Finally a plan that puts Eastside Memorial on the right track

Kudos to the Austin Independent School District board of trustees for taking the necessary steps to turn around Eastside Memorial High School, which has struggled to meet state standards for nearly a decade. Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams also deserves credit for keeping pressure on the board.

The results of that one-two punch is a blueprint that recognizes and prioritizes the needs of students in immediate danger of losing out, dropping out and not graduating: Students who are enrolled at Eastside Memorial High School now and next year.

But the plan approved by school trustees earlier this week goes further by strengthening the pipeline of elementary schools and the middle school that feed into Eastside Memorial High School.

On paper, the plan gives Eastside Memorial the best shot it has had in a decade to meet state standards and do even better. Critics have cited the timeline Williams has ordered, which requires that Eastside Memorial earn the state rating of “academically acceptable” in 2015 and the year after to remain open. Part of their criticism is based on misreading the timeline, which they read to be just two years to go from failing to acceptable. The commissioner’s timeline actually permits three years to get that job done, a more reasonable and realistic period for the tough job ahead.

Even so, that timeline needs a bit more flexibility. In addition to state ratings over the next three years, Williams should also consider progress. If the school has made enormous academic gains during those years, it would be a huge setback if the district or state shut it down in year three and started over again with something new. After all, one of the biggest complaints by Eastside parents and students has been the school district’s frequent changes to Eastside Memorial’s turnaround programs as well as its principals. Those frequent changes have created an aura of uncertainty and instability that have affected the school’s ability to retain quality teachers and principals and recruit students. Each year, the school loses about half of the students who are zoned to attend Eastside Memorial. Its reputation as a low-performing school and the district’s liberal transfer policy together have spurred a student exodus from Eastside Memorial that began when a former school board removed the school’s high-performing liberal arts magnet program.

In adopting a comprehensive plan, the board met the challenge Williams put on the table to come up with a proposal that was equal to or better than the IDEA charter school solution approved in 2011 and canceled a year later.

Under the new plan, the board hired an experienced entity in turning around urban high schools, Talent Development Secondary of Johns Hopkins University, to replace South Texas-based IDEA Public Schools. IDEA charter schools has no experience in turning around high schools.

IDEA’s model and success is based on building a kindergarten through 12 program. The district hired it to do that in December 2011, starting at Allan Elementary School with grades K-2 and 6. The problem with that approach, championed by Austin schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, is that it did nothing to immediately address the urgency of students at Eastside Memorial, who are the most in need of help. That approach would not have yielded a full, 9-12, high school program at Eastside Memorial until 2018-19. That approach shifted $220,000 to Allan and would have taken too long to produce results. And it raised a serious question about how long Eastside Memorial would have been permitted to fail before being shut down. If the answer is the obvious, 2018-19 when IDEA completed its build-out, then that would have been a disaster for hundreds of students trying to obtain diplomas.

There are many things to like about the Talent Development Secondary plan: It will set up academies for ninth-graders to help them navigate the transition to high school; help increase rigor in the curriculum, including double doses of math and English courses; and help with faculty and staff development. It will help Eastside Memorial track student attendance and address disciplinary problems early. The firm has a 20-year track record of working in about 50 struggling schools around the country, including San Antonio.

The plan also calls for identifying the students who are struggling academically and finding out what schools or districts those kids are coming from. That data permits the district to direct resources to the problem. But the larger plan will look beyond Eastside Memorial to the seven schools that feed into it to help strengthen them. We recommend that priority be given to Martin Middle School, which is rated acceptable. Three of the six elementary schools in Eastside Memorial’s attendance zone are high performing, with a “recognized” rating from the state.

The tough work begins tomorrow, and that requires the full commitment of district administrators as well as the support and involvement of parents, churches and the entire Eastside community.

The plan still requires the blessing of Williams. Wednesday, the day that Eastside Memorial high school seniors graduate, would be a good day for that blessing.

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