Austin School District Helps IDEA Charter Recruit against Parents’ Will

By Lorie Barzano, Co-Chair of CoalitionSAUS (Strengthen Austin Urban Schools)
CoalitionSAUS is a
parent-led group representing inner-city public schools working to ensure accessible, quality Public Education for all children and healthy, thriving Public Schools in Austin’s urban core; contact for more information.

Austin Families protesting IDEA charter (credit: Austin Statesman)

During a special meeting on December 19, 2011, over the loud, repeated protests of thousands of parents and community members and under heavy police presence, the Austin ISD Board of Trustees approved a contract with IDEA Charter School by a 6 to 3 vote. The contract empowers IDEA, a south Texas, nonprofit charter school corporation, to co-locate on the Allan Elementary campus first, and later at Eastside Memorial High School, establishing the first in-district charter(s) in Austin.

Amid a litany of complaints and continued objections, AISD took the unprecedented step of signing the contract with IDEA before ever (and still not) publicly posting a line-item budget for the agreement. IDEA will co-locate charter schools on public school campuses located on the east side of Austin in low-income, minority neighborhoods, beginning in the 2012-2013 school year.

Parents complained about the district’s lack of transparency in developing the IDEA contract behind closed doors before even announcing it to the public as an option. Community groups objected to the district’s development of a “charter plan” without the involvement and participation of the stakeholders, namely the parents, neighbors and communities directly affected by the plan. Taxpayers citywide questioned the rush to make a pervasive and precedent-setting decision in such an abbreviated (5-week) timeframe for discussion and review. Ten months previously, in February 2011, CoalitionSAUS sent an open letter to the AISD Administration and Board of Trustees.  We

“…requested the District utilize an authentic, transparent, two-way communication, community-based process, with a reasonable timeframe, for establishing campus needs, gathering information, reviewing available data, considering possibilities, generating options and making decisions about facility use changes affecting a school community, such as closing a school or re-purposing a campus.”

We have repeated this request at meetings with multiple AISD administrators, individual Trustees and at “Citizen Communications” at every AISD Board meeting since.

Since late May 2011, parents and teachers at Allan Elementary had heard rumors about vast changes to come to their campus. In early October 2011, CoalitionSAUS met with AISD’s Superintendent and asked her about the rumors of sweeping changes at Allan for the next school year. She categorically denied any “unannounced plan” for sweeping changes. Two weeks later, she publicly announced an “Administrative Recommendation” for the district to sign a contract with IDEA charter school to co-locate on the Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School campuses.

The IDEA contract first appeared on the agenda for the AISD Board meeting at the end of October. Subsequently the Board postponed their decision until the special meeting on December 19, 2011, when they approved it.

By January 2012, with that contentious vote over and winter break as a cooling off period, you would think the worse of events had passed. They had not. They had just begun.

In mid-January, AISD sent home a parent announcement that their children had until February 24, to “opt-out” of attending the IDEA charter school. Kindergarten, first- and second-grade students assigned to attend Allan Elementary in the fall would automatically be assigned to the new charter school. Students (on the eastside vertical track) at Allan, Allison, Brooke, Govalle, Metz, Ortega and Zavala elementary schools who would be in sixth grade in the fall would also automatically be assigned to IDEA. Everyone complained that the process worked backwards, that parents should more justly have to “opt-in” for their children to attend the charter school.

AISD Board President Mark Williams even commented, “I do think this “opt-out” provision has created confusion because of the way all other schools work. It seems a little wrong that we’re going to force you to go to IDEA.”

To “opt out” of IDEA, parents would have to complete official district forms and mail them or submit them in person to district headquarters or campus offices. The completed forms would act as a parent’s official request for their child’s transfer to an alternate AISD campus, if that alternate campus appeared on the district list of schools accepting transfers

During February 2012, parent groups set-up “Transfer Fairs” to assist other parents, many non-English speakers, in navigating district paperwork and the bureaucratic transfer process. Parents received notification from district that they could not hold “Transfer Fairs” in AISD buildings or during campus PTA meetings. Insult to injury in February, IDEA representatives usurped the agendas at PTA meetings at Allan and Ortega elementary schools to solicit parents not to transfer their children. AISD also instructed Parent Support Specialists to contact all families about attending IDEA. School administrators instructed teachers to encourage families not to transfer their children to other AISD schools. PRIDE, an eastside parent group, consequently organized a community boycott of the IDEA charter school.

During February, IDEA held recruiting meetings at eastside churches and community centers. They also embarked upon aggressive telephone and walking campaigns in an effort to convince families not to transfer out of the new charter school. However, most parents still felt they could not get their most basic questions answered about IDEA or the charter school.

Will students “opting-out” of the IDEA charter have any options for school bus transportation to alternate schools? How many families/students have committed to attending the IDEA charter school? How many have opted out? When Parent Support Specialists speak to affected parents, do they explain the differences between IDEA at Allan and other AISD schools, specifically the lack of special areas and late-exit bilingual instruction? Do they encourage parents to attend IDEA at Allan instead of other AISD schools like Govalle, Ortega, and Martin? Why are students assigned to IDEA at Allan by default? Why not ask parents who wish to enroll their children in IDEA to opt-in instead of requiring all other parents to opt-out? Why can’t AISD make any or all of the proposed curriculum and operational changes at the Allan and Eastside Memorial campuses without bringing in an outside contractor?

