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Blog about schools and education in Austin and Central Texas.

Published: 2012-09-23T00:30:00-06:00


Q&A with Hays Consolidated Superintendent Jeremy Lyon


The American-Statesman sat down with Hays Consolidated school district Superintendent Jeremy Lyon to discuss the district’s progress and his expectations for the school year. An edited version appears in Monday’s American-Statesman. Let’s start by having you tell us about some of the big initiatives or new programs you are working on. For Hays CISD the name of the game is to continue working on the deep implementation issues that are contained within our five-year strategic plan … (and) this focus on improving academic achievement long-term. So one of the things that is happening … is that we are switching from six-week grading periods to nine-week grading periods, and the intention of that is to provide a more sustained instructional period of time that doesn’t have to be interrupted so often with summative grading. … (It) calms things and allows more sustained focus on instruction, which is exactly what we want. We’re also working very diligently on the life of a teacher and how demanding that life has become. … We’ve done a lot of things in terms of trying to structure professional learning communities, conference time and expectations for parent interaction that are aimed at helping teachers be able to focus on teaching. We also continue to work on our strategic compensation improvements within the district. We know that we are lagging in terms of compensation, and when you look at the expectations we have for instructional quality, we need a well-compensated work force… Of course, one of the biggest initiatives is our focus on student and staff health and wellness. We are very excited about opening a new permanent school-based health clinic … which is going to serve as a state and national model regarding a school-based health center. … We’ve got a lot of work to do on nutrition, exercise. We have a pilot program where we are doing everyday PE at two of our elementary schools. Our communications department has rolled out our VIP program, which is Volunteers in Public Schools … to improve the opportunities for our community to get involved in our schools. (There’s also the continuing) reform of our academic program around Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. We continue to expand our middle school Gateways to Technology program; we’re doing that this year, doubling our efforts there in our middle schools. … We are investing in a new grade level in that program. We are also opening our new food service center and our new warehouse and our new data center, and these are all very important infrastructure improvements that have 50-year payoffs for this school district. You know we are the sixth-fastest-growing school district in the state of Texas as of today … and our focus is on building both the physical and human resource infrastructure to be able to meet that growth with very high-quality educational outcomes. Any longer-term goals that you’d like to talk about? We know that we have tremendous work to do in improving the student achievement results in this district, and that begins with higher expectations matched with providing resources to teachers to meet those higher expectations. For example, we want to expand our Advanced Placement program, but we want to expand it in a way that encourages kids to participate but also has very high expectations for their achievement. … Right now we’re not getting those results and instead of a Band-Aid approach … we’re trying to take a more systemic view of all of the elements that go into it … and build it and that may lead us back to elementary or middle schools in terms of the course offerings that we need to have there, but the long-term goal of this school district is to become an exemplary school district. We are (also) very excited about partnering with Austin Community College. They are scheduled to open their campus here in 2014. We envision all kinds of partnerships (including specialized dual-credit progra[...]

Q&A with Pflugerville Superintendent Charles Dupre


The American-Statesman sat down with Pflugerville school district Superintendent Charles Dupre to discuss the district’s progress and his expectations for the school year. An edited version appears in Monday’s American-Statesman. What are some of the most exciting new initiatives going into the school year? In Pflugerville, we don’t speak in terms of initiatives because that typically implies new and expensive in education. Often in education, it implies something that will be here a while and then be gone. So what we try to do is focus our energies on improving our practices and our opportunities for our students. What I’m most excited about this year is we’re expanding significantly our efforts to improve the culture of collaboration on all levels and our student focus and our results orientation. We’re doing that by placing everyone in our organization in something called Professional Learning Communities. They look at student data and they look at the result of the things they’ve been teaching, how students have been performing on assessments. Then they look at how various teachers taught those things, then compare notes to see who is getting the best results, the most bang for the buck for the strategies that they use. Then they share strategies so they can all grow together. We’re also using Professional Learning Communities outside of the classroom to help everyone grow, even in our central office, people are engaged in dialogues in nature to help us all keep growing and improving as an organization. On an instructional level, I’m really excited about our Geometry in Construction program. We’re teaching geometry in a new way for some students. The students are also enrolled in a geometry class and also enrolled in a construction science class. So they build a real cabin using the principles they’ve learned in their geometry class. We expect that to make a difference in how deeply students learn geometry skills. We’re (also) expanding our dual-language program. We’ve got more students in dual language. We’ve also started a Spanish-language immersion program at one of our elementary schools, so we’re trying to focus our students on language acquisition skills much earlier than we have historically. Something else we’re doing that I think is really going to make a big difference is we have “technology champions” at all of our schools this year. Rather than have one or two people districtwide who focus on the use of technology in delivering instruction, we have a teacher at every school who have applied for the position, who continue their normal job, who are also very efficient in using technology . They are going to be paid a stipend to help develop the skills of all of our teachers. We believe we will gain greater capacity by doing it that way, by having someone at every school who can support their colleagues. That’s kind of after the professional learning community model. Finally I would add, we continue our focus on attendance and safety in our schools. We know parents need to feel our students are in a safe environment. Our students need to feel safe and our staff needs to feel staff. The new policies related to bullying. We’re taking those things very seriously. We’re doing a lot of training of our campus staff to be sure they understand what is bullying and what is not bullying. We’re having a lot more proactive dialogs to help eliminate bullying as well. Something we’re doing at the middle school related to that is right now students are often suspended from school when they fight. We’re creating a program that we’re doing at the middle school where students are going to be asked to go to disciplinary alternative education program for their suspension time rather than just staying home. That keeps them engaged in school and keeps us from losing financing from their suspension. So that’s a win-win for the district. You[...]

