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What's happening in Austin schools in 2013-2014? Superintendent Meria Carstarphen shares her insights about how "The Power of Us" is transforming education in Austin. This Power is the commitment of educators, parents, students, and the entire community to support quality teaching and learning and to achieve success for every student. It's shared accountability for our successes and challenges. Check back regularly for the latest news.

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  • 06/13/13--14:05: Thank You for a Banner Year!
  • It feels as if we were just singing Call Me Maybe at our All-Staff Convocation and kicking off the 2012-13 school year with the first day of school. 
    And now, as the school year has drawn to a close, I’m happy to share with you that all of your hard work to serve our 86,000 students has not only made a difference—it has made 2012-13 a banner year for Austin ISD. 

    Our third through eighth grade students achieved gains in four subject areas on preliminary 2013 STAAR results.  Our community voiced its support for AISD last month by approving $489 million in bond funding for facilities investments. Additionally, more students than ever are graduating from our schools. This year, the district’s graduation rate increased by 2.5 percentage points and is now at an all time high of 82.5 percent. 
    Last week, we celebrated the culmination of years of hard work, when nearly 4,400 seniors walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. Some will be the first in their families to enter college. These graduations are a great reminder of why we’re all here, working so hard to serve our students and prepare them for college, career and life. 
    As we congratulated these graduates for their achievement, so many of them responded by saying “thank you” to everyone in AISD who has supported them. 
    With the assistance of AISD student photographers, we have created a video tribute to AISD's Class of 2013 featuring our seniors.  
    Please take a moment to watch it, remember why it is we do what we do, and remember that our work matters everyday. It did for these students. 
    Congratulations, to our graduates, and to Team AISD for a stellar year!





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    This week, the Superintendent's Teacher Advisory Group held its last meeting of the school year. As usual, these teachers offered excellent feedback and advice, especially in the area of English Language Learners.

    The discussion centered on how we can support ELL students after middle school to ensure success throughout high school, and the proven strategies that ensure all students demonstrate high academic achievement and develop confidence and character.

    A particular thanks to Webb Middle School teacher Alicia Brown-Forbes for her extraordinary leadership and preparation that allowed us to focus at this meeting on English Language Development Academies. These academies provide immigrant youth instruction using a communicative approach to learning language and rigorous, relevant content using a world class curriculum to ensure all students demonstrate high academic achievement and develop confidence and character in high school and beyond.  I look forward to exploring how to scale up this outstanding work in AISD.

    This year, our conversations have focused on strengthening teaching, learning, and existing programs to benefit all students and on  accomplishing the four goals delineated in the district’s strategic plan. This year, topics included discussion of the district calendar, STAAR and EOC testing, the Instructional Management System (SchoolNet), the Curriculum Navigation System, Culturally Responsive Instruction, RTI, Dual Language, and meeting the needs of English Language Learners.

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    Back Row (left to right): Sarah Dilly, Sloan McLain, Edith Butcher, Mary Tijerina, Lindsey Ann Pendleton, Pamela Komnick, Ruben Ramirez, Ginger Wahlers, Kevin Owens
    Front Row (left to right): Dixie Yoder, Alicia Brown-Forbes, Dr. Carstarphen, Lauren Fox, Chaitra McGrew, Debra Hurst
    These advisors are the best of the best of our Austin teaching corps, and I appreciate their commitment to our students and families, as well as their willingness to work with me--in addition to everything else they do. Following the summer break, I'm looking forward to another productive year with these top-notch teachers.



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    What an exciting summer! The sun felt even brighter and warmer when we heard from Anderson High School about the success of its International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Congratulations to the 29 Anderson seniors who graduated this year with IB certification. With an overall 93.5% completion rate, they surpassed the international average of completing the program certification process, which is 75%.

    This year, Anderson senior Amanda Meriwether completed the program with a perfect exam score---a rare accomplishment and the school’s first-ever perfect score!

    The IB program at Anderson supports our district’s Strategic Plan goals by preparing students for college, career and life in a global economy. Students not only hone academic skills that prepare them to succeed in college, but they also develop an advanced understanding of intercultural relationships that prepare them for the ever more globally connected economy they will encounter in college and beyond.

    We are so proud of these hard working seniors and congratulate them for their commitment to success. Keep it up!




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    AISD Trustees and district staff break ground on the new Performing Arts Center.

    At an August 6 ceremony, we broke ground on the new district-wide Performing Arts Center, which will be located along Mueller Blvd. between 51st St. and Barbara Jordan Blvd. This state-of-the-art facility will provide an expansive venue for band, orchestra, theater, dance and visual arts performances by students throughout AISD. Participants at the event enjoyed performances by the All-City Marching Band, directed by Don Haynes, the Anderson Drill Team, and the McCallum High School Color Guard. McCallum student Elena Villalon sang our national anthem beautifully. Many thanks to the students and supporters who braved the heat to celebrate this occasion with district staff.

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    The Anderson High School Drill Team performed as if it were a cool fall day---not!

