CharterFolk Contributor John Armbrust – Austin Achieve:  Celebrating a Decade and Learning From Our Scholars and Families How to Best Serve the Community

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from John Armbrust, Founder and CEO of Austin Achieve Public Schools.

John Armbrust, Founder and CEO of Austin Achieve Public Schools.

Austin Achieve Public Schools is a tuition-free, open-enrollment public charter school preparing Austin youth to attend and excel at top universities. Austin Achieve is no stranger to the CharterFolk movement. Founder and CEO, John Armbrust, serves on our board and you might recall our profile of CharterFolk Extraordinaire and Austin Achieve Past Board Chair James Nortey last year. These are excellent leaders in the charter space, and they take a holistic approach when it comes to educating scholars.

I provide John’s brief bio below.

A native Austinite, John Armbrust founded Austin Achieve in 2012. First finding his passion for education through Teach For America (Metro Atlanta ‘04), John has served in a variety of capacities at traditional independent school districts and public charter schools across the country. Fueled by the jarring educational inequities in Northeast Austin, John set out to open a high-quality neighborhood school to ensure that all scholars – regardless of zip code – had access to a college-ready education. Beginning with 104 6th-grade scholars in a local church in 2012, Austin Achieve has grown to serve more than 2,500 Pre-K through 12th-grade scholars across three state-of-the-art campuses and will grow to serve more than 7,000 scholars by 2029.

John is a champion for education and uses his deep understanding of the system to support other schools and organizations to advocate for reform. He presently serves on the board for CharterFolk and the Texas Public Charter Schools Association and previously served as President for Teach For America Austin Alumni. He is also the founder of Crossbow Educational Consulting, which supports districts and states to implement data-driven-based teacher evaluation processes.

Austin Achieve:  Celebrating a Decade and Learning From Our Scholars and Families How to Best Serve the Community

I’m thrilled to be writing this contributor post for CharterFolk nearly ten years to the date since Austin Achieve’s first first day of school. August 6, 2012 was the official start to what has been a challenging and incredibly rewarding decade-long journey. Since then, we’ve grown to three campuses spanning Northeast Austin and Pflugerville and have over 2,500 scholars who call themselves Austin Achieve Polar Bears.

I’ve spent the entirety of my career working in public education from coast to coast. While working at a high-performing charter network in Los Angeles, a long-time friend in Austin challenged me to return to my hometown and address the inequities in the education system that had been compounding in my former backyard for decades. The worst public middle school in the entire State of Texas was in Austin. It was a wake-up call, and I decided to move back. I surrounded myself with a brilliant team of founding board members and founding staff. We set out to do better for the kids in Northeast Austin and to give them a choice to attend a different kind of public school.

Austin Achieve Public Schools (AAPS) started with 104 sixth graders just down the street from the worst public middle school in Texas. We were going to address the problem head on. I spent that summer going door-to-door, talking with families, learning about their frustrations with public education, and convincing them to give us a try. I am forever grateful to those first families who entrusted their children to our care. They took a leap of faith by sending their children to a new school offering only one grade in the first year, but once enrolled, our team was determined to earn and keep their trust. In those first few years, yes, we learned how to run a school effectively and efficiently, but the most important lesson we learned was how to fulfill the needs of our community.

What we learned shaped our mission and our school policies. We didn’t implement all of it on Day 1; we didn’t know that we needed to. But now, 10 years in, we know how we can best serve our community and we know it because we listen to what scholars and their families tell us.

Teaching Beyond the Classroom

At Austin Achieve, we strive to develop the next generation of community leaders by closing the opportunity gap for our scholars and their families, equipping them to become self-advocates. Our principals and teachers stress the importance of growing people, not just students in the classroom. Not only do our scholars access a rigorous STEAM curriculum that requires two years of Computer Science, they also invest in themselves through social and emotional learning (SEL) lessons multiple times each week. We have licensed school social workers at each campus who oversee the implementation of our SEL programming across the district to ensure it is scholar-focused and implemented with fidelity. They also offer comprehensive counseling services to both our scholars and their families at no cost.

We know that success in the classroom starts at home, so we have built a team dedicated to establishing and overseeing wraparound services and community partnerships to ensure that our scholars’ and their families’ needs are met before they reach our doors each morning. It is critical that scholars have access to safe shelter, food, and medical care so that they can excel in the classroom. All scholars enrolled at Austin Achieve also receive three free meals daily: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the onset of the pandemic, our Child Nutrition team transformed their services in order to provide free meals to all Austin Achieve and community members in need. This free meal program is ongoing, and they have served over 1.5 million meals since March 2020.