Q&A with Round Rock Superintendent Jesús Chávez


The American-Statesman sat down with Round Rock school district Superintendent Jesús Chávez to discuss the district’s progress and his expectations for the school year. An edited version appears in Monday’s American-Statesman. What are some of the most exciting new initiatives going into the school year? I’m going to talk about two areas. One is Bring Your Own Device. For a number of years we have talked about allowing students to bring their smart phones and use them for instructional purposes, or bring their tablets or laptops. This year for the first time, we are formally allowing that. It’s a voluntary basis, school by school. And even with our teachers, we’re not requiring it, but we are allowing it. So along with that, we’re going to be providing a lot of training and support to our schools and teachers to use technology more so than we’ve done in the past, particularly technology that has been brought from the home. As time moves forward, we are going to provide more devices to our students. We’re limited in the number that we have right now, so that’s a limitation that we have, but in years to come, it will continue to be an emphasis. The other piece is continuing the implementation of our academy programming. We are in our third year; we started with sophomores that are now juniors. So our sophomores have declared an academy program they are interested in. We have one more year to go, to where nearly everyone in high school will be in an academy program. At the freshmen level, we give them a lot of information about careers, jobs and education so that they make an informed decision come the end of their freshmen year when they are enrolling in their sophomore years. Sophomore year is when the academies begin. It’s at high schools. Each high school has three programs that are the same across the district. In addition to that, each high school has at least one more, if not two, academy specialty areas, like fine arts at Westwood and Cedar Ridge, and we have a science academy at Stony Point and McNeil. The other part of that, and it really is about our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) academies, is Project Lead the Way, an engineering program. We’ve had tremendous success. There’s a great shortage in our nation, in Texas and in Austin with regards to engineers. So we started that a number of years ago at McNeil. We now have four high schools that are implementing that program and of course we will be working on Cedar Ridge for them to implement that program as well. You’re in your sixth year as superintendent. What kind of superintendent do you think you’ve been? I’m certainly very proud of all the successes that our students, teachers and schools have had. Performance has increased; college readiness has increased; dropout rates have come down. We have stronger programming at the high schools, particularly with our academies. We have been able to implement in a very good way our construction program. We had the 2006 bond election that we’ve completed projects under. We’ve had the 2008 (bond program), which we’re finishing up. We just had the ribbon cutting for Elsa England, our last elementary school that we have monies for. Really, we don’t have any more dollars for new schools. We’re working with our board on facilities and a possible bond election. We’re very proud of the success this district has had. I think as we look to the future, there’s always room for improvement, and I focus on improvement a whole lot. Principals will tell you, teachers will tell you, every year it’s about getting better. Let me talk about college readiness, career readiness. We’ve done a tremendous job over the years with getting students college-career ready. When you look at how many of our students go to college, whether it be a two-year or a four-year program, within any given year, it’s going t[...]

Dell hospital challenges students to cut back on sodas


Austin students got a big challenge today: Try to go without soda Monday through Friday until the end of the school year.

Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and the Austin Independent School District launched the no-soda initiative, called “Don’t Do the Dew,” to promote “healthy living in the fight against childhood obesity by abstaining from sodas,” according to a statement.

“A third of all school-age children in Austin are considered overweight or obese and, in some areas of Austin, up to two-thirds of children are at an unhealthy weight,” the statement said.

The idea behind initiative is to improve classroom performance and to curb the rise of adult health conditions, such as diabetes, depression, heart disease and hypertension, that are being found in children, officials said.

Leading the initiative is Dr. Stephen Pont, medical director for Children’s/Austin ISD Student Health Services and Dell Children’s Texas Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Childhood Obesity.

“Avoiding carbonated drinks and other sugary drinks will help fight obesity and improve learning,” Pont said in the statement. “Sugary sodas have so much sugar and have no nutritional value. For folks trying to get to a healthy weight, you could even think of them as being toxic. Caffeine and other artificial ingredients are not things children should consume, and don’t belong in our children’s diets.”

The idea came from parents in Southeast and East Austin, including Manantial de Salud Dove Springs, a grassroots health network that promotes better access to health care, healthier environments and lifestyles for Latinos, the statement said.

