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AISD hears results of Imagine NE Austin proposal

Monday, April 18, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

At Monday’s workshop meeting of the Austin Independent School District board of trustees, members heard the results of AISD staff’s community engagement effort known as Imagine Northeast Austin. The project, which posed questions to residents regarding future facilities and academic programming, was originally prompted by discussion over what to do with land in the Mueller neighborhood that had been gifted to the school district.

The Mueller development, a mixed-use housing development situated at the site of the city’s old airport, is a joint effort between the city of Austin and Catellus Development Corp. that began in 2000. The development included in its initial plan 10 dedicated acres of land for a future AISD school or up to 20 acres of land for a school if the facility incorporated mixed uses. According to Edmund Oropez, AISD’s chief officer of teaching and learning, the district is using the development discussion as an opportunity to engage the community in addressing the issues in the Northeastern portion of the district.

As pointed out in the Imagine Northeast Austin proposal, which provides background on the city’s intentional segregation of the area, Northeast Austin has historically suffered from neglect. But, according to Oropez, the area is now facing a mix of old and new problems.

Oropez said the region is currently undergoing gentrification and demographic changes that are displacing longtime residents. It also suffers from both under-enrollment and over-enrollment as well as severely aging facilities. The average age of elementary school facilities in the area is 47 years.

“Demographic changes are happening rapidly (across the city), but particularly in the Northeast,” Oropez told board members.

In an attempt to increase equity and academic opportunity within the region, AISD staff and an outside consultant firm, the Institute for Community, University and School Partnerships, conducted online surveys, focus groups and community engagement meetings over the past five months to solicit ideas from the community.

ICUSP founder Kevin Foster told board members that members of the focus groups unanimously agreed on one priority. This consistency, he said, was “incredible.”

“When we asked a pointed question, ‘What sort of advanced (academic) programming would you like?'” said Foster, “in every different focus group the answer came back the same: ‘We don’t care what type of program you put in … we just want to actually get to go to it.'”

Surveyed residents agreed that bold changes should be made to existing AISD facilities in the area and indicated that they would be open to a new facility being developed at Mueller, too — as long as it served the region as a whole.

Residents also said that Blackshear Elementary School, known for its innovative and award-winning fine arts programming, should change from a traditionally enrolled school to an open-enrollment school, which provides access to more area residents.

In addition, Foster said residents stated a preference for either a sixth-through-eighth-grade or kindergarten-through-eighth-grade facility on the Mueller site.

“One of the recommendations that came out of these committees was to also look at (all of the area’s) facilities, especially under-enrolled schools, to see what mixed-use could look like,” Oropez added.

Under-enrolled schools in the area include the Blackshear, Govalle, Ortega, Zavala, Sanchez, Brooke and Metz elementary schools; Martin Middle School; and LBJ Early College High School.

According to the engagement findings, Northeast Austin residents showed support for including media labs and libraries, teacher housing and recreation centers in joint-use school environments within the Mueller site. There was also strong write-in support for adult learning programs, adult job training, teacher and principal professional development, urban farming and after-school care.

In the study, 21 businesses had expressed interest in partnering with AISD. Some of these businesses include the University of Texas at Austin, the Dell Children’s Medical Center, and SXSWedu.

Foster said that staff recommended committing to a joint-use site at Mueller, finding potential site partners, and sketching out and pursuing innovative funding that is not necessarily tied to a bond election. Oropez also recommended that the district commit to adaptable multiple-use facilities at five to seven under-enrolled schools over the next two years.

Staff said it will connect with AISD’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee before presenting to the board again.

Photo by Peter French made available through a Creative Commons license.

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