Keep Eastside open

Mike Corwin looks at the latest chapter in a struggle for education justice in Texas.

Eastside Memorial High School students at an AISD board meeting (Amanda Austin)Eastside Memorial High School students at an AISD board meeting (Amanda Austin)

STUDENTS, TEACHERS, parents and supporters of Eastside Memorial High School (EMHS) were still celebrating a recent decision not to turn the campus into a charter school when word came down from state and district officials: Become a charter school, or be closed down.

At an Austin Independent School District (AISD) hearing on January 29, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and Board President Vincent Torres announced that they had received word that Eastside was judged to be "out of compliance" with a state-mandated "reconstitution" plan, and that it faces a serious threat of closure if it cannot quickly find a way to meet requirements set by the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

The announcement came as a shock to the community that has been rallying to support Eastside, a high school that enrolls mostly Latina/o and African American students and resides in the underserved East Side of town.

Eastside has been in the spotlight ever since a controversial decision at the end of 2011 when the AISD Board of Trustees voted to bring in the IDEA charter school operator to run "in-district" charter schools at EMHS and nearby Allan Elementary.

That decision was vigorously opposed not only by East Austin community members, Eastside's students, Occupy activists and Education Austin (AISD's teacher and staff union), but also establishment voices such as former Austin Mayor Gus Garcia and the local daily newspaper.

The move to bring in IDEA was largely seen as the pet project of Superintendent Carstarphen, who rammed through the proposal--despite the community outcry--with the help of a compliant school board. Shortly after that decision, AISD announced it had received a grant from the pro-charter Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was entering into a "Compact Collaborative" with a number of area charters and the Texas Charter Schools Association (which is currently suing the state to get more public funding for charters).

What you can do

Email Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams and AISD Superintendant Meria Carstarphen and tell them: Don't close Eastside Memorial High School. Let the school live and thrive in partnership with the community.

Follow the struggle to keep Eastside open on Facebook.

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THE YEAR that followed was an emotional rollercoaster ride that saw the heartbreaking closure of Allan Elementary and its reopening last fall as IDEA Allan--with only 14 percent of its students from the Allan neighborhood.

Last November's elections produced a dramatic changing of the guard on the AISD Board of Trustees, with four incumbents ousted and mostly replaced by candidates who had been critical of the decision to bring in IDEA.

Meanwhile, IDEA was scheduled to begin co-locating at EMHS this coming fall, expanding each year as each class that had been enrolled under the traditional Eastside model graduated.

But last December, with a new school board considered less submissive to Carstarphen's prerogatives, the Eastside community and supporters made a renewed push to get IDEA out of AISD and restore Allan and EMHS as traditional neighborhood public schools. AISD's contract with IDEA specified that such a decision would have to be made by the end of last year.

With some of the new board members on the fence over the possibility of terminating AISD's contract with IDEA, community members and activists mobilized for the December 17 board meeting that was to take up the issue. Following moving testimonies from Eastside students, the board voted 5-4 to terminate the IDEA contract amid joyous celebrations in the board room.

The stunning reversal not only seemed like a rare victory in the face of a well-connected and an aggressively expanding charter chain, but also breathed new life into Eastside, unfairly maligned by AISD officials as a school that is "continuing to fail," as Carstarphen put it at the January hearing.

EMHS teacher Meghan Buchanan expressed her hopes for the future in a piece in the Education Austin newsletter. "I hope we now have a chance to heal and to refocus on our future as a school, and Eastside students will play a big role in that healing," she wrote.

In January, Eastside held a series of showcases for middle school students aimed at drumming up interest in a school where students are actively encouraged by AISD to transfer to another. EMHS was poised to have an increase in enrollment this fall--a remarkable achievement for a school whose prospects looked dim a few months ago.

Now the Eastside community fears that this will all be reversed in the wake of the latest announcement from Carstarphen and Torres.

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THIS LATEST development also puts a spotlight on the burden of schools struggling to meet expectations imposed by Texas' absurd "accountability" system--just as people across the state are debating possible changes to that system as the state legislature meets this spring.

Eastside Memorial was known for generations as Johnston High School until it was closed by TEA in 2008, failing for four years to meet the state's "acceptable" rating based on students' scores on the TAKS standardized test. The school was reopened as Eastside under an onerous reconstitution plan written by TEA--a long, legalistic document that, among other things, mandates that EMHS partner with an "outside entity."

It was this particular clause that was used by Carstarphen in pushing for the IDEA takeover, along with repeated threats of possible closure of Eastside by TEA--even though former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott said that EMHS was not on his radar for closure. Eastside received the state's "acceptable" rating in 2011.

If closed down again, Eastside could only be reopened outside the aegis of AISD, according to Texas' accountability rules--in other words, as a charter school.

And so Eastside supporters are skeptical about the latest pronouncement from TEA, now under the leadership of Michael Williams, a crony of Gov. Rick Perry who is a big charter-school booster and defender of an accountability system that has seen a full-scale backlash during the last year.

Adding to the skepticism is the role of the AISD leadership that was so determined to force through the IDEA partnership come hell or high water.

Carstarphen and Torres' comments at the January 29 hearing focused on laying the blame for the potential closure of Eastside on the board members who voted to terminate the IDEA agreement rather than rallying the AISD administration to help keep the school open.

But Torres really gave up the game after the hearing when he told community members that EMHS has two options: Let IDEA back in or face closure.

Eastside supporters have also been told that the requirements for the outside entity that EMHS is compelled to partner with are so narrow--the entity must have a "proven track record of success," i.e. good test scores--so as to exclude community-based options and seemingly leave no other alternative other than a charter operator.

Eastside Memorial families, teachers and community members aren't taking this lying down, once again activating the network of supporters who have rallied to the defense of this school time and again. An emergency press conference is in the works as well as other efforts to take their case to the public. Austin will play host to a massive Save Texas Schools march and rally on February 23, featuring public education advocate Diane Ravitch--an event where Eastside's plight can hopefully get more public exposure.

The struggle over the future of this school highlights the many injustices wrought by years of corporate-style school "reform" in Texas--not least the racism towards and disenfranchisement of those on the receiving end of the "reforms." The fight to save Eastside is a key battle in the struggle for civil rights and education justice in Texas.