Ideas and Politics Exchanged at Texas Tribune Festival

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The fifth annual Texas Tribune Festival took place on the University of Texas campus last weekend, bringing with it hundreds of lawmakers, policy experts, and civically-minded Texans for in-depth conversations and panels about issues facing our state. KLRU’s Public Affairs team attended the Fest, and while we wish we could have cloned ourselves and seen even more, there are a few panels we keep thinking about almost a week later.

How to Turn a School Around

After spending January-August reporting on Eastside Memorial High School’s struggles to make state accountability, we knew we couldn’t miss this panel. Austin ISD Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz spoke, along with Donna Bahorich, Chairwoman of the SBOE, David Anthony of Raise Your Hand Texas, Superintendent Juan Cabrera of El Paso ISD, and Steven Tallant of Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

When asked how AISD turned Eastside around after more than a decade of failing scores, Dr. Cruz explained the process was complex because of the low-income community the school serves.

“It was a very methodical process,” Dr. Cruz said, explaining that TEA gave Eastside and AISD more time than usual in the reconstitution plan. Cruz stressed the importance of understanding the home lives of at-risk students, and the need for a “community schools approach.”

An audience member who serves on a school board in another Texas district asked Dr. Cruz if AISD would be releasing a white paper about the methods used at Eastside. Dr. Cruz said yes, a report will be compiled so other districts can see what worked.

One-on-One with Nancy Pelosi

Another high point for us during the Texas Tribune Festival was the National Keynote with U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi sat down with Tribune Washington Bureau Chief Abby Livingston in front of a packed audience in Hogg Memorial Auditorium.

Seemingly no topic was off limits – Pelosi discussed the House Speaker race, Hillary Clinton’s run for office, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, immigration reform, gun control, and even Ann Richards.

Pelosi said she is confident Democrats will regain control of the U.S. House by 2018, though she was noncommittal when asked if she would hold the Speaker’s gavel again. “I think the Democrats can have the gavel in 18 months,” she said.

When asked how to ensure more women run for office and are elected, Pelosi blamed campaign finance. Repeatedly during her keynote conversation she stressed the need to limit the amount of money that can be contributed to campaigns and Super PACs. She said if the money could be reigned in, more women and more minorities would run for office and be successful getting elected.

You can see video from Leader Pelosi’s conversation in the video below, courtesy of The Texas Tribune. All of the keynote events were recorded and can be seen here.  

Austin’s Eastern Frontier: A new digital reporting project

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Everyone knows Austin is growing, and we do a lot of reporting at KLRU about that growth – who is being impacted, how is the city prepared to handle new residents, where are the new residents coming from? For the last few months we partnered with KUT 90.5, Austin’s NPR Station, and the Austin Monitor, to report on how Austin’s growth is seeping into a small, nearby city: Manor, Texas.

Today, we unveil a new digital reporting project called Austin’s Eastern Frontier. KLRU, KUT, and the Monitor sent reporters to Manor to find out how their population boom is changing life for the residents there.

The population of the city of Manor has grown more than 500% in the past decade. Like many suburbs in Central Texas, many of the newcomers moved from Austin — pushed out by rising housing costs. Some of them are very low income, some are middle income or former renters who are looking to trade a rent payment for a mortgage.

Mouths to Feed

KLRU’s first story is about The Bannockburn Baptist Church in Manor. They opened a food pantry a few years ago and in the last year and a half, have seen demand spike. Once a week they offer free vegetables, meats, cereal – you name it – free of charge to anyone. Clients get to stroll the aisles and pick out what they like. “All it takes is to have a hungry belly and come in and fill out a couple forms, and you’re good,” Pastor Luis Holguin says.

Longer Arm of the Law

As Manor grows, so does the city’s police force. In the past year Manor PD has added 8 new officers. Most of the calls come from one place: Walmart. But, as the once-small town deals with city problems like traffic and crime, Manorites say it’s not the “rough little town” it once was.

On the Market

Pete Dwyer has been buying up pieces of Manor since the 1990s. He’s watched the land become more valuable and has sold pieces of it to home developers and builders. In recent years he donated some of his land to Manor ISD, which has seen a 92% increase in students in the past decade. The first school built on his land, ShadowGlen Elementary, opened in August 2015. The second elementary school built on his land will open next summer.