“We’re making this promise for our families and urging all families here to do the same,” said Edgar Chacon, a parent and member of the network, which is sponsored by the Latino Healthcare Forums. “Our children’s health is at stake and every small step like this will help in the fight against obesity.”

If you’d like to join the no-soda challenge text “nosodas” to 84444 or email

More questions and answers with the Leander superintendent


The American-Statesman sat down with Leander school district Superintendent Bret Champion recently to discuss the various issues the district is facing and what the new school year has in store. A shorter version of this Q&A appears in Monday’s newspaper. What are the most exciting new initiatives the district has going on this year? A couple of things come right to mind. The conversation around bullying and anti-bullying efforts is continuing to evolve. We’re certainly listening to our community about that. And at our anti-bullying miniconference we hosted back in the spring, one of the things we asked is, “Are there other things we can be doing like leverage technology in some way?” for example. So we went and are actually are going to be bringing on a new system called Talk About It. It offers students an ability to confidentially send information to a trusted adult on campus if they are feeling picked on or if they’re feeling bullied or that something is not going well. They can use an app they can get on their phone or they can use their computer to fill that out and push it out to a person they trust on campus. That allows the adult to meet with the kid or get it to the counselor or wherever it needs to go. It takes away that stigma for a kid. What we found when talking to folks with kids, is sometimes going to the counselor, sometimes going to the principal, it’s overwhelming to them. It’s too big, it’s too much. So this offers them to do something they do all the time, which is be on their phone, and shoot that to an adult who they trust. We’re very excited about that rollout. We’re piloting that this year throughout the district, fourth grade through high school. We’re excited to see how that develops in our ongoing efforts to combat bullying, as well as well as focus on the whole student. We’re also dipping our toe in the water of Bring Your Own Tech — that’s what we’re calling it. For years our schools had the big signs in front that said “cell phones” with a big red slash through it: Leave your cell phones at home. We recognize that we now have more computer power in our pockets than we had on our desktops 10 years ago. So instead of trying to provide a device for every student, why not leverage the resources students already have? So we’re starting some initial steps toward that. Teachers have ultimate control in classroom. If they say it’s time for no devices to be out, then no devices out. But whenever you are doing a project and the world of resources available on the Internet of course, it just makes sense to use resources readily available and that students are used to. We have done a mass improvement to our wireless network for that effort. One of the reasons we had that big red slash was not just because we were trying to adjust to this new thing, it was also because our wireless (network) couldn’t support too many devices. Our bandwidth just wasn’t wide enough. But that should be corrected with the updated wireless improvements we have done. We’re really focusing on the secondary level on this. There are some details we will continue to work through, but we’re excited about that. Certainly we will want to communicate well and often with parents about how that is going to look and take away the stigma for children who don’t have access to something. There are a lot of moving parts to this, but we’re really excited about that initiative. The average term for a superintendent is a few years. Where do you see yourself three years from now and what goals do you have, both short term and long term, for the district? Three years from now I certainly see myself still here. I’ve been part of this system 19 years and I love this system. I love Leander ISD. I love this community. I love the parental support and the community support we g[...]

Austin school board approves budget, tax rate


The Austin school board Tuesday night unanimously approved the 2012-13 $742.2 million operations budget and tax rate.

The meeting was sparsely attended, with only one person speaking at the public hearing on the budget and a few signed up for a separate citizens communications.

Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, which represents about 3,000 teachers and other district employees said that while the district was dipping into its reserves by $14.2 million to give employees a one-time pay increase equivalent of 3 percent, it was time to ask voters to approve a tax rate increase to make raises permanent.

“We have no doubt that they will support our teachers, our school employees and give them the raise they duly deserve,” Zarifis said.

The district will keep its tax rate the same, at $1.242 per $100 of assessed value, with $1.079 for operations and 16.3 cents for debt. The owner of an average taxable value home, $244,534 after exemptions, would pay $3,037 annually, an increase of $7.

The budget includes launching several initiatives, including the new IDEA in-district charter school, expanding dual language programs to more schools and adding programs to help at-risk students graduate. The district also increased resources for growing special education needs in the early grades by $1.8 million; the district already designates $85 million in local funding for special education.

Earlier in the evening, the school board approved the appointment of Eric Mendez, who has served as the interim, as the new district police chief. He’s been with the district since 1999.

Trustees also approved the appointment of Michelle Krejci, the executive director for the Ann Richards Foundation, as the new executive director of innovation and development. Krejci helped raise $2 million for the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders.

