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Eastside Memorial to stay open for now, but future uncertain

Students at Eastside Memorial High School who have wondered for months whether their school will be closed by the state finally got their answer Wednesday: the campus will be open next fall.

And it will stay open for at least two more years, or as long as the state rates it “academically acceptable” based on test scores and other student achievement benchmarks, according to an agreement reached between district and state education officials.

The conditional reprieve leaves a cloud of uncertainty over a school that has in the past five years been a turnstile of sorts. It was closed by the state, renamed, rebranded as two “academies” on the same campus, and then it was to be handed over to a charter school company to operate. After the district in December severed ties with the charter operator, the school was threatened with closure unless a new partner could be found within weeks. It now will stay open with help from a national consulting group hired to improve academics.

Graduating senior Julian Medrano grew tired of the changes and worries about the future.

“The school needs stability,” Medrano, 18, said. “If we don’t have that, nothing will ever work, no matter what plans they put in place. We have to stop the change so we can grow.”

State Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who has the authority to order the school closed, made a surprise visit at Wednesday’s graduation ceremony and announced that the school will remain open. The audience erupted with cheers and gave Williams a standing ovation.

Williams, the top education official in the state, said he approved the blueprint the Austin school board submitted Tuesday that would have Johns Hopkins-affiliate Talent Development Secondary help operate the school this fall.

“I look forward to many, many more Eastside Memorial graduations. I look forward to the continuation of panther pride,” Williams said.

How many more graduations the school might see depends in part on a last-minute requirement Williams added to the district’s improvement plan that requires the school to be rated academically acceptable in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. If the school fails, the district must shut it down.

Some trustees and students called the stipulation unfair, but ultimately the board agreed to the requirements.

Medrano, who will attend the University of Texas in the fall, said “two years isn’t enough.”

“How are teachers supposed to tell our kids, ‘I can’t plan beyond two years because I don’t know what’s going to happen’?” he said.

The school has struggled with academic performance for years, though initial state test scores show that this year’s junior class posted some of the highest gains the school has had in years.

Eastside band director Alan Guckian said he also wishes the two-year stipulation wasn’t not part of the agreement because it robs the underclassmen of the full confidence that the school will remain. The students have made great strides this year, and enrollment has increased, so Guckian is planning for the future; already, he has completed the bulk of next fall’s field show.

“We just need to keep building on the sense of urgency,” he said.

Rising sophomore Josh Gonzalez, 14, said he’s in favor of working with an outside organization if it means the school won’t be turned into a private or charter school.

“I just don’t want them taking it away,” Josh said.

The school board Monday set aside $5.3 million to implement the plan with Talent Development Secondary. The organization has also been tasked with implementing some of its best practices at the elementary and middle schools that feed into Eastside Memorial, a part of the plan that has been lauded by many.

“This has been a real challenging process but I couldn’t be happier that the district, the community and TEA has come to an agreement on Eastside,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the labor organization that represents thousands of district employees. “We’ve been battling for years and I’m pleased we have a quality partner in Johns Hopkins. The kids, the teachers and the parents deserve it. The process of including teachers, parents and students alike to decide the future of a school is a model we want to continue building for Austin ISD.”

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