We’ll be airing the KLRU stories during PBS NewsHour Weekend on Sunday October 11, Saturday October 17 and Sunday October 18. You can find the entire series by visiting austinseasternfrontier.org.

After Memorial Day Flood, BMX Park Almost Totally Rebuilt

The 9th Street BMX Park has been a community project since it was first built over 20 years ago.  What started as a single dirt jump constructed by local riders has grown into a whole series of jumps maintained entirely by volunteers.

“This was all flat, and there was one jump in the middle, that’s what we started with,” recalls Steven Tyler, one of the BMX riders to help construct the first jumps.  “You think, what happened, did these sprout out of the ground? No. That’s a lot of time spent digging out here, and a lot of credit needs to be given to a lot of people to have a place like this. People put a lot of work into a place like this.”

That group effort mentality is something Ty Bement instills in his students.  Bement teaches BMX lessons to those interested in taking up the sport.

“We talk about safety gear, how to push through jumps,” Bement says.  “Before we start any of that, we talk about how to use a broom and a water hose.”

The dirt jumps are constantly being torn down and reconstructed, but on Memorial Day, every jump was destroyed in a wall of water.

BMX Park Flooding

After Memorial Day, the 9th Street BMX Park was completely underwater. Photo courtesy Darren Drewitz.

“Everything was underwater. You could swim down here,” Bement recalls.  “That was a trail apocalypse for Austin.”

“It was racing through my mind, are they gonna rebuild it?” says Dakin Drewitz, a student of Bement’s. “Is it going to be the same as it used to be?”

 

After nearly four months and a lot of work by volunteers and community members, the answer is yes.  Most of the jumps have been reconstructed in the wake of May’s devastating flood, but this labor of love never quite wraps up.

“The dirt jumps are really never done,” Bement says. “They’re ongoing work.”

 

 

 

 

Minors playing in E minor: Juvenile Justice Center Residents Learn the Art of Classical Guitar

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This story was written by KLRU and PBS NewsHour intern Kennedy Huff. Kennedy is an alumna of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs program. Kennedy’s story aired during PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, September 8, 2015. You can see it in the video below.

Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center serves as a probation facility for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. While in detention, the residents continue working toward their high school diploma, get exposure to trades, and learn a variety of arts.

Five years ago, Gardner-Betts partnered with Austin Classical Guitar Society to teach classical guitar to residents, allowing them to earn a fine art credit necessary for graduation.

“It started with the recommendation from one of our members,” Director of Education and Outreach for Austin Classical Guitar, Travis Marcum, said. “He set up a meeting between us and Gardner-Betts. [He was] just thinking that these kids might have a specific need, that they’re not getting really any arts education while they’re incarcerated, so this might be a good fit for us.”

Guitar Instructor, Jeremy Osborne performs a concert piece with his students. Austin Classical Guitar works with Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center to teach classical guitar to residents. Photo by Kennedy Huff

Guitar Instructor, Jeremy Osborne performs a concert piece with his students. Austin Classical Guitar works with Gardner-Betts Juvenile Justice Center to teach classical guitar to residents. Photo by Kennedy Huff

Last winter, Jeremy Osborne began teaching the guitar class at Gardner-Betts. Osborne held many fears about handling the program, but one stood above the rest.

“When I took over I knew what to expect but [I had] a lot of trepidation actually,” Osborne said. “You know there’s a lock on every door, you have to memorize a handful of codes to get through all the different security blocks and everything and it’s really disorienting. Starting with this project brought out a lot of personal anxieties and fear. It wasn’t about getting attacked by a student, or whatever, it was literally like ‘I’m not gonna do a good job for these kids.’”

However, Osborne’s assumptions proved to be wrong. The students in the program think highly of him and are grateful for the class. Demetrius, Israel, and Peter have all been at Gardner-Betts for over a year.

“I’m 18, never thought I’d see the light, never thought I’d see the day that I’d be graduating,” Demetrius said.  “I really like the feeling, because everybody in my family graduated high school, went to college at least one year, maybe two, and dropped out, got locked up, or died. It showed me a different path. Instead of going down the wrong road I can go down the right one.”

“I used to actually have a real bad anger problem,” Israel said. “So when I would get real angry, or I could be like sad, I guess you could say, or withdrawn I get on my guitar. It’s just really given me something to do when I’m bored or thinking about something, I guess, that’s not in my best interest.”