More questions and answers with the Austin superintendent


The American-Statesman sat down with Austin school Superintendent Meria Carstarphen last week to touch base on the district’s progress and her hopes for the upcoming school year. A shorter version of this Q&A appeared in Monday’s newspaper. Can you give us a quick rundown on what you and your staff have been doing to prepare for the first day of school? We’ve been preparing actually for months. I know people think summertime is time off in public school districts, but it’s not for AISD. We’ve been doing professional development with all of our staff. That’s pretty common, but ours has been very focused on areas where we had already predicted we would have transitions, challenges, as it related to the new assessment. We welcomed over 7,000 families and kids at the Back to School bash, which is our opportunity to help especially families in need get their last-minute school supplies. Immunizations are critically important for being able to start school right, (and) other things like providing safety helmets for kids who bike to school and child safety seats for families who bring small children to school, like pre-K students. … We also did our new teacher induction program, welcoming 860 new teachers to AISD, which is very exciting to us, and then there’s always the blitz that happens around the summer which includes facilities. Fixing up buildings and problems that we wanted to wait until after school is out, to refresh and give facelifts to some of our sites. It also included some fun things like the brand-new Uphaus Early Childhood Center, which is also a whole other way to get excited about school. I’ve had the privilege of every year basically being able to open a site: Gorzycki (Middle School), Baldwin (Elementary School) and now Uphaus. It just always adds an extra special element of newness to bring on a new team to the system. So those are just some things we are doing. What do you think are the most exciting new initiatives the district will be planning for and working on this year? Are there any new grants or other kinds of partnerships the district will be looking at this year? We’re continuing with our REACH program, the compensation incentives for teachers to work in East Austin and help us do big turnarounds in schools that have been struggling academically. … We also have a grant around literacy to enhance our curriculum to meet more standards around college readiness. We are very excited about our arts partnership with the Kennedy Center and implementing the $1 million anonymous grant for providing more opportunities for teachers for resources across the elementary schools that are Title 1 schools. Of course strengthening the McCallum Vertical Team around fine arts, and we have another big piece of excitement around programming is that we’re doing the building around the North Central elementary school to relieve overcrowding…. We have a lot of pre-K villages that are coming on two of our middle school sites, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities for us to rethink, perhaps, how we think of our grade-level configurations. … There are two that are very close to my heart that I think are essential for a district like ours with the diversity of student populations that we have. (The first is) the dual-language expansion. We’re increasing the number of two-way dual-language schools. … Also the rethinking of (the disciplinary alternative education program on our discretionary removals) … that has been really hard on specific student groups — special education, African American students. … So we’re really changing how we’re handling that. Instead of sending them to the DAEP site … we are doing learning support centers in our schools to deal with behavior and discipline. As you are starting your fourth yea[...]

Purple Sage Elementary cleared to open Monday


The first day of school won’t be thwarted at Purple Sage Elementary in the Round Rock school district.

The school was cleared to open Monday after passing air-quality tests today in all but one classroom, according to a district spokeswoman.

Test results for the one classroom tested slightly higher for two types of molds than what is noticed in levels outdoors. The district will seal off that room and three nearby rooms to conduct an additional test. The abatement process has cost the district approximately $400,000 to date.

The school is safe for students and staff to return, according to district officials, and teachers will begin moving into their classrooms Saturday.

District officials have spent the past week removing mold at the school, 11801 Tanglebriar Trail in Austin. Last week, the district received lab test results that confirmed the presence of different types of molds in several classrooms.

“Best practices indicate that an abnormal allergen mold result in one area of a campus does not call for a complete school closure,” the district said in a statement. “In previous years the district has sealed off portions of a building to address air-quality issues while allowing normal activities to continue within the campus.”

Austin schools to move forward with single-sex school plan


Despite mixed reaction from the community, and reservations from some board members, the Austin school district will continue to move forward with a plan for two single-sex schools to possibly bring to a board vote next month.

The district is considering two single-gender schools, one at Pearce Middle School and one at Garcia Middle School, which would serve one attendance area. The revamped middle schools could open as early as 2013-14.

Students who opt out of the single-gender schools will be transferred to neighboring middle schools, officials have said.

During a 2.5-hour discussion Monday night, board members told Superintendent Meria Carstarphen that they want metrics that would indicate that a single-gender school would outperform co-ed schools. They also want a justification for moving on it earlier than the other annual academic and facility recommendations, which won’t be approved until December.

“I feel like the process has been slowed down a little bit, but we’re still moving forward,” said Trustee Cheryl Bradley, who remained strongly in favor of the single-gender schools.

Some board members also requested that Carstarphen provide more information on a second option: applying all the program changes included in the proposed single-sex schools - which would have elements of a college preparatory school — to a co-ed school.

