COVID, student success top themes at State of the District

Dr. Elizalde and Evan Smith

By Jack Orloff

Superintendent Stephenie Elizalde spoke to how Austin ISD continues to deal with keeping children, staff, and their families safe more than a year and a half into the pandemic.

The State of The District interview was conducted by Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, who asked questions ranging from masks to student outcomes and enrollment.

"I'm looking forward to a day where I can actually say I am a superintendent when there is not a pandemic,'' Elizalde said. "That day is yet to come during the amount of time that I have been the superintendent at Austin ISD."

The conversations began with how Austin ISD made the decision to mandate masks at the beginning of the school year.

"While our community may not have all been in agreement, I think the uniqueness of Austin Independent School District is the ability to wade through disagreements and then come together to support something that you may not be in agreement with, but you recognize is in the best interest of the organization," Elizalde said.

Austin ISD has the lowest case rate per one thousand students in Central Texas, and that success is attributed to putting a mask policy in place contrary to state leadership.

The district's success in keeping the number of cases down not only comes from masks but from building relationships with the community, Elizalde said.

"We brought data forward along with the relationships and did surveying before making the decisions” she said. “Something that was vital in our process is that we made the decision prior to the first day of school. This allowed community members to talk among themselves and have conversations."

The topic shifted to student outcomes and drops in reading and math scores from state assessments. Test scores showed that third grade reading in the last two years is down about 8%, and third-grade math skills are down by about half.

When Elizalde was asked if this is attributed to the pandemic, she said yes, but other issues affect these outcomes.

"The pandemic absolutely has had a huge effect but is not the only effect,” she said. “You see that as you disaggregate the data further than at the all student level.”

Elizalde also said she rejected the concept of learning loss, saying students did learn key facts and skills during the pandemic, it just wasn’t always part of a set curriculum.

“To say that there was loss, I, personally, think is offensive, because there was a lot of learning going on,” she said. “Now it’s incumbent upon us to take those real-life learnings and actually translate them into academic successes.”

The conversation shifted again, this time to the topic of enrollment and how Austin ISD’s has declined even preceding the pandemic.

"This is a very complex situation, and there are multiple factors that have been having this effect on our enrollment," she said. 

Gentrification has had an effect as Austin ISD has seen a drop in the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged, she said. 

“That tells us there are quite a few kiddos whose families [...] are being pushed out of the city,” she said. “They can’t afford to live in the areas they formerly lived in either because of rent, because of housing prices, or because of taxes in our area.” 

Elizalde also said that charter schools play a big part in the loss in enrollment.

"We have to dig down and pick up the mirror because parents are choosing what they think is most important for their children,” she said. “That means there is something in some of our schools that we are doing or that is not perceived well."

Elizalde said “that’s not the complete story,” and that charters benefit from different funding and accountability measures. 

At the end of the interview, Elizalde was asked how she would know if she was successful this year.

"Student academic outcomes have to improve for me to say that I have been successful," she said. "We have to recognize why we exist[...] We exist to ensure a level playing field such that every student who chooses to go to college and do any post-secondary work has the skills and the will to do that."

Watch the State of The District interview with Superintendent Elizalde on our Facebook page.