Chaotic opening at welcoming school in Austin

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The scene was all chaos Monday morning outside Ellington Elementary, a top-tier school in Austin that absorbed students from two schools that closed this summer.

A few hundred frustrated parents and students milled around a plaza outside Ellington for more than an hour as teachers slowly read class lists, trying to usher in students, often navigating angry and difficult adults.

Most registered students made it inside by 9:15, an hour after the start time. But then, for another 125 parents and kids, the wait only began. They were ushered into the gym, where some would stay until nearly 4 p.m. trying to solve registration snafus, register for the first time or transfer their children out. Eighty-three parents were there to register their children, many showing up for the first time on Monday, or to fix a registration problem. Another 10 were trying to get a transfer out. Only two clerks were available to help.

Usually, class lists are posted, kids file in and the day begins. New students typically register but nothing like on Monday.

“This school is not ready, this is ridiculous,”  said Chricia Johnson. The Austin mom said she had registered her first and second graders in June but only one turned up on the school list. They’re transferring from Key, one of the closed schools. Calls and visits to the school didn’t help, she said. “This is not looking good.”

It marked an inauspicious beginning for a strong school, one that has the potential to do well by its new students from nearby Emmet and Key schools. Ellington, near Central and Lake streets, last year earned CPS’ highest academic rating and has a veteran and well-regarded principal running the show. Ellington was one of 51 schools absorbing students on Monday from 47 under-enrolled schools that closed in June, marking the largest mass closing in the country.

It’s important to note where Ellington looked prepared. The inside of the school looked terrific —floors gleaming, every room neat and outfitted with plenty of furniture and the walls lined with inspirational bulletin boards. As I strolled past classrooms after the day had begun, students looked engaged and teachers in command. Most students arrived in uniform, navy on bottom and white on top.

But it was clearly a scramble to open by Monday. Ellington, like all the welcoming schools, had only three short months between the May vote on the school closings and opening day. Dean Wendell Smith said they hired about 15 teachers in the last two to three weeks.

Ellington Principal Shirley Scott ushers student into school on the first day

Assuming the chaos of the first day subsides, several other major challenges await:

Overcrowding risk

Several parents fear the school will be overcrowded — which could hurt a school that excelled because of its intimate environment. Ellington housed 335 students last year. On Monday, they were expecting 800, Smith said. And that’s doesn’t include the extra 82 or so looking to register on Monday. Initially, CPS said Ellington’s capacity was 780 students but then in April revised that up to 900.

I visited the school in April and it was clearly under-used, but principal Shirley Scott put some extra space to excellent use. Empty rooms were repurposed as: a parent meeting room; a teacher resource room to store and share materials; a “refocus room” where troubled kids could cool down and work; a teacher professional development room; and a middle school computer lab.

Smith said all those rooms are gone, converted into classrooms. Ellington also added two lunch periods so “lunch” now runs from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Only time will tell whether this will hurt the school’s academic program.

“I’m just concerned about whether [my kids] will get what they need because there are so many students,” said LaToya Ellis, mom of two at Ellington.

Some positive reports by Ellington students at the end of the day allayed some fears. Two middle school students from Key said their class sizes were small, about 20-to-25 students, a change from Key which had larger class sizes and no air conditioning. The mother of a returning fourth grade student also said her son’s class size was smaller than last year.

“I liked how the classroom wasn’t crowded,” said Kenneth Gordon, a 7th grader. “And the Ellington kids were nice…I was nervous how they’d treat me.”

Are the kids safe?

The “safe passage” route to Ellington fails to extend north of Lake, which is where Key School is and where many former Key families live. Several parents said Lake is a gang dividing line and they don’t feel comfortable letting their kids walk unsupervised.

“My son never walks to the store, let alone to school, because it’s not safe around here,” said Yolanda Dennis, mother of an eighth grader who lives north of Lake. “They’re pushing iPads [for the welcoming schools]. I don’t care about that. I care about education and safety.”

Angela Graham was the local school council chair at Key and also lives north of Lake. She’s due at work at 7:30 a.m. but school for her third grader at Ellington doesn’t start until 8:15.

“I worry about him being snatched,” Graham said, noting that there are no other kids on her block for her son to walk to school with.

Graham said she raised the north-of-Lake concern at a meeting with CPS and the police department at the end of the school year but the route was not changed.

“They said we could go over the map again but it never happened.”

In response, Dean Smith said the school has the freedom to move its 10 safe passage workers around based on parent concerns. We hope that’s the case, though safe passage workers told me they can only be stationed on a street marked with one of the yellow “safe passage” signs that the city installed this summer. It’s also important to point out that three safe passage workers are stationed north of Lake for students at Douglass, a small high school. They are near where some Ellington kids might walk.

Mom LaToya Ellis had nothing but good things to say about safe passage. A former Key family, she now lives closer to school and the safe passage route works well for her: “Normally you have to send your kid out and just pray it’s okay,” Ellis said. “Safe passage makes me feel better. You know eyes are watching.”

But Ellis was in the minority on Monday, highlighting one of two big issues to watch in the coming days and months at Ellington:

* Will Ellington move safe passage workers to allay concerns of parents north of Lake? Does it have enough workers to help keep everyone safe?

* Will academics suffer because Ellington has more than doubled its student population?

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