Eastside Memorial Celebrates
High school meets state standards, first time since 2002
Eastside Memorial High School at the Johnston Campus didn't just suddenly become a good school. It's been a good school for years. It's just that now it's beaten the gamed system that's claimed otherwise.
That was the subtext of a celebratory press conference at the East Austin campus on Aug. 13, as the community came together to celebrate the full Eastside campus finally making the state standards for the first time since 2002. Staff, students, administrators, trustees, neighborhood activists, and union leaders crammed into the campus library, leaving little space between the stanchions. "There's so much to Eastside Memorial, you can't fit it into a little space," Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said after an introduction by the Eastside band and cheerleaders. Zarifis called Eastside being classified as "Met Standards" under the state accountability standards "absolutely something for this community to celebrate. It's an amazing achievement."
The lack of positive coverage of Eastside Memorial has always been galling to the community – a point reinforced in April when many media outlets jumped on footage of a brawl in the school cafeteria. The latest stats led the campus to fight back against that perception, and front and center in the celebration was Principal Bryan Miller. However, he made sure not to claim the glory for himself, instead paying tribute to the work done well before he got there. Originally hired as an interim in 2011, after six months the district asked him whether he wanted to go back to his old post as an academy director at the higher-achieving Lanier High School. He decided to stick with Eastside. "I knew from that point that there was greatness in this school. Not everybody believed it, not everybody knew about it, but every day we had kids that came to school that wanted to learn, that deserved an education, and that deserved stability and people to fight for them."
There almost wasn't a campus for Miller to join. In 2007, then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott ordered the old Johnston High closed and reopened as Eastside. Two years later, the new campus was split into two schools, Green Tech and Global Tech, then reunified in 2011. This monstrous disruption reached a peak in 2012, when the AISD board approved a contract with IDEA Public Schools to turn first Allan Elementary, then Eastside, into charters. That plan was canceled, but that didn't take any pressure off Eastside. Zarifis said, "Every year, there seemed to be something coming at this group, and the group that preceded them, and the group that preceded them. Never allowing for stability, never allowing for something to take root and to be real."
The state accountability system has been unduly brutal to Eastside: For example, when it was a split campus, both Green Tech and Global Tech made state standards, but not in the same year, so the whole institution was still threatened with closure. The turning point came in 2013, when Commissioner of Education Michael Williams gave AISD a reprieve. Rather than close and repurpose the campus yet again, he approved their proposal to work with Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary (see "Eastside Memorial: The Future of Panther Pride," June 21, 2013). The school would keep doing what it was doing, while the nonprofit would assist in areas such as student and curriculum support, and teacher training and development. There was also a renewed push within the vertical team – the schools that feed into Eastside – so that students were better prepared to deal with the leap from middle to high school. However, just as Miller deflected praise, Johns Hopkins instructional facilitator Chris Caesar gave tribute to the Eastside students. He said, "This is your victory. This is why everyone is here. This is why your teachers come back every single day, and it is your work and dedication that has brought about this success."
Eastside advocates argue this year's classification shows three ingredients are necessary to save a school: the proper support system, community engagement, and, above all, no unnecessary disruption. PRIDE of the Eastside spokesman Vincent Tovar called Eastside a template for other struggling schools, adding that this year's achievement is "the outcome of our work. This is not one year of work. This is years of the community and school working together, and never giving up."
There were several key figures missing on the celebratory day, with particular applause at the mention of the absent Connor Grady – principal of the Green Tech academy from 2008-11, and widely regarded as a key player in keeping the school going during its bleakest times, including helping Green Tech get its "Academically Acceptable" rating in 2011. Eastside teacher Meghan Buchanan was part of Grady's team, and called the work done then "incredible." However, she noted that neither that landmark, nor the 2015 numbers, were aberrations. She said, "This is not just about a moment in accountability, even if it's a great one. This is about years of sacrifice, dedication, and determination."
Also absent was Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who has worked behind the scenes with the Texas Education Agency and successive commissioners of education to give Johnston, and then Eastside, a fighting chance. He was missing from the packed library, away in El Paso on business. However, before the event, he too celebrated this achievement, and what it means to East Austin. "It's more than just a school. Generations of kids have gone there."
Back in the library, Miller reminded everyone that this is just the beginning. He reiterated that the campus cannot rest on the laurels of knowing it escaped the accountability trap, but that achievement means a chance to excel. He said, "All that's done is move what is supposed to be the floor back to being the floor. ... The ceiling is wide open now."