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    The All City Marching Band performed together for the first time in more than five years!
    The new Performing Arts Center is a symbol of our vision for the future of fine arts in AISD. As we shift away from a culture of testing to one that emphasizes academic standards of excellence and the strengths and interests of the whole child, we know that the fine arts are critical. 

    The district is keeping its promise to AISD voters, who twice, once in 2004 and again in 2008, approved bond funding for purchase of land and construction.



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    This week, the Texas Education Agency released its preliminary state accountability ratings for the 2012-13 school year. I am proud of our staff and students. Amid increasing standards and declining resources, they continue to make the grade.

    For the 2012-13 school year, 110 schools met the standard and 55 schools earned 89 Academic Achievement Distinction Designations which recognize outstanding performance in student progress or academic achievement in English Language Arts or Mathematics. Eleven of the 55 schools earned distinction designations in all three areas.

    The district’s results exceeded the state’s target for the second year of STAAR in all four areas: student achievement by 28 points, student progress by 14 points, closing performance gaps by 15 points, and postsecondary readiness by 6 points.

    This news further demonstrates that the district is successfully making the transition from TAKS to STAAR. AISD leads comparable, urban school districts and exceeds the state average on student achievement. Our district also outperformed the state on student progress, according to the TEA's performance framework.

    Of the 110 schools that met the state's new accountability standard, 107 received a rating of Met Standard and three received a rating of Met Alternative Standard. The TEA rated 11 schools as Improvement Required: Eastside Memorial, Lanier, LBJ, and Travis high schools; Dobie, Garcia, Martin and Pearce middle schools; Rodriguez Elementary School; Rosedale and Travis County Day School.

    This year, the changing accountability measurements led to some unfortunate outcomes:
    •    Three AISD high schools, Travis, Lanier and Eastside, met the standards for the other indices, but did not meet the standard under Index 4. Graduation rates at these three schools are at an all-time high, but the schools did not meet Index 4 because of the number of students who graduated under the Minimum Plan rather than the Recommended Plan.
    •    The TEA also rated the district's Rosedale School, which serves students with profound disabilities, as not meeting the new standards.  Because of the nature of their disabilities, most of the Rosedale students were only able to participate in Level 1 STAAR Alternative tasks, which is the reason the school received the Improvement Required rating. This rule will no longer apply in 2014.
    •    Finally, Martin Middle School missed the target for only one index—Index 3—by only one point. Rodriguez Elementary also missed only one index—Index 2.

    Preparing students for state assessments is a part of the great work our teachers do every day to provide a rich education to all of our students. In the end, what's important is ensuring our students graduate prepared for college, career and life.

    In AISD, we are shifting the focus away from a culture of testing-which can be punitive and narrowly focused on test results-to one that emphasizes academic standards of excellence and the strengths and interests of the whole child with art programs, athletics, health and wellness initiatives and social emotional learning.

    District and campus ratings are not official until November after the state appeals window closes and districts are notified. For more information, visit the TEA's website at http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/account/.

    Congratulations to our staff and students for their hard work. I’m looking forward to another successful school year in 2013-14!

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  • 08/21/13--10:00: Welcome Back, AISD!

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    Today, I welcomed nearly 12,000 AISD employees back to school with a Convocation video featuring white board animation. 

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    Adam Miller, who teaches social studies and history at Crockett High School, did an amazing job of illustrating the twenty-minute video in an informative and entertaining way.
    I hope you’ll be able to watch the video—here are the key points:

    Our District’s Priorities


    Our Board-approved five-year strategic plan includes goals for the district, and each year the Board gives us a road map to reaching those goals by setting its priorities for that year. For this year, the goals are: cultivate Whole Child, Every Child, build a College-Ready Culture, deliver effectively the current Portfolio of Options, invest in human capital and strengthen our Systems. 


    When we say “Whole Child, Every Child” we mean shifting the focus away from a culture of testing—which can be punitive and narrowly focused on test results—to one that emphasizes academic standards of excellence and strengths and interests of the whole child with art programs, athletics, health and wellness initiatives and Social Emotional Learning. And, it’s our goal that the No Place for Hate initiative will reach every campus and every department in the district by the end of the school year.


    A College-Ready Culture means ensuring students get as much mileage as they can out of their AISD education and are prepared for life after graduation. To do this, we know students need to be in class every day, getting a solid foundation of knowledge. It means creating access to rigorous programming for all students and offering alternative pathways to graduation.


    Our third priority is to deliver our current Rich Portfolio of School Programs. We do this by expanding our dual language programs, and implementing in-district charters—like the one at Travis Heights Elementary and others at Lanier and Travis High Schools that provide alternative pathways to graduation, much like our Twilight Programs. We also rely on Pre-K Centers and signature programs throughout our vertical teams.


    Fourth, we invest in Human Capital, because student success depends on attracting and retaining the best talent in Texas. Further, research shows that when students have a quality teacher they do achieve at high levels.


    Our fifth priority is strengthening Systems, which means providing strong supports for our academic work. This includes budgeting, implementing the 2013 bond program, developing the Facility Master Plan, and using information in our data warehouse to eliminate the achievement gap.


