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Eastside Partner Search Narrows To Two Contenders

Johns Hopkins and American Institutes for Research are top candidates

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 26, 2013

Community members listen to Johns Hopkins' representatives Jeffrey Robinson (l), and Chris Caesar (r) present their plans to get Eastside back on track.
Community members listen to Johns Hopkins' representatives Jeffrey Robinson (l), and Chris Caesar (r) present their plans to get Eastside back on track.
Photo by Jana Birchum

The search for a partner to strengthen Eastside Memorial High School and exorcise the specter of closure narrowed last weekend as the final two candidates – Johns Hopkins University's School of Education and the American Institutes for Research – made their pitches to the Eastside community.

Commissioner of Education Michael Wil­liams has given the Austin Independent School District a soft deadline of May 31 – the end of the school year – to select a partner to replace IDEA Public Schools in the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team. The 13-member evaluation committee received five applications for the district's request for proposal. They rejected three: Florida-based Turnaround Solutions; Editure Pro­fes­sional Development, out of New York; and Southwest Key Programs, the East Austin charter that has made repeated unsuccessful bids to take over Eastside.

On May 20, in a well-attended three-hour meeting in the Eastside Memorial cafeteria, the two remaining contenders presented their plans to the community. Both emphasized two selling points: that this process is not a charter-style takeover, and that this is not a permanent partnership. Chris Caesar, a Johns Hopkins instructional facilitator and former East Austin resident, said, "We're not interested in taking over East­side High. We like to help, we like to work, and we like to move on."

Both groups proposed working in an advisory and support capacity, restructuring the curriculum, adding support staff for students and staff, and rebuilding the community around the school. Cary Cuiccio, AIR's principal education consultant, stressed that their program had to become part of the "educational ecosystem." She said, "There's no way we could just drop ourselves into an environment like this. If the web is strong, we bounce back out. If the web is weak, then we drop right through."

Johns Hopkins enters as the perceived front-runner. With nearly two decades of experience in school turnaround, the staff proposed implementing their Talent Devel­op­ment Secondary model. In the early phases, it concentrates on what their researchers call the ABCs: poor attendance, disruptive behavior, and course failure in math or English. According to regional site manager Jeffrey Robinson, Johns Hopkins' research shows that any of these indicators means a student only has a 10 to 20% chance of graduating on time. While their proposal only directly affects Eastside Memorial, Robinson noted that their ABCs become apparent in grades six through nine, and stressed that they would work with principals throughout the vertical team to ensure early intervention.

By contrast, AIR is relatively new at hands-on school turnaround. The core of its proposal was a one-year transition period, built on a six-month evaluation of the campus and community needs, much of this done through Austin-based education research firm Gibson Consulting Group. President Greg Gibson said his company had worked with AIR on campus evaluation programs for the last five years. "We kind of feel like their Austin office," he said, stressing that, while AIR may be based out-of-state, "If you need a body here today, I'll be here."

The evaluation committee is expected to make its recommendation this week to the administration, which will then present the finalist's proposal to the board for a vote on either May 6 or 13. From there, the board will present the plan to the education commissioner.

So what happens if Williams says no? At their Monday night meeting, the board approved language for a contingency plan if he rejects the partner­ship and orders the campus closed. How­ever, the seemingly simple request came out of an often-fractious exchange with Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. Trustees objected to her draft language that Eastside should be closed if it "fails to meet state standards during the 2012-2013 school year and is ordered by the commissioner to be closed." Instead, Trus­tee Amber Elenz constructed replacement language that simply refers to a closure ruling from the commissioner – rather than placing the onus on the students – and makes it clear that closure is a worst-case scenario, to be undertaken "if and only if" the commissioner orders it. Trustees were concerned that this resolution was the first they had heard about the requirement for such a plan, and it didn't help their mood when Carstar­phen told them that Williams had requested it verbally, in a private meeting. According to Texas Edu­ca­tion Com­mis­sion Communications Director Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, Car­star­phen and Williams have met regularly to discuss Eastside. Barring the occasional public statement, that is how the board has received most of its information about what Williams wants – secondhand, via Car­star­phen. That lack of a paper trail has concerned both board members and the East­side community, but Ratcliffe said it is normal for such communication to be done directly between the commissioner and superintendents.

However, many Eastside advocates remain optimistic that Williams will be won over by whichever group the district selects. Moreover, by proposing a true partnership, rather than another takeover, the proposal could finally give the East Austin community what it wants. Austin Voices for Edu­ca­tion and Youth Executive Director Allen Weeks said that both plans fit what is already going on at Eastside, and would end the "us and them" mentality of recent years. "The gears meshed," he said, "between what was presented, and what people were asking and thinking and expecting."

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