Kindergarten Readiness

In 2019, when scholars were coming to Austin Achieve behind in Kindergarten, we launched our first PreK-3 and PreK-4 classrooms. Enrollment continues to soar and demand for high-quality and affordable early childhood education has actually been a major factor in our decision to continue expanding over the years. We partner with early education experts at AppleTree Institute to implement a data-driven and responsive PreK curriculum that has been recognized locally and statewide by the Austin Community Foundation’s Hispanic Impact Fund, a coalition of donors who seek out and support excellent early childhood providers; Texas Education Agency; and at HEB’s annual Excellence in Education Awards. During the 2021-22 school year, 67% of scholars who attended Austin Achieve PreK were “kinder-ready” compared to 49% who were new to Austin Achieve in Kindergarten.

Restorative Practice

We eliminated punitive disciplinary practices three years into our operations when we realized that the scholars facing expulsion or suspensions were the very same scholars who needed to stay in the classroom with access to wraparound services the most. Rather than facing punitive discipline for an infraction, scholars now participate in Restorative Justice (RJ) during their regular school day and don’t have to miss out on their classes or services provided at school. We are serious about our approach, so we hire RJ Coordinators at every Austin Achieve campus and we invest in them so that they can invest in our scholars.

Every scholar’s journey in RJ culminates in the creation of an individual reflection process, where they outline what they did wrong, who was affected, what they learned in RJ, any tools and techniques acquired to help them address the root of the problem, and how they plan to use those skills moving forward. RJ is designed to meet our scholars where they are when they enter the program and offers different mediums for expression to meet scholars’ varying needs. When middle and high school scholars believe that they are ready to leave RJ, they present their essay to a panel of peers and staff, made up of “ambassadors” at Austin Achieve who have been selected and trained for this purpose. Since implementing RJ, the recidivism rate for scholars committing any offense is just 5%.

Rigorous College Readiness

Our mission, most simply put, at Austin Achieve is to produce “All Scholars, College Ready.” The majority of our scholars will be the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education, so we have a four-year College Seminar course that every high school scholar is required to take. In this course, scholars make a college plan during their freshman year: they consider their interests and career aspirations and set their goals. College Seminar includes ACT prep, college application assistance, mock professional interviews, and personal finance instruction. College Seminar instructors also engage with our families directly to demystify the college experience, help them fill out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms, and make plans for when their child is in college.

We know that it’s not just about getting our scholars into college though. We want them to matriculate year over year and feel supported while doing so. One of the determining factors of college persistence, especially for scholars from low-income backgrounds, is financial stability. As a result, we created the Polar Partners fund, which is a scholarship available to all college-enrolled AAPS alumni and graduates with individualized education programs (IEPs) who are pursuing transition plans. Alumni can request funds at any time for tuition assistance, books, a laptop, or even just the basics including food and rent.

Another important factor leading to persistence is having a support system and knowing how to access available resources. We used to outsource this type of service and consultants would keep in regular touch with our alumni to help them navigate the complexities of college life. What we found is that our alumni didn’t understand who these strangers checking up on them were. In response, we hired College Completion Counselor, Britney Walker, who regularly engages with scholars while they are still in high school through their College Seminar course or on the basketball court! She’s already a familiar face or name in their inbox when they graduate and head off to college, and they’re happy to hear from her when she checks in. Britney knows all of our college-enrolled alumni and works with them to build individual persistence plans. She points them to resources at their respective campuses and makes sure that they are set up for success beyond the Austin Achieve classroom.

After a decade of listening and learning, Austin Achieve is ready to expand again to continue serving the needs of our community. We’ll open two new PreK-8 campuses, and our high school will nearly quadruple in size by 2029. It’s an exciting time at our district and for charter schools more broadly. I’m such a strong believer in the charter movement and think that the keys to success in public education really stem from an ability to remain nimble and innovate, as charters were created to do. We’ve seen just how critical this ability has been in the last two years. As charter leaders and advocates, we have a lot of work to do in the wake of the pandemic, but I have all the confidence in our collective ability to impact lives for the better because we listen to our scholars and families and act on their feedback.