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AISD submits top picks for Transformation Zone partner

Tuesday, January 16, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

After meeting with representatives from eight Northeast Austin campus advisory councils last week, the Austin Independent School District administration has selected its top picks for the role of design partner in a Transformation Zone grant. Empower Schools Inc. from Boston earned the district’s first choice, followed by Mass Insight Education and the University of Virginia’s Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education.

The district earned the planning half of the grant last December and is now in the process of preparing an application for the actual implementation of funds, due in May. The Transformation Zone program is a Texas Education Agency strategy intended to create an autonomous group of schools with one leadership team in charge of bringing up the performance of struggling schools. The planning grant provides $446,681 in funding, $220,000 of which will go to the final design partner.

Although the district can give the TEA its preferences among the available design partners through the program, ultimately the state agency will decide which partner the district will end up working with. At the school board’s Jan. 8 work session, Superintendent Paul Cruz said that the planning grant allowed the district to explore the possibility of a Northeast Austin Transformation Zone, which would include Norman, Pickle, Barrington, Jordan, Oak Springs, and Overton elementary schools as well as Gus Garcia and Means middle schools, without having to commit to implementing it.

However, the May deadline for the implementation part of the grant puts the district under a tight timeline, Edmund Oropez, the district’s chief officer for teaching and learning, said at the session. At the same time, board President Kendall Pace said that the district could use the financial support as soon as possible. Each school could see $500,000 to $1 million to go toward staffing, programming and services through the grant. “For a district that is hurting,” Pace said, “there’s real money attached to this.”

On the other hand, other trustees expressed reservations about pursuing the course of action. Trustee Cindy Anderson said that while she was excited about the prospects of the grant, she wished that Mendez Middle School, currently being considered for charter school conversion, was eligible to participate.

“The autonomy, the empowerment, the cultural renovation: I think that’s all fantastic. I just think it’s a little unfortunate that we have to wait for a grant opportunity to actually (realize) those things,” Anderson said.

Trustee Ann Teich said she was discouraged by the fact that many of the design partners were based outside of Texas, meaning they might not understand the conditions on the ground here. On its website, Empower lists working in several communities in Massachusetts and also in Denver.

Teich also cautioned the board about the possible strings attached to this grant. “I would watch what (TEA) offers us very, very carefully, and I would take their money very, very carefully,” she said. “I think we are quite capable of doing all of this ourselves.”

The implementation half of the grant, if awarded, will become available in July of this year.

Photo courtesy of AISD.

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