AISD’s plan to close, consolidate schools shreds public trust

AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz during a press conference in 2016. (LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN ARCHIVES)

The move by Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz to close and consolidate several East Austin schools soon after voters approved a billion-dollar bond package is a betrayal of public trust.

Clearly, Cruz’s decision unveiled last week is a departure from the promises school trustees made to the public months ago regarding campus closures and consolidations, promises Cruz also signed off on. This week, after fierce public pushback, Cruz is moonwalking away from that decision. But the damage is done.

In explaining those missteps, Cruz said he had good intentions, motivated by “the excitement of new schools on the eastside,” made possible by the $1.05 billion bond package voters overwhelmingly approved last month.

“I was really prioritizing eastside schools,” he told us.

That was a huge miscalculation. Cruz should have known better, given all the reassurances that he and trustees made leading up to the bond election that school closures and consolidations were not part of the bond process — and not on the ballot. They emphasized that such decisions would be made independently, through a different process yet to come.

When voters approved the billion-dollar bond package in early November, they were focused on the district’s message that those bonds were needed to modernize, rebuild and retool Austin district schools so its 82,000 students would be better prepared for technological and medical jobs in the Central Texas and global economy.

That was a persuasive argument with voters, who approved them with 72 percent in favor.

Much of that goodwill evaporated last week as Cruz’s plans for East Austin schools came to light. Intentional or not, Cruz signaled that the election was a green light for closures and consolidations.

“The successful passage of the recent bond showed taxpayers entrusted AISD with reinventing the urban school experience, including necessary steps, which would be irresponsible to ignore,” Cruz said Friday.

A “continuing trend of declining enrollment in some areas of Austin ISD has created challenges that must be addressed with clear, intentional solutions — including community input to provide modernized learning spaces our students deserve.”

Cruz’s plan put six elementary schools on a fast track for consolidation, meaning some would be closed in mergers. They are: Brooke, Norman, Sims, Metz, Sanchez and Zavala. All have low enrollments, which qualifies them for closure under a district facilities plan.

But closures are by no means automatic. Plans adopted by the school board give schools an opportunity to avoid closure or consolidation by increasing their enrollments to certain levels, either by offering stronger academics or other programs that attract students. Schools are supposed to receive help from district staff and community leaders to meet those enrollment targets.

With the winds of victory from the bond election at his back, Cruz veered from that process.

The Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported that Cruz’s plan calls for one of two East Austin elementary schools — Norman or Sims — to close and consolidate with the other campus. A planning team would have until Jan. 16 to determine which school would survive and which would shut down. The remaining school would be rebuilt for $25 million and open in 2020.

Similarly, Brooke Elementary is on the closure list, with its students moving to Ortega, Linder/Uphaus or Govalle, one of which would be rebuilt into a 522-student, $32.5 million campus opening in August 2020.

Zavala, Sanchez and Metz elementary schools also would be consolidated, district documents show, and that planning team would have until June 7 to decide which would be rebuilt, with the other two schools folding into it. The district timeline was unclear about when the other two campuses would be closed, but the $25 million rebuilt campus is slated to open in August 2021.

Given such contradictions, it’s no wonder many feel duped. Board President Kendall Pace, said she, too, was caught off guard as was her colleague, trustee Ted Gordon, whose District 1 includes Norman and Sims.

“The timeline took us by surprise,” Pace told us. “I asked (Cruz) what does this mean?”

Cruz confirmed that the board was not briefed on the plan, though they did receive an email about it. That is another misstep. Something that significant should not have been conveyed in email. That was a moment that required personal communication as closures and consolidations have proved to be among the most controversial topics in the Austin district. And for good reason.

Allan Elementary never recovered from its closure in 2012 orchestrated by then-Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who turned the campus over to IDEA charter schools to establish its charter program in the district. IDEA operated the school for just a year before it and the school district parted ways in a bitter breakup.

But the cynicism and bruised relations precede that.

East Austin has borne the burden historically of a segregated system in which schools with minority students were shut down to accommodate court-ordered integration that favored white schools in West Austin. Those political and racial ghosts still lurk in eastside communities that understandably distrust AISD officials when it comes to decisions regarding closures and consolidations.

Trust is fragile. What is almost incomprehensible is why Cruz, knowing that history, further strained that trust with premature plans calling for closures and consolidations without meaningful public input.

Backpedaling with statements that he will slow things down and gather public input won’t heal the damage. Cruz should concede he erred, hit the rewind button and start over with a process that respects what trustees pledged to do: Implement an independent process that takes bold steps to help schools stay open — before moving to shut them down.