    Areas of Focus for the 2013-14 School Year


    For the upcoming school year, we will focus on these four areas:

    Competitive Salaries: This year we will maintain last year’s temporary 3 percent salary adjustment, which is pensionable. On top of this increase, we also plan to provide for every employee the equivalent of an additional 1.5 percent increase based on current annualized salary, that is not pensionable, and will be paid in two lump sums. If we can identify an additional $2.4 million in budget savings, we will provide every teacher with an increase of at least $1,000.


    Balance the Budget: We will fill our budget gap by drawing nearly $18 million from our reserves and identifying savings of up to $12 million through cost containment strategies such as the current hiring freeze, deliberate vacancy and lapsed salary savings, waste and contract cost reductions. NOT through layoffs.


    Implement the 2013 Bond Program/Facility Master Plan: In May, voters approved nearly $490 million in bond funds for the district. As a result, every school in AISD will benefit. 


    These funds will allow us to repair and renovate our facilities, upgrade technology, renovate science labs, expand and renovate libraries, purchase new buses, and improve energy conservation. We have committed to developing a facility master plan by next summer. It will serve as a long-range capital improvement plan and will also have to include the areas in the bond propositions that did not pass. We will need strategies for addressing over- and under- enrolled schools, career and technical education, special education, arts and athletics. As part of good stewardship it will mean possibly changing transfer policies and practices. School boundary changes are likely to be considered as well as we better utilize our existing school infrastructure.

    Focus on Literacy:
    By intensifying our focus on literacy education, and devoting more brain power (mental resources and energy) and professional development to this area, we'll be able to beef up what we are already doing well to strengthen students’ literacy skills.

    Literacy can lead our students beyond the terrain that high stakes testing measures, to help them develop habits of mind that will prepare them for a full life in whatever path they choose.  By encouraging students to read, and giving them opportunities for sustained, silent reading in all subjects on topics that interest them, we can lead our students to deeper thinking, which does result in higher achievement. One part of our district’s focus on literacy is the importance of Free Voluntary Reading---giving students the freedom to choose what they want to read. Good readers are better writers and make the best thinkers.

    Our Accomplishments
     

    AISD is one of the highest performing urban districts in the state and even the nation. We have continued to improve in the face of tougher accountability requirements, dwindling resources and changing demographics.
     

    Take for example our attendance rates. For the third year in a row, attendance rates continue to rise, generating over $5 million for AISD, especially now that they exceed 95 percent.
     

    And because our students are coming to school ready to learn, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in our graduation rates as well. Graduation is the bottom line in measuring the success of our school district. Over the past five years, our graduation rates have increase from its lowest at 74.3 percent in 2008 to an all-time high of 82.5 percent in 2012.
     

    These gains for students who have typically had lower graduation rates are even more impressive  when viewed over a four-year period.  You can see increases like 7.1 percentage points for Special Education students, 13.9 percentage points for African American students, 14.7 percentage points for Hispanic students and English Language Learners closed the gap by a whopping 27.6 percentage points.
     

    We are seeing results in closing our achievement gap every day at every level. Elementary schools exceeded the state passing rate in reading, math, writing and science at grades 3,4 and 5. Middle schools ranked first among the Big 8 districts in four areas. High schools are improving too. AISD students outperformed students in every other large urban district in 8 out of 11 End-of-Course Exams—ranking us number 1 or number 2 across every subject.

    At the national level, AISD has consistently made gains and been among the leaders in the nation on performance. On the Nation’s Report Card, or NAEP, AISD students ranked first in 8th grade mathematics and second in 4th grade mathematics.


    All of that work is making a difference for our students, whether they are still in AISD or have already graduated.  After graduating, we’re seeing our more students going on to two- or four-year colleges or universities more than ever before. Last year, the post-secondary enrollment rates for AISD graduates went up an amazing six percentage points, from 62 to 68 percent.


    This month we received the latest ratings from the Texas Education Agency which does tell some but not all of the story about our good work. Here’s what the headlines don’t tell you:


    •    AISD leads comparable, urban school districts and exceeds the state average on student achievement and outperformed the state on student progress.
    •    Further, our results exceeded the state’s target for the second year of STAAR in all four areas—student achievement by 28 points, student progress by 14 points, closing performance gaps by 15 points and postsecondary readiness by 6 points.
    •    And under the new accountability system, 110 of our 123 schools met the standard and 55 schools earned academic distinctions—that’s almost half of our schools.
    •    Finally, the percentage of AISD schools rates as “improvement required” is lower than the state average and the second lowest among comparable urban districts.


    Austin is a dynamic, creative city that has, and deserves, a high quality public school system. Our accomplishments don’t just happen. Whatever it is that you as a member of the AISD staff do to support our students and families, you should know that our work is working. 


    Welcome back, and have a great school year!

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    I had a blast at the district's ninth annual Back-to-School Bash on Saturday, and I wasn't alone. Upwards of 7,000 people attended, according to AISD Police, for the opportunity to access the many resources offered through our schools and partners in the community.

