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Eastside Memorial’s progress holds promise

Things are finally looking up for Eastside Memorial High School, which finished the school year this month with higher graduation rates and better attendance. The improvements might well signal a new chapter for the Austin district’s lowest-performing high school for the past decade. We urge the Austin school board to maintain stability at the school now that Eastside has a solid management team in place.

It is tempting to attribute gains solely to reforms put in place a year ago as the school faced closure by the state because of years of low performance. Certainly, the partnership with Johns Hopkins affiliate Talent Development Secondary is benefitting Eastside Memorial. But that would be only one part of the story regarding Eastside’s progress. And while most indicators are pointing upward, the school is far from being out of the woods.

There is, however, reason to believe Eastside is rising.

Most encouraging so far is the huge jump in the school’s graduation rate, which jumped 16 percentage points for the 2013 school year to 89.7 percent, as American-Statesman writer Melissa Taboada reported earlier this week. That accomplishment reflects the commitment and hard work of students, parents and teachers, who rose to the challenge in the face of adversity.

Eastside was on the verge of being closed by the state, on the verge of being taken over by an outside charter operator, on the verge of once again being labeled a failure. In an impressive show of unity, the school community led by students and teachers came together and lobbied the Austin school board and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, pledging they would do better if Eastside were given another chance. Let’s commend them for keeping their end of that bargain.

Gains also were made in other areas, as Taboada reported: Attendance rates improved more than a percentage point in the past school year, rising to 91.7 percent. That rate has been going in the right direction since 2012, when it was 84 percent; disciplinary removals of students also improved, decreasing by 5 percent to 115. Attendance sometimes is not given much credit in turning around student performance, but if students are not in class — either because they are skipping school or being removed for acting out — they aren’t learning. So improvements in those areas are significant.

In addition to those improvements, Taboada reported that students had small year-over-year improvements in math, science and social studies. But in English/language arts, performance decreased by three-tenths of a percentage point.

Such overall improvements are encouraging, given Eastside’s long history of low academic performance and failure to meet state standards. In the past five years, it was closed by the state, renamed (it was formerly Johnston High School) and reconfigured as two academies on the same campus. The school has had five principals since 2008, creating instability in the school’s management and anxiety about its future. Those tensions were further stoked when in 2011, the Austin school district handed Eastside over to South Texas-based IDEA Public Schools. The move upset many in the Austin community who felt that district leadership had given up on the school.

We, too, objected to the action that was offered as a solution to academic problems at the high school. It didn’t make sense in our view because IDEA charter schools had no experience in turning around high schools. We pointed out that IDEA’s approach, championed by former Austin Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, would have done nothing to immediately address the urgent needs of students at Eastside Memorial who were the most in need of help.

Ultimately, a reconstituted school board severed ties with IDEA and hired the Johns Hopkins group, which did have experience – and track record — in turning around secondary schools. As it turns out, Talent Development has been a good fit. For the most part, the group works collaboratively with teachers and administrators instead of taking over and mandating solutions. That is important because the Eastside community retains ownership in the school and its traditions.

The best might be yet to come. Talent Development Secondary’s focus mostly is on ninth-graders, who have been pulled together in a freshmen academy and are separated from upperclassmen for all core classes. A team of teachers is matched with the same group of students so they can track changes, behaviors and progress as a team.

As we noted, Eastside is not yet out of the woods. It is one year into a three-year grace period that Williams gave the school to improve. And enrollment still is stagnant: There were 513 students enrolled during the 2013-14 school year at a campus with a capacity for more than 1,156 students.

That can change, if the school stays on a path of improvement. After all it was Eastside’s failure that drove students from neighborhood schools to other campuses and it will be Eastside’s success that will bring them back.

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