Saving Austin-East Magnet High School

The threat of a state takeover has rallied students and staff. Is the long-troubled school finally turning around?

Principal Benny Perry was smiling when he welcomed Gov. Bill Haslam to Austin-East Magnet High School on the morning of Friday, April 15. Haslam was smiling, too. So were Jim McIntyre, superintendent of Knox County Schools, Indya Kincannon, chairwoman of the county school board, and Kevin Huffman, Haslam's recently appointed commissioner of education. Really, the Austin-East library, where all of them gathered, was a sea of backslaps, handshakes, and how-you-doings among government officials and community members.

Haslam and Huffman took seats at a large conference table, flanked by Kincannon and McIntyre, while Perry stood next to a digital projection screen displaying the words "Pathways to Success." And for the next half-hour, that's what Perry and Curriculum Principal Katherine Banner talked about: the progress that they say they're making at Knox County's smallest and most perennially troubled high school, the improvements in test scores and graduation rates, the increased Advanced Placement enrollments, the personal connections between faculty and students, the support from the surrounding community.

"Austin-East is a truly neighborhood school," Perry said. "The majority of our kids walk to school here."

With local television news cameras rolling, Haslam listened attentively and asked questions: What was making the biggest difference in raising test scores? How did the one-to-one relations between students and teachers work? Huffman sat quietly, nodding and taking notes on a legal pad. McIntyre chimed in occasionally, emphasizing or enlarging on the points being made by his school-level employees. "I believe we've got the right leadership in place, we've got the right plan in place, we've got the right resources in place," he told the neophyte governor.

If it all felt like a sales pitch, that's because it was. For all the official good will in the room, and all those smiles, everybody present knew the underlying reality. Austin-East High School is on a short list of schools that, under Tennessee law, could be taken over by the state Department of Education. Multiple years of falling short on student tests made it eligible in 2010 for an Achievement School District, run out of Nashville. What Perry and Banner and McIntyre were really saying to Haslam and Huffman was pretty simple: Give us time. Things are getting better.

So the question is, are they?

Montina Jones, the school system's special adviser for high-needs schools and a former assistant principal at Austin-East, says the tale playing out on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is one of "a struggling school turning around." It is easy to hear such assurances with a tinge of skepticism, because you could have heard more or less the same words from Knox County administrators any time in the past 20 years. Ever since the old Knoxville city schools became part of the county system in 1987, Austin-East has been a target of reform efforts. As the only high school in the county with a largely black student population, it was central to the desegregation efforts of the 1990s, which led to the creation of a performing arts magnet program. As a school with a high percentage of lower-income students and persistently low test scores, it has been under increasing state and federal pressure since the No Child Left Behind law took effect in 2001. And it has been through a wrenching series of attempted transformations that have sometimes left students, teachers, and parents bewildered.

But Perry, who in 2008 became Austin-East's fourth principal in nine years, says that this time really is different. "The ship is not turned nearly the direction we want to go," he says. "But the ship is starting to turn. There's a culture change here at the school."

Walking the halls of Austin-East today, talking to teachers and students, and watching classrooms in action, it is hard to deny the volume of energy and resources that have been poured into the school over the past few years. The building is full of new staff members, programs, and ideas, supported by local, state, and federal money, along with some private funds. And there are short-term successes to point to—most significantly, the school made "Adequate Yearly Progress" in math and English last year, and raised its graduation rate to 85 percent.

As summer break nears, it's been a decisive school year for the faculty and students at Austin-East. The challenges remain serious, and more rigorous state academic standards introduced last year are only going to make things harder. But the prospect of losing a school with deep roots in Knoxville's black community seems to have fueled determination rather than despair.

"The research is there to say, don't expect things to happen overnight," says Duane Andrews, an English teacher in his sixth year at the school. "If the state came in tomorrow and said, ‘We're taking over,' it would be like a kick in the head. Because we have taught our collective backsides off."


First, some myth-busting.

