In the hills of West Austin, bordered by the Colorado River and Barton Creek, Eanes ISD schools ease back into the school year with a stockpile of student laptops and tablets and a bevy of teachers at ease with virtual learning tools.
Across town, on the more economically diverse East side, Del Valle ISD has less experience with online learning, having to start from scratch: First make sure all students have WiFi and get them laptops, then teach the teachers how to run virtual classrooms.
As the school year gets underway in the Austin area, local schools all face the same challenge: Educating kids during a pandemic. How they address them depends on their resources and the priorities of the families in the district. Aside from some guiding principles, the state has largely allowed each district to work within the needs of their communities.
A look at two Austin districts that are economically and demographically different from each other provides a glimpse into what some of those differences are, and how schools are approaching a struggle they all share.
(According to 2018-2019 data)
On Wednesday, Eanes ISD welcomed its 8,000 students back for online learning. Eanes Superintendent Tom Leonard said after three weeks the district will transition to in-person instruction for students with the most needs, up to 25% capacity.
"We're going to have to be agile and flexible and have to adapt to different governing agencies, whether it be TEA, the governor, the county or the city," Leonard said. "If conditions and stages get better, we'll bring in more kids. If conditions and stages get worse, we've got a plan to go back the other way."
In a district survey taken earlier this month, 61% of Eanes parents said they want their children to return to in-person learning as soon as the option is available to them. The other 39% of Eanes parents opted for continued virtual learning, although some parents are considering forming learning pods of students on their own. However, that practice can be expensive, and usually considered a solution only for more well-off families, with some exceptions.
In the event that in-person classes are shut down, the students will be able to transition fairly easily because, as Leonard said, his district is "blessed" to have had virtual learning for a long time and students supplied with laptops and tablets for a decade.
"Our kids all have devices," Leonard said. "Our teachers have always been using different software and different online materials, so it is not as big of a leap for us to function in a remote setting as it has been for some other school districts."
That would include Del Valle ISD, which spent the summer scrambling to get technology to students, training its teachers and prioritizing school-based resources for students in need, said Ana Rush, Del Valle ISD's executive director of academics and accountability.
"We want to make sure that the lessons themselves are rigorous and engaging and that we're closing the gaps … that the students may have," Rush said. "We want to make sure they're still progressing academically."
The district is staying online for the first eight weeks of school, which started last Monday. Some 15% of the district's nearly 11,000 families did not have reliable internet access at home. To remedy that, the district surveyed several companies to provide hotspots for everyone.
"Right now we're ... at 99.9% connectivity through WiFi and through the hotspots, which we did not have in the spring," Rush said. "And that's something we were able to solve to make sure that we started the school year with all the students being able to connect."
A sizeable percentage of their students also use lunch programs and counseling services, so district officials spent much of their prep time arranging for students to have access to those resources, Rush said.
On the in-person vs. online choice, Del Valle parents are split right down the middle. Half want to send their kids back to school at the earliest opportunity, many because they are essential workers, Rush said.
But the other half fear exposure to a family member if their child goes to school. Eighty-five percent of Del Valle ISD's students are Hispanic, a demographic that has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 in Texas and nationwide.
Naila Martinez, 36, said her kids received their devices from the school, which helped her in her decision to keep her 5th grader and high schooler, both asthmatic, at home for online school.
"With flu season, their asthma flares up already, especially the fifth grader, and just imagine in the middle of this pandemic with these symptoms of COVID and the regular flu overlapping—it's just going to be mayhem if any one of them goes to school," Martinez said. "I'm always going to have that fear hanging over me, like what if they get COVID?"
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Both Prop A advocates Save Austin Now and opponents political action committee Equity PAC raised over $1 million in funding between Sept. 24 and Oct. 23 ahead of Austin's Nov. 2 election, but their efforts haven't yet been reflected in the polls.
Prop A is the most contentious ballot item this election, if passed the measure would require a minimum police staffing of just over two officers per 1,000 residents. Also on the ballot is a parkland-focused Prop B; and eight state constitutional amendments. Despite constant coverage by city and community leaders and near record-breaking funds from both sides of the Prop A debacle, under 7% of voters have gone to the polls with less than a week left of early voting.
Save Austin Now, a self-proclaimed bipartisan group that saw its first major victory when it passed an ordinance to reinstate the homeless camping ban in May, raised $1,013,896.86 in the one-month period, bringing their grand total to around $1.7 million according to Jack Craver's Austin Politics Newsletter. It's the second time the political action committee has raised over $1 million—SAN nearly broke the record for money raised in a city election after racking up $1.9 million for the camping ban in May.
