'Fighting For, Not Against' Eastside

Now the turnaround work begins on troubled campus

Community activist Vincent Tovar expresses joy at a May 7 press conference on AISD trustees' decision to tap Johns Hopkins as a turnaround partner for Eastside Memorial High.
Community activist Vincent Tovar expresses joy at a May 7 press conference on AISD trustees' decision to tap Johns Hopkins as a turnaround partner for Eastside Memorial High. (Photo by John Anderson)

"We did it." That was the simple message from Pride of the Eastside spokesman Vincent Tovar, after Education Com­mis­sion­er Michael Williams announced last week that he would sign off on a partnership deal between the Austin Independent School District and the Johns Ho­pkins Secondary Talent Development program for the Eastside Memorial Campus.

On June 5, Williams unexpectedly joined Eastside's graduating class onstage at the Frank Erwin Center with the good news. After years of upheaval and disruption, and a failed attempt to hand the entire Eastside vertical team over to the IDEA Public Schools charter group, he approved the five-year partnership between AISD and Johns Hopkins. Initially, Williams had been critical of the proposal, telling trustees it did too little to address issues in the feeder pattern of schools sending kids to Eastside. However, in a statement, he said the final plan "contains many strong components critical to student success."

Yet Williams' initial announcement, and even the accompanying press release, still needed clarification. The first major issue concerns targets for the school: Williams wrote that if the "academic rating for Eastside Memorial High School is not acceptable for both 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years," then the campus must be closed. The press release had been broadly interpreted as saying that Eastside must be acceptable by the end of the 2014-15 school year. According to Texas Education Agency Director of Communications Gene Acuna, however, the deal gives the campus three years. Year one – the upcoming 2013-14 school year – is an implementation year, giving the administration and Johns Hopkins time to assess and integrate programs. In year two (2014-15), the TEA hopes the campus will be graded acceptable, but it's not until year three (2015-16) that the campus absolutely has to make the grade. Acuna said, "For the district and the state, it is the commissioner's intent that the district has three full years to reach the level of academically acceptable."

However, the term "academically accept­able" no longer means anything in Texas education. Under the recently passed House Bill 5, the old system that included that rating was replaced by an A-F grading scale for campuses. Acuna explained that the commissioner and the district designed the plan under the existing terminology, before HB 5 passed. He said, "If that terminology changes, we'll be working with the district to define what academically acceptable would be."

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said he was really encouraged by the time frame. He said, "In school turnaround, having that space and time, it's really needed." More importantly, he praised Johns Hop­kins as a partner that will listen to what the campus and district want. Previous reforms of the campus have resulted in upheaval, such as the arbitrary firing of 75% of the staff. Instead, Johns Hopkins staff will give support to the existing campus community, supplementing programs and adding extra training and family support. Zarifis said the partnership "is about being respectful to everyone, not just the numbers."

In his statement, Williams said, "I commend Superintendent [Meria] Carstarphen and her staff as well as members of the AISD board of trustees for working with the agency to develop a plan that rightly places the focus on the educational needs of all students." However, that praise for Car­star­phen is falling on deaf ears for many in the East Austin community, who see her administration's mismanagement of the campus – and her continued behind-the-scenes advocacy for IDEA – as a core component of Eastside's problems. Tovar asked, "How is she going to help us move forward in the future when she hasn't in the past?"

For years, the rhetoric from AISD was that Eastside is a failing school. Yet Tovar pointed to rising test scores, and successful enrichment programs like the Panther Band and the award-winning robotics club. Moreover, he argued that the feeder program is in better shape than is commonly thought. Four of the six elementary schools were classified as "recognized" under the state accountability system, while its middle school principals spent the last two years aligning their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programs with Eastside's needs. "We do know that the school needs to improve in certain areas," Tovar said, "but we're tired of having those areas being the lowlights that are the target for the superintendent."

Zarifis argued that the lesson for AISD's handling of troubled campuses is to let the community take the lead. It was the community that fought back against the imposition of IDEA, and the community that actively sought and selected national-level potential partners. He had particular praise for the students, saying, "If we had citizens as engaged in their civic process as we did at Eastside nationally, we'd be in a much better place." Yet he acknowledged that there are still deep scars in the relationship between AISD administration and the community. "What I found equally encouraging and disappointing was how the district came out praising the kids of Eastside when it was safe to say that. We could have used those words of encouragement a year and a half ago. It's a shame that it took all this for people to say, 'You're great.'"

However, Tovar is optimistic that the community will redirect the same energy it used to fight off IDEA into exceeding Williams' requirements. He said, "Now it's a fight for, not a fight against."

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