AISD puts federal poverty money into public relations, multicultural outreach

Austin American-Statesman
Jan 29, 2012

By Laura Heinauer, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

The Austin school district has overhauled its communications apparatus, giving it a new name Department of Public Relations and Multicultural Outreach a new mission and a new funding source.

The department — which has a staff of 23 and a 2011-12 budget of about $2 million, including $1.4 million for salaries — is now being funded with about $192,000 of Title I money, federal funds given to support programs and services at high-poverty schools.

Executive Director Alex Sánchez said the department is new, created by combining three other administrative offices, and designed to reach out to families that might have been overlooked in the district's past efforts because of language or other cultural barriers.

Austin appears to be alone among large urban districts in Texas — including Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — in using Title I money on public relations staffing, which Austin administrators say is key to plans for engaging parents.

At campuses with high concentrations of students from low-income families, Title I dollars are used to help struggling students by paying for additional educational resources and staffers to connect parents with social and educational services.

This school year, the Austin district received $27.3 million in Title I money, administrators said.

The district is using a portion of its overall Title I allotment to fund 50 percent of the salaries for seven public relations positions — three translators, a language support coordinator, two multicultural outreach coordinators and a public relations coordinator.

The duties of the multicultural outreach coordinator include developing new outreach initiatives, developing strategies for consistent interaction and partnerships with "key leaders/partners in Austin's diverse communities," and finding community venues for "presentation/promotional opportunities," according to a job posting.

Among other duties, the public relations coordinator is to come up with "branding and communication strategies," assist in the crafting of speeches for Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and other senior leadership, build a network of "internal key communicators to act as ambassadors for district objectives and accomplishments," and write news releases and official statements that "accurately convey the district's message ... correcting inaccuracies advanced by the media."

Sánchez said Friday that Title I funding didn't go through for an eighth position — another public relations coordinator.

The Texas Education Agency said that as long as a goal is parent involvement, using the funds that way is fine.

In the past six months, Sánchez, who came to Austin in July from Denver Public Schools, hired an almost entirely new staff, changed job responsibilities and transformed the department's structure.

This school year, about 24,000 students, more than 1 in 4 overall, come from homes in which Spanish is the dominant language, Sánchez said.

He said improving communication and parental engagement is particularly important in communities that are underserved.

Studies show that academic performance in those communities improves when parents become involved, Sánchez said, so his staff is working more directly than the office has in the past with Spanish-language media outlets to increase participation in and promote district initiatives.

Title I money helps make that possible, he said.

"We have a unique kind of charge," Sánchez said, to do better with communicating across cultures. "This is the foundation of effective parental involvement. The federal Education Department acknowledges this fact. Parents are a key to student success, and, as urban school districts, we must do better at basic communication and parental engagement."

Others, however, question the change.

"It bothers me, and I don't think that it's appropriate that Title I dollars are being taken away from the campuses and being put in positions that are housed in central office," said Cynthia Valadez-Mata Jr., an Austin district director with the League of United Latin American Citizens. "That is not where the communication needs to occur. It's at the campus. It's not on funding some public relations campaign."

To qualify for Title I money, 35 percent of students at a school must be eligible for the federal free and reduced-price school meals program.

Title I money, which can be withheld from school districts that fail to meet federal academic accountability requirements, is tightly controlled. The money can be used on training, instructional materials, programs and parental involvement.

The National Education Association and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund advocate more parental involvement as a way to improve student achievement and help teachers and schools, Sánchez said.

He said Denver, where he was director of the multicultural outreach office, was the first school district in the country to produce a Spanish talk show on commercial radio to engage parents. The Denver Post reported in 2010 that the show's audience more than doubled, to 54,200 unique listeners a month, according to Arbitron data.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg at the time told the Post that the show was part of a larger outreach effort that increased participation by Spanish-speaking parents in school and district events, including parent leadership institutes that targeted high-poverty schools.

Sánchez said Denver Public Schools used money from both Title I and Title III, which focuses on the needs of those learning English, to pay for communications campaigns, including salaries, to better inform and engage parents.

Though the Houston, San Antonio and Dallas school districts use Title I money for positions related to translation and parent involvement, none of them was a public relations coordinator.

San Antonio school district spokeswoman Michelle Jimenez said the communications department does not use any Title I funding. Title I money does fund the salaries of two "constituent specialists" who take calls from a parent hotline and the salary of a parent education trainer.

The Houston school district's communication services department does not spend any Title I money on salaries, officials there say. The district does use Title III money to pay some translators, spokesman Jason Spencer said.

The Dallas school district's communications department, which spokeswoman Libby Daniels said includes a community outreach function, uses Title I money to pay two translators.

In Austin, district Title I money has been used to help pay for parent-support specialists for many years. But recently, because of state cuts that prompted the Austin district to cut 1,153 jobs, money for those positions was spent elsewhere. Administrators allowed campuses to choose to fund them with campus Title I money.

Ramon DeJesus, a District Advisory Council chairman and Budget and Finance Advisory Committee member, said funding community outreach at the district level creates a more "global approach" to communication with parents, ensuring no school gets left behind.

"Some campuses do great, and some don't do it as well," DeJesus said of translation services during public forums.

"We needed to do this a long time ago, but for many years, AISD has had the idea that they didn't want to or they didn't have to ," he said. "We were leaving too many parents out of the loop with that approach."

Gus Garcia, a former school board member and former Austin mayor, said his support of such outreach would depend on the message.

"If it is getting information to parents, fine. But if it's tooting the horn of AISD, then it's not used properly," he said.

Valadez-Mata argued that spending those dollars at the district level makes them more difficult to track. She said keeping the money at the campus level provides more accountability if a particular campus's parent engagement levels fall off.

"We need direct, quantifiable evidence that this money is being spent effectively at every school, and the best people to do that are the principals who live and work in these communities," she said. "When it goes to central office, you lose track of what is effective at a particular campus and what is not."

DeJesus added that he won't say he's happy with the change "until we get results."

"But what we've done in the past is practice the same practice, maybe put a different name on it and expected different results," he said. "We still have this problem of a disproportionate level of involvement at our campuses. I am at least encouraged by the fact that we're willing to try something different."

lheinauer@statesman.com; 445-3694

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/local-education/aisd-puts-federal-pov...