Two dozen realtors sit in the bleachers of the Burger Athletic Center, eating pastries and sipping on coffee. They’re listening to administration from the Austin Independent School District preview the day ahead: a six-hour tour of schools in South Austin.
The point of the tour is to help families moving to or within Austin to better understand the district's schools – through their real estate agents.
The tour is one way AISD is trying to lure more families into its schools as it faces an enrollment crisis. The district has lost thousands of students over the last decade, as families move to more affordable areas or choose to send their kids to charter schools.
Amity Courtois has been a real estate agent in Austin for seven years, helping people buy and sell houses all over the metro area. She grew up in Austin and graduated from Anderson High School. She also served as the chair for the Austin Board of Realtors public education committee. So even though she has experience with the education system here, she signed up for the tour to learn more.
She says when she's selling a house, she's not just selling a neighborhood; she's selling its schools.
In AISD, parents don’t have to send their children to neighborhood schools. Parents can apply for a transfer if another school they're interested in has space.
"That was never a thing when I was growing up, to shop for a school. It’s like you just go to the school that’s in your neighborhood," Courtois says.
Courtois wants to help her clients make informed decisions before they commit to or write off a school, so she wants to know as much about them as she can.
From the Burger Center, the realtors board a school bus and head to Palm Elementary in Southeast Austin. All three schools they’ll visit today are in South Austin, which has seen a lot of growth.
Courtois, who has never been to Palm, says she’s following her own advice today. She always tells clients to visit the neighborhood school, regardless of what they’ve heard, because test scores and appearance aren’t everything.
“Some schools you think, 'Oh, that’s an old icky building or something," she says, "And then you go in and you’re like, 'Oh, it actually feels really cozy and comfortable and homey.'"
She also says programs or a special education department can make a difference to a family.
The bus pulls into the circle drive at Palm, and the realtors are greeted by students and the principal. They file into the cafeteria and sit down in metal folding chairs to watch the students perform a scene from their spring musical, Aladdin.
The students playing Jasmine and Aladdin perform the scene before their big solo, "A Whole New World." Behind them, a chorus of students stands in colorful, intricate costumes. To the delight of the realtors, a student dressed as a magic carpet comes onto the stage and sits at the feet of the main characters.
After the performance, Courtois and six other realtors follow parent Sametria Wilson on a tour of the butterfly garden outside.
“We use the garden not only to teach the kids about gardening and the skills that are required for that, but also just to help them sometimes calm down if they’re having a rough day,” Wilson says, while also pointing out a koi pond.
The tour group also visits a pre-K class and talks with a group of fifth-graders making art projects based on a novel they’re reading. The tour ends back in the cafeteria with the principal.
As she walks back to the bus, Theresa Bastian, a former educator, says she was impressed by the school. She says she knows what to look for on tours like this.
“When families think, 'What are the best schools in Austin?,’ Palm doesn’t usually come to mind,” she says. “So therefore, you might be ruling out an entire neighborhood that could really be a match for affordability and the quality at that school is amazing.”
After Palm, the real estate agents visit Bailey Middle School, where they learn about the school’s robotics team, which just won an award at a state competition.
Courtois says she hadn’t heard of the program before.
“A lot of people try to transfer into Small – which is another South Austin middle school – because they have a great tech program,” she says. “But I don’t think people even know about Bailey’s tech program.”
The last stop of the day is Akins High School. Courtois says she's excited about this one, because shes worked with staff to develop real estate classes at the school.
In the school auditorium, teacher Misty Lindsey explains the academy system, which gives students an opportunity to study "real-world" majors. She tells the realtors Akins is the best kept secret in town.
“The reason I say that is that I was here when we started," she says, "and, unfortunately, even though we have all these amazing kids and program, the reputation from 17 years ago kind of hangs in the air with long-time Austin residents."
Before Akins reinvented its academic programs 10 years ago, Courtois says, the school was known as a place that didn’t really prepare students for college or offer any special programs. She says she recommends the school when she's selling a house in South Austin these days, but that a lot of buyers push back.
“People would usually prefer to go to Bowie ... when they’re looking for houses, rather than Akins," she says.
Courtois says she gets frustrated hearing people say Bowie is a better school than Akins.
“Every school has something special about it,” she says. “And everyone is unique, so it totally depends on your kid and what they need and want and what you, as a family, value. Some families value diversity ... and some prefer Bowie [because of its] high test scores or whatever.”
That’s another reason Courtois says she attended this tour. She says she wants to give her clients as much information about every school option – beyond what comes up in a quick Google search. It also helps her personally: After years of sending their son to private school, she and her husband are planning to send the 12-year-old to an AISD high school. They’ve gone on a few tours, and right now his number one priority is a school where he’ll feel welcome.