Many parents complained about repeated contacts by IDEA. One parent with multiple children attending another AISD campus said she wanted to file a complaint because she had received four calls from IDEA, repeatedly soliciting her to send her 5th grader to the charter school. Parents in the Allan attendance zone also received multiple calls from IDEA, misinforming them that “Allan as IDEA would remain the same next year with all the same teachers.” AISD teachers at Allan will have to apply, interview and get hired by IDEA in order to teach at the charter school next year, which makes heavy use of Teach for America instructors. So far, no AISD teachers at Allan have applied to teach at the IDEA charter school.

As the February 24 “opt-out” deadline approached, IDEA recruitment efforts intensified as AISD’s contract with IDEA established minimum enrollment requirements for the charter school’s co-location at Allan Elementary. According to the contract approved in December, 336 students must enroll in the early grades and 112 students in the sixth grade. The contract states that if the minimum enrollment requirements have not been met, the district and IDEA have agreed “to determine whether the parties can proceed under this Agreement and to advise the AISD Board of Trustees on or before June 1st of any school year in question.”

On the evening of February 27, 2012, AISD’s Superintendent announced the first extension of the IDEA “opt-out” deadline until Friday, March 9, 2012. As of February 24, the original “opt-out” deadline, half of the 350 families assigned to the new IDEA charter school at Allan Elementary had opted-out. This would leave the Allan Elementary campus severely under-enrolled, an indicator the district has used in the past for considering the closure of a school.

With the extended (March 9) enrollment deadline in place, district announced that IDEA would have to recruit students from elsewhere, outside the Allan attendance zone, to meet its contract obligations. This engendered another complaint among parents and the community as the district’s contract with IDEA specifically includes a “no-compete” clause, which forbids IDEA from competing with other AISD schools for student enrollment.

Up until Monday, March 5, 2012, the school district had not shared enrollment numbers-to-date for the IDEA charter school. At that time, the district announced it “expected” 102 students in IDEA’s sixth grade at Allan and another 81 students in the lower grades. Per the district contract approved in December, 112 sixth grade students and 336 students in the lower grades must enroll in IDEA.

The new March 9 deadline came and went as AISD closed for spring break the week of March 10 through March 18, 2012. After returning from spring break, AISD announced it would continue to accept student registrations for the IDEA charter school through the end of March 2012.

At that point, parents heard from school officials that only 67 students had actually enrolled for IDEA K-2nd grade at Allan. Trustees heard from parents about their displeasure with the never-ending enrollment deadline. Officials at IDEA charter school began to broaden their recruiting efforts to include TV and radio spots and schedule community walks. They also have posted multiple billboards in eastside communities and continued to solicit AISD families with phone calls and hand-outs.

Meanwhile, Ortega and Govalle elementary schools, directly affected by students who opt-out of IDEA, have to finalize their budgets for next year. Yet, they do not have updated enrollment information from AISD with specific numbers of students that will attend their schools next year and in which grade levels. Parents from Allan Elementary whose children have opted-out of IDEA still do not know which campus they will attend next year. Parents continue to complain that IDEA has up-to-date information, but they do not. The community questions why none of the Trustees who voted (and Superintendent who recommended) to approve the co-location of IDEA at Allan have visited the campus since they re-purposed it as a charter school.

Finally as the next (March 30) extended IDEA enrollment deadline approached, an IDEA recruiter showed up at an elementary school in northeast Austin, clearly outside the Allan attendance zone. The northeast school compelled its students to watch the IDEA recruiter’s presentation, imploring them to opt-out of their neighborhood middle school to attend the IDEA charter at Allan in east Austin.
Outraged, Judith Hutchinson, a resident of the northeast neighborhood, wrote to the Editor of the local newspaper, “The presentation made them [students] miss 35 minutes of valuable core instructional time the week before the high-stakes STAAR tests.” Additionally, she continued, “The recruiter made questionable promises to these young students, then urged them to have their parents enroll them in IDEA.”

Now, as of April 1, 2012, the IDEA link through the AISD website announces that the IDEA charter school at Allan Elementary will accept student enrollment forms through May 30, 2012.

Clearly, IDEA has not met the minimum enrollment requirements of its contract and started to recruit far outside the Allan (its original) attendance zone. Questionably, IDEA has begun to directly compete with other AISD schools for student enrollment in spite of the “no-compete” clause in its contract with AISD. Unacceptably, IDEA has begun to disrupt the classroom instruction of current AISD students in pursuit of its own business interests. Undeniably, the Austin community still does not want IDEA as an in-district charter. Regrettably, the list of transgressions outruns this page and the violation of public trust continues to amass in Austin.

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5 Responses to Austin School District Helps IDEA Charter Recruit against Parents’ Will

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