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AFT-backed charter school wins unanimous approval

Educators in Austin, Texas, are celebrating this week as their “in-district” charter—a by-the-community, for-the-community endeavor—created with support from an AFT Innovation Fund grant, was unanimously approved by the school board.

At the same time, the school’s polar opposite, created by a 28-school Texas charter chain, was virtually shut out and its partnership with the school district dissolved.

This is truly the tale of two charters.

The failed charter, an IDEA school that swooped in with a preordained program it foisted upon a community that had no input, is losing the support of the school board after just one semester. The other charter—a collaboration that has included the voices of teachers, parents, district personnel and members of the community from the beginning—just won unanimous approval. The new school will remain part of the district, but will have greater autonomy over its programs under the state’s “in-district charter” law.

“This is the right way to innovate, together, rather than being dictated to,” says Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the AFT affiliate that initiated the more collaborative school, with support from an AFT Innovation Fund grant.

Education Austin, along with partner Austin Interfaith, has been developing this unique project for two years. Approved by the nine-member school board Dec. 17, it takes the charter concept back to the grass roots, basing the program on what community members have said they need most: dual language programming, service learning, and a strong technology and digital element.  The school, Travis Heights Elementary, will be run by a board of community members, teachers, administrators and representatives from Education Austin and Austin Interfaith, with buy-in from the school’s current teachers and administrators.

Inclusion has been a key element of the school from its very inception, says Zarifis. “We made a concerted effort to make sure that everybody was involved in the process: parents, teachers, the superintendent, her upper-level team, school board members. We were constantly talking to everyone.” Advocates reached 600 households in the community, and 99 percent of them approved of the idea; 97 percent of teachers, administrators and staff at the school were also on board.

“They’re saying ‘yes’ because they’re part of the creation of this innovative school,” says Zarifis. “We firmly believe that when you bring teachers and parents together, and talk to them respectfully and listen to them respectfully, you have ownership.”

The success of Education Austin’s charter is in stark contrast to the recent failure of the Austin Independent School District’s partnership with the IDEA charter school, which was approved a year ago. The same night the school board approved Education Austin’s program, it dissolved the partnership with IDEA. This charter bulldozed its way into the community, rather than working with it. More than 200 people, most of them against the IDEA school, gathered at the board meeting to witness the vote.

It seems at least an equal number will continue to drive the Education Austin-backed school forward. [Virginia Myers]