The Right Way to Innovate: Education Austin Sets an Example

The Austin American-Statesman carried a story of more than local interest this week on the start of an innovative “in-district charter” school in Austin ISD. The school is the product of a teacher-parent-community collaboration in which Education Austin, our local affiliate in the district, played a leading role. The new beginning of Travis Heights Elementary School with a focus on service learning is a case study in reform from the grass roots that state lawmakers should heed.

The grass-roots initiative at Travis Heights Elementary contrasts mightily with the top-down charter conversion of another Austin ISD elementary school a year ago. That ill-conceived project began with families in affected neighborhoods in revolt and ultimately led to the election of a new majority on the school board that ended the top-down experiment.

The Travis Heights plan, on the other hand, was a joint effort of Education Austin members, parents, and community alliances such as the Austin Interfaith coalition of unions, churches, and schools. Aided by a grant from our national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, volunteers reached out to win support from 99 percent of parents and 97 percent of staff. The upshot is a new educational approach that gives the school great flexibility in curriculum matters yet preserves fully the protections for students and education employees, such as class-size caps and teacher-contract safeguards, under the state Education Code. Those protections are typically tossed by the wayside when the top-down approach is used to bring in private managers.

For Education Austin President Ken Zarifis, as quoted in the American-Statesman story, one lesson of the experiment is already clear in this first week back at Travis Heights under the new model: “The respect of teacher expertise and input to the curriculum has created a camaraderie and focus of purpose that I have rarely seen during my 15 years in education. Any campus can have a set of ‘best practices,’ but if the teachers are not a part of a vision to identify and implement those practices, our students will not fully benefit from them.”