 

 

Flaws in AISD’s bond decisions show need for an independent committee

TA Brown Elementary on Friday, November 4, 2016. Unstable floor leads to cancellation of classes at Brown Elementary. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Ideally, a bond package for schools would bring together diverse communities across Austin whose residents share a strong support of Austin public schools. Yet the bond package currently being considered, whose price tag is about $1 billion, has divided much of the Austin community, tearing open old wounds of classism and racism and raising new questions regarding transparency, accountability and leadership.

Clearly, the process is broken and in need of drastic change.

To that point, the Austin school district would benefit greatly from an independent bond commission made up of both supporters and skeptics to hash out the complex and often contentious priorities of a large urban district. That commission should reflect the community it serves – economically, racially, ethnically and geographically. It’s one way to move beyond the bitter politics that is driving decisions regarding the current bond package that seems headed to a November election.

In the end, whatever decisions are made still would have to go to the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees for a vote. But right now, matters have turned toxic with a board and superintendent who have bent over backwards to accommodate well-heeled, influential Austin parents and neighborhoods at the expense of many low-income families and people of color.

That can be seen in an emerging, lopsided bond package, which supplanted some key recommendations by an advisory committee to make the bond package more geographically and equitably balanced.

Prime examples of how things have gone off the rails include the last-minute proposal for the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, whose student body is mostly white and affluent, and the elimination of a highly recommended middle school that would serve many students of color who are lower-income.

RELATED: Alberta Phillips: How Austin ISD botched decision to move an acclaimed academy.

LASA would move from the LBJ High School campus to the Eastside Memorial High School campus, displacing mostly minority and low-income students there. Eastside students would move to a new campus at the original L.C. Anderson site. In all, that would cost about $100 million.

Never mind that the LASA proposal would increase segregation, as noted by Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon, by increasing to 3 the number of high schools with student bodies that are “over 90 percent black and brown.”

“In each one of those high schools, we’re well over 80 percent and heading into 90 percent in terms of socioeconomically underprivileged,” said Gordon, who represents Northeast Austin.

But the dysfunction doesn’t stop there. Trustees continue to lean toward a single bond proposition, offering the lame excuse that if they gave voters, say two choices, voters might approve the less-urgent proposition and vote down the proposition that contains the district’s vital needs. In other words, voters are too dumb to discern the district’s true needs from the fluff.

We all owe gratitude to the 18 people who serve on the district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee. FABPAC members did their job, holding dozens of community meetings and combing through mounds of reports and information to craft a facilities master plan to be used as a blueprint for bond packages. They went about that task for 18 months, prioritizing which schools were most in need of repair, replacement and upgrades, and neighborhoods that needed new schools.

That kind of work is best done by those with a passion for public schools. But the next steps in deciding the scope, shape and timing of a bond package should be done by an independent group, which can impartially assess the district’s most urgent priorities, while at the same time gauge what taxpayers can afford.

That would be a healthy, trusted process that provides more checks and balances.

FABPAC members will tell you that in doing their work, they began with a foregone conclusion: There would be bonds. And soon. That was not debatable. The rest they have left to trustees, such as the bond package’s price tag, number of propositions and the date they appear on a ballot. Trustees are scheduled to fill in all of those blanks on Monday.

Unfortunately, that process invites the kind of manipulation of the process we’ve witnessed from Superintendent Paul Cruz and others. It was Cruz who fast-tracked LASA’s expansion and move.

RELATED: Community reactions mixed over proposed LASA move to Eastside site.

Obviously, the FABPAC did not believe LASA’s expansion rose to the level of needs at T.A. Brown Elementary School, with significant structural deficiencies. That was signaled by the FABPAC’s recommendation to insert LASA, along with a middle school for the Mueller development, in its second-tier priorities.

Yet, trustees elevated LASA, but not Mueller’s middle school. That did not sit well with Gordon, who referred to such eleventh-hour maneuvering as the “Eastside switcheroo.”

“If reinventing the urban school system means abandoning the urban areas of the city, then we’re in trouble,” Gordon said. “It can’t mean that. It has to mean a way in which the east and west can come together to create a school district which is diverse, which is equitable, and which provides all our kids with a quality education – not some kids an elite quality education, and other kids no education – all our kids a quality education.”

To achieve that goal, the Austin district needs a new business model for bond planning.

 

 

Build bigger, better LBJ high by keeping high-performing academy on its campus

At a press conference at Travis High School on May 13, 2016, AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz reacts to the Texas Supreme Court ruling that the way Texas finances public schools is constitutional. The Austin area school districts were hoping to get more money from the state but they will not be getting more. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

If history is any guide, the Austin school district’s Lyndon Baines Johnson High School might well be in for a rough future in attracting students if Austin school trustees strip its crown jewel – the nationally-ranked Liberal Arts and Science Academy – from its campus.

