Back from the Brink

How one Austin high school rallied to save itself

How one Austin high school rallied to save itself

Patrick Michels

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks with Eastside Memorial High School students.  Patrick Michels

For activists working to keep neighborhood schools open, and push back against plans to defund, take over, or close them, this week was a great reminder of how acute the fight has become.

In Chicago today, parents and activists are entering the 12th day of a hunger strike over the future of Walter H. Dyett High School, a 43-year-old school in the mostly black Washington Park neighborhood, which the city has considered closing or converting to a charter school. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has been a time to consider the transformation of the New Orleans school system, where most neighborhood schools were replaced after the flood by an atomized portfolio of charter schools that draws students from across the city. And in this week’s New Yorker, Jelani Cobb considers the closure of his own high school, 123-year-old Jamaica High in Queens. Starved of resources and blamed for its own low test scores and attendance, it was replaced by a few new, smaller schools.

But at Austin’s Eastside Memorial High School, a new school year began for the first time in years without the familiar threat of closure, mass layoffs or reorganization from above. Its students earned a passing grade from the state last year, ending a run of more than a decade in which at least part of the campus came up short in the state’s ratings. In 2008, it became the first school in Texas closed for poor test performance. Austin ISD has been frantically trying to right the ship ever since.

So on Tuesday, it was especially sweet to hear Education Commissioner Michael Williams in the school library delivering the good news: “We ain’t closing the school.”

Unlikely as it seemed not too long ago, students, teachers, neighborhood activists and even the state’s top education official are all singing the same happy song about Eastside. What’s remarkable, they all agree, is how the community has helped the school succeed where so many other reform attempts had failed. The activists who fought to keep the school open say that Eastside could be a model for how schools on the brink of being erased can make it.

The school now known as Eastside Memorial has been closed, retooled and renamed three times in the last decade. As Kimberly Reeves wrote in a 2007 Austin Chronicle story, district officials talked about closing the school, or handing it to a charter school, for years before the state finally shut it down. Once known as Johnston High, after the Texian and Confederate general Albert Sidney Johnston, it was rechristened Eastside Memorial when it reopened in fall 2008. Later, it was split for a time into two separate schools called Green Tech and Global Tech. Teachers and administrators came and went with each of those shakeups and name changes. Students could never be sure what sort of school they’d have to return to each fall. Or even if there would be a school.

A plan in 2011 to hand the campus to IDEA Public Schools, a charter school chain from South Texas, turned Eastside Memorial into a rallying point for parents and other advocates for Austin’s black and Hispanic-majority neighborhood schools, who said they’d been ignored by the district for far too long. The next year’s school board election became a referendum on the IDEA takeover, and three new trustees were elected who tipped the board’s majority against the plan. The school district solicited input from East Austin principals and community leaders to pick another partner from outside the district. They settled on a program from Johns Hopkins University that wouldn’t “turn the school upside down,” as AISD Associate Superintendent Edmund Oropez put it. Commissioner Williams made a surprise appearance at Eastside’s 2013 graduation ceremony to announce that he’d approved the deal; the school would stay open if it met state standards within a few years. Members of the school community were allowed to choose an improvement strategy — rather than have one imposed by the district or the state — and given time to make it work. Eastside Memorial satisfied the deal last year, meeting state standards with extra distinctions for its math scores and overall improvement.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams tours Eastside Memorial High School in Austin on Wednesday.

“Things are indeed looking up,” Williams told reporters in the library on Tuesday, after four students led him on a tour of the school’s new programs. Eastside’s graduation rate has jumped from 69 percent to 96 percent in three years. Williams said Eastside offered a lesson to the state and other districts doing school improvement work: “Being open to advice and counsel of others, and engaging the larger community in a way that gets everyone excited, and on board, and participating in the learning experience, is helpful.”

Julian Medrano, who graduated from Eastside at the ceremony where Williams made his surprise appearance, was a high-profile advocate for his school when its prospects seemed bleakest. Now a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, he says the good press for his alma mater is long overdue. In high school, he saw how the turmoil made life difficult for his teachers. “When they’re told every year that they’re probably not going to be there and we might have a new principal, that’s stressful,” he says. “We can’t just focus on learning when we have to worry about our school closing down.” It’s no mystery to him why test scores would suffer in an environment like that, where long-term substitutes must cover for teachers who leave mid-year, and new teachers repeat material the students have already covered.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks at Eastside Memorial High School in Austin on Wednesday, August 26, 2015.  Patrick Michels

“The kids have been at the forefront of it and they’ve been so graceful and impressive,” says choir teacher Meghan Buchanan. “Being under a gun all the time and having all of this pressure has forced them to be strong advocates for themselves. We call it, like, our social justice campus.”

Buchanan has been at the school since 2008, when it was first called Eastside Memorial. In the years that her school was billed as an objective failure, she saw a strong, supportive and accepting community that thrived despite the chaos and bad press. Teaching in a neighborhood school, she says, particularly one with 97 percent students of color, is inherently political work. She says the district’s reform plans forced Eastside’s teachers to take on a double role as instructors and advocates, spending their days with their students and their nights with the school board. Since Eastside’s reprieve in 2013, she says Eastside has thrived in an atmosphere of trust and collaboration. “Teachers have been able to give more input than in the past. We’ve tried to learn from each other rather than bring in outside consultants, and the district is listening to the community more.”

Vincent Tovar, co-founder of the neighborhood group PRIDE of the Eastside, also describes the news as a homegrown victory over meddling forces. For years, Tovar’s activism has been directed against the school accountability system that always left Eastside on the losing end. He’s still against that system, he says, but he’s thrilled to see Eastside finally cast as a success story. “We’re celebrating a school community who worked together to make sure that it would achieve in the way that it wanted to achieve, not in the way that outsiders wanted it to succeed,” he says.

Tovar says Eastside can serve as an inspiration to other neighborhood schools. “We’re celebrating that we’ve completed a template that other communities can use in order to fight for the respect that their communities deserve,” he says.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams jokes with students at Eastside Memorial High School.  Patrick Michels

Those could even include the middle and elementary schools near Eastside, Tovar says. Martin Middle School, whose graduates go on to Eastside, has missed the state accountability standards for three straight years. He’s hoping for a systemic shift away from the urge to label schools as “low-performing” and replace them or encourage students to go elsewhere. Nor is there any guarantee that Eastside will remain on the state’s good side. “I don’t know if anyone really feels like the state is off our back,” Buchanan says. “The people who’ve been there, we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. They changed the accountability before, and there was nothing we could do.”

Eastside Memorial’s principal, Bryan Miller, who has held the job since 2011, says the school’s progress shouldn’t suggest that schools should simply be left alone. Eastside began a concerted reform effort in fall 2013, under a plan that the community supported, with enough time and resources from the district to help it succeed. “Johns Hopkins was picked for a reason: They really closely aligned with the things that we were already doing,” Miller says. That approach includes a focus on reading and math, plus new career programs supported with extra funding from the district, and a dropout prevention effort based on early intervention and giving students a greater voice in the school.

Miller hopes that the latest round of celebration, shaking off the specter of yet another closure and reorganization, will create a positive buzz around the school that can lure students back to Eastside. Last year Eastside had an enrollment of 620 students, about a third of the school’s size 20 years ago. With more students, and more money, Miller hopes to build the sort of long-term stability that can carry Eastside for years. “We have great programs that sometimes can’t flourish as much as they could with more kids,” Miller says. “We really do want more kids to come and choose Eastside because it is a great school.”

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Patrick Michels, a former Observer staff writer, is a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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