More area schools fail federal standards


More area schools failed to meet federal standards based on the No Child Left Behind Act, data just released by the state show. Austin and other local districts are among the thousands of districts nationwide that are classified as failing to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress, AYP, because of tougher passing standards. This is the fourth consecutive year the Austin school district failed to meet the federal standards. Forty-eight percent of all schools in Texas failed to meet the standards, according to data released by the Texas Education Agency. Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville, Hays and Georgetown also were among local districts that failed. Even the Dripping Springs school district, which was one of the few districts locally that passed last year, failed to meet the standards. In the Lake Travis school district, which also passed last year, had its high school campus fail to meet standards, though the district as a whole passed. Last year, only a handful of area districts met federal standards overall and at every campus; this year, Eanes was one of the only area districts to achieve both. The 2012 reading standards were increased from 80 to 87 percent, math standards from 75 to 83 percent. All students must meet the math and reading standards by 2014. Districts or schools that miss AYP for two or more years and receive Title I funding, federal funds for low-income students, are subject to state sanctions and a school improvement program. Non-Title I schools that miss the standards must revise existing campus improvement plans to address why they missed the standards. Last summer, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that without a revamp of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, 82 percent of all schools nationwide could be classified as failing this year. “We are obviously disappointed that not all of our campuses met AYP standards, but I am proud of the majority of our students who continued to perform well,” Superintendent Jesús Chávez said. “As is evidenced by the number of campuses and districts which are not meeting federal standards, I believe it is time that the No Child Left Behind Act be reevaluated.” In the fall, Duncan gave states the option to file a waiver to be exempt from the AYP requirements, saying that states needed relief from the requirements and that the reauthorization of the act was “moving too slowly in Congress.” Texas was among a handful of states that did not apply for the waiver. “Our student performance remains strong, but it’s not keeping pace with the rapidly escalating federal standards,” said Tim Savoy, spokesman for the Hays school district. Leander Superintendent Bret Champion said the district will continue to use the information to help identify areas where the district needs additional support and resources and make campus improvement plans for the 2012-13 school year. The federal requirements are different from those under the state’s accountability system. In previous years, the federal yearly progress standard was based on participation and performance on the state-mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, as well as graduation and attendance rates. This spring, students took a new state test, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. STAAR passing standards still have not been set for elementary and middle school, but because the state was required to measure yearly progress, the agency translated students’ performance on the new, more rigorous tests to a score on the old TAKS. The AYP evaluations are based on the 10th grade performance on TAKS, as well as the translated scores on STAAR for grades 3 through 8. More complete information on AYP results, is located on the Texas Education Agency site. Correc[...]

AISD trustees approve tax breaks to owners of historic properties


Austin school board members Monday night approved continuing to give owners of historic properties tax breaks.

In a 6-2 vote, the board approved for another year its participation in the city’s program to give property tax exemptions to historic properties. Trustees Vince Torres and Robert Schneider voted against; Trustee Tamala Barksdale was not present.

The district would have net about $350,000 if trustees had not passed the measure. The district could have collected more than $1.8 million in property taxes but would have sent nearly $1.5 million to the state under school finance laws.

The board Monday night also approved the district’s $724.2 million expenditure budget, confirmed the appointments of two principals and named several executive positions, including the Mel Waxler, the district’s attorney since 2000, to chief of staff.

AISD releases districtwide data on STAAR; results comparable to statewide numbers


Just over half of Austin school district students who took the STAAR end-of-course exams passed the writing portion of the English exam, comparable to statewide performance.

Fifty-four percent of the high schoolers who took the exam passed English I writing, while 69 percent passed English I reading. In Algebra I, 84 percent of students passed, while 84 percent passed biology and 78 percent passed geography.

Summer school will be open as early as tomorrow for students who need prep to retake the exam in July.

Statewide, 55 percent of students passed English I writing, 68 percent passed English I reading, 83 percent passed Algebra I, 87 percent passed biology and 81 percent passed world geography.

Mixed results statewide on new STAAR end-of-course exams, TEA says


Statewide student performance on the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course exams varied widely, with just over half of students passing the English I writing exam and 87 percent of students passing the biology exam, results released by the state this afternoon show.

For the English I reading exam, 68 percent passed, while 81 percent of students passed the world geography exam and 83 percent of students passing Algebra I.

More than 319,000 students, most of them freshmen, took five exams. Most freshmen took the biology, world geography, Algebra I and English I exams.

Students who failed any of end-of-course exams can retake them next month. In total, a student will have three opportunities to retake the exam. If a student fails an end-of-course exam, the state does not require student to retake the course; however, districts may require students to take summer school or receive other instructional intervention.

The Texas Education Agency does not have the scores for individual districts yet, and several Central Texas districts said it would be next week before they will release their scores.

In other districts across the state, including Houston and Lubbock, thousands of students failed at least one of the exams, and must attend summer school.

The results come amid scrutiny over what constitutes a passing grade this year on the new exams. For the next four years, the state will be phasing in the new standards. The percent of questions students must answer correctly this year is as low as 37 percent on some tests, though those standards will get tougher through 2016, and students will have to answer more questions correctly in subsequent years.

A full story on the results will appear in tomorrow’s American-Statesman.

Austin school district honored by urban schools' group


The Austin school district was given a top performing district award by the Council of the Great City School for its management of business operations services in 2011, district announced this week.

The council, which is comprised of 67 large-city school districts, based its recognition on whether districts demonstrated efficient and effective use of resources in the areas of student transportation, nutrition, safety and security and maintenance and operations, the district said.