That is a distinct possibility, given the recommendations under consideration tonight by the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees regarding its facilities master plan.

Moving LASA is estimated to cost at least $90 million and as much as $122 million in capital costs, which the district would have to ask taxpayers to finance through bonds. That could become a racially-charged issue for trustees and the public, signaling that school officials are willing to invest in moving the elite, predominantly white academy from its host campus, the predominantly minority and lower-income LBJ.

RELATED READ: 5 things to know about the $4.6 billion AISD facilities plan

The reasoning behind moving LASA to a central location is well-intentioned, as the demand for seats in the academy far exceeds the supply and there is no similar advanced academy south of Lake Lady Bird. It’s unfortunate that trustees bypassed an opportunity to establish a second LASA at Crockett High School in South Austin.

It’s worth noting that the proposal to move LASA to a central location was forwarded by the district’s Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, a group charged with coming up with proposals to modernize and expand the district’s facilities to meet academic and growth needs as the district looks to offer instruction relevant for the 21st century.

But there are other, better solutions to address LASA’s growth issues without impairing LBJ, as the district did to then-Johnston High School, when it moved the Language Arts Academy from its campus in East Austin.

Johnston, now Eastside Memorial, never recovered from losing its high-performing magnet that helped integrate its campus and lift its reputation. In relocating Johnston’s liberal arts academy to LBJ in 2001 to join the district’s science academy, the district moved hundreds of students from Johnston, triggering a broader exodus of even students who weren’t enrolled in the liberal arts academy.

The high school has remained severely under-enrolled ever since, despite the millions of dollars the district has spent on raising its performance, reputation and enrollment.

Trustees should not make the same mistake with another, similar move that signals a divestment in another East Austin high school. A proposal by District 1 Austin School Trustee Edmund “Ted” Gordon would solve space limitations at LASA without gutting LBJ.

Gordon is proposing that the district construct facilities on LBJ’s campus that accommodate both LASA at its current 1,200 capacity and LBJ’s projected 1,000 capacity for student enrollment. Doing that would cost about the same, but send a positive message that the district is committed to diversity and inclusion.

We give Superintendent Paul Cruz and his team credit for pouring umpteen hours and resources into public meetings into developing the $4.6 billion plan. Chief financial officer Nicole Conley adds a high level of expertise in crunching numbers, forecasting and keeping focused on things that matter, such as how to stabilize the district’s enrollment and finances in changing times.

And we extend special thanks to the members of the Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee, volunteers who put aside their own priorities to do the tough and sometimes thankless work of crafting a way forward regarding school district facilities.

Having said that, the committee’s recommendations also require more vetting and analysis.

Consider that the recommendations could mean closing/consolidating five elementary schools – all which are low-income with enrollments that are predominantly Latino and African American. Those campuses are; Brooke, Dawson, Joslin, Norman and Sanchez.

Schools could avoid closure if their enrollments rise so that at least 75 percent of their seats are filled.

But the plan seems to put the onus for filling seats on individual schools – and not on the superintendent, where it belongs. While it is right for the superintendent to work with campus administrators, teachers, parents and other stakeholders, the buck stops with the superintendent if a campus is failing or under-enrolled. As the CEO, he or she is the fixer.

We will continue to weigh in on the facilities master plan after trustees take it up Monday night. At a time when school property taxes are through the roof, Cruz, his team and trustees need to present a plan that is equitable, inclusive, efficient and financially sound. The absence of any one of those elements could be enough to sink a future bond package. And trustees would be wise not to ignore the lessons of history.

*This editorial has been updated to correct the name of the Liberal Arts and Science Academy.

Is your child feeling anxiety or fearful after the election?

SARASOTA, FL - NOVEMBER 07: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a rubber mask of himself during a campaign rally in the Robarts Arena at the Sarasota Fairgrounds November 7, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida. With less than 24 hours until Election Day in the United States, Trump and his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, are campaigning in key battleground states that each must win to take the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds up a rubber mask of himself during a campaign rally in the Robarts Arena at the Sarasota Fairgrounds November 7, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Thursday morning, Austin Independent School District Trustee Paul Saldaña wrote an open letter to students in the district in response to the anxiety and fear many students across the district have reported feeling after hearing news of Donald Trump winning the presidential election. Election results-related anxiety is what led students at two local elementary schools — Sunset Valley and Matthews — to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance on Wednesday in protest of Trump.

