Community offers feedback on future of Eastside Memorial High School

On Feb. 9, Austin ISD board trustees, teachers, parents and residents in the Eastside Memorial High School community gathered in the campus cafeteria to take the first steps toward planning for the future of the school, which now faces the consequences of the board's action Dec. 17 to end the district's contract with IDEA Public Schools.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen explained that in the 2008–09 school year, the Texas Education Agency allowed AISD to repurpose Johnston High School, which was rated Academically Unacceptable, and it became EMHS. Then in 2011, the AISD board of trustees signed a contract with IDEA that linked that partnership to the reconstitution plan for the school, Carstarphen said.

At its Dec. 17 meeting, the board adopted a motion to end the district's IDEA contract at the end of the 2012–13 school year and to prevent IDEA's planned expansion into EMHS.

Three options for EMHS

If Commissioner of Education Michael Williams, who heads the TEA, determines that the campus has not fully implemented the reconstitution plan, or if students fail to demonstrate progress in areas in which the district was supposed to improve, there are only a few options under state law, Carstarphen said. The state's education commissioner has three options for the school: repurposing it, closing it or turning it over to alternative management by an outside entity.

"I'm here because I do not want to see Eastside Memorial close," Carstarphen said. "Or worse, have the experience I had with Pearce [Middle School] on my second day of the job, where the TEA closed a school with six weeks' notice to the start of the school year. Our families and kids were going to be scattered all over this district, and our receiving schools and staff were going to be completely burdened with the last-minute decision-making."

The board's plan for the school may need to developed by as soon as Feb. 25, Carstarphen said.

"The clock is ticking," said District 2 trustee Jayme Mathias.

If the district is able to identify a nonprofit or a school district other than AISD to serve as the school's partner, the TEA must approve that entity by June 5. The board's final meeting before that deadline is May 28.

Community feedback

Members of the community broke into groups at the Feb. 9 public input session. Facilitators from Austin Voices, a local organization that facilitates community conversations on how to improve education in the city, took notes as participants shared their concerns and questions about the school's future.

"I think closing the school would be really terrible for these kids," said Daniel Myers, an English teacher at EMHS.

He said the district's explanation of what is in store for the school and its teachers has been unclear, and he is unsure of what a TEA takeover would look like.

"It makes me nervous," he said. "It makes me feel like I should be looking for a job."

Other participants said students at EMHS show a lack of interest in their education. Crystal Cotti, executive director of Sylvan Learning of Austin, said the new plan for EMHS should address dwindling enrollment by bringing in programs that would serve as an incentive for parents and students, such as dual-language learning. Other attendees agreed, suggesting a range of potential options—fine arts, robotics, cosmetology, auto mechanics, and project-based, hands-on learning—that could attract students.

A few participants asked whether the school could be turned into a magnet, allowing students to attend regardless of residency in its attendance zone.

Groups said they need more more information about the process and timeline, as well as what types of organizations would be eligible to serve as the school's partner.

Some suggested as a potential option Southwest Key, a national nonprofit that operates alternative schools that focus on individualized education. The board plans to discuss the comments gathered during the Feb. 9 meeting during its Feb. 11 work session.

"Maybe AISD should just step away," attendee Connie Baez said. "They haven't done anything in 15 years to better the school."

Aimee Hendrix, another EMHS teacher, said her discussion with others in the community during the public input session revealed there are diverse opinions about the issue.

"Of the things that we agreed upon, the first is that closure is not an option," she said.