The Austin Chronicle

Eastside Memorial: The Future of Panther Pride

By Richard Whittaker, June 21, 2013, 8:00am, Newsdesk

Two weeks ago, staff and students at Eastside Memorial got the good news from Education Commissioner Michael Williams: He turned up at graduation to tell them their campus stays open, and has three years to prove itself. Now, as the saying goes, starts the hard part.

The actual June 5 announcement was a little bit of a shock to the district, in manner if not in content. Austin ISD Associate Superintendent for High Schools Edmund Oropez, along with trustees Jayme Mathias and Vince Torres, and Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, met with Williams and his staff on May 14 to bring them up to speed on their proposal for the campus: To bring Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary on as a partner and technical support. During the meeting, Williams went through his take on the plan, and instructed AISD staff to work with his TEA team to fill out his areas of concern. After that, Oropez said, "We worked with our principals, our community members, to build a plan that wasn't going to turn the school upside down."

As the finessed plan took shape, it became increasingly clear that Williams was satisfied with the proposal. On the day of the graduation ceremony, Oropez said, "We were on phone with him closer to around two (pm), sorting out some of the details, when he asked whether he could make the announcement at the graduation."

The good news for Eastside Memorial itself was simple: Keep doing what you're doing, and let Johns Hopkins assist in areas such as curriculum support, teacher training and development, as well as extra support for students. There will be heavy emphasis on the ninth grade, assisting students making the sometimes tough leap from middle school to high school. The district will be investing $200,000 to help integrate career pathways into the entire academic process. "There's real dollars attached to this," said Oropez.

The best news after years of upheaval: No wholesale staffing changes. In fact, the district is offering another year of its REACH program to incentivize teacher retention, plus there will be signing bonuses for new staff at Eastside and Martin Middle School. Most importantly, the only thing the campus has to do beyond comply with the agreement is be classified as Academically Acceptable – or the analog under the new school accountability system – by the end of the 2015-16 school year. Oropez called that three year window "huge." He seemed upbeat about a constructive timeline, saying that while the district "does not have that sword over us, we know that the clock's ticking."

During the final negotiations, Williams' biggest concern was not so much about the plan for Eastside itself, but more about the vertical team – Martin Middle School and the the eight elementaries that feed into the high school campus. This is scarcely old news: Martin has been painted as the weak link in the chain for years. However, it has arguably been the worst victim of AISD's shortsightedness, bludgeoned by changing enrolments as the district flips and flops on how to handle surrounding middle schools like Pearce and Garcia.

What the agreement does is it puts a new emphasis on collaboration. Principals, supported by technical analysis from Johns Hopkins, must come together regularly to work through data and find out what's working and where the issues are. They will also work with Johns Hopkins on career pathways with feedback from the kids, "so we see what it is the stduents want," said Oropez. There will be a clear focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), to prepare the kids for what they will face in high school. Oropez said, "It's really clearly delineated that what we're doing at Eastside, what we're doing at Martin."

That new approach will flow all the way back down through the feeder pattern. The plan also includes better curriculum integration, a numeracy plan at the elementary level, plus dual language and ESL expansion. The staff, Johns Hopkins and the administration is working on an implementation schedule, and Oropez scheduled meetings with feeder principals on June 12 to develop what he called a "stop light" analysis of deliverables for everyone.

Advocates for Martin such as Pride of the Eastside argue that Williams is a little late to the party, and that the vertical team has been working on better integration for the last two years (they are also particularly chagrined that Carstarphen did little to explain those developments to either Williams or the trustees). However, Oropez argues that placing those developments in the agreement is about "operationalizing it. You're putting pen to paper and saying that we're doing this. It's not just handshake deals."

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