Gardner-Betts resident, Peter, receives assistance from guitar instructor, Jeremy Osborne. Peter will continue playing guitar when he begins college in the fall.

Gardner-Betts resident, Peter, receives assistance from guitar instructor, Jeremy Osborne. Peter will continue playing guitar when he begins college in the fall. Photo by Kennedy Huff

Prior to joining the program, Peter was a high school dropout. With the help of Osborne, he is set to attend San Jacinto College this fall, in the pursuit of a music production degree.

“My mom is excited,” Peter said. “Usually if she heard something about me it was always bad and it feels good to have something good like graduating high school, learning how to play the guitar, going to school. Now every time she sees me she just smiles. I’m sure her cheeks hurt by now.”

A recent study from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University found that 75% of juveniles released from a juvenile probation facility in Texas are rearrested up to 5 years after their release. Jeremy Osborne hopes the skills students have learned in his class will keep them from reentering the criminal justice system.

“If you talk to a lot of the staff here they’ll say it’s pretty common that statistically a lot of these kids will re-offend and wind up back here,” Osborne said. “I would like to think that at least a handful of them can kinda keep [on a good] path when they get out of here. They always have a guitar there to come to when they’re stressed out. My ultimate hope for them is that they come out of here and don’t come back.”

KLRU News Brief: 10 Years After Katrina, Some Evacuees Remain in Austin

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, thousands of evacuees traveled to Texas. More than 7,000 came to Austin, where many slept in the Austin Convention Center. To mark 10 years since the storm KLRU spoke with 7 New Orleanians about their experiences during Hurricane Katrina and why they chose to stay in Austin to create a new life.

One of those individuals is Jese Webb. Jese stayed in New Orleans during the storm. He didn’t leave his home until he was forced to do so by rising water after the levees broke. He then spent up to 5 days in the New Orleans Convention Center. He arrived by plane to Austin and spent another 6 days at the Austin Convention Center. Now he’s a preacher and a hair stylist.

Aquita “Q” Gaddis-Gray was a young single mom when she drove out of New Orleans before the storm hit. She evacuated with her three year old daughter and a hundred dollars to her name. Now, she’s a cosmetologist, is married, and has 4 children. Q says she stayed in Austin to experience a different life than the one she had in New Orleans and 10 years later she calls herself blessed.

You can find all of our interviews marking the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina here.

News Briefs: Texas Tribune Report on New Laws Hitting the Books Sept. 1

Many of the laws passed during the recent legislative session go into effect September 1st. This weekend during PBS NewsHour, our partners at The Texas Tribune look at two of those new laws. The stories, reported by Multimedia Reporter Alana Rocha, are part of the Tribune’s 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

You may not have known that up until the passage of House Bill 104 it was illegal for professional hair stylists to do their work “on location,” outside of a traditional salon. The clients who usually ask for that type of service are brides on their wedding day.

“Some [wedding venues] have gone to the extreme, they’ve got great lit mirrors and multi-plugs every so many feet. That makes it easier for me to come and service their brides,” Lecia Harkins of Beauty on the Go says.

But even with all of those accommodations, Harkins and other beauticians and cosmetologists were actually breaking the law. House Bill 104, a bill by state Rep. James White, spells out in statute the ability for those professionals to beautify bridal parties wherever is convenient for them and work other special events.

Another new law is meant to prevent patients with health insurance from suffering sticker shock when the bill comes from a hospital visit. Senate Bill 481 minimizes the impact of so-called “balance billing” on policyholders.

Currently, if the balance bill patients get stuck with is below $1,000, they have to cover the cost. In most cases if a bill is over that amount doctors and insurers will negotiate a deal, if patients request mediation. Starting September 1st, that threshold will be lowered to $500.

The Texas Association of Business supported the new law, and the group hopes to eliminate balance billing all together next session.

“We think that for those who have insurance, the insurance company should be able to go to bat and negotiate a rate for the entire difference between the contracted rate and what the doctors are billing them for,” says Bill Hammond, President and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

Doctors’ groups worry that eliminating balance billing will force them to spend more time in mediation with insurers and less time with patients.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour Weekend, every Saturday and Sunday evening at 6:30pm. 

