The space used to be a vacant field, sandwiched between Casis Elementary School and a parking lot.
Now, thanks to diligent fundraising and an architect parent, it is a state-of-the-art outdoor classroom, where young students take lessons in every subject from math to creative writing. There is an open-air “room” with long green tables and benches, rosemary filled garden beds and a lily pad-studded pond. A small stone amphitheater nearby also serves as a large scale sun dial.
The outpouring of support that produced the classroom is a pattern in well-heeled West Austin, where community members also pooled their resources when Casis’ 60-year-old library needed new shelves — and when, down the road at O. Henry Middle School, the campus could not afford to hire the teachers it needed to maintain small class sizes after state budget cuts.
Casis raised $90,000 to install new carpeting along with the library shelves. At O. Henry, parents raised $350,000 over the past two years to finance seven new teaching positions.
There is a long history of private philanthropy in public schools. But the elimination of more than $5 billion in state funding for public education in the last legislative session has ratcheted up the pressure on parents to open their pocketbooks. And while no one argues that a local community’s support of its schools is a negative, the influx of private money concerns civil rights advocates who say it only exacerbates the existing inequities in the public school system.
The perks like smaller classes, better facilities and extra-curricular activities that private dollars offer public schools in affluent areas — and the top-notch teachers they attract — can snowball to the point where educational opportunities for their students far outnumber the ones available to those in other communities, said Jim Harrington, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
“It ends up creating a de facto two-tier system,” he said.
His organization, which recently released a report highlighting what it called the “vestiges of segregation” in the Austin Independent School District, has filed a lawsuit against a West Texas school district, challenging the constitutionality of the wide variations in per-student funding at its three high school campuses. Harrington said he hoped the lawsuit would become a template for other parents around the country who are grappling with such disparities.
Patty Martin, the principal of Casis, has a different hope: that what her school has done with the outdoor classroom will make it easier for other campuses to do the same, especially now that the design is in place and a network of willing donors has been assembled.
If that happens, it means that the community may have to export some of the talent and resources that made the project possible at Casis to other areas. Burton Baldridge, an architect and parent who designed the outdoor classroom, found an eager stable of patrons to donate the concrete, steel and lumber needed to construct it within his professional contacts.
Along with more volunteers on the weekend, in August Baldridge left his office every day at 4 p.m. to labor over the structure with a team of three others, sometimes working until late at night. Parents managed to raise about $30,000, and a local business kicked in a little bit more than that to cover the rest of the expenses. Baldridge said that figure represents just a fraction of the structure’s total value when accounting for the donated services, materials and time.
On a warm September afternoon, about 20 first-graders filed out of the classroom into the nearby gardens. Their teacher had just dispatched them with the mission of identifying solids and liquids in their surroundings. Nearly all of the children headed straight for the pond.
One boy bent over and tentatively stuck a finger in the water. Recoiling quickly, he squealed, “There’s a frog!”