As a parent of a 9-year-old bright and curious child, I appreciate Saldaña’s gesture. I only wish I’d had it on Wednesday morning.

That’s when my 9 year-old son woke up wondering who had won the presidential election the night before. And, unlike past elections, I dreaded answering his question.

It was an especially trying and uncommon campaign season for us both. During most elections, I welcome reading and talking about candidates and the issues on the ballot. But, this election season, thanks to the hostile rhetoric that became to familiar, I did my best to shelter my 3rd grader from news of Trump or Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Yet, despite my efforts, we had plenty of conversations about the two candidates vying for presidency during our drives to and from school. Unfortunately, most of those conversations were to specifically address my son’s fears over something the Republican candidate had said should happen or promised to do as president. At times I wondered if I was doing much to help my son settle his anxiety.

So when my son asked who won the election, I froze and changed the subject. What more could I say? I had already spent weeks trying to ensure him that regardless of the winner, he — no, WE as a family and WE, as a country — would be fine. Yet, I knew, news of the winner would be a hard blow for his kind and sensitive soul. As a child of Mexican American parents, the grand-child of immigrants and whose group of friends are as diverse as the fabric of this country, my son took each insult made by Trump as a direct hit to those in his closest circles. So, I told him. Silent tears followed.

Then, the most heartbreaking question came: “Mom, where was I born?”

My son spent weeks worrying about what might happen to his friends who spoke a different language or whose skin color was much darker. Now, with a president-elect that has shown little regard for people who look like my son’s friends and family members, he wondered how he personally would be affected by this new president.

There are families across this country, in this city in fact, having similar conversations with their children. And their taking place at schools, as well. Some educators, like Mathews Elementary Principal Grace Martino-Brewster, have taken the time to personally address this anxiety they see in their students.

Saldaña takes it a step further. He reassures all students in the district that they matter, that they are heard and that they are safe. He also is working to organize a town hall meeting soon to address the issue, he said.

“I have been hearing from students, teachers and parents the last two days and several have requested a community conversation,” Saldana wrote in an email. “Parents are struggling how to broker and/or respond to their children.”

The full text of his letter:

Looking for our 2016 endorsements?

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 

Early voting for the national and local elections starts October 24 and while the Editorial Board is not endorsing in the presidential race, we are weighing in on some very important issues facing Central Texans.

There’s no doubt that by now most Americans know how they’ll vote on the main ticket this presidential election, but local races are just as important — if not more so, some will argue — and deserve voters’ attention. It’s at the local level that the Editorial Board has decided to focus and dig a little deeper, providing both analytical editorials on some of the most pressing issues coupled with Q&A’s with candidates who will take on these issues if elected. Below, you’ll find a list of the races and issues we’ve chosen to weigh in  on.

So whether you choose to head to the polls next week (early voting ends Nov. 4) or decide to wait for Election Day on Nov. 8, we encourage you to make it through to the end of the ballot and cast as an informed vote as much a possible. (BTW: Need more info on Austin City Council Candidates? Don’t know who represents you? No problem. Use the Statesman’s City Council Candidate Explorer to answer your questions.)

Presidential Election:

Mobility Bonds Election:

Travis County Sheriff race:

Travis County District Attorney race:

Austin City Council District 2 and 4 races:

Austin City Council District 6 race:

Austin City Council Districts 7 and 10 races:

Austin Community College Board of Trustee races:

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees races:

 

And of course, you can get full election coverage here: Statesman Elections 2016

 

Is Texas denying kids access to special education?

jwj Back to School 0139
A Houston Chronicle investigation suggests that the state’s policies on monitoring special education students are keeping many students out of the program. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A massive Houston Chronicle investigation published last weekend nailed down the forces behind a public education phenomenon that’s been talked about for years, answering the question: Why are Texas’ special education numbers so low?

According to the Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal, state education policies have systematically pushed enrollments in special education classes down to meet an arbitrary benchmark of 8.5 percent — a benchmark that was enacted at a moment of state budgetary crisis and apparently plucked from the sky to “move the needle.”

It’s a suggestion that has been made before. The Texas Observer concluded as much, with far less detail than Rosenthal, in January.

That said, the data collected by Rosenthal is startling. Since the benchmark was implemented in 2004, the proportion of Texas students receiving special education services has dropped from near the national average of 13 percent to 8.5 percent last year. In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 districts are in Texas, including Houston and Dallas.

According to Rosenthal:

“Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness.”

In Austin ISD, the special education numbers have dropped, but not by as much as in its urban sister districts. In a phone conversation this week, Austin special education officials preferred to talk about the relatively stable rates over the last decade of between 9 and 10 percent, not the sharp decrease from 12.2 to less than 10 percent within a few years of when the benchmark system was implemented.

