Just Add Students

The new Eastside high school takes shape

There's a new high school coming to Austin. It doesn't have a name yet, and the student roster is not completely confirmed, and some teachers have yet to be hired. What is known for sure is while it will stand on the site of the recently closed Albert S. Johnston High School, Austin Independent School District plans to make the still unnamed Eastside high very different from the old Johnston – and from any other school. "I just met with 11 districts that have gone through redesign, and none of them have solved the problem of high schools," said AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione. "We seem to have pieces, but how you put them together is very cultural and very contextual." What is clear, he said, is the district has to know precisely what it and the East Austin community want from their new school.

Why Johnston Failed

There is no one reason why Johnston failed. But why it closed is simple: Under the state's Accountability Rating System, administered by the Texas Education Agency, it was classified as "academically unacceptable" for five consecutive years. When that happens, the axe drops. "The statute is quite clear about expectations for the fifth year," said Laura Tay­lor, TEA's deputy associate commissioner for Program Monitoring and Interventions. In 2006, the Legislature introduced new sanctions. After four years of a school being classified as unacceptable, TEA can step in. After five years, it has no option. The school must close.

Just Add Students
Illustration by Leah Sharpe

The status is gauged by 26 metrics of achievement: Forgione calls them "trip wires," and larger, more diverse school districts by definition have more ways to trip. It doesn't matter by how many cells on the spreadsheet or how few or by how much or how little a school fails: A fail is a fail. Even if a school improves dramatically over that five-year period or if it fails in different areas in different years, "there's no compensatoriness," said For­gione. "I could be up big in 10 cells, flat in 15, and down in one, and I get the scarlet 'U' for unacceptable." He called the rules, which came into effect Jan. 1, "a new reality, this whole issue of facing closure, of blaming a building."

But that doesn't change the fact that two Johnston graduating classes matriculated completely through an academically unacceptable school. For state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who has taken a keen interest in Johnston, that's what is unacceptable. "In year three, you should know what your glide path is," he said. "You should have repurposed by year five, or you don't have to because you're reaching the standards."

Getting the right reform is tricky. There has been repeated criticism that Johnston was doomed from 2002, when the academic magnet school, the Liberal Arts Academy, merged with the Science Academy at LBJ High School to form the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. Critics said the move stripped away Johnston's highest-performing students. But Forgione argues the presence of the academy only masked campuswide problems, and that wasn't going to last. "Liberal Arts was not a strong academic school," he said, "It was starting to lose it." Enrollment was dropping, and something had to be done: Merging it with the Science Academy has meant that LASA is likely to be classified as "exemplary" next year.

That was followed by the 2004 Johnston-inspired redesign. Under the guidance of Rosalinda Hernandez, former associate superintendent of high schools, it was split into two academies (the Academy of Arts and Humanities and the Academy of Scientific Inquiry and Design), each with its own curriculum. But in 2006, student scores declined, forcing the district to get involved more directly and bringing its Office of High School Redesign into play.

While the school couldn't beat TEA's clock, Johnston in 2008 was almost unrecognizable compared to Johnston in 2002, with improved results across all five subject areas. Once the Office of Redesign started more serious community outreach in 2006, attendance went up by 4% in the first semester, 7% in the first year, and a remarkable 10% by this June. Johnston had its first Parent Teacher Student Association in eight years.

But it still got caught in the trip wires.

Close or Repurpose?

Pat Forgione
Pat Forgione (Photo by John Anderson)

The TEA gave AISD two options: Padlock Johnston's doors to possibly open freshly in a year, or repurpose the campus immediately. For Forgione, closure was off the table, since there was no guarantee a sudden diaspora for Johnston students would benefit their education. "A hundred kids would have gone to Austin High," he said. "They [at Austin High] weren't ready for them, they weren't programmed for them, the kids wouldn't do well, and Austin High could have failed."

Part of the problem with the new repurposing rules, Forgione argues, is that the authors didn't have ISDs like Austin in mind. "The law was really written [such] that you have a place that kids can't get out of, so you close it. Well, that's certainly not our context," he said. "Every child in Johnston had 'diversity choice' with busing. Majority-minority without busing gives them another chance to go [to another school]." That's why, he added, Johnston had already lost more than half its students to other campuses.