“We are honored by the recognition from a national organization that represents the needs of urban public schools,” said Lawrence Fryer, the district’s chief operations officer. “Our goal is to ensure every department within the district is managed efficiently, so we can deliver the best possible education to our students.”

Local teacher to be recognized on national television


An East Austin elementary school physical education teacher who works to teach students character and leadership skills both on and off the court, is among the 12 finalists for the “Live! With Kelly” Top Teacher search on ABC.

Dave Edwards teaches at Volma Overton Elementary and is also the founder of a non-profit boys’ basketball program for at-risk East Austin fourth and fifth graders.

In a letter nominating Edwards for the award, one of the program’s chaperones described how Edwards and his wife take students to and from school and basketball tournaments, saying “I’m moved to tears when I think of the countless times I’ve seen a player go from being a boy to becoming a young man. Each of them will go on to do big things; I’ve seen it from his students that played on the team in 2007. To know there is someone out there, on the streets, taking in kids that most of us would have considered trouble makers and not worth our time and converting them into compassionate people makes me have faith in the world.”

The five contestants who receive the most votes as of Monday April 30 at 2 p.m. will move on to the next round. To participate go to Votes can be cast once per day. The top five contestants will be named on air on Tuesday May 1.

Pflugerville ISD administrator named superintendent of Burnet school district


The Burnet school district has named Keith McBurnett, a Pflugerville school district administrator, superintendent.

McBurnett, who takes the new post April 9, is the Pflugerville school district deputy superintendent and oversees curriculum and instruction, human resources, technology and maintenance and facilities. He has also served Pflugerville as the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

McBurnett has been an educator for 18 years, first as a special education teacher, then principal in Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district. He also was a principal and administrator in the Keller school district.

“Burnet has a rich tradition of excellence, and I am looking forward to working with the board of trustees and the Burnet staff to continue to put students first,” McBurnett said. “Just as important, my family and I are also excited about relocating to the Hill Country and joining the Burnet community.”

McBurnett earned both his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from The University of North Texas.

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SXSWedu: Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino lauds risk taking


Clad in cowboy boots, the chief executive of a major education and media company, declared war this afternoon on the “tyranny of the average.”

Marjorie Scardino, Pearson’s CEO and a Texarkana native, gave a keynote address to a crowd of educators, entrepreneurs and policymakers gathered at South by Southwest Edu, SXSW’s education conference. She spoke to a crowded ballroom at the Austin Convention Center downtown.

“Lots of people have wrestled with these questions. They’ve done it in different contexts and different ways,” she said. “We call the problem the ‘tyranny of the average’ — teaching to the middle of the class, making excuses in the name of fairness and not expecting anybody to sparkle, worst of all.”

To make exceptional, rather than average, the standard in education requires risk-taking, she said. But exceptional is what students need and deserve, she said.

“No matter what their circumstances are, rich or poor, obviously gifted or still dormant,” Scardino said, “we know students deserve the environment and approach to learning that goes beyond ordinary, that aims high, that really aims for the exceptional.”

Scardino relayed real-world examples — some documented in books and studies, some from her own experiences — in which individuals successfully took risks in education. She didn’t want to talk too much about Pearson, she said with a smile, because her Texas upbringing taught her it was “tacky” to talk about herself. But Scardino did describe how Jeff Kinney, an employee of a website owned by Pearson, created both a book series — “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” — and a popular learning website — — by virtue of taking risks.

“Jeff comes to work every day. He still designs new games. He takes risks that things will go right with people around him,” she said.

Scardino closed by arguing that now is a pivotal moment in education. There is great investment in education and in technology that facilitates learning, she said, but the global competition is also steeper than ever before.

“In order to seize that once-in-a-generation opportunity, we do have to take a bet on what can go right,” she said.

SXSW Edu: 'Reading Rainbow' host Burton talks about new app, show business


The beloved television show “Reading Rainbow” aired its final episode in 2009, to the dismay of children, parents and teachers across the country. But now, there’s a new chapter for the book-centric show.

LeVar Burton, the former host of the show, said this evening that “Reading Rainbow” will be relaunching as a mobile app, to fit the needs of a new generation of children. Burton, who also made a name for himself on the TV shows “Roots” and “Star Trek,” addressed South by Southwest Edu, the education portion of the SXSW conference, at the Austin Convention Center on Tuesday.

“I’m excited because it gives me the opportunity to do what I’ve always done: to use technology to steer children back to the written word,” he said.

In a 45-minute speech, Burton regaled the auditorium with anecdotes from his childhood and time in show business, interspersing his stories with meditations on the importance of learning and creativity.

“As we move forward into this new era of the intersection of technology and education, there are a couple of really fundamental tenets that I would like to see us not leave behind,” he said. “Chief and primary among them, I believe, is as educators, it is our fundamental and primary responsibility as we move forward with this technology to not forget the importance of storytelling.”