“[The benchmark] doesn’t affect us,” said Edmund Oropez, the Austin district’s chief officer for teaching and learning. “It’s more of a guide to be mindful. We’re going to serve our kids no matter what their needs are.”

Other districts tell a different story, one that includes worrying about fines and penalties from the state which tracks more than 20 special education indicators.Texas Education Agency officials say those fears are misplaced. TEA has no authority to assess fines, according to spokesman Gene Acuña, and no single indicator would trigger state intervention.

Failing to meet a single benchmark may not matter on its own, but if a district is facing multiple issues in its special education program, it’s hard to see how it can’t be a factor in district and campus discussions on how to implement the program. Evaluations are not cheap and by federal law, districts only have 45 days to complete them once they are requested. The district currently has 258 pending evaluations, the bulk of which are second, third and fourth graders.

In fact, Austin has been under a state special education improvement plan for four of the last five years. The reason according to Jean Bahney, executive director for Austin’s special education program, has been not  the benchmarking system, but rather failing to provide comparable services to students who transfer in and out of the district and not meeting the 45-day window required for evaluations.

Even so, the Texas Education Agency’s monitoring system  not only dinged Austin’s enrollment rate as above the enrollment benchmark, but cited the district for suspending large numbers of special education students in disciplinary proceedings. As many as 33 percent of special education students received out of school suspensions in those years, more than double the rate for the overall enrollment. Last year the out of school suspension rate for special education was reported at 21 percent, the state’s benchmark rate is 6 percent.

While Rosenthal concentrated his reporting on changes to the state budget in 2003, officials at TEA point out the federal education law changed around the same time as substantial changes to federal rules for educating children with disabilities.

A statement from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath defends the agency’s benchmarking policy:

“All Texas students who are entitled to special education services at school should have access to the services they need. However, research shows it is not in the best interest of students who do not need special education support to be erroneously admitted into special education programs.

As a result, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) includes language to ensure states take steps to prevent over-identification and disproportionate special education representation. Consistent with this law, in 2004 the Texas Education Agency adopted a performance monitoring system to help draw attention to the risks associated with over-identification and disproportionate representation while still ensuring all students eligible for special education services receive those services.”

Holding districts to standards can be a useful way to make sure they are not inappropriately warehousing students. However, the benchmarks used need to be based in some type of sound best practices or demographic reality, and while the federal law was changed in 2004, it still doesn’t explain Texas’ race to the bottom. Just because the state wishes there were fewer disabled students does not necessarily make it so.

Children are not widgets, as common sense should make obvious. Holding school districts responsible for higher standards, under-funding public schools and then hounding districts for attempting to serve their entire special education population is morally repugnant and fiscally shortsighted. But so is using special education as a classroom management or discipline solution.

By withholding services until a child’s older years, the state may actually incur more long-term costs for mental health treatments, juvenile justice and more intensive special education therapies — not to mention the damage caused to children who view themselves of social and academic failures for conditions beyond their immediate control. Special education students who are suspended show far less academic progress than those that aren’t.

The Republican Legislative leadership has been silent on the Chronicle’s investigation, which is little surprise. Close examination of the benchmarks, by definition, means coming up with more money to pay for the programs that special education students require. That debate continues to be a non-starter for conservatives.

But Texas legislators should take care. They were stunned in 2013 when an army of parents rose up to finally protest the abundance of standardized testing, forcing them to back down from even stricter standards for graduation.

Special education parents are breed apart, having poured countless hours into filing paper work, attending teacher committee conferences, dealing with discipline issues, carting their children to therapies they can hardly afford and ordering private evaluations when campuses tell them to wait a little longer.

I suspect lawmakers will be seeing many of them at the Capitol dome come January.

Wheeler’s Grove Elementary: Restoring an Austin past purposely erased

Juneteenth Wheeler's Grove
A Juneteenth celebration in Wheeler’s Grove (today Eastwoods Park) in 1900.

Nancy Mims is a talented artist, photographer and fabric designer who also happens to be a former neighbor of mine who now lives in Hyde Park. With that disclosure out of the way, the reason I’m writing about Nancy is she had a role in persuading the Austin school board to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School last month. Friday afternoon, she reminded her Facebook friends that the school district’s deadline for nominating a new name for the school was rapidly approaching. She then shared the name she was nominating.

