Three Plans for Four Eastside Schools
Four schools, three very different plans
Eastside Memorial High School
Current Status: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) hub in its first year of partnership with Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary
Long-Term Plan: Reinforce the entire Eastside Memorial vertical team
Eastside may be the poster child for the damaging effects of constant intervention and reconstitution. In the five and a half years since Johnston High was renamed Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus, it's been split into two schools (Global Tech and Green Tech), reintegrated, almost handed over to IDEA Public Schools to become an in-district charter, almost closed, and is now on its fifth principal. However, last year Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams signed off on a deal that brought Johns Hopkins in as a consulting partner and professional development resource, and gave it three years to implement reform (see "Eastside and Johns Hopkins Get the TEA OK," June 5, 2013). AISD trustees received their scheduled quarterly update on the partnership on Jan. 12, and all metrics were at or above their targets. Board President Vince Torres said, "Things seem to be going well, the community seems to be happy and engaged, and we're concentrating on some of those things that are important for parents to help their kids." The big change from all the earlier reforms is that three year window after years of chop and change. "It lowers the stress level of people on the campus," Torres said, and allows families time to make lifestyle changes to help their kids. Education Austin President Ken Zarifis has praised the presence of Johns Hopkins – not just because of its results, which are already promising, but of how it was selected: through meaningful community outreach by AISD. "Taking that action was a step forward," he said, "and much closer to what we would like to see in how they engage the community ... in a much more robust and open way than they did in the past."
Pearce and Garcia Middle Schools
Current Status: Separate middle schools
Long-Term Plan: Single-sex academies with a shared attendance zone, starting fall 2014
While voters were resoundingly rejecting plans for a boys' academy funded out of last year's bond proposals, AISD was quietly continuing with plans to convert two of its central East Austin campuses into single-sex academies. Girls in the area will head to the Young Women's Leadership Academy at Pearce, run by Principal Ivette Savina, and boys will attend the Young Men's Leadership Academy at Garcia under Principal Sterlin McGruder. Both campuses have had their share of troubles: Garcia, right on the eastern edge of AISD, has always struggled with enrollment, while Pearce has been threatened with closure three times in the last five years. Now the district is developing a new educational model that will align them with the district's STEM plans. Controversially, the campus reconstitution plan includes developing "gender-specific instructional strategies." The idea that girls and boys learn differently has come under very serious attack, and may leave the district open to litigation (the ACLU in particular has been hot on filing civil rights suits on this issue). The district has also faced severe criticism from researchers, including at UT, who argue single-sex education has no benefits over coed classes, and may stunt social development (see "Uncontrolled Experiments," Dec. 9, 2011). There are also logistical concerns that come from merging the two schools into one super-sized attendance zone, meaning many students will travel further to school. Then there are the families that won't want to send their kids to single-sex schools. AISD Board President Torres said that those students will be allowed to transfer to neighboring coed middle schools. Since so many of those are underenrolled, that shouldn't create an extra burden, he said: "Even if you say that 50 percent of the current students are interested in going somewhere else, and you look at the options of Burnet Middle School or Webb or Lamar, the impact wouldn't be significant." Before all of that, AISD faces the major task of educating parents and staff that the change is coming. Torres said, "As much as we like to assume that everyone in these communities knows what's going on, I can guarantee that the first day of school there will be someone who says, 'What, this is a single-sex school?'"
Current Status: Temporary home for library services; also configured as a reserve campus in case of emergency closures
Long-Term Plan: Under discussion
Another victim of planning turmoil, with community fury about both losing its neighborhood elementary to IDEA Public Schools, and then seeing it closed when IDEA's contract was terminated. To calm the waters, AISD has brought in local nonprofit Austin Voices for Education and Youth – the same group that ran the selection process to bring Johns Hopkins to Eastside – to lead the discussion on what to do with Allan. The first stage was to get community feedback on preferred programs, and on Jan. 27, trustees approved a second stage, with extra community meetings and the formation of an Ad Hoc Allan Facility Committee to "develop proposals and cost analysis that benefit the [Eastside Memorial vertical team] academically." With primary school age numbers too low to support an elementary, the most likely plans involve turning it back into a middle school (as it was originally designed to be) and housing either a dual language program or a STEM academy. Vincent Tovar, spokesman for Pride of the Eastside, said that a bilingual program would have to overcome the institutionalized idea that Spanish-speaking kids need to be moved to English as fast as possible. "White, affluent families are doing the research and seeing the benefits of bilingual education," he said, "but you've got East Austin administrators saying the opposite." However, board president Torres suggested that, since kids are likely to learn Spanish and English anyway, why not add a third language into the mix – Chinese. After all, there's historically been an international high school at Eastside, and Doss Elementary off Far West recently implemented a highly successful Mandarin Chinese immersion program. Torres said, "Can you imagine being a kid who can speak English, Spanish, and Chinese in the modern economy?"