Education Austin

From Austin to China: summer school and subway diplomacy


Education Austin and TSTA member Kelly Long just completed a summer school of sorts in China, summer school mixed with international subway diplomacy, and my family and I got to participate. It was a nice, educational break between the absurdity of the recent legislative session and the potential disaster of the special session coming up.

For several years now, Kelly, who teaches Chinese at Anderson High School in Austin ISD, has been organizing these summer excursions to give hand-picked high school students an opportunity to practice their Chinese language skills in a real-life, person-on-the-street setting.

This year, she also invited my daughter Caroline’s fifth-grade Chinese immersion class and the fourth-grade immersion class at Doss Elementary School, an Anderson feeder, to participate, and four Doss families accepted her offer. We paid our own way, but Kelly organized, booked and led the two-week, five-city trip. She was assisted by Doss Principal Janna Griffin, who was making her first trip to China, and Doss Chinese immersion teacher Connie Soong.

The group included about 30 people, including 16 high-schoolers.

Our tour included a few chartered bus rides and visits to tourist attractions such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but it wasn’t really a vacation. This was a moving classroom for the students, and a lot of physical exercise for students, educators and parents alike.

Our primary modes of transportation were city subways, public bus systems and our own two feet, as the students followed Kelly’s written (in Chinese) instructions to find their way (without her help) to designated destinations in Shanghai, Changzhou, Nanjing, Beijing – wherever we were on a particular day – and accomplish assigned goals, such as identifying and buying specific items at a market or locating selected exhibits in a museum.

Although much of the transportation signage, especially in Shanghai and Beijing, was in English as well as Chinese, the idea was to force the kids to practice their reading and verbal Mandarin skills. Many times, they had to stop and ask directions from strangers on the street or at the subway stations, people who spoke only Chinese.

This was a particularly big challenge for 11-year-old Caroline and her soon-to-be middle-school classmates – Henry Ward, Zoe Huels and Alissa Laves – but they proved to be more than ready for the task. While in Changzhou, they attended classes in a public school for one whole day and parts of two others while their parents, I confess, took a breather in Starbucks, where the currency was Chinese yuan but the prices were American.

This was Caroline’s first return to the country of her birth since my wife, Jena Heath, and I adopted her as a two-year-old nine years ago. Caroline was nervous about the trip before we left, apparently concerned that her level of Chinese would prove insufficient. But once she hit the streets of Shanghai, our first stop, and succesfully ordered our first night’s dinner from a menu written entirely in Chinese characters (without photos of what she was ordering) her confidence noticeably improved.

Soon, Caroline and her classmates were leading their parents through the streets and subway systems of huge Chinese cities as we adults struggled to keep up, fearing we would be lost without the kids. And we would have been.

Caroline helped give directions to cab drivers and asked desk clerks for extra towels. In Changzhou, she asked a hotel doorman for ice for a sore knee, taking care to differentiate, in Mandarin, that she was seeking ice, not ice cream. And, about 15 minutes later, we were delivered a block of ice.

Anyone who still thinks our public school educators spend their entire summers lounging around at the beach or keeping their feet propped up in front of a TV screen had better not suggest that to Kelly Long, Janna Griffin or Connie Soong – or to the thousands of other Texas educators who spend their summers teaching more conventional summer school classes, taking professional development courses and/or working extra jobs to meet family budgets.

We were in Nanjing a couple of weeks ago when the Texas Education Agency released the latest round of STAAR scores, and from half a world away Janna sat down to prepare and email a report to Doss parents.




AISD has legal and moral obligation to all students, especially during immigration crisis


While the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants continues to promote confusion and fear among many children of color – including many who are American citizens and lifelong Texas residents – school officials must remember all their legal and moral obligations to all their students.

A school district’s foremost legal obligation is to educate all the students who live within its boundaries, regardless of a student’s immigration status. This is the law of the land, regardless of who is tweeting from the White House, thanks to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision. An equally important moral obligation of educators is to create safe school zones, assuring students as best they can that their schools are safe places for learning.

Members of Education Austin, TSTA’s local affiliate in Austin ISD, believe they also have a moral obligation to help inform their students of their legal rights in the event immigration officials show up at their homes or question them on the way to and from school. So, they have been providing that information to students at a number of campuses.

