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Austin’s top magnet school may be dislocated from East Austin home

Friday, March 31, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

One of the top 10 high schools in the country, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, may be relocated from its stomping grounds on the campus of Lyndon B. Johnson High School in East Austin to a more central location if the Facility Master Plan Update is adopted by the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees next Monday.

The first biannual update to the 2014 master plan, drafted by the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, prioritizes LASA’s relocation to a larger site more accessible to AISD at large. The committee recommends the move occur in the next six years at a project cost estimated to be between $90 million to $122 million. LASA originated as a combination of two magnet programs, the Science Academy and the Liberal Arts Academy, and has been operating out of LBJ’s facilities since 2002.

The update also recommends that LBJ High undergo a modernization process soon after LASA’s proposed departure at a project cost between $89 million to $121 million.

During the public hearing at the AISD board’s March 27 meeting, parents and students advocated for and against LASA’s removal from LBJ. Kelly Mikelson, a parent of a recently admitted LASA student, said that a central location would help to open the school’s doors to students from all backgrounds. “As a biracial parent, it is important to me that my children get to attend a school that is diverse,” she said at the meeting.

Tu Russo, mother of LASA graduate Ethan, read a letter penned by her son to the board. “Most of all,” she said, quoting her son, “I fear that splitting LASA would destroy the culture and relationship that the teachers have spent years of their life creating.”

Clara Morse, an LASA sophomore, said that LASA needs to grow. “Over 150 totally qualified students were rejected from LASA (last year) purely because there isn’t enough space,” she said.

Chief Officer of Teaching and Learning Edmund Oropez said that staff had initially conceived of a South Austin magnet school but had ultimately decided that a centrally located “super magnet” would alleviate the overcrowding at LASA more effectively.

Trustee Edmund Gordon questioned whether having only one magnet school in the city would address LASA’s diversity problem. “Most cities have more than one magnet,” he said. “Why isn’t there the possibility of having one magnet in each quadrant of the city?”

Oropez said that AISD is currently in the process of changing the admission criteria for LASA in an effort to increase the number of non-white students. “By creating this 2,000-seat magnet program (double LASA’s current capacity), we could aggressively pursue increasing the number of African-American and Hispanic students in the program,” he said.

The core problem, Oropez continued, is that AISD and the city of Austin in general have never taken a firm stance on the subject of magnet schools. “Some people favor having magnet programs, and then other people are very much against having magnet programs and feel that the kids should stay in their neighborhood schools,” he said.

“I very much favor magnet programs,” Gordon responded, “but I don’t favor segregated magnet programs.”

Gordon said that LASA had been placed at LBJ, a school whose student body is 96 percent African-American and Hispanic, in part to address the district’s racial divide. “We’re moving backwards, from my perspective, when we’re moving folks out,” he said.

Superintendent Paul Cruz said that the decision to create one super magnet as opposed to building an additional southern campus was based on retaining LASA’s integrity.

Once again, Gordon questioned that logic. “Is the integrity of LASA based on elitism? Or is it based on the opportunity that these kids have to share a campus with other kinds of kids?” he asked.

That opportunity has not been lost on the students at both schools, but even concerted efforts to grow closer together have proved challenging, as reported earlier this month.

Another public hearing on the update is scheduled for Monday, April 3, and the board is expected to vote on its adoption, and by extension LASA’s fate, at that special called meeting.

Photo by WhisperToMeOwn work, Public Domain, Link.

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