Austin ISD trustees weigh in on single-sex schools proposals

Preparing for upcoming votes on whether to add proposed single-sex schools to Austin ISD, the board of trustees discussed the merits and downsides of two recommendations at its Jan. 7 work session.

Two separate options were proposed for AISD—one is a college preparatory school for young men, and the other is a new District 1 design that would convert two existing coed middle schools into single-sex schools.

The board must take action on both of the recommendations at its next regular board meeting Jan. 28, according to board President Vincent Torres.

Single-sex environment a 'viable option' for Pearce, Garcia

Regarding the recommendation for District 1, trustees focused on the need to make necessary changes to improve education at Pearce and Garcia middle schools, which have been rated Academically Unacceptable for three of the past four years.

The planning team for the recommendation has said it supports establishing two single-sex middle schools in sixth through eighth grades in a combined attendance area. Students would have the ability to "opt out" and attend another school, though transfers at the middle school level are somewhat limited because of high enrollment, Carstarphen explained.

"Our kids are already opting out," District 1 trustee Cheryl Bradley said, noting she supports the single-sex model.

Carstarphen said single-sex education is a viable option for District 1, as it has been for other high-poverty areas and populations with language needs.

"I think for some students, you do have to kind of shake up the design a bit and have that as an option," she said. "In the case of Pearce and Garcia, I think you have a number of kids who aren't fitting in the traditional design and need this different approach, something that is more personal to them and is more caring about where they are in life."

AISD conducted surveys among households within the attendance zone, with 721 respondents representing 1,049 students. Findings include:

  • Families of 45 percent of students favor establishing single-sex middle schools
  • Families with students in upper elementary and middle school grades were somewhat less likely than those with students at lower grades to support a singlegender middle school
  • Families of 48 percent of Hispanic students support a single-sex school in their neighborhood
  • Families of 44 percent of white students support a neighborhood single-sex school
  • Families of 34 percent of African-American students support a neighborhood single-sex school

Trustee Jayme Mathias said he is not convinced that single-sex schools are the solution to the challenges in District 1.

"It's beyond time to make a change in that community," trustee Lori Moya said.

School for young men could transition to bond package

Trustees also discussed the proposed districtwide school for young men as well as where such a school should be located. The recommendation's planning team has placed its support behind renovating the Alternative Learning Center at 901 Neal St., using that as the site for the school, and relocating ALC's services elsewhere.

Another proposed option was co-locating the boys school with an existing middle school and reassigning those students to other schools; Covington, Garcia, Lamar, Martin and Pearce middle schools were among the sites considered. Carstarphen said community feedback indicated co-location is not the preferred option.

Overall, trustees said they support introducing a companion school to the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders to the district, citing the all-girls school's high standards and focus on academics, as well as the need for equity in the district.

If the board approves renovating ALC, it will likely delay implementation until the 2014–15 school year and require bond funding. Torres said it is possible to add the project to a potential May bond package, and he would be in favor of leaving it up to the voters.

Trustee Robert Schneider voiced concerns about asking voters for the estimated $20 million–$22 million in bond funding required to renovate ALC because the board is unable to make "tough decisions" about its facilities.

"I think it is important that we have the community support this," Torres said.

The board plans to vote Jan. 28 on both single-sex recommendations.