There are strong cases to be made for renaming Lee Elementary after Elisabet Ney, the sculptor who built her studio in Austin in the 1890s and whose statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin stand in the Texas Capitol, and for famed Depression-era photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee (which would allow the district to keep the Lee Elementary name), but Nancy made a compelling case for her suggestion. So I asked her if I could share her Facebook post with our Viewpoints readers; she agreed. Here it is:

I’m nominating Wheeler’s Grove, the former name of Eastwoods Park, the lush, green, tree-filled City of Austin park just a few blocks southwest of the school.

From the late 1860s through the 1910s, Wheeler’s Grove was the first public space in Austin where the city’s African-American community gathered for Emancipation Day, known in Texas as Juneteenth. Citizens from nearby freedom colonies* Wheatville and Horst’s Pasture (both in what is now the greater UT area) began the celebrations. According to news articles from the time, eventually hundreds and even thousands of people celebrated Juneteenth each year with great fanfare: festivities included the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, pageants, parades, contests, music, and speeches from local politicians and church leaders. According to records, it was the only large public space where Austin’s African-American community held Juneteenth for many years and it was also host to the African-American community’s meeting place for Fourth of July celebrations (as they were not welcome to join the “official” whites-only celebrations).

As Jim Crow laws restricted freedoms, cruel intimidation tactics (eliminating utilities, using black-owned properties for dumping city garbage) harshly rendered private properties unlivable, and the fully segregated 1928 City Plan map drew a line through the city, African American access to Wheeler’s Grove was ultimately prohibited. The land — in what had been declared by city plan and by deed a whites-only neighborhood — was developed by the city’s parks department starting in 1929, with the addition of new amenities like tennis courts, for whites only. From then on, a major part of African American history in this city was virtually erased, for only the beautiful old trees that remain in the park to stand as witness.

The people who celebrated and built community in their once-sacred space deserve to be recognized, remembered, honored and celebrated. Those of us fortunate to live in this area now have a responsibility to recognize and remember those who came before us, and we need to continue finding ways to bring justice to those who were unfairly banished from the spaces we continue to inhabit and enjoy. Bringing back the name Wheeler’s Grove as the school name would be a small but important gesture toward reconnecting and honoring a forgotten past in this community. And in doing so, we’d share responsibility for recognizing and restoring histories that had been purposely erased in a larger system of sustaining discrimination. Black ownership and history — marginalized or completely erased in this part of the city — should be recognized as part of a greater mission of closing the gap between black and white memory, with the ultimate goal of reaching true equality and equity.

What’s next, now that the nomination period has ended? As I understand the renaming plan, Austin school district officials are vetting the nominations (“to eliminate the Schooly McSchoolfaces,” as Nancy put it) before sending the list to Lee’s campus advisory committee, which will vet the school district’s vetted list. After gathering some community input, the advisory committee and district will narrow the list to three finalists and present them to the school board on May 23. It’s a process.

We continue to hear the charge that the school district engaged in a Soviet-style scrubbing of history by voting to rename Lee Elementary. As Nancy’s post reminds us, the history that was scrubbed was the history of Wheeler’s Grove, which is why it’s a perfect nomination for renaming Lee Elementary. And as I wrote in a previous blog entry, changing the name of Lee Elementary doesn’t change anything other than the name of a school. The history of the Civil War remains. It easily can be found myriad elsewheres.

Meanwhile, the art deco typography that spells out “Robert E. Lee” above the school’s entrance should be preserved. The same style lettering should be used for the school’s new name to keep it compatible with the building’s original design.

Once Lee Elementary is renamed, a plaque is in order not only to commemorate the school’s New Deal origins — something a current plaque already does — but to note how the school’s original name was part of the decades-long effort throughout the South to revise the Civil War’s history into a Lost Cause myth, and how in 2016 the community no longer wanted to honor a man central to that myth. If Wheeler’s Grove becomes the school’s new name, perhaps the plaque also will say that the community chose instead to restore a past that myth helped displace.

__________________

* Check out “Freedom Colonies: Independent Black Texans in the Time of Jim Crow,” by Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad (UT Press, 2005), for a history of “freedmen’s settlements” in Texas.

What should be Robert E. Lee Elementary’s new name?

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Austin school trustees voted this week to rename the district’s Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Austin. Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In the weeks since the Austin school board agreed to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School, our inbox has been filled with suggestions — some sincere and some more mischievous.

Columnist and editorial board member Jody Seaborn tongue-in-cheek suggested renaming the school for Berkeley Breathed, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of “Bloom County” who was raised in Houston, graduated from the University of Texas, and briefly worked as a freelance American-Statesman editorial cartoonist. More serious in-house suggestions have included Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and simply Hyde Park Elementary School. (Why bother with someone’s name anyway? The district’s eligibility rules allow neighborhoods and landmarks as well.)

