Over the past decade, Austin has developed an international reputation for educational innovation, offering a remarkably diverse array of choices. Some of the most exciting of these options happen to be on the east side. We have public, charter, and private programs that offer learning environments ranging from “micro-schools” of a dozen kids to sprawling high schools with enrollment in the thousands. Families can find their best fit at schools that approach education in ways that range from traditional to cutting-edge to downright revolutionary.
Words by Teri Sperry, Educational Consultant, Alt Ed Austin Photo by Eric Morales
How can thoughtful but busy parents sort through all the options, narrow them down, and confidently enroll their kids in a place where they will truly thrive?
That’s the question that ultimately led me to create Alt Ed Austin, an educational consulting service and online resource center for parents feeling overwhelmed by the important decisions around their children’s schooling. I work with families throughout the Austin area, but as someone who both lives and works in the Holly neighborhood, I’m happiest when I can help people feel at home in east side schools.
When parents come to me for guidance, they first fill out an in-depth questionnaire about their family’s educational values, priorities, and goals; their children’s needs and interests; and other factors that are important in choosing schools. Then we meet to discuss all the issues and options. They walk away with a short list of recommended programs to visit and some tips for making the most of those visits.
Most people have no idea how much schools have changed since they were students or how vastly certain models differ from one another. It can be an eye-opening experience (and a great family discussion starter) to tour a few different kinds of schools, attend open houses, and talk with educators and school community members. In this era of school choice, when you have alternatives even within AISD, there’s no reason not to visit and compare. And if you want to get a feel for what a school is really like, consider volunteering in a classroom or joining a Campus Advisory Council as a community representative, even if your child is still years away from kindergarten. It’s never too soon to start researching.
But where to begin?
Unless parents already know that they’re looking for a specific type of school (Montessori, for example), I usually advise them to start with their neighborhood public schools. Although it won’t work well for everyone, the school you’re zoned for offers some real advantages. First and most obvious, it’s free! Enough said. There’s also the ease of getting there. Often students can walk or bike to their nearby school or get there on the school bus. An often-overlooked benefit is the community of neighbors. Knowing that your child is likely to make friends with classmates who live within a few blocks of your home and that you won’t have to drive across town to birthday parties can be very freeing.
If you don’t find the right fit for your kid in your immediate neighborhood, you might be eligible to transfer to another public school in the area. While it’s true that some of AISD’s east side schools have struggled, often due to underfunding, many of them offer excellent and innovative programs. At the elementary level, Blackshear’s recently established Fine Arts Academy is a great example, and it’s open to transfers. The magnet program at Kealing Middle School is known as one of the finest (and most competitive) in the country, as is the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) at LBJ High. Teenagers have the opportunity to earn free college credit and even a full associate’s degree through ACC’s Early College High School programs at both LBJ and Reagan High.
Charter schools, which receive funds from the state but usually not from the local school district, are abundant in east Austin. Privately run, with charters that give them more flexibility than regular public schools, they are all different in philosophy, practices, and overall “feel.” Some are part of regional or national networks, like KIPP Austin Public Schools and Austin Can Academy (profiled in EASTside Magazine’s summer issue). Popular homegrown charter schools on the east side include Austin Discovery School, Magnolia Montessori for All, and the University of Texas Elementary School.
For those who are looking for more radically different learning environments and freedom from standardized testing, and have room in their budgets for tuition, a number of private schools have opened up on the east side in recent years.
Radicle Roots, a “micro-school” on East MLK, is inspired by the well-known Albany Free School in New York and incorporates place-based education, where students learn deeply through experiencing their community’s ecology, history, arts, and culture. A few blocks away, Acton Academy teaches young people to be entrepreneurs and to forge their own “hero’s journey.” And at the democratic Clearview Sudbury School just south of the Mueller neighborhood, students of all ages take responsibility for their own education, resolve conflicts by participating in the school’s judicial system, and vote about major school policies on an equal footing with adult staff members. While very different from one another, all of these programs, to varying degrees, let individual students’ interests drive the learning process.
As someone who observes schools all over the metro area, this is a great time to raise and educate children in our community. With so many creative, dedicated educators joining forces with those who’ve been here fighting for educational quality and equality for decades, chances are better than ever that families will find the happy, healthy learning environments their east side kids deserve.
Things to Look for When Visiting a School
- Enthusiastic teachers
- Principal interaction with students/parents/teachers
- Cheerful, inviting classrooms
- Appropriate grade-level activities
- Display of student work
- Clean facilities & property
- Well-equipped gym/playground
- Convenient location
- Philosophy of school
- Parent involvement
- School communication
- Extracurricular activities
- Art/music rooms
Contact: If you’re interested in learning more about schools in east Austin and beyond, visit altedaustin.com to set up a consultation or take advantage of our free online resources.