Austin-East: Another New Chapter

While suburban Hardin Valley gets a fresh start, A-E tries to pull itself up with the same students, about the same budget, and yet another new mindset

Read about Hardin Valley Academy.

A $50 million county-funded budget, ribbon-cutting complete with mayor, and a student body wildly enthusiastic about amenities like an air-conditioned gym—Hardin Valley Academy in far West Knox County suburbia opened Monday as the first new Knox County school since 1968 with an "entirely new student body." It's drawing most of its students from overcrowded schools—Farragut, Bearden—with graduation rates that hover at or above 90 percent and 86 percent of the student body scoring "advanced" on the Biology 1 Gateway test required for graduation.

That same day, Austin-East High School made a new start, too, but no dignitaries showed up to make speeches or tour the facilities ahead of time, and the students striding into the building had very little enthusiasm for the newly implemented belted, collared, and tucked "campus gear" dress code, the only visible change from last year. The school system will employ just $610,000 for what it calls the "reconstitution" of A-E, with all but $80,000 being paid with federal funds and the balance absorbed by the non-profit, faith-based Cornerstone of Knoxville, which focuses on community achievement and economic development. And Austin-East will continue to serve a student body that graduated just 67.8 percent in 2007—that was up from 51.6 percent in 2003—and where almost 10 percent of students can't even pass the Biology 1 Gateway.

While history is not repeating itself, precisely, it's starting to sound awfully familiar. Forty years ago, Doyle High School opened brand spanking new in South Knoxville, while across town Austin High students, all black, moved to the all-white East High building eight blocks away to cobble together a new school of sorts. Its main mission was less about education and more about integration. In 1993, when Knoxville's magnet school program materialized, Austin-East was again tapped for a new beginning as a performing arts, science, and math magnet—then as a draw to bring racial balance back to the urban school after years of white flight. "The initial objective of the magnet school program... was to satisfy OCR (United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights) requirements for desegregating the curriculum of Knox County Schools," says the 2006 Knox County Magnet Schools Evaluation in its final summation. "At the time, improvement of student achievement was not a primary objective of the school system or the OCR decision."

That was then, this is now.

For the 2008 revamp, there are no overtones or explicitly stated goals of achieving racial diversity. In fact, the school system seems unconcerned with whether the 8.4 percent white (versus 90.6 percent black) student population is altered by changes made to the school's organization, subject offerings, or teaching methods. This time, A-E is being bossed by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate to pull up graduation rates or let the state take over—which is what happens when your graduation rate doesn't hit the requisite 73 percent mark for six years in a row.

The motivation to change, and the consequences if it doesn't happen, are very clear, as is evidence of the dress code and the re-organizing of A-E into three "neighborhoods" or "academies" for instruction, in order to have more bonding and cozier, more productive learning environments.

"The big difference from last year to this is the way the schedule will work and the intervention," says A-E principal Benny Perry. "If a kid is struggling, we'll pull him out for help. While that's going on, the other kids can spend time getting deeper into a subject. We'll be adding more rigor."

But even though school is in full swing, there aren't many more specifics than that—not that people aren't trying to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations.

For example, when WATE reported July 31 that Austin-East will offer two academies—Business and Finance, and IT—many viewers, among them parents and students, thought that meant two of the "neighborhoods" would have those themes. But the two are pre-existing programs: the National Academy Foundation offers the Academy of Finance & Business, which includes Knoxville business mentors, paid internships, and college-level coursework. The IT program is a magnet draw.

"It's three distinct neighborhoods, but right now they're basic classes, not thematic," says Donna Wright, Knox County assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "The leadership team at the school will determine whether they want those neighborhoods specialized, or just leave them as small, personalized learning communities. It's a work in progress."

The ongoing planning leaves some frustrated and a little anxious—even if they're not directly affected. "I'm not too sure what they're doing, and I don't think they know, either," says Milton Hill, a lifelong Knoxville resident who graduated from Austin-East in 2007. He keeps tabs on the school because he still lives in the neighborhood when he's not at the University of Tennessee, where he's studying music education, and because his brother Charles Hill is a junior there.

"The test scores do need to be improved, and the graduation rates, but that doesn't mean they have to change the whole thing," says Hill. "It all has to be planned out, it has to have a reason, it can't just be a spur of the moment."

