AISD Board Picks Johns Hopkins as Eastside Partner

Unanimous vote has community support

AISD Board President Vincent Torres at a Tuesday press conference at Eastside Memorial to discuss the new partnership. Among those shown behind Torres are trustee Ann Teich, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, former Mayor Gus Garcia, trustee Gina Hinojosa, and Education Austin's Ken Zarifis.
AISD Board President Vincent Torres at a Tuesday press conference at Eastside Memorial to discuss the new partnership. Among those shown behind Torres are trustee Ann Teich, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, former Mayor Gus Garcia, trustee Gina Hinojosa, and Education Austin's Ken Zarifis. (Photo by John Anderson)

Moments of unity in Austin ISD are rare. When it comes to Eastside Memorial High School, they are even rarer. But on May 6 the district's board of trustees unanimously backed a plan to enter into a partnership with Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary Program to help manage the campus. Now they just have to convince Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams to sign off on the deal.

Ever since AISD terminated its contract with IDEA Public Schools to run the entire Eastside Memorial Vertical Team, Williams has demanded they find a replacement outside entity to run the high school. However, rather than bring in another charter, trustees have been seeking a partner to strengthen the school. The proposal by Johns Hopkins would emphasize curriculum and professional support rather than a full takeover: As Instructional Facilitator Chris Caesar had previously told the community, "We're not interested in taking over Eastside High. We like to help, we like to work, and we like to move on."

Their bid was recommended by a specially formulated evaluation committee comprised of staff, stakeholders, and community members. In an initial appraisal process, the research group beat the other finalist, American Institutes for Research, by 88.81 points to 75.45. Their position as the community's choice was reinforced at an April 20 meeting at Eastside Memorial, at which the bulk of public comment cards supported their proposal. That was echoed at the May 6 meeting, as the overwhelming bulk of speakers during citizens communication pleaded with the board to unanimously back the committee's findings. Education Austin Vice President Mont­ser­rat Garibay, who served on the evaluation committee, emphasized to the board, "Our decision was unanimous."

The response from the board was praise for the committee members and the process, which trustee Tamala Barksdale called "true due diligence in delivering what the commissioner asked for." Lori Moya summed up the positions of many board members when she said, "I'm going to have to put my trust in people who have done a lot more work and a lot more research than I have." Similarly, Gina Hinojosa described the rapid trip from asking for proposals to having a partner lined up as "short of a miracle." She suggested that the Johns Hopkins plan filled the true purpose of the state's reconstitution plan – "to put the resources at Eastside."

Before the meeting, many stakeholders were concerned that Superintendent Meria Carstarphen might become a roadblock to the deal. In the meeting agenda item, her staff had ignored the bulk of Johns Hopkins' record, instead concentrating on their problems at Baltimore Talent Development High – one of the most infamously troubled schools in America, located in the same neighborhood as the setting for HBO's drug drama The Wire, where the numbers have been disappointing. But by the time of the meeting, Carstarphen stated that she was recommending the evaluation committee's findings. She still attempted to temper her endorsement by saying that its decision was limited to the five entities that responded to the district's original request for proposals. She added, "As an administration, we agree that Talent Development Second­ary is the best of the five." However, while saying there were "a number of strengths and some weaknesses" to their application, she stressed that they were "philosophically aligned" with the district's goals.

This is merely a stage in an ongoing process. The board still has to approve a finalized contract, and trustees are expected to vote on that by May 20 at the latest. Carstarphen noted that the contract writing process should go smoothly, as most of the terms and requirements had been built into the original RFP. If approved by the board, the deal has to go before Williams for final approval, and his decision is expected by the end of the school year in early June. After the initial vote, trustees held a brief discussion about what their fallback plans should be in the event he does say no. At the prompting of trustee Ann Teich, they agreed to send a letter to Williams, laying out the process by which they and the community came to this decision. So far, she said, "The board has not really had an articulating voice" in the process.

Vincent Tovar of Pride of the Eastside, who served as an alternate member of the evaluation committee, praised the board for their unanimous endorsement of the process. He was disappointed there was so much emphasis on Baltimore, and not on the 58 other high schools and 24 middle schools either partnering with or run by Johns Hopkins. Yet with a 9-0 vote and community support, he said, "It's hard to argue against Johns Hopkins in the education realm."

The board vote was also the start of a broader discussion on the wider issue of strengthening not just Eastside Memorial, but all the feeder schools that flow into it. Trustees Cheryl Bradley and Robert Schnei­der said the district must concentrate on the entire vertical team, especially at the middle school level. Schneider warned that the district must consider some hard decisions, such as redrawing attendance zones, and that even the seemingly untouchable open transfer policy may come up for review. Similarly, Bradley warned that "if we have not fixed the pipeline, then this will not be successful and we will be back in two years."

Austin Voices for Education and Youth Executive Director Allen Weeks, who moderated the April 20 community meeting, agreed with Bradley that "our pipelines in AISD tend to be leaky." However, he added, "Vertical teams are all about relationships. I think we've seen over the last few years principals building stronger relationships, and the district's really been working on that." For Weeks, the next logical step is keeping and increasing the community engagement started by the partner search process. He said, "There's 11 neighborhoods that feed into Eastside, and our job is to make sure they see it as their neighborhood campus."

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