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Smart Cities: Austin

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Austin is weird--and they work to keep it that way. Like Columbus (profiled last week), it's a college town and state capital--add a dose of music, sunshine, Tex-Mex and venture capital and you get Austin.

There's a surprisingly vibrant tech and entrepreneurial cluster in Austin but that doesn't really translate to education where things are pretty traditional. A foundation officer said, "We have been working really hard to get Texas out of the stone age when it comes to charters." There are some high performing charters and pretty good school districts around in CenTX but not many leaders on the edtech and innovation.

The Getting Smart team spent last week in Austin at SXSWedu--which has become one of the six best education conferences, led by Ron Reed and his team. We posted a prep,halftime highlights, and awrap. We recapped sessions I supported on data and investing as well asBill's close. We featured anEdmodo acquisition, anAmplify launch, and a Pathbrite raise.

Lots of action took place in the lobby of the Hilton, located between the Salvation Army and the Convention Center. It was occasionally hard to tell the transients from the technologists and teachers (and, yes, some company logos did become tattoos after late night receptions).

Cool Schools. Blended maven Heather Staker sends her kids to Acton Academy, grades 1-5 in the elementary school, grades 6-8 in the middle school, high school planned. Here and here are two blogs where Heather describes their model. Caroline was impressed with the culture of learning and discovery.

Trinity Episcopal School has an Individual Rotation model in place for an hour per day, so it's an example of a blended learning power hour concept, which Heather blogged about here.

John Fitzpatrick directs Educate Texas (formerly Texas High School Project) which includesT-STEM, the best state STEM network, and a recently launched Texas Teaching, Technology, & Innovation Fund (T3IF) to support blended learning pilots in schools across Texas. Fitzpatrick points toAkins T-STEM Academy and Adkins New Tech High--the first of 14 New Tech academies in Texas. Fitzpatrick and others rave about Manor New Tech (about 20 minutes outside of Austin, profiled here) and the two selective schools in town:


LBJ is also home to an early college high school where students have a shot at earning an associate degree along with their high school diploma. There are 59 early college high schools and 6 blended early college STEM schools serving more than 15,000 students across the state.

KIPP Austin launched two new middle schools this year that incorporate blended learning components. KIPP has a high school and 7 feeder elementary and middle schools in Austin. There are 500 charter campuses in Texas, and two dozen in Austin.

District. Patti Everitt, Austin Independent School District (AISD), points to Austin Academy for Global Studies (AGS) at Austin High School as a school worth visiting. It's affiliated with the Asia Society and their International Studies Schools Network which have an incredible track record of preparing newcomers for college. "It hasn't gotten much play in the press, but has thrived as an academy within a larger comprehensive high school," said Everitt.

"It's a tribute to (former AISD superintendent) Pat Forgione that these programs are still thriving after he had the vision to move forward on creating a 'portfolio'. Each of these schools was part of the Redesign effort that received some funding from the Gates Foundation and Educate Texas."

Dr. Meria Joel Carstarphen has served as superintendent of the 87,000 student Austin district since 2009. The district is two thirds low income, and one third of the students are new to English. In her SXSWedu speech she outlined her commitment to quality options. http://www.txcharterschools.org/

Making an Impact. For a decade the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been helping schools make better use of data. Last week they spun out the Ed-Fi Alliance, a data standard and toolset. Director Lori Fey and I wrote about it here. The foundation has supported high performing school networks and profiled blended leading models.

Texas and Georgia are the only two states that provide line item support to Communities In Schools for a safety net of support for kids and families. Part of that support is owed to the strength of CenTX CIS, led by Suki Steinhauser (Caroline is a former board member).

Higher, Further, Faster. "Innovation is happening at Austin Community College with the new President, Richard Rhodes, who came to Austin from El Paso where he was a real hero on connecting K-16, said Everitt. "He's just purchased an entire mall that will become a one-stop center so that students can get everything they need in one place round the clock. And he's tackling the remediation issue head-on." ACC enrolls eligible high school students through the Early College Start program.

"WGU Texas has a compelling model," said Heather Staker, "because of its competency-based learning focus, which is illustrative for K-12." Here's an Innosight case study on WGU.

UT joined the nonprofit MOOC edX committing $10 million to content development. UT also invested $10 million in local edtech start up MyEdu , a platform that helps students make informed course choices.

EdTech. Compass Learning produces digital learning solutions. Through a partnership with NWEA, Compass provides adaptive instruction K-12. Bet you forgot they owned Renzulli, the learning styles assessment company.

Enspire Learning produces simulations for leadership and management development programs.

Civitas Learning , formed by former Kaplan exec Charles Thornburgh, is working on predictive analytics and recommendation engines.

Dell is quietly moving into edtech and recently won a contract for a learning platform in St Paul. They run an education blog and Dell YouthConnect, aimed at providing support and education in digital inclusion for students.

Conclusions. There seems to be more talk about innovation clusters. I got an email Friday from T2 Venture Capital that said, "Innovation is not a solo sport. It requires rich ecosystems we call Rainforests." Brad Feld wrote Startup Communities which "documents the buzz, strategy, long-term perspective, and dynamics of building communities of entrepreneurs who can feed off of each other's talent, creativity, and support." As one of the most innovative cities in the world, Austin fits these definitions.

The Department of Education talks about Education Innovation Clusters that connects educators, researchers, and entrepreneurs. That sounds ideal, but I haven't seen much evidence of research connections in the 20 cities reviewed in this series but more broadly, we have a shared hypothesis that the ecosystem matters.

Compared to tech and media, Austin has been slower to develop as an edtech hotspot. While the elements for innovation exist, it's odd that there's not a stronger edtech presence in Austin. While many central Texas schools have made progress with a traditional improvement agenda there are few innovative school models. Stronger constraints and weaker incentives dampen the eduprenurial culture and slow innovation diffusion in education compared to tech and media.

Three years ago SXSW added an edtech strand to it's conference. The Dell Family Foundation and Educate Texas bolstered their innovation agenda and a few innovative school models are opening. Like other cities, education innovation in Austin runs about a decade behind tech, but a strong group of leaders and organizations show great promise for innovation to come in this lively city.

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