Others feel like any program, however well reasoned, is doomed because NCLB demands such unreasonably quick results. "I think the school has made a great deal of improvement under the old administration of Brian Hartsell (as principal)," says Mike Willard, father to Jack, a senior who's in his third year of transferring to A-E for the orchestra. "With only a five-year span to get it up to grade, none of these ‘systems' will ever work out. Five years is not long enough, and any improvement made by one group will be stifled when another group comes in to reorganize.

"As long as the school was making progress, it should have been left alone."

Incurably Ironic

One thing that makes no sense to Hill, and to many other sideline commentators, is the NCLB restaffing of Austin-East, completed this past spring with just days left in the school year, during which teachers and administrators at the school who wanted to stay on had to reapply for their jobs.

In perhaps the greatest irony of this latest iteration of Austin-East, principal Brian Hartsell was one of the leads in interfacing with Cinncinnati-based EdWorks educational consultants to create a five-year redesign proposal for A-E that included three neighborhoods for students (one of them performing arts-themed) that would form an "early college community." The plan, which Hartsell co-presented to the School Board, which it passed that same evening, provided for both a "curriculum principal" and "executive principal." But when Hartsell applied to interim School Superintendent Roy Mullins for a job in the system he helped create, he was turned down (though offered a spot in the central office as supervisor of the transfer office and disciplinary hearing authority, which he accepted). Perry, principal at Whittle Springs Middle School, took his place with a couple weeks to go in the school year.

That action prompted around 70 students to protest with a sit-in. And Hill, who attended Vine Middle Magnet and Green Math and Science Magnet as an in-zone magnet student, says the removal of Hartsell underlines another contradiction at A-E: "Everybody wants to complain about inner-city students having no order or discipline, but then they keep switching out principals and administrators," he says. "The kids have no time to connect with the administrators. It's all go to school, do right or you get kicked out."

Nor is that the last entry on the list of A-E re-design ironies. Here are three more:

1. Since A-E is "high priority" on the NCLB list, parents of its students received a letter in late July informing them that they would be allowed to transfer their A-E student to another Knox County high school that was not on the high priority list—though sadly, that's only five others of the county's 13. But the closest of the five alternatives, Powell and Bearden, are still at least 20 minutes from the A-E neighborhood, and Farragut, Hardin Valley, and Halls are even farther away. And a student trying to get on board at a school that has more like an 80 or 90 percent graduation rate (or where the average composite student ACT is not 17.4 compared with a state average of 20.6) would be investing an even higher proportion of non-school hours if you factor in the time it takes to wait on a bus—a substantial loss of time each school day, maybe more than an hour or two, and in any case a strain for students who already have disproportionate difficulty graduating from a facility that's right in the neighborhood.

2. Though Fulton High School is in "Restructuring 1" on the NCLB mandate after five years of not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and A-E, after six years without AYP, is one year further into the trouble zone, "Restructuring 2," Fulton administrators opted to preempt NCLB penalties by going ahead and redesigning now. But it's Fulton, not A-E, that's already rolled out a comprehensive program, with small learning academies in clearly-defined subject areas and shirt colors to go with them: maroon for Freshmen Academy, white for Health Sciences, black for Communications, and gray for Skilled Professionals.

3. Hardin Valley, also organized along academy lines but without the uniform requirements, is in a historically high academic-achievement area of the county, with very little risk of low graduation rates, but it was able to hire its principal, Sallee Reynolds, more than a year in advance of opening. A-E, on the other hand, obtained the services of Perry just a few weeks before the end of last school year.

According to Wright, there's nothing ominous about A-E being so far behind the others—or behind the curve. This is just what happens when you get the order to reinvent yourself or else in October of one year and have to re-open your doors in August of the next.

"In fairness," she says, "Fulton had been planning for two years already as part of another program, which gave them access to models and expertise that Austin-East did not have. And of course with Hardin Valley, when you're designing a brand-new school, you have the opportunity to look at functioning models before you're forced to make any decisions.

"Austin-East, though, they got caught. This where I really have to put stars in their crown, because they should have had an entire year just to plan and instead they stepped out and designed the community model, got the staff and the staff development in place, and got a clear understanding of what they need to do to proceed."

