Education
2:18 pm
Mon November 4, 2013

New School Offers Some Relief, But Doesn't Solve Overcrowding Problems in Austin

The brand new Janis Guerrero Thompson Elementary School is more than 78,000 square feet with 32 classrooms. Inside, the walls are painted bright orange and purple, and the floor is covered with colorful tiles. On Sunday, more than a hundred people came to dedicate the school to the late district employee and tour the new campus, which looks to mitigate overcrowding in Austin schools.

“Everyone’s been so excited. We’ve been working toward dedication and now it’s official, like we’ve been announced as a school," says Principal LaKesha Drinks.

Voters approved the money to build the school nearly ten years ago, but it took time to find a large enough plot of land. The neighborhood is very densely populated, with many residents living in apartments and duplexes.  It’s also one of the last affordable neighborhoods in Austin with a very diverse population. School Board President Vincent Torres says this was the last space in the neighborhood.

“Most of the areas are already fully developed so there’s very few parcels large enough for an elementary school," say Torres.

Next year, a second elementary school will open in the same neighborhood. But instead of buying land and building a new school, the district is renovating an old lighting factory building.

“I think this is a place for innovation. Whereas some parents might not want to send their kids to school in an old lighting factory, that’s what we’re doing here and we make it extremely attractive, healthy and safe. And we also revitalize the neighborhood when we do that," says School Board Trustee Ann Teich, who represents the North Central neighborhood.

With about 670 students enrolling at Guerrero Thompson Elementary this year, Drinks says she’s had to hire three new teachers to keep class sizes small. But she says the school has helped relieve overcrowding at nearby elementary schools , including McBee Elementary.

“The fewer students you have, the more attention that you can give each student which is ideal in education. So I’m pretty sure it’s helped them out a great deal," Drinks says.

McBee Elementary's principal would not agree to an interview with KUT and AISD did not provide current enrollment numbers by KUT’s deadline.  But Guerrero Thompson parent Eduardo Pachecko says he’s sees a difference between his daughter’s previous school—Walnut Creek—and this new campus.

“It was very crowded. You could tell In the mornings when you arrive there’s plenty of people walking in the hallways. So this is a great school, it’s better, it’s nearby the house," Pachecko says.

Last year, Walnut Creek Elementary was over capacity by 127 students. While School Board President Torres celebrates the opening of the two elementary schools now, he says challenges lie ahead for the North Central neighborhood.

“We're kind of caught up at the elementary school level. The problem is that wave will move into middle and high school and will start to see some challenges there," Torres says.

Without bond money, the district’s hands are tied. In May, voters rejected a bond proposition to borrow money to open three new schools citywide. That leaves three unpopular options: more portables, boundary changes, transfer policies. Torres says he expects that conversation to begin in the spring. 

In the meantime, the district continues to develop a Facility Master Plan to guide future decisions on new and existing schools.