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    Children and their families received backpacks loaded with school supplies thanks to A+ Federal Credit Union and The Neighborhood. Both partners donated generously to this effort, and then went above and beyond by sending volunteers to help us set up and run the event. We are also grateful to Seton Family of Hospitals for allowing us to provide immunizations, as well as Dell Children’s Hospital for providing 200 free safety seats that were distributed free to families, and the Esselor Foundation for supporting free eye exams.

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    AISD students travel to and from school in a variety of ways – the district transports about 22,000 students each way, while many of the rest walk, bike or get dropped off by their parents or guardians. No matter how our kids get back and forth from school, we rely on everyone in the community to help keep them safe. At the Back to School Bash, City of Austin staff and City Council Member Laura Morrison helped me and AISD Police Chief Eric Mendez remind our community about school safety. A group of Mathews Elementary students learned safety tips to follow when they go back to school.

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    For one thing, this means never passing a school bus when the flashing lights are on, which indicates that kids are getting on or off the bus, leaving them vulnerable to traffic. Always stop for the flashing lights – it’s not only a good idea, it’s the law. We also recommend that parents and guardians accompany all children under the age of 10 to and from schools and bus stops.

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    Thanks to everyone involved for helping our students kick the new school year off right! Special thanks to the City of Austin for their support of our families and schools. All told, more than 100 AISD departments and community organizations set up tables and exhibits to inform students and their families about valuable services and programs available to them.

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    What a great way to kick off the new school year!

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    It’s the first day of school at AISD, and more than 85,000 students across the city are packing up their backpacks, sharpening their pencils (or clicking their mechanical ones), and setting those cell phones to vibrate to prepare for another year. But before they take their seats or meet their teachers, many students first have to board the bus to school. Our bus drivers are some of the earliest risers in the district and are up before the sun to prepare for the first day of the 2013-14 school year.



    So I started my day with them at the Southeast Bus Terminal--which welcomed employees today for the first time. AISD employs 420 bus drivers who help carry 22,000 students from their homes, to school, and back again, and it’s always a thrill to start the school year sending these folks off right—with breakfast tacos, fruit and coffee. After all, we always remind our students and families that a solid breakfast is a great way to start the day, and we want the same for our drivers, who are responsible for getting our students to school safely.


    This mother-daughter team of bus drivers have been with the district a combined 16 years.
    Thank you for all you do!







    Chief Operations Officer Lawrence Fryer and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Pauline Dow
    joined me in welcoming our drivers back to school. 



    Of course, it’s not all up to the drivers; those who share the road need to do their part, too. As we begin another school year, students and families should keep in mind the importance of school safety. No matter how our students arrive at school, remember:

    1. Never pass a school bus when you see the flashing lights. It means that kids are getting on or off the bus, which leaves them vulnerable to traffic. So, please stop for the flashing lights – it’s not only a good idea, it’s the law.

    2. We recommend that parents and guardians accompany all children under the age of 10 to and from schools and bus stops. This is the most important step you can take to ensure that your child arrives at school every day, safe and on time. The educators who care for your students during the school day will breathe easier knowing you’ll be there to drop them off or pick them up.

    I want to send out a big thank you to all our drivers who make sure our kids get to school safely and on time. And I would like to remind parents, that another component of student safety is student health. Remember to ensure your child has the proper immunizations before starting school so all of our kids and be healthy and in class.

    If the rest of the school year is as energetic and as positive as my morning with AISD’s transportation professionals, I know it will be a great one.

    Let’s hit the road!

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    Ringing in the New School Year with the Reagan Raiders


    Momentum and excitement for the 2013-14 school year were on full display this morning at Reagan High School, my first of ten campus visits I’ll be making over the next two days.


    Principal Anabel Garza, whose leadership has helped propel the campus to success over the past few years, greeted us and helped me kick off the first day with a brief press conference. AISD’s Board President Vincent Torres and Trustee Ann Teich (whose husband is a Reagan graduate from back in the day) joined me in welcoming students back. I reiterated the district’s four focus areas for the school year: competitive salaries, balancing the budget, implementing the 2013 bond program/facility master plan and focusing on student literacy.


    I also discussed the importance of students being in class, ready to learn, everyday. Because if our students are not at school, they can’t learn, and the more class time that is missed, the easier it is to fall behind.


    The district’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Pauline Dow, reinforced our continued focus on literacy, which is the spine of all learning.


    After the press conference, I cheered on the Reagan Raiders as their cheerleaders, drill team and drum line performed in the school courtyard.  


    Students looked fresh-faced and happy to either be joining the campus for the first time or returning to the school that you can tell they are so proud of. And what’s not to be proud of? Reagan has achieved so many accomplishments over the past few years.


    For starters, just five years ago the school’s graduation rate was around 51.4 percent. And for the class of 2012, it’s at 79.7 percent.




    The school is also home to the Early College High School (ECHS) Program, which is beginning its third year and really taking hold. Through a partnership between AISD and the Austin Community College District, ECHS is in place at Reagan and LBJ High School and creates opportunities for students to earn tuition-free, college credit that also satisfies high school requirements. With hard work, our ECHS students who begin college classes during the ninth grade can earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree in four years.




