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.