Now, as the Austin American-Statesman story linked below reports, some fearful AISD attorneys and principals are clamping down on the educators’ efforts to protect their students. Education Austin nevertheless vows to continue working in the best interests of students whose lives have suddenly been disrupted through no fault of their own.

As Education Austin President Ken Zarifis explained: “Students are in crisis. Where the students will turn to first outside of their household is their teacher and their school. If we don’t provide the information to them, we’re doing them a disservice.”

Sometimes, it takes courage to do the right thing.


Teachers continue to bail out school budgets


Seldom at a loss for empty rhetoric, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman the other day as saying he will “continue to focus on making Texas schools the envy of our nation.” He should try telling that to some Austin ISD teachers who are working every day to make Patrick’s alleged goal happen – with precious little help from Patrick.

In addition to their normal duties, teachers at Palm Elementary School in Austin ISD are working with school administrators to restore their school, which was heavily flooded during storms several weeks ago. According to the Austin Chronicle, floodwaters from Onion Creek made a mess of the facility, forcing the temporary relocation of students and leaving the district with costly cleanup bills.

The teachers, meanwhile, are digging into their own pockets to help restock their classrooms with school supplies, only a few months after buying supplies – without reimbursement – for the start of the school year. Those supplies were ruined or washed away.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual in Texas for public school teachers to pay several hundred dollars a year for classroom supplies that districts can’t afford. Palm teachers are getting hit twice, and Education Austin President Ken Zarifis made it clear that state government (including Dan Patrick) is to blame because the legislative majority continues to under-fund public education.

Lawmakers, he pointed out, have created “an unstated expectation that teachers should pay for their basic supplies.”

“We have a finance system that has been starved by our state for years and has increasingly made demands upon the teachers,” he added. “There are enough challenges and frustration dealing with a flood, never mind resupplying your classroom.”

Zarifis is a former middle school teacher who recalls buying things like highlighters, markers, extra paper and other things the district didn’t provide and many students can’t afford.

Teachers were paying an average $697 a year from their own paychecks for classroom supplies in 2013, the last time TSTA surveyed its members on the question. And, that was a signficant increase from the previous survey – an average $564 a year in 2010.

This, of course, is only one result of an under-funded school finance system that Patrick, Gov. Greg Abbott and the legislative majority continue to ignore while they fight a court order for improvements.

The several billion taxpayer dollars that Patrick insisted upon leaving in the bank last spring could have bought a lot of school supplies and classroom computers, raised teacher salaries, lowered health insurance costs and reduced class sizes for thousands of school children.

Patrick’s rhetoric is a lot cheaper, and it is an insult to educators and a disservice to school children.




A tale of two charters


It may not exactly be the best of times and the worst of times for Austin ISD. But there is a right way and a wrong way for a school district to try to establish a charter school, and within the space of a year Austin ISD has demonstrated both.

Last year about this time, the Austin school board ignored overwhelming community opposition and rammed two charter schools down the throats of East Austin residents. The board approved a partnership with charter operator IDEA Public Schools to convert Allan Elementary and Eastside Memorial High School, both traditional public schools, into charters. Allan was converted into a charter this past fall, and Eastside was to become a charter later.

Voters responded last month by overhauling the school board. The issue was particularly critical in East Austin, where challenger Jayme Mathias unseated Sam Guzman, who had voted for the IDEA contract against the wishes of most of his constituents. Mathias campaigned hard against the IDEA decision and for community involvement.

On Monday night, the board voted 5-4 to end the partnership with IDEA at the end of the 2012-13 school year. Three of the four new members, including Mathias, voted with the majority.

The new board, however, didn’t shut the door on the charter concept. It merely shut the door on arbitrary, top-down charter decisions. At the same meeting Monday night, the board voted unanimously to approve a charter partnership for Travis Heights Elementary, a diverse school with a mix of languages and family incomes on Austin’s near south side.

What was the difference?

In Travis Heights’ case, the board sought the support of teachers and the neighboring community. The charter will be managed by a board representing teachers, community members and Austin Interfaith. Education Austin, TSTA’s local affiliate, will be an active partner. The school’s leaders will have more power over its budget and curriculum, which will include, among other things, dual language instruction.

Travis Heights offers a lesson in how to design a charter from the bottom-up, not the top-down. That can make all the difference in the world.