Freshman Haley Del Rio had her doubts about attending Eastside Memorial High School.
Her mom had heard the rumors of daily fights in the halls, uncaring teachers and unsuccessful students.
But after a visit to the campus in middle school, Del Rio decided to give it a try, and she has since been challenged in Pre-AP courses and put into leadership training, even making presentations to the Austin school board.
“A lot of people have a bad perception about Eastside because they’ve never stepped a foot on campus,” Del Rio said. “I just fell in love with the school and the people. I received the care and support I didn’t think I’d have.”
The campus, which was under threat of closure by the state just one year ago, rebounded with a 16-percentage-point jump in its graduation rate to 89.7 percent.
After a continual churn in school programs and leadership, graduating seniors say this has been the first year they have felt stability.
But just as important as the increase in students crossing the stage are incremental changes that make district leaders cautiously optimistic that the bleeding has stopped.
Among the successes:
- Attendance rates improved more than a percentage point year-over-year to 91.7 percent; Eastside has posted greater gains since 2012, when the attendance rate was 84 percent.
- Disciplinary removals of students from their classes decreased 5 percent to 115.
- Students had small year-over-year improvements in math, science and social studies. English/language arts went down by three-tenths of a percentage point.
“I am very grateful that the entire campus is getting a chance to build something strong and sustainable,” parent Toni Rayner said. “There’s so much possibility now. There wasn’t a magic wand. It’s been really hard work, and it’s wonderful.”
The school has had a long history of low academic performance and failure to meet state standards, and in the past five years, it has been a turnstile of sorts. It was closed by the state, renamed, rebranded as two academies on the same campus and then handed over to a charter operator to run. After the district severed ties with the charter operator in December 2012, the state threatened the school with closure unless a new partner could be found within weeks.
Community members and some parents rallied together and helped choose Johns Hopkins-affiliate Talent Development Secondary as the partner to help boost academics. The state approved, and at last year’s graduation, it announced the school would have three more years to improve.
“Johns Hopkins has been great at being a collaborative partner and not a takeover partner,” said Meghan Buchanan, an outspoken teacher at Eastside, who previously rallied against having a charter company take over the school. “The feeling for Eastside had been we were an experimental campus. This has changed the tone of that. Things are looking up for sure. The big picture shows steady growth.”
Talent Development Secondary started small, focusing mostly on ninth-graders. The ninth-graders were pulled together into a freshman academy, separated from upperclassmen for all core courses. A team of teachers was matched with the same group of students. The tactic, often seen in elementary and middle schools, allows teachers to better collaborate. They meet weekly to track changes, behaviors and progress as a team, in addition to departmental meetings focused on the curriculum.
Talent Development Secondary also put in early warning systems to alert the staff weekly when students were getting off track. The warning system monitors attendance, persistent misbehavior and course performance in English and math so teachers and staffers can address any issues as soon as a student begins slipping.
The group established a Student Ambassador program, which trains students in communication, public speaking and interpersonal skills. The students serve as liaisons between the school and prospective students, as well as the community. Even when dealing with behavioral problems, instead of always turning to punishment, Talent Development Secondary gives students the opportunity for leadership through the program. Some students guilty of misconduct were tapped for a six-week summer leadership training program — and they accepted.
“When problems have been building for a long time, change is not going to happen overnight,” said Chris Caesar, instructional facilitator for Talent Development Secondary, who works daily at the Eastside campus. “It’s a process, not an event.”
Talent Development Secondary’s method is not to swoop in and take over to fix things — one of the reasons the organization was the top pick among a group of community members and educators who recommended it to the school board. Instead, Caesar said his is more of a job-embedded coaching approach. In the end, the people, and not the programs, make the difference, he said. The group’s job is to support the people who are already there.
“This is kind of the dust settling down a little bit,” said Edmund Oropez, the district’s interim chief of schools. “It’s always going to be ongoing hard work. We can never rest.”
Even before Talent Development Secondary was put in place, incremental changes were underway.
There have been five principals since the school reopened as Eastside in 2008, and that also contributed to teacher turnover. Principal Bryan Miller took the helm in late 2011. As the longest-tenured principal since the school reopened, he’s helping contribute to the consistency that students see now. Miller said when he arrived at the school, there weren’t as many interventions in place as there should have been to support struggling students.
The turnover in leadership “was unfortunate because the kids needed stability,” he said. “Kids were swimming on their own.”
Teachers and staffers began more intensive tutoring and spent more time with students who were cutting class, acting out or failing.
Graduating senior JoeAnthony Garcia said he’s glad he was able to witness the end of the tumultuous shifts.
“There was always a lot of change,” Garcia said. “But Eastside is still standing. There was more support this year. Everyone came together as a unit.”
In the last few days of school last week, with final exams and projects due, Del Rio, the freshman, was in her comfort zone. She stood with ease in front of the classroom, with her peers gathered near, and gave a geography presentation on three countries.
Del Rio now plans to attend Johns Hopkins University to study medicine or science. She has faith that her time at Eastside can get her there.
“We’re serious about getting better,” Del Rio said. “It’s an uphill battle, but we’re not going to give up. Eastside won’t be closed. We’re here to stay.”
This is one of a series of in-depth reports by the American-Statesman on efforts to boost academic performance at Eastside Memorial High School, which was threatened with closure by the state last year.