A passing grade for Austin’s Eastside Memorial? Early returns give hope

After years of chronic academic failure, there is a glimmer of hope for the embattled Eastside Memorial High School.

Graduation rates are projected to hit an all-time high of more than 96 percent. Preliminary results on state-mandated exams look promising, and Austin school administrators said they are hopeful that the campus will at last meet state standards.

If the ratings pan out when the state releases that data in August, this could be the beginning of a remarkable turnaround for one of the most historically troubled schools in Central Texas. Two years ago, Eastside was threatened with closure by the state.

At this time last year, based on similar preliminary data, administrators knew Eastside probably wouldn’t meet state standards.

Kathy Ryan, Austin’s interim associate superintendent of high schools, said Texas Education Agency officials have acknowledged the school’s improvements and are excited by the gains.

“The results from TEA will be made final in early August, and at that time we will know if Eastside will be viewed as an acceptable school under this system, but we are hopeful the outcome will be positive,” Ryan said.

The school in the previous two years failed to meet state standards, tripped up by the state’s college readiness measure. Since then, the district has boosted efforts to increase graduation rates as well as put more students on a more rigorous graduation plan. Eastside made gains on both fronts.

For the past seven years, the school has undergone a constant churn of campus leadership and programs. Since 2008, it was closed by the state, renamed, then rebranded as two academies on the same campus, and then was nearly taken over by a charter school operator. After a new school board was elected, the district cut ties with the charter, resulting in the threat of closure by the state unless a new partner could quickly be found.

The district picked John Hopkins-affiliated Talent Development Secondary. The school just completed its second year of that partnership. Strong gains in coursework passing rates, attendance and disciplinary rates were made in the first year, but the rates leveled off in 2014-15.

The percentage of overall students passing math, English and social studies decreased compared with last year, though there was a slight uptick in passing rates in science, according to the most recent campus report.

Overall attendance was flat after two years of gains. While a greater number of students were enrolled at the end of this school year compared with 2013-14, including more underclassmen, the campus lost students during both school years.

The percentage of students removed from class for disciplinary issues also remained flat, though about one-third of African-American students were removed, compared to 27 percent the year prior.

During a presentation of the school’s progress Monday night to the school board, some trustees expressed concern.

“When I look at this first blush, I’d be asking some questions as to whether the improvement is sufficient enough,” Trustee Ann Teich said.

Administrators told the board that high student mobility has made attendance rates — at 91.7 percent according to the most recent data available — a challenge, and increased academic rigor is pushing students to higher levels but also making it more difficult for them to pass. Administrators also stressed that the data reflected a different cohort of students taking different courses, and with just 535 students, including only 85 black students, percentage changes could be the reflection of the marginal performance of a handful of students.

Yvonne Kelso, the school’s social studies instructional coach and a teacher who has worked at the campus under four principals, told trustees she has seen “tremendous change” during her tenure, including more students coming to class prepared to learn.

“You guys are looking at numbers on a piece of paper; I’m looking on kids in a chair,” Kelso said. “Is the kid coming in ready, wanting to learn? Sometimes we dwell on the numbers, like those passing rates. We increased rigor. Some of the kids are going to fail, but … it’s just until they get used to the new levels we’re asking them to do.

“It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

While acknowledging there is still tough work to do, administrators said passing rates don’t provide a complete picture of the progress being made.

Data show students are behind when they come to the campus. One-third of all incoming freshmen, for example, weren’t on grade level and didn’t pass the state’s math eighth-grade exam. However, as freshmen at Eastside Memorial, nearly 90 percent passed state math exams this spring.

Attendance rates are also complicated and difficult to improve, though the school’s staff calls parents and makes home visits to stop truancy. One-quarter of incoming freshmen, and 30 percent schoolwide, leave during the school year because their families move, a trend among low-income students whose families often relocate to find cheaper rent.

Principal Bryan Miller has been at the school for nearly four years and is its longest-serving principal since the school reopened. He said he has seen the incremental change since arriving on the campus in November 2011, when the previous principal abruptly resigned.

The school was on track to meet state accountability standards in 2013 and 2014, but the final criteria released by the Texas Education Commissioner in March of those years increased the college readiness standard, and Eastside didn’t measure up.

Miller said he hopes the state exams become a second thought, rather than the forefront of measuring students’ success, and instead wants students to focus on college and career goals.

“If it happens, if we pass, it would justify the fight, the community support, the time and effort we put into making Eastside a place where students are successful and are proud to call home,” Miller said.

Such a milestone wouldn’t mean the campus would be in the clear. The school would have to pass the standards for two consecutive years to come out from under the state’s watch.

“Some days I feel like we’re hitting our heads against the wall,” said Haley Del Rio, an Eastside Memorial student who completed her sophomore year. “But some days, I see tremendous strides and improvement.

“From the students and administrators, we’re all just trying to work together for the same goal … which is to make sure Eastside remains open.”

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