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No Austin schools are being consolidated … yet

Thursday, December 7, 2017 by Claire McInerny, KUT

No Austin schools will permanently consolidate, but it could happen if under-enrolled schools in East Austin do not boost enrollment over the next few years.

In documents published last week, timelines for school construction projects showed six schools in East Austin that would be “unified.”

Unification is not the same as consolidation, but could lead there.

Right now, the six schools in question (Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez, Zavala and Brooke elementary schools) are under-enrolled. It’s expensive for the district to pay for electricity or air conditioning in a building that is only half full of students.

So the Austin Independent School District wants to address this problem.

Edmund Oropez, AISD’s chief officer for teaching and learning, says the district is approaching this problem in two ways.

“It’s a two-step process,” he said. “One, we’re going to focus on how do we increase enrollment at those campuses that are under-enrolled. The second thing is continue the conversations, as we move forward, on: What is the future of those campuses (going to) look like?”

Increasing enrollment is a challenge for schools in East Austin. As the city continues to see a shift in population and rising home costs, many families with school-aged kids are leaving these neighborhoods.

At the same time these schools are trying to increase enrollment, the district is moving forward with district-wide renovations, made possible by the $1 billion bond voters recently passed.

One of these projects has to do with Norman and Sims elementary schools. Part of the bond proposal is to do a $25 million renovation at either Norman or Sims. The district must decide which will get the renovation before February, to stay on track with the construction timeline.

For the next two years, while one of the schools is renovated, students at both Norman and Sims will learn together in the building not getting renovated. That’s the “unification” laid out in district documents.

If enrollment at both schools increases during these two years, they’ll go back to being two separate schools. If not, a planning committee, comprised of school, district and community members, will decide whether to close one and move all the students into the brand-new building.

This is the same situation for Metz, Zavala and Sanchez elementary schools. They will unify while a renovated elementary school is built, and could later consolidate.

“If the population cannot support multiple schools, we have to have those difficult conversations,” said Oropez. “If that happens, we have a modern state-of-the-art facility that can serve multiple schools.”

Before the election, these unification projects were called the “Eastside Vertical Team Elementary Modernization Project” and the “LBJ Vertical Team Elementary Modernization Project” in bond documents.

Documents published after the bond election, which outline when various construction projects will begin, call them a “unification project.”

Brooke Elementary is in a different situation. Its enrollment is below 75 percent of what the building can hold, which is the lowest the district allows before intervening. The district has Brooke on a plan to increase enrollment to avoid consolidation or closure.

The district doesn’t have a specific target yet for when enrollment needs to increase by, but expects to set a date soon.

Brooke parents, teachers and district officials met Wednesday to discuss the future of the school. Many parents were under the impression the school could close mid-year this school year or next school year.

“There’s been some conflicting stories, and I’m just going to own it and say that some of it is because we put the cart before the horse,” Sandra Creswell, associate superintendent for elementary schools, told the crowd. “We wanted to look at all possibilities, but unfortunately the one that got the most attention was closing Brooke.”

So closure is a possibility, but not one the district is decided on. It told the members of the group it wants their input on ways to improve enrollment for the school.

Annette Vidaurri sends both of her sons to Brooke. They used to live in the attendance area, but she moved after housing prices in the neighborhood went up. But she transferred her kids back because of the opportunities the school offers.

“(My sons) are in coding, robotics, karate, math pentathlon,” she said.

She suggested to the district to create a specific marketing plan for Brooke, showcasing the unique opportunities at Brooke.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/ KUT. 

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