    During our visit, I also had the opportunity to speak with staff members during their faculty meeting. One of my favorite parts about visiting campuses is being able to visit with other AISD team members to learn about their experiences and what it is that calls them to serve in public education. I enjoyed meeting some of the Reagan faculty, and congratulating them for the dramatic improvement at Reagan. I reiterated the goals and priorities I introduced during our All-Staff Convocation last week.


    It was a great way to kickoff the first day of school. Thank you, Reagan Raiders, for being excellent hosts this morning! 


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    AISD loves our dual language programs! Just stopped by Ridgetop Elementary to drop off apples and met great parents. Que tengan un ano esolar muy produtivo !



    Then it was on to Lee Elementary, which is off to a great start. Principal Smith was already doing walk-throughs.

    What lovely, loving AISD schools. They have super staff and super students.


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    I just left the Rosedale School, where I was greeted by teachers and students and delivered apples for the first day of school to Principal Elizabeth Dickey.  


    I’m so proud of our Rosedale Raccoons.  We will continue to support Rosedale, just as the school supports every one of its students with disabilities and very special needs. Please know that we are appealing the rating of the school by TEA, and will be inviting the commissioner to visit the school.


    I loved seeing students entering the school and getting their day started. Welcome back, Rosedale Raccoons, and have a great school year. We love you! 


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    My next stop was Highland Park Elementary School, one of our consistently high-achieving campuses. I dropped off apples to staff members and Principal Tammie Workman, who was in high spirits as she welcomed new and returning students.


    Then it was on to Brentwood Elementary School, which is home to AISD’s Elementary School Teacher of the Year Sloan McLain. I had the pleasure of visiting with Sloan and her Principal Katherine Williams-Carterin April, when we announced our Teacher of the Year finalists by surprising the teachers in their classrooms.


    Thanks to both of these campuses for their great work! 


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    As we drove up to Gullett, I was impressed to see so many bicycles parked outside the school. This weekend at the Back to School Bash press conference, Councilperson Laura Morrison reminded our students of the benefits of biking and walking to school. I am so glad to see our elementary Austinites developing healthy habits at a young age. These students are starting off the school year on the right foot – or WHEEL!



    I spent some time with the amazing custodians to thank them for making the campus look so beautiful. (Christian and I literally stopped to view – and smell – the flowers, a Passiflora or Passion Flower to be exact. See photo.) We arrived just in time for recess! Later today in the cafeteria, the students will launch a new school initiative that encourages collaborative time among students in the same grade level, not just from their homeroom, for cross learning and socializing.


    Remember to be safe when you’re bicycling and use caution when crossing the street or at intersections. And, most important, wear those helmets!


    Go, Gullett Geckos! 


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    Under the leadership of principal George Llewellyn, Lamar Middle School has undergone a transformation over the past two years. I had a we were there when moment when Lamar welcomed 733 students this year, an increase of 150 students over last year’s enrollment. Students come from some 40 elementary schools throughout the city. 

    Many are drawn by the Lamar Fine Arts Academy, which lays the foundation for students who want to continue on to the fine arts program at nearby McCallum High School. In its second year, the Lamar Fine Arts Academy is one way the school has attracted the community back to the school. A few years ago, only a handful of sixth grade students from nearby Highland Park Elementary attended Lamar. This year, 55 sixth grade students came from Highland Park.

    Close cooperation between Lamar and McCallum has strengthened programming throughout the school. For example, a McCallum robotics teacher spent a year at Lamar, training staff and introducing programming, and enrollment in robotics increased from 40 students to 150. McCallum teachers participate in joint planning meetings with Lamar teachers to make sure courses are aligned from middle school to high school.

    At one of the school's four outdoor classrooms, Principal Llewellyn, in perfect Socratic method while donning some crazy patterned and colored socks, educated us on the Lamar story. He showed us an outdoor lunch area, which has outdoor speakers and features regular performances by the school's jazz band and other musical groups. 

    Then, we toured the campus, where I drank from one of the high-tech drinking fountains, which provides highly filtered water that tastes much better than the bottled kind  (I know, I tried it!), and has a special spout for filling water bottles too. Thanks to the CATCH foundation for providing grants to fund the water fountains.

    The fine arts were front and center, even on the first day of school. As we entered the building, we saw a hanging sculpture, made from plastic bottles, that imitate the popular Chuily sculptures--and sell for at least $50! 

    The sculpture made from hanging bottles.



    Sitting in on Mrs. Reed's dance class.

    Thanks to $200,000 in community grants, the school has been able to update its arts facilities, and we visited the improved areas, along with the jazz band and piano rooms. 

    As part of a partnership with the University of Texas, Lamar has adopted drama-based instruction throughout the curriculum. We got to see it in action, even on the first day. I participated in a getting to know you activity in Mrs. Natalie Reed's intermediate dance class where one person stood in the middle of a circle and told the others one thing she enjoys doing. Other members of the group would switch spots with their classmates in the circle if they shared that interest. During this activity, I learned that Chief Schools Officer Paul Cruz loves middle school, and Chief Academic Officer Pauline Dow loves flying in airplanes.

