Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Killing of a High School.

The replacement of Eastside Memorial High school with IDEA Charter is a stunning example of a school board pushing forward over the clear wishes of the students and families it was elected to serve

Like many high schools in relatively isolated, low-income sections of cities, Johnston High School, in a pocket of east Austin, had quietly suffered for years. As in other places, the reality of a low-income low-resourced community meant that keeping a school successful was a challenge. But there was an extent to which some really good things were happening ... and had been happening for a long time.

Then came the swift decline. And as in other places, the decline started after a fateful moment. At Reagan High school, which is also in east Austin, the tragic blow was a stabbing and killing in the school by a deeply disturbed young man who will now spend decades in prison. At Johnston High, the blow was less horrific, but no less effective in terms of the damage inflicted upon the school. In the case of Johnston High School, the school board ensured the school's demise by removing its Liberal Arts Academy. The Academy, even as just one section of the school, kept many stable working class families of color invested. Once the Academy was gone, so was the base of support. More and more kids transferred to spots like Austin High - a straight shot west and most important, a school on the other side of the IH35 magic dividing line that separates east and west Austin.

Thank goodness though for educational reform, right? Once NCLB was passed and accountability was dramatically ratcheted up everything would get better, right? Wrong. What came with reform was a wave of experiments in the building, none of which were given a full chance to work, but all of which required community support if there were to have a chance. Again and again, poor and working class families responded to calls to action, supporting the school, going along with new programs and leaders, placing faith in the public school system. Time and again micro and macro-initiatives were abandoned half-baked.

AISD Superintendent and school board members helped kids get excited
about the new version of their school ... two years before shutting it down. 
The latest iteration has a name that hints at what a mess things have been. For the last two years the school had the classic too-many-chefs name of "Eastside Memorial High School at Johnston Campus." The mouthful name reflects the attempt to compromise among groups when it was determined that the school's persistent low-performance meant that the had to be reconstituted. The school also had two programs, Global Tech High and Green Tech High, which reflect the renowned and highly successful educator Bill Gates' call to small learning communities. (Please note that in the previous sentence I was being facetious in my glowing reference to the influence of Gates, a guy who has spent a lot of money for the most part helping our messes get bigger).

Long story short, the school has made improvements, but not fast enough for the state and federal accountability systems. The system demands miracles and when it doesn't get them in an instant, knee-jerks into action.

Students rallied ... and were ignored
So what happened on Monday December 19, 2011 was that the school was turned over to IDEA charter, a charter school system that has some good things going for it, is far from perfect, but at least has a chance since they have a multi-year contract and fewer constraints than traditional publics. The biggest problem that IDEA has in east Austin is that it had to be rammed down the community's throat. The district's community engagement and consensus building was an epic disaster, with more and more folk lining up against the charter's introduction, mostly because they don't like things being shoved at them as if there is a choice when all indications are that there are not. (Side note: community relations and buy-in is far from the only problem with the incoming school(s), but I don't want to pick IDEA Charter apart since the community is now stuck with it).

Kids and families who had invested themselves in Eastside came out
en masse to protest its closing and replacement with IDEA charter.
So where we are now is that, by a tone deaf 6-3 vote to follow the superintendent's recommendation, IDEA charter will now take over schools in the former Johnston High attendance area. Eastside Memorial High at Johnston Campus is dead. What is left in that corner of east Austin are the kids who rallied into the night outside the last two Monday Night AISD school board meetings. The kids and families had followed the lead of the district and bought into their school for the last two years. Silly them, trusting their school leaders like that. They are now numb, disillusioned and dispirited. The school they had believed in is dead, killed at the hands of the people who had asked them to believe in it. It is being replaced by a school that they do not want.

Long live IDEA charter!! Let's see how this one turns out.


  1. Appalling isn't it? I'm the only teacher who spoke at all four of the latest board meetings over the last two months. I don't try to pick apart IDEA's model, for it is what it is. However, I asked many questions of the board members and district higher-ups that never got answered. Why would we not offer native language instruction as part of a bilingual education system at an elementary in this part of town? Why would we choose a model that has no experience with African-American children? Why would we remove the support for teen parents on the East side? Why would we allow a school to begin at k-2 and not have to answer to state accountability standards at the elementary level? This fight did not end with Monday's vote. I will continue to demand that special populations be served in a culturally responsive way. Maybe you can spur people in your social network of education scholars to demand the same.

  2. Ms. Sweet, Thank you for speaking up at the board meetings, and in general just for the best that you do as a school teacher and kids' advocate. I love your call for culturally responsive support for special populations that goes along with the broader call that we simply create space and support to get it right for kids in general. Yes, let's keep fighting; good will come of the efforts!

  3. Mr. Foster, I thank you for your blog. You have summed up all that has happened to our school. As I look at the pictures, I can tell you the story of each child that is in them. They are fighters. Not only on those two Mondays but every day. And the truth be known, we built a family with the lead of our great Principal, Connor Grady. The kids learned more than any district or board can ever take away. So even when our future as Eastside Memorial looks bleak, our students will always represent an incredible demonstration of Panther Pride. Our students are the true educators in this path of reality.

  4. Thank you for this analysis, particularly your thoughtfulness about the short-lived nature of AISD's so-called "dreams" for its own students. Many students, staff, and parents certainly did believe in the dream of the new Eastside Memorial High. The tragic flaw of that model that AISD central staff was unable to detect, or unwilling to acknowledge,amazingly enough, was the lack of a stronger feeder pattern to EAstside. We parents and staff at the elementary level in this vertical team probably woke up to that fact too late. Yet, True leadership and community engagement would have addressed this, and looked for solutions to strengthen and unify our EMHS vertical team, from the elementary level up. This was actually part of the community proposal,Plan "E", presented to the Superintendent, yet glossed over and ignored. Still, there are so many parents and staff who are energized and ready to continue this fight. Don't know how it will manifest itself, but I do hope you and others will stay tuned and engaged with us.