Why we transfer

The Austin Independent School District is in a world of financial hurt right now – like most school districts in Texas. And something that doesn’t help is when politicians like Florence Shapiro (chairwoman of the committee in charge of remaking the school finance system) make public statements that are blatantly untrue.

From an Austin American Statesman article:

“State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, pointed to Austin’s school transfer policy as the driving force behind the need to close or consolidate schools as the district grapples with a budget shortfall of $94 million to $113 million.”

What Ms. Shapiro fundamentally misunderstands is that most of the schools slated for closure in Austin are schools that students transfer to, not from. Students often transfer to these schools away from overpopulated campuses because these students learn, thrive – and yes, test – better in a smaller school environment. These are not underutilized facilities that need to be closed or consolidated. These are schools filled with children – and it just happens that many of those children are transfers.

So why do people transfer? Why do I transfer my son (and daughter who will be in Kinder next year)?

Well, here’s the story: when you have kids and you buy a house, you want to know about the schools in your neighborhood. When you have kids and you buy a house and you don’t have tons and tons of money, you want to know about the schools in your neighborhood, and you keep your fingers crossed. At least this is how it typically plays out in Austin.

Schools are not all the same here. They just aren’t, which is good and bad. In Austin, though, as a way around this, parents are given a choice to transfer their children to a different school. Maybe the school you’re zoned for doesn’t have what your child needs in a special education program. Maybe the school you’re zoned for doesn’t seem academically challenging enough. Maybe it seems TOO academically challenging. They are many, many reasons why you might not think the school you’re zoned for is the best place for your child. And so the district gives you a choice. Minority to majority transfers get priority. Siblings also get priority. If your child is zoned for an academically unsuccessful school, you get priority (I think). The rest of the people seeking transfers become part of a lottery, vying for open spaces on the campuses of their choice. Many campuses are closed to transfers because they’re full. At some campuses, certain grades are closed. Basically, you throw your kids’ names in the pot and you wait to find out if the transfer has gone through. If it hasn’t, you can choose another school, or you can go to your home school.

This system, of course, gets people riled up. I hear over and over that if transfer students would just stay at their home schools then the differences between schools would be lessened. I hear complaints that schools with lots of transfers are creating “rich white kid” environments. I hear a lot of things. And when I hear them I try not to feel judged for the decisions I’ve made as a parent and a taxpayer.

For Kindergarten through 2nd grade (and the first month of 3rd), my oldest son went to our zoned school. He loved kindergarten there. I loved his teacher. It was a nurturing environment and the transition from pre-school went seamlessly. I loved the diversity of his class and school, I loved going up there to visit with his class. We were good.

First grade rolled around and we were still OK. His teacher was still pretty great, she worried about him and our family when we needed worrying over. However, I started noticing the school culture as a whole wasn’t as warm and fuzzy as the teachers we’d been lucky enough to get. The principal marched around like a drill sergeant, blowing a whistle at the children and never smiling. The amount of photocopied handouts was dizzying. I started to worry – not just for my son, but for my much more sensitive daughter. When she starts school, a drill sergeant deal isn’t going to work for her.

Throughout second grade I worried more and more about the overall culture of the school. It just didn’t seem to fit with our family. It didn’t fit with our parenting style. Was that something I could change? Try to get like-minded parents together and take over the PTA? I joined the school’s CAC to see if I could learn more about the inner workings; to see why things were run they were run. What I learned was that our school was in a tight spot financially, test score-wise, etc. As a Title I campus, with over 69% of students on free or reduced lunch, the campus had financial obstacles as well as testing obstacles. Our principal was fairly new, brought in to turn things around. Test scores were improving bit by bit, as fun was eliminated. Want to dress up for Halloween? Sorry kids we don’t do that here. It’s too distracting from academics. Here, learn how to bubble this Scantron.

My husband and I decided this wasn’t the best place for our kids. For some kids, maybe it’s perfect. For ours, it wasn’t. So we looked at other schools. Test scores were not a big deal for us, but a nurturing, “whole learning” environment was a big deal.

After talking to friends and researching schools, we narrowed our choices down to two. Both schools were half the size of the current school, in less “modern” buildings, and centered in the part of town where we would have bought a house if we hadn’t been in a “you have a week to find a house to buy, GO” situation.