American Graduate: Eastside Memorial Makes State Accountability for First Time in Over a Decade

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Austin’s embattled Eastside Memorial High School has made state accountability for the first time since 2002. The Texas Education Agency published ratings for all campuses and districts in the state on Friday. Eastside has been under threat of closure since 2013. In order for the school to keep its doors open, administrators, teachers, staff, and students have worked to resuscitate failing test scores and close achievement gaps. The school’s quest was chronicled this spring in An Eastside Education, a digital documentary produced by KLRU.

In June 2013, Education Commissioner Michael Williams said Eastside could stay open, but gave school leaders and the Austin ISD School Board three years to make accountability or be shuttered for a year. They are now partnered with Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary, a contracted partner out of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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At a press conference Austin Independent School District’s Superintendent Paul Cruz shares that all AISD high schools met state accountability. The Texas Education Agency released the accountability results for Texas schools August 7, 2015. This is the first time in over 10 years that Eastside Memorial High School has met state accountability standards.

Austin ISD Superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz expressed pride in Eastside’s ability to break through at a press conference Friday.

“The teachers, staff members, the leadership at the school, parents really focused on one thing and that’s student results and they stayed on it,” Dr. Cruz said. “They stayed on it to make sure that all kids would learn.”

He said he spoke with Eastside Principal Bryan Miller once the scores were announced.

“[Principal Miller] was elated,” Dr. Cruz said. “We look at preliminary indicators, we never know until the state puts out accountability results, but he was elated and now that it is here, he’ll be sharing it with his staff members as well.”

Throughout filming of An Eastside Education, teachers, staff, and administrators warned of the dangers in trying to predict a rating before results are announced. All were cautiously optimistic after STAAR test scores were returned in June but stressed the importance of waiting until August when the state makes ratings official.

111 out of AISD’s 124 schools made state accountability this school year, including all of the district’s high schools. That’s up from 109 last year. The state’s current accountability ratings are Met Standard, Met Alternative Standard, Not Rated, or Improvement Required. Eastside Memorial’s official rating before this year was Improvement Required. It is now Met Standard, the highest rating possible.

State accountability for each school in the state is based on four indexes: Student Achievement (or STAAR test scores), student progress from year to year, closing performance gaps between high and low performing students, and Postsecondary Readiness. Eastside has continuously been unable to meet standards on Index 4, Postsecondary Readiness. In previous years, the school met standards on each of the other indexes.

To meet the standard on Index 4, Eastside students needed to not only pass the end of course STAAR exams but also score well enough on the college-readiness scale to be “Level II Recommended.” This year they outperformed the state’s target scores in all of those indexes. The school earned an additional three of seven possible distinctions, including academic achievement in math.

A sticking point for many teachers and students at Eastside has been the so-called “choice policy,” which means that since Eastside has been rated a failing school parents can opt out of sending their child there in favor of a higher rated school. This has led to very low enrollment and, according to many on campus, a brain drain of smart kids leaving Eastside for other area high schools. Dr. Cruz said regardless of the new rating, that policy is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

“I don’t see a change [in the choice policy] for Eastside Memorial High School,” Dr. Cruz said. “We do have a choice policy around the district so I do see that we would continue that with the school. We have choice in all of our schools. It’s a little bit different [at Eastside] with transportation but some of our other schools have that as well. I do think it’s important for parents to choose schools, choose programs, and so that is something that we value as a district.”

The final chapter of An Eastside Education will be released September 1, 2015.

 An Eastside Education is part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public BroadcastingAmerican Graduate is aimed at increasing awareness about factors that lead to dropout in Central Texas.

Austin Revealed: Pioneers From the East – The Wong Family

Austin Revealed is an oral history project sharing the stories of Austin’s past and present to encourage discussion and thought around the city’s future.

In this series of Austin RevealedPioneers From the East, we profile three of the first families of Chinese origin to settle in the Austin area. Learn about their cultures, their histories and how living in Austin has shaped their families in these short documentaries.

The Wong Family
Growing up as part of one of the first families of Chinese descent in Austin, Dr. Mitchel Wong “wasn’t looking for prejudice, wasn’t looking for any animosity, and didn’t see any animosity.” In this documentary, Wong recounts his family’s immigrant history as a member of the “Pershing Chinese” and his personal journey from grocery boy to ophthalmologist.

Check out the stories of two other local families of Chinese origin, the Sing family and the Lung family.