From closing schools to opening hearts and minds

By Dr. Stephanie Hawley, Interim Chief Equity Officer, Austin Independent School District

To honor and uplift diverse voices, the Charles Butt Foundation is inviting guest blog authors to share their perspective on public education throughout the year. The opinions and views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Charles Butt Foundation.

One of my greatest joys as the chief equity officer at Austin Independent School District is listening and learning from our students, colleagues, caregivers and community members. I hear a lot about our district—what they love, what they’re proud of, and certainly what our challenges and problems are—and, they often have great solutions.

In the fall of 2019 when I left higher education to serve in this role, I knew I was walking into a controversial initiative called “school changes,” which at its core was about closing 12 schools. At Central Office, we had done the calculations, and we determined it was too costly to continue maintaining old, dilapidated buildings. School changes included several proposals about academic programs, but it was immersed in urban power dynamics, politics, the district’s racial and racist history, and the usual business interests. Sadly, it was clear that decisions had been made without the community and with a financial and business focus. And worse, we didn’t entertain any proposals from the communities. The decision had been made.

As you might imagine, many caregivers and alumni from those school communities wanted to tell the brand-new equity officer about how this top-down decision was opening old wounds of mistrust from the closing of the Black high school decades ago to crosstown busing to the persistent underfunding of Spanish language programs for emergent bilingual students. Listening and learning from people whose schools were on the closure list– the people with the least amount of power in this situation– became my highest priority.

Community voices

Dozens of people from diverse backgrounds talked to me over several weeks— many with very powerful stories.  But it was a conversation with one bright eyed Black girl that changed my heart and mind about how I needed to do my work over the next few weeks. Teresa was a typical high-energy third grader with a contagious giggle. She had two fluffy afro puffs that bounced when she twirled and skipped. Her mother, who was a teacher, had arranged for her to give me a building tour after school. Teresa pointed to her art on the wall, showed me the cafeteria, the library, and the huge, brightly-colored mural in front of the school.

We ended the tour in the courtyard to meet the bunnies. She told me that when students were having a bad day, they could come and pet the bunnies until they felt better. I asked Teresa if there was anything else she wanted to show me or tell me before I left. She said, “I don’t want YOU to close our school.”  I was trying not to take it personally. Teresa didn’t know I had only been in the district a few weeks, and I didn’t have the power to close or not close her school. I also didn’t want to pretend I didn’t know her school was on the list of 12. I asked if her school were to close, what would she miss most. She said, “Everybody and everything.” And she started listing her teachers’ and friends’ names, the custodian, the cafeteria worker and the librarian. And it was then I learned Teresa was in foster care. She’d been with three different families, but they always made sure she made it back to this school. When she finished, I thanked her. She gave me a hug and that’s the last time I ever saw Teresa.

I was inspired then, and I’m still inspired to help our district leaders look through an authentic equity lens at the displacement and harm we can cause to the same vulnerable students and communities.

Educating a village

I knew relationship and coalition building and educating leaders and staff were crucial. How could those of us who knew there were better ways to make decisions change hearts and minds before the Board of Trustees voted on school changes in just a few weeks?

Fortunately, we had a Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness office, led at that time by Dr. Angela Ward. We partnered to facilitate conversations, workshops and exhibits about the district’s racial history. Our many learning experiences were well-received by our staff and senior leaders. One chief officer began co-facilitating workshops with me because she was inspired by a new way of leading and disrupting racism and inequitable practices. A small number of us introduced more than 300 staff and colleagues to the basic principles and practices of equity and inclusiveness in just a few weeks.

Despite all the relationship and coalition building, all the workshops, and all the new learning, the board voted to close Teresa’s school and three others anyway.

In less than a year, Teresa’s school community was scattered across Central Texas.  Our district lost students; we lost teachers; we lost families to surrounding charter schools; and we lost any remaining trust the school communities once had for us as a school district.

Beginning again… with equity first

As district leaders, we were divided by fear, power and politics. We were clearly aware of the pain and damage we were inflicting on our most vulnerable and underserved communities. Some saw school closures as the one and only solution to a financial problem. Others knew there was a better way and different ways to balance the books and resist the political pressure to close schools.

As we were wrestling and reflecting about the way forward, a global pandemic came through and scattered us all. And just like Teresa’s school community, we would never be together again. We lost many of our senior leaders and mid-level administrators who were in the middle of a powerful equity journey—both individually and collectively.

I wondered, “So how do we get equity from here?”

I returned to a model I had been working on for years at Austin Community College—Equity by Design for Education and Nonprofits™. It’s an ever-evolving model, but it has worked for several higher education academic departments and nonprofit organizations around the state. At its core, Equity by Design for Education and Nonprofits is an approach to transforming the ways organizations communicate and make high impact decisions with the least well served people. It requires mature, humble, transparent, and vulnerable leadership. Work is done with a win-win proposition. We work with marginalized communities to center their strengths, their wisdom, their needs and their lived experiences to inform decision-making and high-impact changes.

Winning, losing, and winning

And this is just what we did with our communities and staff throughout the isolation, quarantining, and social distancing of the pandemic. Staff in multiple departments, from communications to operations, used Equity by Design for Austin ISD to develop our first-ever community informed 25-year long-range plan. Over 18 months, we engaged our diverse communities as best as we could. Together, with the community, we toured neglected buildings, interviewed thousands of families and staff and wrestled with the data. It was not a perfect process. We argued, misunderstood one another, forgave one another, designed decision-making tools together and kept things moving. We did lose staff to other districts and to other industries. And we also lost some community members who lost patience or trust in us or the process, and we lost some who just needed to get back to their real lives.

In the summer of 2022, part of the way  through the long-range  planning process, we proposed an historic win-win– $2.44 billion bond package and we proposed that more than 80% of those funds be invested in the very school communities we had sought to close in 2019. Every school — regardless of the socioeconomic level of their families—is receiving funds for enhanced safety and security. And the business community will benefit as they repair and renovate buildings in neighborhoods we have failed to invest in for decades. Seventy-three percent of voters demonstrated their “belief in” (not just buy-in) our ability to take action to address persistent issues.

It mattered to many people how we got to equity– it wasn’t charity, pity, reparations, or taking from affluent communities to give to low-income communities. We did the analyses with the community. We also heard about the lived experiences of our teachers in the schools, who became the biggest advocates for the bond.

Equity by Design for Austin ISD is not magic, and it certainly cannot remedy past injury by our district, but it is a first step on the path towards redemption and justice as we reclaim our values—an authentic commitment to making sure all students get what they need to be academically successful and to feel safe in their learning environments. Together, we moved from closing schools to opening hearts and minds. Most importantly, Equity by Design for Austin ISD is helping us put children like Teresa at the center of all our decision-making– beyond the 25-year long-range plan and beyond the 2022 bond.