Out in the community, we’ve heard suggestions ranging from the late author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee; famous Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney;  former Austin Mayor and State Comptroller Carole Keeton; and longtime educator Dr. Frances J. Nesmith. Nominations are due April 15.

There is also a movement afoot to rename the school for photographer and University of Texas professor Russell Lee. Russell Lee was born in Illinois, but moved to Austin shortly after meeting and marrying his second wife, a Dallas newspaper reporter, Jean Smith.

Longtime Austinite and environmental activist Shudde Fath knew Russell Lee personally. Her husband was Lee’s fishing buddy on the Highland Lakes for more than four decades. She wrote us last week to make her case:

During WWII, Russell served as an aerial photographer in the Air Transport Command photographing territory where Allied troops would soon be operating.  Ending WWII with an ulcer and a Rest & Relaxation recommendation from a doctor, Russell said, “Fishing perhaps?”  Jean’s Dallas parents were already familiar with Lake Buchanan, so Russell and Jean rented a cabin at Buchanan and stayed eight months.  They soon moved to a rent house in Austin and then bought a fine home on West Avenue.  Their home quickly became a center of hospitality for their growing circle of friends.  (Jean was Emma Long’s campaign manager when Emma became the first woman Austin City Council member in 1949.)

In 1946 Russell took photographs for the federal government’s Medical Survey of the Bituminous Coal Industry.  He worked on industrial photography projects for Standard Oil; photographed life in San Augustine, Texas; Pie Town, New Mexico; and for The Texas Observer; and the Images of Italy book with UT’s William Arrowsmith.  In 1965 Russell created the photography course in the Fine Arts Department at UT and taught there for eight years.

In 1978 “Russell Lee Photographer,” a biography by F. Jack Hurley was published, and in 1986 Ann Mundy’s award-winning video documentary was released.  Hurley’s bibliography lists 49 books containing Russell Lee photographs as well as permanent collections in the Library of Congress; National Archives; University of Pittsburg; Museum of Modern Art in NYC; Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York; and University of Louisville.  The Ransom Center at UT and Wittliff Gallery at TSU also have Lee collections.  His archives are at the Briscoe Center for American History at UT.

When Russell died in 1986, his obituary was in The New York Times, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Austin and Dallas newspapers among others.  The American-Statesman and Dallas Morning News also printed full-page retrospectives.

So, tell us. What should the new name for Robert E. Lee Elementary School be and why?

 

 

 

Changing the name of Lee Elementary changes a school’s name, not history

SLT+confederate+08Confederate apologists responded to the Austin school board’s decision to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School with a barrage of familiar comments blaming the Civil War on Northern abolitionists, Northern evangelicals, Northern aggression, Northern tariffs, Northern violations of state’s rights — all of which added up to one conclusion: The Civil War was not centrally about slavery. By God, sir, no; bite your tongue.

What the school board’s decision most represented, numerous apologists argued, was a failure to educate students about the “true history” of the 1860s.

Historians value primary sources. The response to Monday’s school board vote is a reminder that few primary sources better clarify the causes of the Civil War than the declarations of secession issued by Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states. It’s always worth revisiting and repeating what the American-Statesman’s editorial board and various Viewpoints contributors have argued over the years, whether the issue is the Confederate battle flag or Confederate statues on the University of Texas campus: All one has to do is read these declarations of secession to know that all causes of the Civil War come back to slavery.

The Texas declaration of secession, in defending slavery, denounces “the debasing doctrine” that all men are created equal. So much for your Southern great-great-grandpappy’s patriotic loyalty to the nation’s founding principle.

Mississippi’s declaration of secession wastes no time getting to its point, announcing in its second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”

Then there’s Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy. In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” delivered March 21, 1861, Stephens concedes that the Founding Fathers, though many of them owned slaves, considered slavery a “violation of the laws of nature” and “an evil” that they hoped would somehow magically disappear over time. But the assumption on which the Founders rested their ideas — that all men are created equal — “was an error,” Stephens declares.

The Confederate government, he continues, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; and that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

Lee’s apologists like to pull three sentences from an 1856 letter the future Confederate general wrote to his wife, in which he describes slavery as “a moral and political evil,” as proof he opposed slavery, and only joined the rebellion against the United States out of a sense of honor and duty to his home state of Virginia. What they usually leave out, however, is Lee telling his wife that “blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically,” and that slavery was “necessary for their further instruction as a race.” Lee also grouses about Northern abolitionists and cloaks the last part of his letter in a bunch of hooey about how abolitionists should let Providence accomplish its purpose on its own time. He never stops to ponder whether Providence might be using abolitionists to work its will.