Our transfer was denied to one of the schools. Full. Our transfer to the other school was also denied. Full. My son went back to his school and I started working on plans for what do with my daughter when she reached Kinder age.

And then – in the middle of the first semester of third grade we got a call: you’re in, if you still want to come. We decided that, yes, we still did, and so we transferred. My son is now at a school where he can learn Spanish, have a Shakespeare class every two weeks, enjoy an author’s conference, run off his energy in extra recess time, and hang out with kids and parents we’ve been hanging out with for years. Dressing up for Halloween is highly encouraged.

Is it a “rich, white kid school”? No. It’s diverse, stretching across a variety of socioeconomic lines (and we are far from rich). Is our home school damaged by us being at the other school? No. They have their ways, and those ways work for a lot of people. In addition, the district is saving money because they no longer have to bus my child to and from school. He has transferred from an overcrowded campus to an “underutilized” one. (Which is not underutilized at all, in actuality. It is at capacity right now – because of transfers just like us.)

We choose to transfer because the district understands that some schools and some families just aren't a good match. They trust parents to choose what’s best for their child. We have chosen a more urban, highly diverse, small, nurturing school for our children. It works for us.

We are not the problem. Our school is not the problem. My children are not the problem. The problem is misinformation, mismanagement of basic research into Austin school facilities, and mostly, mishandling of state and federal money. THAT is what needs to be criticized, Senator Shapiro, not parents and students who are making the best (and at Zilker it is the very best) out of a dire situation.

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9 thoughts on “Why we transfer

  1. This is exactly how I feel (except, we actually transferred from one Title I school to another – proving that it’s not always about whether the school has $$ or not, but rather the education our kids receive). Thank you for taking everything I wanted to saw and put it into words.

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  2. We feel the same. We are transfers, but we are still the monority. WE don’t mind. The teacher s, staff, andPTA make all the children feel the same. At our home school, not so much. Our schollis one of the oldest, and could use upgrades. But we are by the park, and cna goplay after school. it seems th at our HOME school is doing really poorly academically. I don’t want my super sensitive loving son to be overwhelmed by the other children , whom there parents aren’t of like mind. He does age appropriate things, not much television and is a fun happy kid. In our home school when I walked the halls and checked out the classrooms, there were kindergardners wearing BIG diamond rings and throwing gang tags as I walked by. Ummm NO! Our neighbor hood is one that is changing and our neighbors bought their homes 35 years ago and are stillin them. BUT our HOME school would crush my kid. I’m not ready for him to be a teen-ager, he’s a kinder kid!

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  3. Wait. The thing is you took your kid out of a crappy school and transferred him to a better one. And more than 1/3 of all the kids at Zilker are transfers from other crappy schools, so now – of course – Zilker’s going to be a better school. This is not a tough thing to figure out.
    Zilker only has 35% economically disadvantaged kids, which is about 30% better than AISD overall. Plus it’s full of parents who are savvy enough to know they can transfer their kids, wealthy enough to have a mother who can participate in the school instead of work full time, and capable of driving their kids to school and picking them up.
    Zilker is at 114% capacity – not exactly a smaller school. You’ve said you simply made a judgment that a Title 1 school just isn’t the right fit for your child. So what child IS the right fit for a Title 1 school?
    None! All children deserve a small, nurturing environment. No child deserves a school with a drill master principal, poor test scores and “kids with diamond rings” whatever that means.
    If Zilker closes, where will you send your child? Where will all the Zilker transfer kids go? Back to their home schools? What would happen at those home schools if all you transfer parents actually stayed at your home schools? What would you ask of your school then?
    I have a first-grader at Patton Elementary and a preschooler, and I want a better school for my children, too. We’ll probably move. But I admit if I do move or try to transfer him that I’m deserting Patton and AISD. I’m not sure if I’ll actually do it yet or if I can afford it. But I wish all the kids in AISD had equal access to great schools and great parents – even if they’re not their own – like you.

