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Reading, Writing, Evicted: How Austin, Texas, hopes to combat student turnover

Fellowship Story Showcase

Reading, Writing, Evicted: How Austin, Texas, hopes to combat student turnover

Picture of Bethany Barnes

This is the third in a three-part series that examines the impact of Portland's housing crisis on children. This series was produced with the support of the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and its Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism.

Other stories in the series include:

Reading, Writing, Evicted: Portland's housing crisis is an education story

Reading, Writing, Evicted: Portland children don't pay rent but they are paying a price

Reading, Writing, Evicted: Whole classrooms suffer when high rents upend children

Reading, Writing, Evicted: A bus ride to belong

Reading, Writing, Evicted: A no-cause eviction haunts a mom and her three kids

Reading, Writing, Evicted: Driven to stay in school

Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press
Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press
The Oregonian
Thursday, March 1, 2018

AUSTIN, TEXAS — It all started when Doyle Valdez noticed children were disappearing.

He’d see students making academic strides, but one day, they would just vanish. Along with them, he said, went all the investment in their educational success.

Valdez, a native Austenite with a big truck and a big mustache, investigated. What he found was a common culprit: Austin’s hot housing market was pricing out families in the neighborhood.

But unlike in Portland, where officials are largely still at the hand-wringing stage, Valdez has helped his Texas school district take proactive steps to help children affected by skyrocketing rents remain in the same school.

Austin is an instructive place for Portland policymakers to watch. People lump Austin and Portland together for their campaigns to stay weird, the presence of Voodoo Doughnuts and their overhyped reputations as hipster havens. The cities also share a housing climate that is straining working-class families whose stories can get lost in cities known to attract the young and cool.

Last year, 18 percent of the students in Austin Independent School District moved mid-school year, Texas Education Agency figures show. On average, Valdez said, those children missed out on a full week of school during that transition.

So, Valdez as an Austin education advocate and former school board member, set out to find a savior, an expert, someone he could bring in to help.

But over and over the only advice he got was to give up. Ending student churn, people told him, was impossible.

“You can’t do anything about it.”

“That’s personal.”

“Just help them wherever they land.”

But Valdez had seen first-hand that when a child moves in the middle of the school year, the child and the school suffer. He couldn’t give up on finding a systemic fix.

“I said I just have to do it,” Valdez said.

This school year, his plan to reduce turnover in the Austin Independent School District is full-blown. He had a small successful pilot of the program last year, and now his company, Mobility Blueprint, has a $100,000 one-year contract with the school district.

Valdez has also given a few talks in national education circles about his ideas, and he hopes it’s the beginning of a shift in the education world to take action against the harmful effects of housing displacement on students and schools.

"I can't tell you how many time I've been told we can't do anything about it,” he said. "We know we are never going to reduce mobility 100 percent — but what if we could target and understand the mobile students and address that to help reduce mobility? What if we could reduce it by 20 or 25 or 30 percent over time? What can that do for our kids academically?"

The foundation of Valdez’s solution is in technology. He created a website that shows — in real time — affordable apartments by school zone. A family can readily identify another home that might allow them to keep their children in the same school.