Angela Bigham is a mother of two students, a 12-year-old who attends O’Henry Middle School and a teen at Austin High. She spoke with Cheryl Bradley, who is a board trustee of Austin Independent School District 1. They chatted at AISD’s second annual African American Parental Involvement Conference, which was held today at LBJ High School in East Austin. Breakout sessions informed parents about grade-level reading, attendance and discipline, parental involvement, testing, special education (including gifted and talented programs), and college preparation and career readiness.
Bigham transferred her children from her district in Northeast Austin to Central Austin’s Pease Elementary School years ago. They’ve continued through the tracks to central Austin middle and high school. Bigham found transfering to be the best available option for her kids at the time, when they left Hope Lutheran due to rising costs. They wanted the small classes and specialized attention of private school and found that at Pease.
“Pease is where they learned music, and they are still reaping the benefits of that school,” says Bigham, who drives the kids to their schools each day on her way to work downtown. Both children play multiple instruments in their school bands.
The problem with looking outside of their neighborhood for education has its obvious drawbacks: the kids’ school life takes them out of their immediate community.
“African Americans are not well represented in their schools, but I had to choose between that and a good education,” Bingham says. “But they are involved in the community through church and the gardening programs I help start at local schools. I teach them to give back.”
Bingham will be introducing gardening to the East side’s Texas Preparatory School next year. She wants to work with the Sustainable Food Center to teach kids about cooking the food they grow. In the meantime, she’s looking for options to offer her kids where they are now.
“I’m at this conference to learn how to represent my son because we have no idea where to begin for college,” Bigham says, noting that he is near the top 25 percent of his class, is in the marching band, and is a junior on the Varsity track team. Her son has some challenges with his classes, and she wants to know how to take her daughter to a higher reading level.
“Sometimes their schools will say they have to use Tough Love on them, or that I can’t expect ‘leaps and bounds,’ but I want to learn how to offer them more,” she says.
The conference highlighted options for parents like Bigham, including new school choices and empowering them with information about succeeding where they are. The two new school options are the all-girls School for Young Women at James E. Pearce Middle School and the all-boys School for Young Men at Gus Garcia Middle School.
Ivette Savina will lead the girls school and Sterlin McGruder will lead the boys. The two hosted a lunch meet-and-greet at the conference, where a table displayed the uniform options for students, along with a video screen scrolling the schools’ visions and information about their Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs.
“My biggest goal is to improve writing, reading and social skills,” said McGruder, who moved to Austin with his wife, who is in medical school, for the position after leading a similar program in Grand Prairie.
Last year, Grand Prairie converted two schools that historically underperformed according to state academic measures, into an all-boys school and an all-girls school. McGruder led 1100 boys at the Young Men’s Learning Academy at John F. Kennedy Middle School. Garza’s program will begin with an enrollment around 500 students.
“By the end of the year, we took the low performance to meeting all Texas state ratings,” says McGruder. “We excelled in sports as well; I know sports can also be important to students, and we were undefeated in track. We were city champs in football and second place in basketball.”
McGruder says his experience in Grand Prairie reveals that in a single-sex environment, students are able to focus on learning about leadership.
Where you come from does not determine where you are going.
“As an all-boys school, we can have conversations about being men, where the students can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking in a co-ed environment, and the same for the girls school as well,” said McGruder.
The conference’s keynote speaker was author and consultant Michael Wynn, who was born in rural Alabama and experienced poverty as a child. He advocates that, “Where you come from does not determine where you are going.” Wynn is the CEO of the Foundation for Ensuring Accessibility and Equity, a Georgia-based non-profit trying to help young people access college.
Concerned women filled the disciplinary and attendance breakout session, where AISD intervention specialists answered questions and provided resources in response to questions about the appropriate age for testing children for mental health issues, who can help a child threatened with court for tardies accumulating into excessive absences when the parent is struggling to get the child to school on time, how to find more academic options for a child who left private school due to unaddressed bullying.
Resource tables at the conference provided information about community events, social support services and the last planning meeting, which will be held Apr. 14, for the Colony Park Sustainable Community Initiative.
The City of Austin purchased 300 acres in East Austin between Colony Park and Lakeside near Overton Early College Prep School, and has been holding meetings to develop a “Master Plan” for developing the area into the Colony Park Sustainable Community. Based upon local input, the area could include a grocery store, banks, restaurants, medical facilities, parks, a pool and transit points. According to brochures, the city’s goal for the area is to provide neighborhood residents shorter commutes to jobs, stores and entertainment.