Mixed Up About Magnets

Confusing matters further is A-E's status as a magnet school—it still is, for now, but rumors of the full demise of, say, the performing arts, or at least scotching any programs that aren't unique to A-E (like the IT program or orchestra), are making the rounds among alumni and potential students. Hill, for example, had been told by A-E students last spring that the performing arts would still be offered, but not as a magnet program.

Even Perry was not aware that the school system still provided free transportation for students who chose to attend Austin-East as magnet transfers, though school spokesperson Russ Oaks confirms that that is still the case.

And Wright says the performing arts would be the last component she'd want to remove from Austin-East. "When you look at the quality of the instructors and the performing arts... it's an incredible program, even when you look at where they've struggled. For some kids, it was the one reason they came to school."

Whether performing arts would be a "neighborhood" or an extra opportunity available to all is up in the air, says Wright, and so is the composition of the county's entire five-school magnet program.

"The magnet program is in a period of transition," she says. "It is not going away, but the magnet as we know it will eventually cease to exist."

Current students, though, won't be affected by any changes made to the magnet designation, even if it were to be immediate. Most who reside out of the A-E zone and committed to the magnet program and are juniors or seniors would most likely come back to A-E for this year and maybe next to finish up as long as they're still offering some portion of, say, performing arts.

But here's the kicker. Should Austin-East lose or decline magnet status, but still be defined as "high priority" by NCLB standards, out-of-zone students would not be allowed to transfer there, unless, like Jack Willard, they were "grandfathered" in because they were enrolled before the "high priority" status became a reality.

Believers are Receivers

Now the cause for optimism. Yes, A-E has endured, just in the past nine months or so, upheaval, miscommunication, lagging planning, staff and student anxiety and skepticism. But there's a reason they didn't just cave in and let the state take over come Aug. 11: The teachers.

They, too, were hired under stressful conditions, with all certified teachers from last spring who still wanted their old jobs being made to reapply. Then they all waited, and a few didn't get hired, while a few more had other situations and had already moved on. All that's a lot of emotion expended by teachers already charged with bringing up grad rates for a historically under-achieving student body that hasn't had much school system support for academics.

Then the teachers were joined by 27 new hires for a staff of 75, two fewer than last year, and all received $3,000 "signing bonuses." They'll work extended contracts to allow time for professional development. They'll be working one-on-one with students, often. They had a retreat in Gatlinburg to kick off the teaching season, but the changes to their everyday lives will go much deeper than that.

"It's a professional learning community, focused on what do students need to know and how do they need to learn it—for teachers, it's disconcerting," says Wright. "For a long time educators only looked at what is convenient for adults. This teaching approach is far more personalized, relationship-rich. It's a student conversation, not a teacher conversation."

The increased personal interaction and smaller academic communities are more typically the model for younger kids, but if things work out at A-E—and the other two high schools that have adopted the academy approach—the strategy will eventually permeate the entire school system.

But for now, the teachers will just be trying to engage the A-E students. "Everything we do will focus on student learning," says Perry. "If kids learn, the graduation rates will go up and the state will get off our backs."

There are formidable obstacles to learning at A-E. Along with the history of low academic achievement and bright, talented kids who just don't seem that motivated to stay in school comes another drag on the program: the feeder schools. Vine Middle Magnet, for example, sends students to A-E whose NCE school mean reading scores are 40 for 8th graders—a full 16 points below the state mean of 56.

But A-E alumnus Hill thinks the individual attention just might do the trick. "I think one of the main reasons you have kids who are just waiting to drop out is because there aren't positive influences around them," he says. "They need people who can show them that they can achieve something greater than where they are currently. You see it all the time, on TV, the football player failing chemistry until someone presents it in a way that makes sense to him. It's all about how you approach individual students. You can't put them all in one category and then try to reach them all the same way."

If all else fails, Mike Willard has another solution. It's the one that will ultimately be in the back of the whole school's mind as they strive to beat the state at its own game. "My bottom line is that the Knox County School Board system should turn the whole school system over to the state so the state will no longer be able to blackmail the school and the state can run it themselves," he says. "I don't think the state wants the schools and I don't think they're in a position to operate them, but they do want to keep telling us what to do, even when it's not reasonable."

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that due to A-E's Title 1 status, students who wish to transfer away from it to another Knox County school that is not high-priority on the NCLB list do receive paid transportation to the school of their choice.