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To better market its schools, Austin ISD is turning to Realtors

Thursday, May 2, 2019 by Claire McInerny, KUT

Two dozen Realtors sit in the bleachers of the Burger Athletic Center, eating pastries and sipping on coffee. They’re listening to administrators from the Austin Independent School District preview the day ahead, which is a six-hour tour of schools in South Austin.

The point of the tour is to help families already living in Austin or moving here to better understand AISD schools, through their real estate broker.

It’s one way AISD is trying to lure more families into its schools as it faces an enrollment crisis. The district has lost thousands of students over the last decade, because of a combination of families leaving to live in more affordable areas or choosing to send their kids to charter schools.

Helping Clients Be Informed ‘Shoppers’

Amity Courtois has been a real estate agent in Austin for seven years and helps people buy and sell houses all over the metro area. She grew up in Austin and graduated from Anderson High School. She also served as chair for the Austin Board of Realtors public education committee. So even though she has experience with the education system in Austin, she signed up for this tour because she wants to know more.

Realtor Amity Courtois says when she’s selling a house, she’s not just selling a neighborhood; she’s selling it’s schools She went on the AISD tour to learn as much as she can.

She said schools are a popular conversation topic with her clients, but it’s not just about buying a house in a specific neighborhood anymore. She says more often, parents are shopping for schools, so she wants to know about them all.

“That was never a thing when I was growing up, to shop for a school,” Courtois said. “It’s like you just go to the school that’s in your neighborhood. Now, people are either shopping via their houses or once even when they get to the houses because Austin has an open transfer policy.”

In AISD, parents don’t have to send their child to their neighborhood school. Parents can apply for a transfer if another school they want has space. Courtois wants to help her clients make informed decisions before they commit to or write off a school.

A ‘Whole New World’ of School Information

The group of real estate agents leave the Burger Center and board a school bus. They’re heading to Palm Elementary in Southeast Austin. All three schools they’ll visit today are in South Austin, an area of town where there’s a lot of growth.

Courtois has never been to Palm, and as she rides she says she’s following her own advice today. She always tells clients to visit the neighborhood school, regardless of what they’ve heard, because test scores and appearance aren’t everything.

“Some schools you think, oh, that’s an old icky building or something, and then you go in and you’re like oh, it actually feels really cozy and comfortable and homey,” she said.

She says programs or a special education department can make a difference to one family.

The bus pulls into the circle drive at Palm, and the Realtors are greeted by students and the principal. They all file into the cafeteria and sit down in metal folding chairs. The students are going to perform a scene from their spring musical, Aladdin.

Students at Palm Elementary perform a scene from the play “Aladdin” for realtors visiting the school.

The students playing Jasmine and Aladdin perform the scene before their big solo, “A Whole New World.” Behind them stand a chorus of students in colorful, intricate costumes and to the delight of the Realtors, a student dressed as a magic carpet comes onto the stage and sits at the feet of Jasmine and Aladdin.

Courtois and six other Realtors follow parent Sametria Wilson on a tour of the butterfly garden outside.

“We also have a fish pond, like a koi pond, over here in the corner,” Wilson said. “We use the garden not only to teach the kids about gardening and the skills that are required for that, but also just to help them sometimes calm down if they’re having a rough day.”

They also see a pre-K class, talk with a group of fifth graders making art projects based on a novel they’re reading, and end the tour back in the cafeteria with the principal.

As she walks back to the bus, another real estate agent, Theresa Bastian, says she was impressed by the school. She’s a former educator and says she knows what to look for on tours like this.

“When families think, what are the best schools in Austin, Palm doesn’t normally come to mind,” Bastian said. “So therefore you might be ruling out an entire neighborhood that could really be a match for affordability, and the quality at that school is amazing.”

Shaking Off Old Reputations

After Palm, the Realtors visit Bailey Middle School. Part of the tour includes learning about the school’s robotics team, which just won an award at a state competition.

Courtois said she hadn’t heard of this program before.

“A lot of people try to transfer into Small, which is another South Austin middle school, because they have a great tech program,” she said. “But I don’t think people even know about Bailey’s tech program.”

The last stop of the day is Akins High School. Courtois is excited about this one, because she’s worked with the staff here to create a new real estate track in the school’s academy system, which is kind of like a major for the students.

In the school auditorium, teacher Misty Lindsey explains the academy system to the Realtors. She tells them Akins is the best-kept secret in town.

“The reason I say that is that I was here when we started, and unfortunately even though we have all these amazing kids and programs, the reputation from 17 years ago kind of hangs in the air with longtime Austin residents,” Lindsey said.

Courtois knows what Lindsey is talking about. Before Akins reinvented its academic programs 10 years ago, she knew the school as a place that didn’t really prepare students for college or offer any special programs. These days she recommends the high school to her clients. But, she says, when selling a house in South Austin, a lot of buyers push back on that recommendation.

“People would usually prefer to go to Bowie,” she said. “People usually want the Bowie vertical team when they’re looking for houses rather than Akins.”

I ask if she gets frustrated always hearing people say Bowie is a better school than Akins, after seeing both firsthand.

“I do get frustrated hearing that because every school has something special about it,” Courtois said. “And everyone is unique, so it totally depends on your kid and what they need and want and what you as a family value. Some families value diversity … and some prefer Bowie. High test scores or whatever.”

That’s why she attended this tour. Courtois wants to give her clients as much information about every school option, beyond what comes up in a quick Google search. This kind of school research is something she’s going through herself. After years of attending a private school, she and her husband are planning to send their 12-year-old son to an Austin ISD high school. They’ve gone on a few tours, and right now his No. 1 priority is a school where he’ll feel welcome.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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