According to SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, chairman of the Travis County GOP, most funding came from private businesses and influential community members, including:
- Private equity investor Philip Canfield, who gave two donations totaling $125,000
- The cryptically-named America 2076— $100,000
- Venture capitalist firm Gigafund's managing directors Luke Nosek and Stephen Oskoui contributed $50,000 apiece
- Venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, real estate developer Dick Anderson and car dealer Roger Beasley—$50,000 each
- Buc-ee's owner Donald Wasek, mystery donor "L., D.K", and Julia Wilkinson of charitable group Still Water Foundation each gave $25,000
- George Soros group Open Society Policy Center—$500,000
- Washington, D.C.-based liberal social justice charity Fairness Project—$200,000
- Left-wing "dark money" fund Sixteen Thirty—$100,000
- Oklahoma oil mogul Charles Schusterman's Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies—$100,000
- Several unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Texas Federation of Teachers, Southwest Laborer's District Council, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, ACLU of Texas and Austin labor union branch Austin AFL-CIO also contributed to the group.
Those big bucks have been put to use, with both groups pumping out commercials, billboards, ads and social media efforts to sway voters to either side. According to Craver, SAN has spent all but $2,777 as of Oct. 23, gaining the backing of Austin City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and former Austin mayors Lee Leffingwell, Lee Cooke and Ron Mullen in the process. Those who endorse the campaign cite a need for better policing amid a nationwide uptick in violence, especially as Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon announced that APD would no longer respond to "non-emergency" calls due to an understaffed force.
Some of their advertising has been called out as misleading, including misleading tweets about the possible support of Austinite Matthew McConaughey and insinuating that Austin Democrats are voting for the bill in text ads.
— Save Austin Now | Prop A For A Safe Austin (@SaveAustinNow) October 21, 2021
The Equity PAC still had $455,000 remaining as of Oct. 23 as they relied more on supporters Mayor Steve Adler, Council member Greg Casar, 80 community organizations and even some comments from Chacon, who says the measure is "based on older methodologies," to get the word out.
Most who oppose the bill say that Prop A, which could cost between $271.5 and nearly $600 million over five years according to estimates reported by city staff, would take away funds from other essential city departments. But they're still doing plenty of advertising outreach themselves—and Prop A supporters dispute that multi-million dollar price tag and say city council members are ignoring the increase in crime after cutting police funds last year amid Black Lives Matter protests.
Despite the hot topic, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told CBS Austin the city may fall behind their already-low goal of 18%-19% of eligible voters reaching the polls.
"It's a slow, low turnout. We're not seeing very good numbers at all," DeBeauvoir said.
Early voting ends Friday, while Election Day comes Tuesday, Nov. 2. For a guide to voting on the election, click here.
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As Halloween makes us second guess if that cold spot was a ghost or simply the cool front, keep your guard up because there are supposed haunted grounds in the city.
Austin is largely free of widespread hauntings but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its fair share of phantoms if you know where to look. Here are some of Austin's most haunted burial grounds.
Originally called the city cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery is Austin's oldest burial ground and has been standing since the 1850s. Though record-keeping isn't as robust from its early days, with over 40 acres of land and more than 25,000 people buried, Oakwood Cemetery is said to be the permanent home to some well-known Texans: U.S. Marshall and Texas Ranger John Barclay Armstrong who passed in 1913, Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson who passed on in 1883, radio personality John Henry Faulk who was buried in 1990.
Oakwood Cemetery is also known for its fair share of hauntings—note that not all who lie there are resting in marked graves and some of the early marked graves, like 1897's "Little Brother" gravestone, are haunting in and of themselves.
So, why should you stay away from Oakwood Cemetery at night? You might run into the ghost of the first of the Servant Girl Annihilator's victims, 17-year-old Eula Phillips, who was murdered by her then-husband with an axe. Philips is said to wander the grounds lamenting her violent death with tears. Dickinson, who died at the age of 68, may also appear to you and is said to be the most visual of specters that roam the grounds.
Oakwood Cemetery is known for graverobbing—rumor has it that university professors used to steal bodies from unmarked graves to use as cadavers for their students—so you might encounter the souls who are still roaming the cemetery, looking for their bodies.
Shoal Creek Indian Massacre Site
The historical marker is located at 24th Street at Shoal Creek. (austinghosts.com)
Shoal Creek, like nearly all of the United States, can be traced back thousands of years to 9,000 B.C. with Native American arrowheads. Settlers would camp along the mouth of the creek, including famous residents like the second president of the Republic of Texas Mirabeau Lamar, where it is said they engaged in a turf war with the Native Americans who resided right nearby. Those who weren't killed by Comanche warriors were killed by cholera and were buried along the creek. It is said that a mass grave, filled with victims of yellow fever, cholera and unexplained violence, lies beneath the creek.
