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AISD trustees hear proposals for South Austin magnet school

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

The Austin Independent School District board of trustees heard five future programming proposals for a potential new South Austin magnet school, but that is about as far as planning went Monday night.

At the board’s workshop meeting, Edmund Oropez, AISD’s chief officer of teaching and learning, presented programming possibilities envisioned by the South Magnet Planning Committee. The committee – comprised of parents, community members and staff members — was formed shortly after a November board meeting brought to light issues with rising demand and a less-than-diverse student population at AISD’s only magnet school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (known as LASA).

The new proposals include a comprehensive magnet program as well as magnet programs focusing on specific areas, such as civics and law, computer science, enterprise and leadership, and health and sciences.

Committee members said that some of the magnet proposals seem similar to academic programming already offered within the district — particularly within Akins High School, which along with Travis High School could potentially host a new magnet school. However, they said a single school devoted to rigorous coursework alongside project-based classes differentiated the proposals from current offerings.

AISD teacher Michael Jung, a member of the planning committee, told trustees that each new magnet program proposal has unique enrollment requirements created with the intention of fostering a high-achieving magnet campus that is reflective of the district’s diverse demographics.

Although several trustees agreed that use of enrollment policies and practices to create a more diverse student population is key, they differed on how exactly to execute the idea at the new school.

District 1 Trustee Edmund Gordon warned that straying too far from LASA’s academic offerings “seemed to be missing the point” of the original demand. He added that creating a diverse magnet school without addressing the lack of diversity at other campuses failed to address the more systemic equity problem within AISD.

“It’s not creating an equitable alternative to LASA. This needs to be a way – or help make a way – of making all our most exclusive academic opportunities within the district more equitable,” he said, pointing to University of Texas admission policies as working examples that AISD might emulate.

However, District 7 Trustee Yasmin Wagner — who represents Southwest Austin, which has the largest proportion of students attending LASA — requested that the committee rethink the proposal’s hard requirement stipulating that 75 percent of the school’s population be composed of Title I students, the federal designation for economically disadvantaged students.

“Equity is definitely the No. 1 goal for me,” Wagner said. Nonetheless, she said, her district does not have many Title 1 students. “We would essentially be cutting out 75 percent of the slots from that group (District 7 students), and that’s a portion of the demand we are seeing for these programs as well.”

Wagner also questioned the financial feasibility of some of the programming, especially the computer science proposal. Staff and technology costs for that programming are much higher than others, she added. Oropez also acknowledged that AISD has had trouble staffing computer science programs in the past.

Oropez said that financing a potential magnet program could cost anywhere between $1 million and $3 million, but he said staff has not drafted detailed financial estimates for each particular proposal yet.

“Again, this is first draft proposals … and this work is going to shape and evolve,” Oropez told the trustees.

Responding to a question from District 5 Trustee Amber Elenz, Oropez further clarified that the intent of the committee’s proposals was to develop ideas for the “possibility of creating a magnet program in South Austin.”

“At no time was anything said that a magnet would be built,” he added.

AISD staff will hold two community engagement meetings on the issue this month. One will be held Saturday, April 16, from 8 to 11 a.m., at Covington Middle School. The second will take place Thursday, April 28, from 4 to 7 p.m., at Mendez Middle School. Oropez said the purpose of the meetings would be to discern if any of the proposals resonate with residents.

But, he noted, the proposals are not binding to board members and could be combined, redrafted or simply nixed in the future.

Community members will be asked to complete a survey on each proposal to further inform the planning committee’s work. The survey is available on AISD’s website.

Photo by Taken made available through a Creative Commons license.

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