The system ignores that in a district with choice, students remaining are not trapped there but may have very good reasons to stay – some academic, some personal. Watson warns that AISD must take those factors into account to avoid unintended consequences, like students having to choose between education and jobs. "It's not just a kid working for extra money to buy more gas; their money is an important component of the income of the household," Watson said. While there may be buses available to get a student to and from school, "you've now changed the ability to work at a certain time, to be at home at a certain time," he added.

But for AISD board of trustees member Sam Guzman, who represents East Austin's District 2 and ran both his 2007 and 2008 election campaigns on a commitment to revive Johnston, it's not just about individual students and their families. It's the almost immeasurable impact of having a neighborhood school that has served generations of East Austinites. "People throughout the years have identified with that school," he said. "It's more than a school; it's an institution, and you're talking about taking away an institution."

How to Build a School in Four Months

Since the buildings are there and the students are there, how hard can it be to design a new school? "You've heard the expression 'building the airplane while you're flying it'?" asked Mary Alice Deike. The former principal of W. Charles Akins High School stepped out of partial retirement when AISD asked her to help former administrator Dr. Celina Estrada-Thomas in what she described as "a coaching position, to concentrate on improving teaching." After Estrada-Thomas announced her resignation in May, to be replaced by former Anderson High principal David Kernwein (as interim principal), Deike stepped up to become executive principal and is deeply involved in the repurposing. Having seen the effort to save Johnston, she said: "Had it been done earlier, it might have made a difference. But the trajectory is going in the right direction." Now she describes herself as "delighted" to still be involved.

It's no small task. TEA Commissioner Robert Scott sent his letter confirming Johnston's closure on June 4, the AISD board of trustees voted to push for repurposing on June 9, and the TEA only accepted the repurposing proposal on June 18. The new school opens on Aug. 25, the beginning of the academic year. There were other issues to navigate, such as commitments to run summer programs and somehow avoiding disrupting the successful International High School, which shares the property.

After deciding to repurpose, the second major decision was not to replace Johnston with a new comprehensive high school. The eventual plan is for three separate schools sharing the campus: the IHS, which will continue unaltered; the new school opening in August, which looks likely to become repurposed for early college preparation; and a third specialty academy opening in 2009, unspecified at this time but possibly to be modeled on the New Tech High at Akins. When complete, the three schools will share many nonacademic assets, like sports and music. Deike rejects the notion that the plans for the 2008-09 academic year put students in a holding pattern while AISD devises something better. "The work that we are doing this year will lead into what we will do in the years after," she said.

Johnston High School
Johnston High School (Photo by Jana Birchum)

While the plan is to have roughly 600 students between the two new schools, Patti Everitt, AISD's director of operations and community outreach for the Office of Redesign, argues the benefit of dividing into smaller learning communities is simple math: Even if the student-teacher ratio remains the same (the plan is to actually make that 20-to-1, rather than AISD's 30-to-1 norm), fewer teachers and fewer students means a better chance that every teacher knows every student. "Instead of having 60 teachers who never have time to talk about Patti, you now have 30 teachers, so there's a better chance that they're going to get together," she said. Staff will have joint daily 90-minute planning periods and use the new Student Teacher Advisement Reports, which flag grade, attendance, and discipline problems early, not for punishment but for intervention. In the classroom, the district has committed to 10 new programs – including learning-to-learn skills ("One of the things we heard from students is, 'No one ever taught us how to study,' so we're responding to that," said Everitt) and the national Advancement Via Individual Determination organizational skills system.

In addition to these changes, Forgione also points to Johnston's successful programs. The reason they worked before and can work again is simple: What worked for Johnston worked for the Eastside community. He rejects taking a one-size-fits-all approach of bolting what works elsewhere into the new high school's classrooms. Take the three schools that introduced the district's First Things First program: "Why did LBJ and Travis kick butt and Reagan didn't?" he asked. Even TEA acknowledged Johnston's successes. In his June 18 letter, Scott singled out its afterhours Twilight School program for particular praise. Similarly, the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Com­merce plans to continue and enhance its mentorship program. Forgione plans to take those successes on board. "It can't be a traditional high school," he said. "It's got to be flexible. It may run from 8 to 8. We've got to find a way to meet the needs of all our kids."