    Here I am, taking a quick break in "The Retreat."

    Principal Llewellyn shows off his socks.

    Next we visited Mrs. Debbie Walker's culinary arts math class. She uses cooking to teach a variety of skills-- from measuring ingredients to balancing a budget when purchasing groceries for recipes. Guess what is the most interesting meal the students have prepared---Spaghetti tacos! Apparently they were quite good. Next time I'll swing by when cookies are on the menu!
    Mrs. Debbie Walker, who teaches a culinary arts math class.


    Bonjour to the students in Mrs. Williams' French class. She grew up in Bolivia and France – bringing much enthusiasm to her teaching! The classroom is painted light purple and features posters illustrating cultures and languages around the world, including a poster featuring a young Ricky Martin in Menudo...and I will admit I LOVED Menudo when I was in middle school.

    Thank you for your service to Lamar, Mrs. Castillo!

    It was great to meet 29-year veteran Mrs. Castillo, who teaches sixth grade and has been teaching at Lamar since she was 24 years old. She said the campus is like home to her!

    After only an hour, it feels like home to me, too!

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  • 08/26/13--12:01: Murchison Draws a Crowd

  • Murchison Middle School opened in 1967 and has grown to become one of the most sought-after schools in the district. The Murchison Matadors achieved great outcomes on last year’s STAAR exam, and as a resultthe school earned academic distinction in Reading/ELA on the state’s most recent accountability ratings. Plus, it’s home to AISD’s Middle School Teacher of the Year, Alexa Humberson. Murchison also has an impressive outdoor classroom and offers IB classes at the middle school level, to prepare students for the IB program at nearby Anderson High. So it comes as no surprise there are so many families who want to send their children here.

    Murchison Principal Sammilu Harrison greeted us warmly, and proved her exceptional hosting duties by helping us to our seats in the Murchison cafeteria, where hundreds of 8th grade students were enjoying their meal. And I mean hundreds. The cafeteria was packed with friendly and mature 8th graders.

     

    After lunch, we toured the school, including Mrs. Owens' video production class, and, in a nearby classroom, we played an ice breaker game called "Would You Rather?" (I can't wait to do it with our principals and central administrators at Expanded Cabinet!) Students and teachers were beaming with excitement about the new school year and pride for their school, but my visit did shed some light on how so many families want their students to be Murchison Matadors that we’re running out of places to put them all.

    Murchison’s functional capacity is at 1,374 students; however, the enrollment this year is about 1,500 so it fills really full especially in the "common areas" such as the cafeteria, library, etc. We are fortunate that there is indoor courtyard space to accommodate the overflow, but that's only when the weather is good.

    AISD made plans to expand the cafeteria and add new classrooms as part of Proposition 2 in the 2013 bond program, which did not pass. So AISD is faced with a challenge as we look forward and try to address the overcrowding at this northwest Austin school. However, we will continue doing what we know how to do by being creative with our facility use to help meet the needs of our students, families and staff members. 


    I learned a lot about the promising things our students are accomplishing, and I have trust that our community and staff will continue to work with me and think creatively to help this Austin school continue to achieve great things.


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  • 08/26/13--13:26: Bravo to Blackshear

  • My next stop was Blackshear Elementary School, and as I pulled up, students greeted and welcomed me with smiles and high-fives.
    Dr. Dow and Dr. Cruz greet students.


    From there, they walked me to the library, where I met the school librarian, Mr. Grape. He had a little fun with the first day of school and sported this awesome grape costume – think Fruit-of-the-Loom-style outfit. (see photo)


    During our walk through the campus, we entered a hallway where staff members, inspired by the convocation, did a little art on their own. Each had hung their hand-drawn portraits and statements about what they’re committed to this school year. Blackshear Principal Betty Jenkins said the campus did the drawings as a team-building activity to identify and build on each other’s strengths. Many of the statements inspired me—One stated, in both English and Spanish “I am committed to motivating students to READ, READ, READ! Me comprometo a motivar a los estudiantes a LEER, LEER, LEER!”




    Principal Jenkins and her staff members, students and families have a lot to celebrate this school year. The campus has an outstanding accountability rating and earned the maximum number of academic distinctions a school can earn from the Texas Education Agency this year.


    We stopped in just as fourth-grade teacher April Tabor was beginning an activity. She incorporates drama-based instruction in her classroom, which uses interactive games, role-playing and improvisation techniques to help creatively engage students in learning.



    Because it’s the first day of school, the students and I did an icebreaker activity. We worked as a team to form the shape of things like a palm tree and elephant with our arms. The activity was like Simon Says, and if you didn’t pay attention closely you were out of the game. Sadly, despite our best efforts and use of listening skills, Chief Schools Officer Paul Cruz and I were some of the first to be out of the game.


    Then we sat in on third-grade teacher Mr. Timothy Mercer’s class, where students were reading the book “Third Grade Angels.” Mr. Mercer told his students that one of the most important questions you can ask a person is “What are you reading?” As a rule, he said, any time he’s checking out at the grocery store, he will ask clerks to name their favorite childhood book. Sure enough, when he asked us, all of the grownups lit up and started sharing our favorites.