Burton, who grew up in Sacramento, Calif., deeply conscious of the racial issues rocking the country, described how his mother, an English teacher, instilled in him a love of reading.

“In Erma Jean’s house, you either read a book or got hit in the head with one,” he said with a smile. “She was not attached to which. But you were going to have an encounter with the written word in Erma’s home.”

On a personal level, the continuation of “Reading Rainbow” honors her legacy, he said.

Burton also touched on current affairs, taking a moment to criticize education policy in the U.S., especially No Child Left Behind.

“We’ve created a culture of education where we are teaching to the test instead of teaching the subject matter,” he said. “We need to correct that emphasis.”

But he ended on a more hopeful note:

“We’re at a tremendous juncture of opportunity here,” Burton said. “We have the will, the desire and the technology to revolutionize how we get this done. I do believe it will take a public-private partnership in order to really serve our children and our educational system well. We have to work together to make this a priority for ourselves.”

SXSW Edu: Tales of challenges and success in the classroom


The Rio Grande Valley is about six hours from Austin. But for Steven Farr, who taught children of migrant workers in the Valley in the 1990s after attending the University of Texas, the two places felt worlds apart. The experience changed his life, said Farr, who volunteered in the Valley as a Teach for America member. He stayed on with the organization, and is now Teach for America’s chief knowledge officer. Farr is back in Austin today, where spoke at South by Southwest Edu, SXSW’s education conference that kicked off this morning. Farr began his talk by describing the challenges facing underprivileged students in America. To illustrate his point, he described a high school in Los Angeles. The freshmen classes clocked in at about 1,000 students—and only about 200 of those students graduated, he said, with around 30 of them possessing the academic records to apply to California state schools. “This is our greatest injustice as a nation,” Farr said. “I don’t think we can read a newspaper (story) about the economy or national security without thinking about the 800 kids at a giant high school who are disappearing between their freshman year and their senior year.” Some 40,000 college students applied to serve as Teach for America volunteers this year, he said. News reports from 2011 reported that the organization had an acceptance rate of about 11 percent. At the event, he outlined six best practices that the most successful of those teachers embrace. “We know the numbers, we know there are enormous challenges,” he said. “But at the same time, when we look, we see examples of success across the country, where teachers are changing those odds. Where teachers, through certain approaches to the classroom, are changing the fact that right now, statistics say demographics are destiny.” Among those approaches: set big goals, adapt to changing classroom circumstances quickly and consider the big picture. Farr tossed out a number of examples of teachers who have done just that, including some based in Texas. He mentioned one young woman who taught fifth graders in Houston’s disadvantaged Fifth Ward several years ago. Her students were all learning English as a second language, and all qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch — two indicators that often correlate with poor academic outcomes, he said. “She said, ‘You Teach for America people, you keep telling us we’ve gotta get rules and consequences figured out, classroom management,’” he said. “’What you’re not telling me is when my kids walk in that door, their experience in school has taught them there are smart kids in other places and dumb kids in this classroom. They had come to believe there is no correlation between hard work and being smart.’” But the teacher spent so much time working to change the big picture — how students thought about themselves, and how they viewed hard work — that by the time Farr reached the classroom, the students were too wrapped up in their course to talk with him, he said. “The highlight for me … was, I crouch down by this fifth grade girl and say, ‘Can you tell me a little about what you’re working on?’” he said. “She says, ‘Can I tell you later? I’m kind of busy.’ It happens that children who are facing all of these challenges get so fired up that it changes everything.” [...]

District extends East Austin charter opt-out deadline


Austin school district Superintendent Meria Carstarphen will announce this evening that she is extending the deadline for opting out of the IDEA Public Schools in-district charter program until March 9.

The deadline for opting out originally was Friday.

District officials have not yet provided information on how many people have opted out so far.

A member of the group, Pride of The East Side, asked for the delay last week. Over the weekend, school board President Mark Williams said he supported a delay.

Kindergarten, first- and second-grade students assigned to attend Allan Elementary School in the fall will be assigned to the new charter school automatically. Students at Allan, Allison, Brooke, Govalle, Metz, Ortega and Zavala elementary schools who will be in sixth grade in the fall also would be assigned to the charter program.

To opt out, parents must mail in forms or turn in forms in person to district headquarters or to campuses.

In a move that spurred protest from many in the community, trustees in December approved the district’s partnership with IDEA, a South Texas-based charter school operator. Officials sent letters home to parents about the opt-out rules starting in mid-January.

According to the contract approved in December, 336 students must enroll in the early grades and 112 students in the sixth grade. The contract says that if the minimums have not been met, the district and IDEA have agreed “to determine whether the parties can proceed under this Agreement and to advise the AISD Board of Trustees on or before June 1st of any school year in question.”

Pflugerville teacher wins prestigious Milken Award


Kristina Carssow, a teacher at Connally High School in the Pflugerville school district, has won a Milken Educator Award. She was surprised by the announcement at a school assembly this morning.

