The Liberal Arts and Science Academy magnet school, known as LASA, is the top-performing high school in Austin ISD, but it's uniquely situated. It occupies the second floor of LBJ High School, a neighborhood school in Northeast Austin, and enrolls students from all over the district.
As AISD looks at the future of its schools and facilities, some families, especially those in Southwest Austin, are pushing for the district to move the school to a more central location – a suggestion that's sparked debate over academic access.
Melanie Haupt moved to Northeast Austin shortly after the district turned LASA into its own high school in 2007. Now, she has two children, one in middle school and another in elementary school. She says she doesn’t want to send her kids to either of the neighborhood high schools. As Haupt sees it, the district has a history of inequity when it comes to doling out resources.
“I don’t see AISD putting the same resources into Reagan and LBJ that I see them putting into other campuses," Haupt says, sitting in her living room. "There’s a lot of sort of historic and systemic damage that has to be undone, and you can’t flip a switch and undo it.”
LASA was supposed to be a way to undo some of that damage. The district introduced two magnet programs in the 1980s to increase diversity through advanced academics. One magnet was at Eastside Memorial High School and the other was at LBJ.
Despite desegregation efforts, like the use of busing, Austin public schools were starting to re-segregate racially, and the magnet programs never really worked as intended. Eventually, the district combined the two magnets into one at LBJ – two schools on one campus.
“If diversity was the end game, or desegregation was the end game, in terms of putting LASA on the LBJ campus, I don’t think that that mission was quite accomplished," Haupt says. "It’s obviously a very segregated campus, or two campuses, and there’s not a lot of integration apart from in the stands at the football games with the band and football team.”
Now, the Austin School Board is considering a proposal to separate the two campuses and move LASA to a more central location.
Members of the LASA community support the move and argue the school doesn’t fit on the LBJ campus anymore.
“It’s a school that pulls from all the different areas in the city," says LASA parent Stephanie Jarnigan. "Right now, they’re limited in the number of students they can take, but if they had a larger space they can take a lot more students."
During the 2014-15 school year, 40 percent of students who attended LASA lived in Southwest Austin, in the Bowie and Austin High School attendance zones. Another 30 percent came from the McCallum and Anderson High School attendance zones in Northwest Austin. That same year, 1.6 percent of LASA students enrolled came from the LBJ attendance zone.
While some members of the LASA community view a move as necessary to improve and expand LASA, some East Austin residents see the conversation as another chapter in the debate over access to one of the most prestigious schools in the district.
For years, the school has been dogged by criticism that student demographics at LASA don’t reflect district-wide student demographics, and that students of color and economically disadvantaged students are underrepresented.
Last year, 55 percent of students at LASA were white, whereas about two-thirds of Austin public school students are students of color. Eight percent of LASA students were considered economically disadvantaged, compared to 57 percent of students district-wide.
This year, the district is changing its magnet admissions requirement and will admit 20 percent of students to LASA using a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The rest of students will be considered based on previous admissions criteria, which focus primarily on academics.
Earlier this month, the Facility and Bond Planning Advisory Committee (FABPAC) recommended moving LASA to a new location, possibly the old Anderson High School in East Austin. The proposal is part of a larger set of recommendations for the district’s buildings called the Facility Master Plan. FABPAC members cited concerns from parents about a lack of space for the school to grow.
Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents the area where LASA and LBJ are located, says the request to separate the schools signals something bigger: a disconnect between the district's advisory groups and parents.
“It is an unprecedented failure in terms of the ability of different kind of factors and sectors in our community here in Austin to be able to get along. It’s really a shame what’s been allowed to happen there. The visuals and animosities between [campus advisory councils] and the adults there is pathetic," he says.
Campus advisory councils are groups of parents, principals and community members who advise and review campus improvement plans, the budget and student performance district-wide. LASA's and LBJ's advisory councils tend to work aside one another, with focus on their individual school, rather than in collaboration.
Gordon wants AISD to keep LBJ and LASA together and to build more space on the current location.
"What we do when we move LASA out of LBJ is to admit defeat," he says. "Sometimes you have to admit defeat and you have to find some other way to do things. But is this the model for the way we do diversity, we do social justice, and we do desegregation in this district? It’s a really poor one.”
The facilities committee told the school board it recognized that tension and that there were a lot of difficult conversations about the campus. It still decided to recommend moving LASA, partially because of its relatively remote location.
“If we can get more central, we reach, be more easily reached by more students which is more equitable for everybody," says Ann Phipps, a parent on the LASA Campus Advisory Council. "Right now, students who live in the southwest part of our district have about a 25-mile, one-way commute which, in the time since LASA became its own school, the traffic has only gotten worse.”
Parents attended the Austin School Board meeting this month to voice similar concerns.
Moving the school is a concern for many Northeast Austin residents. While geographic access is the equity issue for South Austin parents, academic equity is the focus for others: the issue of how the district serves the traditionally underserved neighborhood in which LASA now resides.
“We need to have the courage and political will to say all students should have access to these programs in their neighborhoods and that would, to my mind, remove the transportation piece from the question," Haupt says.
She says she understands the commute is hard for some families, but, she says, driving around Austin is tough for everyone and these families made the choice to send their children to LASA.
“But the kids who live over by LBJ or what have you, they didn’t have the choice. They don’t have that choice to make, and they didn’t have infrastructure in their neighborhood schools to set them up to even meet the requirements to get into LASA," Haupt says. "I don’t think that it necessarily needs to be a class war, but I do think people need to examine their privilege. Think of the greater good, think of the village and not just your own discomfort in your air-conditioned car as you drive across town.”
Haupt belongs to the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association. Recently, the association passed a resolution asking Austin ISD not to move LASA from the LBJ campus. The Mueller Neighborhood Association passed a similar resolution.
"Since founding the Science Academy at the LBJ campus in 1985, the evolved Liberal Arts and Science Academy at LBJ represents AISD’s most concerted effort to socioeconomically integrate a high school," the Mueller resolution reads. "We ask that every effort be made to maintain the LASA program on the LBJ campus, including expansion of space. However, if LASA is separated from the LBJ campus, we ask that every effort be made to increase access to LASA’s programming to students of the LBJ and Eastside vertical teams through explicitly enhanced admission criteria.”
The Austin School Board has recently made efforts to desegregate schools focusing on Northeast Austin, even including integration as a goal in Superintendent Paul Cruz's evaluation next year. If the board votes to move LASA out of LBJ, or out of District 1, its unclear how those efforts might be affected.
Meanwhile, the next round of public hearings on the facilities plan started this week and goes through early March. The school board is scheduled to vote on the plan by the end of March.