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AISD's Speed Search for Eastside Suitor

District is under the gun to draw a road map for troubled high school

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 5, 2013

Students unveil a banner in 2008 with a new name for Eastside Memorial at a ceremony that was supposed to mark a fresh start on the school's academic future.
Students unveil a banner in 2008 with a new name for Eastside Memorial at a ceremony that was supposed to mark a fresh start on the school's academic future.
Photo by Jana Birchum

The clock is counting down yet again for Eastside Memorial High School, as the Austin Independent School District searches for a new outside partner to help the district run the campus. On April 8, administrators will start wading through the applicants in an effort to avoid further state sanctions. If they cannot find a partner by the end of May, then Commissioner of Edu­ca­tion Michael Williams has made public statements that he may intervene, possibly even closing the campus.

The timeline is almost impossibly compressed. AISD only issued its request for proposals on March 7, giving interested parties a little over a month to reply. Normally, just writing the language for an RFP of this scale would take months. Instead, a work group – selected by and from the administration – had less than a month to produce its framework for bids. The initial draft read very much like the work group was just looking for a charter group to take over the campus. However, after consultation with trustees Jayme Mathias, Gina Hinojosa, and Ann Teich, the final version was designed to give the district more options. While charter groups were still eligible to bid, the RFP opened the process up to "a programmatic-based partnership, a school development model, a school management organization, an education management organization, a charter school, or a collaboration of several organizations that each brings unique expertise and experience."

Eastside's plight is almost a technical foul. Founded in 2008 on the old Johnston High School campus, in 2009 it was split into two schools: Green Tech and Global Tech. The two programs bounced in and out of academically unacceptable status, and finally in 2011 the AISD board of trustees decided to merge them back into one campus and then, controversially, hand over the entire vertical team, including feeder elementaries and middle schools – to IDEA Public Schools to run as an in-district charter. IDEA started at Allan Elementary, but trustees canceled their contract before they ever taught a single class at Eastside. (Trustees on Monday also decided against leasing Allan to IDEA, further distancing the district from the charter school operator.) The problem now is that the Texas Edu­ca­tion Agency has made it clear that, to fulfill the requirements of its state-mandated campus improvement plan, AISD must still work with an external partner at Eastside. Even though the campus was classified academically acceptable in 2011 – the last year of state ratings before the Legislature suspended the whole system – Williams is still demanding that a partner acceptable to him be put in place.

The next stage after all – or any – bids are in will be a review by an evaluation committee, whose membership has been assembled, although AISD had not yet released the list of appointees at press time. How­ever, unlike the work group, the 15-member body includes Eastside parents, teachers, students, and community members alongside members of the administration. They will have little time to come to a consensus: The committee is expected to hold its first meeting April 9 and to have whittled down the possible partners to a short list of two by April 15. Contacted via email, Associate Super­intendent of High Schools Edmund Oropez said that he expected the board of trustees to make their recommendation on either May 6 or May 13. Board President Vince Torres conceded that the process of soliciting bids was "rushed, but not that uncommon for responding to an RFP." His greater concern was about ensuring enough community consultation and engagement before the board has to hit TEA's deadline.

The question remains: Exactly what does the TEA want the partner agency to look like? Williams has been criticized for a lack of clarity in his statements and the forums in which he has made them. So far, most of his guidance to the district has come via news interviews, rather than direct contact. TEA Director of Media Relations Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said, "He has asked the district, 'What's your game plan now?'" She conceded that "there are people in the community that want us to say, 'Do A, B or C,' but that's not really the appropriate role for us right now. The district has to come up with a plan, using all their best information and knowledge."

While many fear another heavy-handed TEA intervention, Education Austin Pres­ident Ken Zarifis – who has regularly crossed swords with the district over East­side – sees the RFP as a chance to break with the campus' destructive and divisive recent history by concentrating on the positive achievements under the Green Tech and Global Tech models. He said, "Even though they didn't blow the lid off with their numbers, you can see a different school and a different approach to education with those that went through those two years." He proposes that the board use the language of the RFP to find a real partner, one that will truly engage the community and stay for long enough to help raise the campus. He said, "Any quality program that they might find has to be implemented with a commitment – not to take over like IDEA did, but to work with the teachers and the parents to make it better."

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