Rising Costs Push Out Brooke Elementary Families. Bees And Bunnies Bring Them Back.

Jan 11, 2018

When most school principals think about goals for the coming year, academics or maybe budgets usually top the list.

But Griselda Galindo-Vargas, the principal at Brooke Elementary, hopes for something else.

"We’re hoping that a new queen bee will come and find it," she said, referring to the beehives on campus. "And then it will bring another hive."

Brooke Elementary Principal Griselda Galindo-Vargas says one of the school's main themes is sustainablity.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

At this school in the Govalle neighborhood, students help tend to the bees (with safety suits) and harvest the honey. When Vargas started at Brooke five years ago, she wanted students to have unique experiences.

"We have classic ballet; we have acoustic guitar," she said. "We have everything that we have to do with our main theme of sustainability after school. So, we have the beekeeping, the gardening, the butterfly garden club.”

The students' favorite part of the school is the animals. In addition to the bees, there are a few chickens and rabbits they are allowed to play with during recess. Vargas said it's a fun thing to incorporate into curriculum, but also helps the kids emotionally. 

"Being a high-poverty school, we have a lot of children with trauma and a lot of anxiety," she said. "So it really helps to have animals."

There are also dozens of garden beds throughout the property, and each class has a bed. The students plant, tend and harvest their produce.

Francesca Holbrook harvests kale with her fifth-grade students, Olivia, Desmond, Trystan, Lizbeth and Katherine.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

On this day, Francesca Holbrook’s fifth-graders are harvesting kale.

"We planted this earlier in the fall, and they’ve been coming out and watering it during their recess time and just checking on the produce," Holbrook said. "So we were ready to harvest and it should be in the cafeteria maybe tomorrow or the next day."

It’s things like this that make parents love sending their kids to Brooke. But despite her efforts, Principal Vargas said every year enrollment drops.

"Every year we lose 30 to 50 kiddos," she said. 

Brooke, like many schools in East Austin, is seeing enrollment decline as the high cost of living pushes families to move outside city limits.

An Early Start To Make The Bell

But even though families are being forced out of the Govalle neighborhood, many are commuting to bring their children to Brooke. Regardless of where they live, they can’t imagine sending their kids anywhere else. Almost a fifth of the school’s students are transfers.

With four kids – two school-aged – Ruth Tovar is used to having hectic mornings getting everyone out the door. Ever since she and her husband moved the family last fall, mornings are starting earlier.

"Their friends don’t get up until 6:30," Tovar said. "They’re up by 5:30, and by 6:30 we’re in the truck already."

Ruth Tovar helps her son, David, with his shoes, as her daughter Sarah watches.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Their new house is 6 miles south of the airport, in the Del Valle School District. But Tovar wanted to keep her third-grader, Miriam, at Brooke.

By 6:30, her two oldest put their backpacks in the truck and help their mom get their younger siblings into car seats. All four kids and Tovar pile into the truck and start the 30-40 minute commute back to their old neighborhood.

The Tovar family tries to get out of the house by 6:30 in order to bring Miriam to Brooke Elementary.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

Tovar works near Brooke, which makes it easier to justify the commute every day. But she also sees how Miriam is thriving at the school, especially with the extracurricular activities.

"I really believe in what they call the 'whole child education,'" she said.

Tovar said she is proud to send her kids to Austin ISD schools. She graduated from Johnston High School, now Eastside Memorial, and plans to send her oldest son there. Her parents still live in the neighborhood where Brooke is, but she sees how fast it's changing.

"Everybody around them is selling," she said. "They can’t afford to live there because of the taxes."

When she drops off her 13-year-old at Kealing Middle School, that change is visible.  

"Look at that, a Lexus on the East side," she said. 

A Pitch For Marketing

With enrollment continuing to drop, Tovar worries about Brooke's future. It’s financially difficult for the district to keep a school open if it’s only half full, and it’s clear new students aren’t coming from the neighborhood. The district is considering consolidating schools in the area if enrollment doesn’t improve.

Tovar wants to see the district ramp up its marketing efforts for the school.

"It’s [the district's] job; it’s not mine," she said. "I don't mind recruiting. I don't mind telling people about how great Brooke is, but why don’t you dedicate some money?"