    There are many district, campus and community-based initiatives that contribute to the success at Blackshear. Among them is one of my favorite events each year: Role Model Day. The annual event at the campus brings in professionals from the community to discuss their careers, the importance of education and to inspire students to stay in school and work hard.


    This past year was my third year to participate in the event, and I had a blast! Read about the experience here.


    After a great tour and class activity with the students, it was time for dismissal. I met with Rebecca Birdwell—one of AISD’s many talented staff members who help keep our students safe by directing traffic and helping them cross the street.


    My time at Blackshear was just another reminder of how our district has to work as a whole system to be successful. It takes thousands of hardworking people, all coming together—from teachers, to librarians and cross guards—to ensure our students are prepared for college, career and life.


    As we were leaving the campus, I was reminded of the school’s rich history and snapped this photo of the Historical Marker outside of Blackshear. The school opened in 1891 to provide free, public education to African-American students. Four decades later, it was renamed to Blackshear Elementary School to honor Edward I. Blackshear, a 19th-century teacher and principal.


    Blackshear is close to downtown Austin and now serves an ethnically diverse population of students from pre-k through sixth grade. As the Historical Marker outside of the campus states, “Blackshear is an important part of Austin's educational history.”


    Indeed it is. And what an honor it is for each of us to be a part of that growing history.


    Thanks for a great visit, Blackshear! 


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  • 08/26/13--14:57: Crockett Cougars Rule!

  • Head Cheerleader (and budding lawyer and judge) Cici Barland met us at the bus for our last stop of the day, Crockett High School. Last year, Crockett hosted our all-district Convocation, so I recognized a lot of people, including Cici, who is now a senior!


    Speaking of familiar faces, I dropped in on two teachers that have become familiar to me over the past few months.


    I met this year’s AISD Teacher of the Year, Sarah Dille, when I visited her classroom last spring, and then at the Salute event when she was named as Teacher of the Year. So it’s great to be back with her in her classroom at Crockett, with a new group of students. They are so fortunate to be in her class.


    Next, I went to visit a teacher who I’ve gotten to know over the summer, when he helped bring our video presentation to life at our all-staff convocation. Adam Miller is a government and history teacher at Crockett, but he is also an artist. He uses his skills as an artist to bring his lessons to life for his students.


    Of course, there is no bigger advocate for Crockett High School than its principal, Craig Shapiro. I have had the good fortune to join Mr. Shapiro in welcoming students back to school in the Crockett courtyard, and this year was no different. I was fortunate to participate in the traditional first day of school pep rally. To the beat of the drum line, we made our way up the stairs and through the outside corridors to the courtyard. There, all 1,700 Crockett students appeared to have crowded into every inch of space to celebrate the start of a new school year.





    Leading the pep rally were the cheerleaders, drum line, color guard, Tex-Ann dancers, volleyball team, and football team. They were a spirited group! It was an invigorating way to end a 12-hour long, happy first day of school. 



    I congratulated Crockett for these successes in UIL Academic competition:

    Top Score: Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; First Place Team, Current Issues, Literary Criticism, Science, Social Studies and Spelling; 1st, 2nd, and 3rdPlace in Ready Writing; Third Place in Editorials and Poetry Interpretation; Fifth Place in Calculator and Feature Writing; Fifth and Sixth Place in Number Sense, Third and Sixth Place in Mathematics; and Third and Fourth Place in Headline Writing.





    All in all, it was a successful start to another school year. Our students arrived at school safely and were ready to learn. I’m so proud of our staff for doing such a great job of making sure schools were not just open, but inviting places to be where we launched immediately into teaching.


    I’ll go now and get lots of rest to prepare for the next round of school visits tomorrow.


    Welcome back AISD!




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    Whoooooooooo are some of the of wisest students in AISD (and the most fit too)? The Doss Owls, of course! 

    I began Day 2 of the Back-to-School Tour at Doss Elementary, a northwest Austin school with a real connection to both the global and the local community. Let's start with the local one.

    Doss partners with local organizations, like Austin's Mellow Johnny's bike shop, to help run the Boltage program, an initiative that encourages students to walk or bike to school. The students and parents at Doss have truly embraced the program, as I saw hundreds of kids making their way to school on their bikes—so many, in fact that there were hardly enough bike racks to hold them all. Based on the parents' and students' enthusiasm for biking to school, I wouldn't be surprised if Doss once again led the nation in total miles walked or biked to school. Keep it up Owls!



    Once the students settled in, I joined Principal Jana Griffin on a tour of the campus where I caught a glimpse of the school's efforts to connect its students to the global community. Our first stop: Connie Soong’s first grade Chinese Immersion class. Only two days into school, I could already see how excited these students were to be involved in the Chinese Immersion class and how much they have learned in such a short period of time. Innovative programs like these are what keep our kids engaged in school. The passion for learning starts as early as kindergarten and first grade and can continue on through the rest of their lives. I’m proud to be a part of a district that can offer such dynamic and diverse opportunities to its students. 