Lee inherited about 200 slaves from his father-in-law, George Custis, whose will stipulated the slaves were to be freed as quickly as possible and certainly within five years of his death. Lee tarried and was known as a harsh taskmaster. While Lee opposed secession, in the end he betrayed his oath as an Army officer and joined the Confederacy. Numerous other Army officers from Virginia honored their commissions and fought to preserve the Union.

Changing the name of Lee Elementary won’t change this history of the Civil War.

What changing the name of Lee Elementary does do is it brings another small close to the reactionary, post-Reconstruction effort in the South to revise the Civil War’s history into a Lost Cause myth — an effort that gained new reactionary force during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The naming of Lee Elementary in 1939 was part of this historical revision.

A campaign to rename three other Austin schools named after Confederates — Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston campus, named after Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston of Texas, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862; John H. Reagan High School, named after a Texas member of Congress who served as the postmaster general for the Confederacy; and Sidney Lanier High School, named after the musician and author who served in the Confederate army — has not materialized. As the American-Statesman’s Melissa B. Taboada reported Tuesday, the Austin school district will consider changing a school’s name only if a push to do so develops.

Meanwhile, the district is accepting nominations for Lee Elementary’s new name. Berkeley Breathed* Elementary anyone? …

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* Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of “Bloom County.” Raised in Houston, University of Texas alumnus, former freelance American-Statesman editorial cartoonist (briefly). Offered in lieu of Matthew McConaughey Elementary.

Hate the STAAR? Fine, but what’s the best replacement?

Students take the STAAR test at East View High School in Georgetown on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Students take the STAAR test at East View High School in Georgetown on Tuesday, April 23, 2013. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

For many Texans, the state’s current standardized test – STAAR – represents everything that is wrong with public education. The annual assessments for grades 3 thru 12 have been blamed for everything from killing teacher innovation in the classroom, creating unnecessary stress for students while failing to produce more prepared graduates.

So, State Board of Education chairwoman Donna Bahorich is correct to restart the state’s conversation with a series of public forums to help shape what the next phase of accountability testing should look like. Bahorich is gathering public input for the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, created by the Texas Legislature last session to help determine the state’s next steps in school accountability.

As reported by American-Statesman’s Julie Chang last weekend, the ideas from advocates and parents are wide-ranging, including: winnowing down state standards that drive the current test, removing the requirement that students pass to graduation, online testing and replacing high school student’s end of course exams with the SAT or ACT.

But before choosing a new testing regime, educators, policymakers, business leaders and parents need to figure out what exactly the state is testing for. After all, inappropriate use of a single test is what got public education into this accountability mess in the first place.

Seriously, what do we really want the test to tell us?

Are we checking to make sure that an individual student makes progress so they will be ready to enter the workforce or college upon graduation? Are we trying to make sure that parents know which schools are meeting state standards? Are we looking to weed out teachers who do not cover the state’s required curriculum? Are we double checking that students have mastered specific skills and getting early intervention if they are not?

Each of those scenarios require a different kind of test. The inability to agree on a single measure has led to the proliferation of testing, consuming the academic calendar. And when you look at the charge to the new commission in House Bill 2804, it is clear that it has been tasked with accountability’s version of the kitchen sink.

That’s not to say that ideas such as substituting the ACT for end of year high school tests should be dismissed out of hand. There’s a lot to like about using a single, shorter test to determine college or career readiness — which in the end is what colleges and employers really care about. However, end of year tests measure mastery — did the student learn specific material and skills that should have been taught by the teacher – not readiness.

So using the ACT, or a test like it as a replacement test for accountability, which has recently been allowed by the latest federal education standards, would make plans by districts like Austin to use test scores as part of teacher evaluations inappropriate. The broader testing criteria makes it even harder than it already is to attribute a student’s success to a single teacher. It is also an inadequate diagnostic tool to determine what specific skills a student might need to bone up on to improve performance.

The ACT (or SAT) may be more familiar than the current array of alphabet soup test names, however even the old standbys have their critics. Income and parental education are huge predictors of how a student will perform, which throws into question whether the assessments measure a family’s financial resources or a student’s ability to perform.

And lastly, switching to the ACT readiness standard will do little to immediately relieve the sinking sense that Texas students are underachieving. In 2015, only 41 percent of Texas graduates took the test. Of those students 59 percent met the English readiness benchmark and less than 45 percent passed the reading, math or science thresholds.

The prediction is that if we expanded the test to include all students, even those who are not college bound, the passing rates would be much, much lower.