another tool in our toolbox,” said President Kendall Pace. “I’m very much about getting out of the way of campuses and their community and (not) being top-down prescriptive, but I certainly understand the concerns (about exemptions). … It comes across potentially harmful, and I don’t think that’s the intent.”

Trustees requested that the administration look into other public school districts that are pursuing the new designation or implementing similar programs on a smaller level, such as the El Paso, Spring Branch, Waco and Leander ISDs. Staff representatives said they would be reaching out to campuses to gauge interest. Board Vice President Paul Saldaña asked staff to look at the variety of District of Innovation proposals and reports to see what would be most effective for AISD’s demographic.

Jacob Reach, AISD assistant to the superintendent, noted that “while the (Texas Education Agency) are not done with decision and rulemaking on this, they have created the process and encouraged school districts to take a look at this, pass resolutions if they are interested and start working on a plan.”

Photo by Missy Schmidt, via Creative Commons

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