Southwest Key to Eastside's Future?

Education non-profit makes long-awaited pitch for Johnston campus

Southwest Key founder Juan Sánchez: Wants to make Eastside Memorial High
Southwest Key founder Juan Sánchez: Wants to make Eastside Memorial High "a full service multi-functional community center." (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After years of rumblings and hints, today education non-profit Southwest Key will formally submit its plan to take over AISD's Eastside Memorial on the old Johnston campus.

The idea is not to keep it as a straight high school. Instead, Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez wrote to AISD Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, his goal is to turn it into a "full service multi-functional community center for the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood." This will include a high school add-on to their existing East Austin College Prep Academy.

The group argues that the three schools on the campus – Green Tech, Global Tech and the International High School – are all under capacity. They propose that, by handing the East Austin campus over to them for $1 per year for the next 99 years, AISD could save itself $8 million a year on its operating budget.

However, their numbers ignore the fact that Eastside is deliberately currently working under capacity. When the campus re-opened in 2009, it was as an opt-in only campus. The idea was always to build a successful school with hands-on specialty courses that would attract students over time. As for the $8 million in operational costs, considering that AISD would only have to teach those kids somewhere else, then any savings would be much smaller.

Although it will be the first time they have formally presented the idea, Southwest Key's plan to take over Eastside is far from new. When the AISD Facilities Master Plan Task Force held their public meetings in late January, members of the Southwest Key community presented the idea as it was being floated for the first time. Their search for supporters has caused some strange bedfellows. Last Friday, Southwest Key external communications manager Narissa Johnson got an op-ed into Texas Insider – the most profoundly and dogmatically Republican of all the Texas capitol media. In fact, members of the Southwest Key administration raised the issue of Eastside, and what they could do with it, repeatedly during a meeting with Chronicle writers last year, and Sanchez notes in his letter that they drafted a proposal for the campus in March 2010.

It goes back even further than that. In 2008, when Southwest Key selected the site for their charter middle school (and also the future site of their national headquarters) everyone noticed how close it was to the then-Johnston High. In fact, back in 2007, before Johnston even closed, the Chronicle wrote:

If Johnston fails this year, the campus could be turned over to a nonprofit for operation. Some in the community are speculating that Southwest Key – which failed to get one of the handful of remaining state charters this year but still appears to be hovering in the wings – is simply waiting for the school to fail in order to secure the campus.

As for this latest push, Southwest Key seems to be suggesting that AISD put its money where its mouth is with real community outreach and innovative collaborations. However, that river flows both ways. During their application for Promise Neighborhood Initiative grants, Southwest Key lambasted AISD for not getting behind its East Austin Children's Promise project, and instead backing the Austin Achievement Zone in the St. John neighborhood. In fact, Southwest Key were part of the early discussions about a joint proposal, and then walked away from the table to file their own paperwork when it became clear that their unproven prep academy would not be the proposal's academic hub.

Still, there may be one vote on the AISD board who backs the plan: Whoever it was that falsely (and anonymously) implying to the Statesman that Sam Guzman was the only trustee who really wanted Eastside in its current form.

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AISD, Eastside Memorial High School, Southwest Key, Johnston High School, Global Tech, Green Tech, International High School

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