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  4. The thing is, Monica, the school we’re zoned for isn’t a crappy school. They’ve achieved a lot over there, and a few years ago they were basking in the glow of a Recognized rating. It just wasn’t the right place for us. We didn’t leave because it’s a Title I school, we left because for my particular kid (and my kids who aren’t old enough for school yet) the environment wasn’t going to work.
    Many of the schools slated for closure are Title I campuses, actually. They are small, nurturing environments with high parent involvement. Title I does not equate crappy. It equates more state and federal dollars spent enriching the kids. At our home school Title I meant things like free Mad Science-type after school classes and free dental care. Cool stuff – but not what we were looking for.
    Interestingly enough, I have a friend whose child will start at Patton next year and they are thrilled with the idea, and with everything the school has to offer. So you can see – perceptions of certain schools vary greatly from parent to parent, and it all has to do with what parents understand to be right for their children’s individual needs.
    Can I give a family a car so that they can drive their child to school? No. Can I give them money so a parent can stay home and be a room mother? No. Can I force parents to join the PTA when the extra $5 in their pocket has to buy food or gas? No. But I CAN fight to keep neighborhood schools open. I CAN fight to get money for all Austin schools. I CAN go to board meetings to give a voice to those who can’t be there.
    And you can too.

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  5. I grew up in a crappy school district (Cleveland, Ohio) with a horrible reputation. The schools in the city were also far different in education, classes offered, school programs offered, teachers and facilities from one side of the city to the other. Anybody who could afford to send their kids to a private, religious school did. Which is what my parents did to keep me out of the horrible public schools in the area. Now don’t get me wrong here. We were far,far from rich. My dad worked in a factory for little over minimum wage and my mom worked in a cafeteria. We lived in a small 700 sq. foot house and had one car. My dad walked to work. But in Cleveland at that time,religious schools were abundant and in the big scheme of things, were much cheaper than trying to move out of the Cleveland area into a suburb. Transfers were NOT allowed so parents had no choice. Then to top it off, forced busing started which gave parents even less choices. When the enrollment dropped in the school district and those that could move out of the area did, the media and politicians blamed…wait for it…rich, white people! Sound familiar? In my neighborhood, none of us were rich. Parents were working their butts off at blue collar jobs to send their kids to a better school because their tax dollars were not providing them with a suitable public option! It had nothing to do with race or economic status. It was a matter of the value of a good education.
    So why am I telling you this story? Cleveland schools were mismanaged. They were extremely mismanaged. It is part of the reason why that city was run into the ground. As an adult, I’ve realized that what started the whole issue in Cleveland schools was the disparity between the schools in the district. Why were programs offered at one school and not the other? Why did children on the west side have up to date books while the kids on the east side were using copied pages out of an old textbook? Why were some buildings falling apart while others were reconstructed? I am far from naive to realize it had a lot to do with socioeconomic and the population of the area the school was in.
    Our public schools are here to give ALL children a good education whether they live in a 5,000 square foot house or a 500 square foot house. It is a shame that parents feel they have to transfer. That their children cannot feel comfortable or may not get a good education in their home school. That was not the idea behind public education.
    Austin’s school district really needs to look at the past mistakes of other school districts. It also needs to stop mismanaging the funds they have. It also needs to realize that taking away a parent’s choice or closing good schools is not the answer.If parents are transferring kids out of a particular school, the district needs to find out why the parents are not happy with their neighborhood school not blame parents for making a choice. If the district cannot get it together, Austin will also be run into the ground.

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  6. I’m just feeling for your frustration and struggle to get your informed voice out over their misinformed voices. Isn’t it so unfair that they can make themselves heard so much louder than us?
    On a smaller scale, I am fighting a similar battle over here in our small New England Town. They want to consolidate two elementary schools. There are many reasons why this is a sucky idea, but none more obvious than it is physically impasse to cram the smaller school into the larger school.
    They send out their emails and write their articles and assure people from the town it will fit, throwing around square footage and maximum capacity numbers.
    I work at both schools as an ESL teacher who goes back and forth. IT WILL NOT FIT. There is no way (I will be eating my words, of course, if their is a secret invisible wing of the school I never knew about). They are going to try, then they are going to say, “woops” and then they are going to ask for taxpayers to fork over more money to expand one of the schools.
    But no one wants to hear my thoughts on this. I am just a teacher who works at both schools, and a taxpayer here in town, oh, and I have two young children just about to start their public education here in these schools. But my thoughts are totally invalid.
    So everyone will smile and nod at the fancy PowerPoint presentation given at the school committee meeting this Thursday and then they’ll vote to dissolve the wonderfully, wildly, creatively successful school and see how they do crammed in over at the other not-so-successful-but-hey-they-have-a-few-extra-classrooms school.
    Sorry I jumped on your rant-wagon!

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