      
    Later, I had the opportunity to see the portables on campus, as well as new furniture AISD provided to Doss this year. Doss benefited from the 2013 Bond Program like all other AISD schools, but I could easily see the school needed Proposition 2 for construction of new classrooms to get relief from overcrowding. Of the 830 students at Doss, half are in portables. In three to four years, they anticipate the school will be between 145 to 155 percent capacity. For next year, we will work with the Doss school community to identify potential strategies to mitigate this space issue for next school year. For the longer term, this will be a priority for my staff and me as we continue to develop a Facility Master Plan for the district. 

    Then we transitioned to the class of Ms. Gustafson, Doss' Teacher of the Year. Students there shared their good news of the day with me and we discussed efforts being made at the campus to support their No Place for Hate designation.

    From there we went to the gym where 5th graders were exercising their bodies and their team building skills. It's good to see the focus on health flows through every element of campus life. 

    Whether the students at Doss are exercising their bodies or their minds, it's clear the smaller world continually connects with the bigger world outside the walls of this innovative elementary school.




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    Perez Elementary School opened in 2005 but already has a long list of accomplishments to celebrate in its relatively short history. For one thing, it’s home to AISD’s Principal of the Year David Kauffman. Kauffman, who has 22 years of educational experience, led us on a tour of the school that highlighted its impressive offerings, including being one of nine of the district’s Two-Way Spanish Dual Language immersion programs.


    But first, I dropped in on Ms. St. Pierre’s pre-K class. Today is the first day of school for these four pre-k students, because the district staggers pre-K classes so that during the first week of school, four different students attend on each of the first three days. Then, all 12 students attend class together for the rest of the year.



    Vamos a la clase de Senoras Ramos’ and Ms. Reeves’ Two-way Dual Language Kindergarten class! Here, I had the chance to brush up on my Spanish with students by reading, “Mi Mundo Mis Colores.”



    AISD’s two-way dual language program supports “two language” groups of students to become bilingual, bicultural and biliterate—meaning an equal number of Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students would learn in both languages.


    I got to see the program in action again by sitting in on a third-grade dual language class led by Michelle Calzado and Maria Sebastián. It’s only the second day of classes, but already students were engaged in their class activities, working together and participating in the classroom discussion. Que bueno!



    The district’s SEL program was launched in 2011, and we have set a goal to implement the program at all AISD schools by the 2015-16 school year. This year, the Akins vertical team, which includes Perez, is implementing the program but the school got an early start with trainings last year. When we visited the fifth grade, Ms. Ruffino and Ms. DePizzo were immersed in an SEL lesson. We joined in.


    I talked with a student about empathy, and what their teacher may have felt on her first day of school. In groups of four, students participated in an exercise to agree on a name for their groups, based on their shared interests. How about the Ice Cream Puppies, the Blueberry Hushpuppies, and the milk chocolate puppies? 



    Next, It was time for a moment of Zen. On to the portable classrooms, which house second and third grades as well as the Communities in Schools classroom. When we stopped by, CIS staff Amara Nithbon and MariCarmen Gonzales were leading a calming group craft activity. Students who need extra support managing their emotions and energy are part of the CIS program to offer relaxation and calm during the school day.


    Finally, we had the pleasure of observing Perez Teacher of the Year Marcela Kourkova, a much-loved art teacher. It’s teachers like Marcela who inspire the love of learning and creative expression in our students. Thank you, Marcela, for your passion and commitment!


    Before leaving, I got a quick tour of the school’s expansive outdoor nature trail. The trail is part of Principal Kauffman and his staff’s work to develop outdoor educational opportunities for their students—work that was recognized last year with the John F. Ahrns Award for Environmental Education.




    The campus is named in honor of Lance Corporal Nicholas S. Perez, who grew up in Austin, attended AISD schools and, ultimately, gave his life in service to our country. Like its namesake, Perez Elementary strives to be a supportive learning community with a focus on service—in addition to providing students with powerful instruction in our district’s core curriculum.


    All around, it was a great visit. Thank you Perez Pythons! 


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    Miss Nelson is Back! That’s the name of the book that Ms. Briceño’s third grade students at Rodriguez Elementary selected for me to read, and you can see how much they loved the story! Miss Nelson is a favorite in this class!


    This year in AISD, our focus will be on expanding literacy for all students. And today, I had the chance to encourage students at Rodriguez Elementary School to experience the joy of reading. Before the school year started, I had the opportunity to meet with the school staff, and they were so committed and enthusiastic, I was glad to return to the school to meet the students, too.
    The Rodriguez colors are purple, gray, and white, and students here were these colors as part of the school’s standardized dress code. The school colors are displayed throughout the halls, too!

    When I dropped in on Mr. Mosier’s fifth grade class, it was time for learning about decimals. The class was studying decimals in two places, like 34.2, but when I wrote a much longer number on the board, they showed they were up to the task. Within just a minute or so, they read this number: 843152069.444.  What a bright group!



    Thanks for having us today, Roadrunners. And for sharing your delicious PB&J sandwiches (goo gobs on peanut butter with a huge scoop of jelly inside) with our crew. Rodriguez sure is sweet!

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