The annual awards - often referred to as the “Oscars of teaching” - come with cash prize of $25,000. Carssow is the only Texas educator to receive the award this year and one of only about 40 nationwide to receive the recognition.

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For 25 years, the Milken Family Foundation has given the honor “to recognize the importance of outstanding educators and encourage talented young people to enter the teaching profession,” foundation officials said in an announcement. “Exceptional teachers, principals and specialists — recommended without their knowledge by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by each state’s department of education — are surprised with the news of their Awards” each year, officials said.

“Our public education system is at the heart of America’s promise and is essential in safeguarding the American dream for future generations. With research confirming that an effective teacher is the single most important school-related factor in raising student achievement, it is clear to see the critical role that outstanding teachers play in shaping our country,” Lowell Milken said in the announcement. “Through her integral role on Connally High School’s leadership team, Kristina Carssow has helped to create a culture of collaboration and high expectations for teachers and students alike to thrive. She is an inspiration and example for communities, policymakers, and students who may be inspired to enter the profession, and for all of our nation’s K-12 educators.”

Carssow is a master teacher at Connally who mentors teachers and helps the campus identify goals and align strategies to meet specific student needs. Since Carssow assumed the master teacher position, pass rates on state achievement tests have increased 14 percent and scores for African American students and those from low-income families have leapt 20 percentage points, according to the announcement.

AISD official to lead Texas School Coalition


Christy Rome, the Austin school district’s government relations director, has taken a new job as head of the Texas School Coalition.

The coalition represents school districts that are considered property wealthy, such as Austin and Eanes, and many of its members have brought one of the four school finance lawsuits filed against the state.

Rome previously served as an aide to Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and joined the Austin district in 2007.

“This is a critical time for school districts in Texas and together we can make sure our voices are heard to the benefit of our students and communities,” Rome said in a statement.

RRISD board to ask Wilco attorney to investigate one of its own



School board votes 5-2 to ask Williamson County attorney’s office to investigate the issue of Romere forwarding an email from one parent to a member of the public, without redacting the parent’s email address.

EARLIER: The Round Rock school board is meeting to determine what to do about a trustee who released confidential information to a member of the public.

Trustee Terri Romere could face discipline by the school board after she was identified during a school board meeting in January as the district official who forwarded an email concerning school boundary changes from a parent to another community member without redacting the parent’s email address.

The board planned to meet behind closed doors, but Romere asked for the issue to be discussed publicly.

The school board can choose to open an investigation or forward the issue to the county attorney, among other options.

For more immediate updates on the meeting, follow @melissataboada on twitter.

Former trustee Bernice Hart dies


Former teacher, counselor and Austin school board president Bernice Hart died Monday morning of natural causes, her family said. She was 91.

“She will definitely be missed,” said her nephew, Otis McCullough. “She was dedicated to all children, regardless of race, color or creed.”

Hart grew up in East Austin and earned a bachelor’s degree in education at what’s now Huston-Tillotson University. She earned a master’s from the University of Texas, becoming one of the few female, black graduates at the time, her family said.

“One thing I remember is her strong conviction, her courage to stand up regardless of whether she was the only one standing,” said current Austin Trustee Cheryl Bradley, whose District 1 includes East Austin. “She stood for what was right. She definitely was a champion for children and children of East Austin. Sitting on District 1, I’ve had a long line of mentors and Bernice Hart would be one of them.”

Hart Elementary School in Northeast Austin was named in her honor in 1998.

She is pictured below surrounded by Hart students during Bernice Hart Day in 1999. The children are chanting school songs and forming hearts with their fingers.

Click here to sign the guest book for Bernice Hart.


Photo by Larry Kolvoord

Report: Former president defends federal role in education


With several GOP presidential candidates talking about abolishing various federal agencies, including the Department of Education, former President George W. Bush is defending his No Child Left Behind Act today on

In an exclusive interview with Time’s Andrew J. Rotherham published today, Bush said the country should not abandon the progress his administration made toward making schools more accountable.

“In some circles, punching No Child Left Behind is a way to basically say, I’m against Big Government,” Bush said in the interview. “In fact, No Child Left Behind is a way to promote efficient government. In a lot of these debates, you don’t hear real detail or analysis about how to improve the law. In essence, it’s No Child Left Behind is big government. Well, No Child Left Behind basically says, If you’re going to fund (schools), like we’ve been doing for years, we in the federal government ought to demand accountability, which seems to me a very conservative principle. Yet some conservatives are saying No Child Left Behind is an improper role for federal government. In that case, it’s more philosophy than actual analysis of how No Child Left Behind works and its effectiveness.”

Bush also said it will take presidential leadership to defend NCLB.

“The President is going to have to be very firm in resisting the temptation to take the easy path. The President has to take the lead and say, Wait a minute, No Child Left Behind has worked. Let’s not weaken it.”