Deike hopes that flexibility can be reflected in the lesson plan as well as the schedule. She recalled Johnston students had a geometry project on how to get a good deal on a big-screen TV. "They really applied the Pythagorean [theorem]," she said. The trick is in not confusing an applied approach with dumbing-down. "It has to make kids think," she said. "It's not just about solving one problem but a deeper understanding."

That takes good teachers, but under the TEA's repurposing guidelines, only 25% of Johnston's staff can move to the new high school; the rest must be reassigned or let go. For For­gione, who designed incentives to get good teachers into Johnston in the first place and saw the results of their efforts, this was a hard pill to swallow. "All these teachers that were responsible for this growth, I have to get rid of three out of four of them," he said. The only other option was worse. "If we padlocked [Johnston], they would have gone anyway," he added.

The accelerated timeline and late start make finding new staff difficult. Most hiring happens in the spring for the district's new teacher orientation Aug. 11. "Teachers have families and investments, and they want to know where they're going to be," said Everitt. Extra provisions were made by the Human Resources department to give some leeway, not least of which is cash. In March, the board approved tactical compensation for high-achieving middle and high school principals worth up to $10,000 a year: For the new Eastside principal, as well as Pearce and Reagan, that figure rises to $30,000, "because the effort is extraordinary," said Forgione.

That effort includes hiring master teachers, whom Deike described as having "success with kids and a real ability to make education come alive." "We're being very selective," she added. "A master teacher really has to be a master teacher. It can't just be someone who is certified and has some experience in the schoolroom."

It's an evolving process, with hires made as the right candidate becomes available. But there is already a bedrock of proven former Johnston staff, the ones behind the recent radical improvements: One of the two assistant principals and two of the four instructional coaches are Johnston holdovers, as is academy Director Brandy Baker. From the interim team, Kernwein will likely stay in place as principal until the 2009-10 academic year, while Deike switches from executive principal to consultant. The TEA's management team will also stay in place. Plus, as Everitt noted, most of the new teachers are local, "which is good, because they'll know the standards and the [instructional planning guides]."

The Johnston Legacy

What may be most surprising is that with the death of Johnston and so many unknowns about its replacement, students still want to go there. As part of the TEA's approval of repurposing, it has to be a school of choice: No student can be assigned there before 2010 and even then only if it is judged academically acceptable. But by July 23, 376 students had sent in their forms confirming that they wanted to attend the new high school: Everitt expects more and is actively seeking them out. "We have walkers going door-to-door for students who have not returned their forms yet," she said. "But we'll have kids turning up on the first day." That initial roster already includes 27 students from outside the John­ston attendance zone, attracted by the plans. "It's not a stampede, but a trickle," said Everitt, who expects those numbers to increase as the new school establishes itself and its innovative programs attract students districtwide.

Most importantly, Forgione hopes there are no more school closures and mandatory repurposing remains rare. Only one other high school in the entire state – Sam Houston in Houston ISD – is facing mandatory year-five repurposing, while two middle schools – G.L. Wiley in Waco and Oak Village in North Forest – are on their fourth academically unacceptable years, "So the numbers are pretty small," said TEA's Taylor. While Forgione praised TEA for supporting the repurposing plan, he hopes that the state will learn from Johnston when considering further reforms. "It feels like a punitive system," said Forgione, "because it doesn't credit the growth that I made. Yes, call me in need of improvement, but don't call me 'low-performing' when I've improved in so many areas."

Forgione also hopes the real local legacy of Johnston will be felt districtwide, to help other troubled schools. "Everything we learned at Johnston, we're going to apply upstream, so that's a halo effect on a tough situation," he said. Just as Student Teacher Advisement Reports allow for earlier intervention for students, he hopes that keeping clearer track of how schools are performing, combined with a willingness to intervene earlier with innovative new approaches, will mean redesign and repurpose can take place in year two of academically unacceptable status, not in year four, when the die is cast. "Shame on us that we didn't come up with the solution quick enough," he said, "but I do feel the future will be better."

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Johnston High School, Pat Forgione, Kirk Watson, Sam Guzman, Texas Education Agency

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