Of the hauntings most commonly seen at Shoal Creek, watch out for cold spots in the middle of summer, vanishing orbs of light called "Marfa Lights," vanishing apparitions, unexplainable noises at night, sudden sickness and nightmares after visiting.
The Austin State Hospital
The Austin State Hospital is still operating. (Texas Historical Commission National Register Collection and the Portal to Texas History)
When the Austin State Hospital took in its first patients in 1861, it was meant to be a beacon of hope for the mentally ill to recover from the stressors of everyday life. On any given day, the hospital would treat and allegedly sometimes experiment on anywhere from 200-4,000 patients and after an unfortunate death, bodies that were not claimed were buried in the cemetery out back behind the hospital. When the cemetery inevitably filled up, bodies were exhumed and transferred to a burial ground just over two miles away. Though they say all the bodies were transferred, legend tells that some have been left on the still-operating hospital's grounds just six feet below.
The Austin State School and State School Farm Colony
The Austin State School is now closed, many of its 68 buildings abandoned. (Andreanna Moya Photography/CC)
These two gender-segregated facilities were originally intended for mentally-troubled juvenile offenders, many of whom never left the grounds. On the school's 436 acres, 1,800 students were housed across 68 buildings and the campus also held farmland, a swimming pool and a cemetery. Children who were not claimed were buried on-site, where about 3,000 students are buried. The school was sued in the 1960s after changing its name to the Travis State School for inadequate living conditions and closed in the late 90s. Many buildings have been taken over by charter schools but some remain empty to this day.
Tucker Cemetery's unique sight is its dozens of hand-written tombstones. (kissingtoast/CC)
Just outside the Barton Creek Greenbelt, Tucker Cemetery doesn't have many stories of haunts to its name other than anecdotes of car locks popping open on their own. However, what makes this cemetery freaky is its collection of tiny, hand-scrawled tombstones.
Keep Austin spoOoOoOoky!
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Coming off of the heels of the biggest Formula 1 race to date, Circuit of the Americas now has plans to create luxury "car condos" for racecar enthusiasts right by the track.
Located on the racetrack's storied "Turn 11," COTA will create around 178 car condos on a 22-acre plot in a partnership with real estate firm Lincoln Property Company. Presale reservations for the units began Wednesday, and the project hopes to break ground by late spring of 2022.
The 340,000 square foot space will include a 7,000-square foot amenity center with a pool, a clubhouse, a conference center, outdoor barbecue grills and more.
The luxurious car condos will be located alongside COTA's famed Turn 11. (Lincoln Property Company)
Customers can trick out their space, which can range from 1,300 square feet to 6,000+, however they'd like. In other projects, Lincoln Property's JR Gideon has seen car condo owners add in mechanic shops, basketball hoops, bars, music studios and more.
"They're really for storing luxury cars just as much as hosting," Gideon said. "You can do pretty much anything in there besides live."
Think of the ultimate man cave, though that word's not quite appropriate—according to Gideon, some female clients have also booked reservations for the project.
"I think predominately, our demographic is going to be men, yes, but we've already had a few ladies reserve units, which is awesome," Gideon said.
Along with having a trackside space, Gideon said that owning a condo has other perks, including 20% off COTA events. Most importantly, however, these car enthusiasts want to see their cars on the track, something the team is already planning for.
"If you're going to have your nice cars at the track, you want to know if you're going to be able to get them on there," Gideon said. "Right now I'm planning for two full track weekends for owners to be able to get their cars out on the track."
Marketing for the project has just begun, and almost every client so far has been from Texas and/or the Austin area. But Gideon and team expect plenty of interest from national customers as well as some international buyers as the only F1 racetrack in the States with trackside car condos.
There could be a hitch in the plan, however. COTA's 10-year contract for F1 expired last weekend, and no new deal has been finalized yet. But COTA chair Bobby Epstein feels confident in renewing a contract, especially after the sports' biggest weekend to date. Gideon and Lincoln's Seth Johnston aren't involved in contract talks but say that plenty of attractions exist at COTA outside of the U.S. Grand Prix.
And with newfound American interest in F1—Gideon, like many others, partially credits Netflix's "Drive To Survive" series—the crew is confident that there will be more projects like this to come in the future.
"With (Drive To Survive) coming out in the last couple of years and so many people watching the past race, I think there's certainly a lot of momentum around Circuit of the Americas and this project as well as other future developments at COTA," Gideon said.
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