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Ed Commissioner Answers Eastside Memorial's Call - But Threat of Closure Remains

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

Last week, students at Eastside Memorial High School delivered a letter inviting the state’s top education administrator for a visit to hear how the threat of the school’s closure for poor academic performance affected them. It was a long shot, but yesterday Michael Williams spent almost two hours at Eastside Memorial. Students welcomed his visit, but the threat of closure remains.

As Williams’ visit approached, school administrators darted through the impeccable hallways shooting instructions to each other over walkie-talkies. Some students wore ties and sported fresh haircuts.

Williams first visited a college-level English class. Nancy Castañeda, 17, led him through a short-story reading exercise where she had to find how a character is central to a story’s main idea.

“I chose to write about ‘The Red Convertible,’ how, like characterization -- how at first his character is really happy and crazy,” she started.

But then, he goes off to war and comes back a changed man. The character ends up committing suicide.

“You expressed it quite well,” Williams said.

“Thank you!” Castañeda said.

Castañeda hopes the impression she made on Williams will somehow weigh on his decision regarding the future of Eastside Memorial. She’s aware he’s already closed other Texas schools, even an entire district near Houston.

“I am really into this school -- I’m a cheerleader, I’m a wrestler, I play softball and soccer,” she said. “And if they close down this school, it’s affecting my college. And I want him to be able to be like, it’s everyone’s college, yeah! Everyone’s. He has the power, and I really want him to choose it.”

Eastside has been rated academically unacceptable since 2004. In 2008, back when it was called Johnston High School, it was shut down. Later that year it reopened as Eastside Memorial, but the new name did not offer a new beginning. The school inherited years of academic troubles, and an exodus of teachers and students followed.

As students ushered Commissioner Williams into the band room, his head began swinging to the music. He smiled and handed his cellphone to one of his aides, asking him to snap some pictures.

Seniors Elijah Cofield and Julian Nedrano wrote the letter Williams got last Thursday. They were his tour guides and stood in the back of the band room.

“We are probably experiencing history in the making right here,” Cofield said. “I can tell he obviously loves our blues band, and I hope he sees us in a different point of view and he helps us with everything that is going on with the school district that trying to close us down.”

Nedrano added, “The main reason why we are doing this is to eliminate the fear in our students, our friends, our teachers and to actually try to get stability in the school because all this inconsistency and the fear is not helping us at all.”

In the robotics room, Cofield told Williams the few teachers still at the campus inspire students to go to college even when the odds seem to be stacked against them. Many of the kids would be the first in their families to pursue higher education.

“I’d say Mr. Miller is like the father I wish I had,” Cofield told him. “When we came back from delivering the letter to you, he told us that if we were ever in a war he’d go down first and we’d go down second.” Williams laughed and said, “Let’s do this a different way: Nobody goes down, OK?”

The day ended with Williams holding a closed session with a group of students.

“The principal message to them is, number one, I heard what you wanted me to know,” Williams said afterward. “But if you’re asking what’s the decision that the commissioner is going to make? Well, I’m not making a decision until May or June. And I hope that the district makes the decision in advance.”

At this point, there appear to be three options for the school. The district can choose a third party to run the campus. The state can choose a third party. Or the school can be closed. AISD’s board meets this Saturday to discuss Eastside Memorial’s future.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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