"This lady asked me if we had barbed-wire fences," says Kayla Goss, a senior in Allison Gill's American Government class. "I said, ‘We're not animals.'"

Austin-East has no barbed-wire fences. It has hallway walls crowded with posters that say things like "We Want You To ... Expect More. Achieve More." It has classrooms equipped with digital "SMART boards" and a library full of computers. It has huge, bright dance studios with mirrored walls, and a plush auditorium with a technologically daunting control room for lights and sound. And it has a student body who mostly, though sometimes creatively, obey a dress code of collared shirts in designated colors.

Students and staff are well aware of perceptions of the school outside of East Knoxville: "That we're not as educated as West or Gibbs or Bearden," offers Lechon Cole, the affable president of this year's senior class. "That we're only good at sports," adds his classmate Corey Hodge. Bethany Burnette, who is finishing up her first year as a business and computer teacher at the school, says, "I still get, ‘Oh, you work there?' Why?'"

The problems posed at Austin-East are readily apparent from its 2010 State Report Card. Of 645 students, 570 were "economically disadvantaged," the highest percentage at any Knox County high school. (The next-highest was Fulton, where 653 of 854 students were so designated. At the other end of the scale was Farragut, with 232 economically disadvantaged students out of a population of 1,754.) On state tests, 30 percent of students were "below basic" in math, and 16 percent in reading and writing. And while Austin-East qualified as a "safe school" under state guidelines, it still had the highest suspension rate of any Knox County high school, with 248 handed out last year (slightly more for girls than boys).

But those numbers, of course, reflect life well beyond school bounds. Its zone takes in some of the highest-poverty neighborhoods in the city, areas that have been particularly hard hit by the economic changes of the past several decades. Sam Anderson, a former Austin-East teacher and coach who went on to represent East Knoxville on the county school board for 22 years, says the stakes for schools in low-income areas are much higher than they used to be. In Anderson's view, nostalgia for some good-old-days of American education overlooks how many students never used to finish high school—or need to. "If you weren't a good kid, they weeded you out," says Anderson, who retired from the school board last year. "Put 'em in the Army, put 'em in shop class, let them go to work." A generation or two ago, you could quit school at Austin-East (or the old Austin and East high schools that preceded it) and get hired on down the road at Standard Knitting Mills or the Levi Strauss plant on Cherry Street. Today's students know those factories only as empty buildings.

At the same time, there have been major cultural shifts. Dorothy Brice graduated from Austin-East in 1975, and she remembers a tight-knit community where most of the teachers knew not only the students, but also their parents and grandparents. Many staff members lived right in the neighborhood. "There was nothing I could do wrong at school, because my teachers knew my family," says Brice, who is now the Austin-East band director. "Now you have teachers that are coming from different areas of the county, and it's difficult."

The school also now has more students from single-parent families—and, in some cases, little parenting at all. "They call me Mama Brice here," Brice says. "The students that I have in my band look at me as a mother figure, and that makes a huge difference, in the absence of a mother." But, as psychology and theater arts teacher Darryl Fannon says, teachers can do only so much. "What we battle here is, we can do what we can do within the 90 minutes that we have them," he says. "But what they lack sometimes is that support when they go home."

Perry, the principal, is sympathetic to the obstacles his students face. But he says it's important to not let them become excuses. He has the personal history to back that up. He grew up poor in a small West Tennessee town.

"When the kids tell me, ‘I come from a high-impoverished area,'" Perry says, with a small grin, "when I was a boy, we had nine kids living in a three-room frame house. The girls slept in what we called the family room, Mom and Dad had their room, and the boys all slept in a loft. All of us slept in one bed, six boys in one bed, until I was probably about 12 years old. In the wintertime we put cardboard over the window to keep the air out, and in the summertime we took the cardboard out for air-conditioning. So I don't want to hear that, ‘I can't do this because I don't have the resources.' If I can do it—and I tell them this all the time—anybody can. Because I'm not the smartest person in the world. I just know life is a game and you have to learn how to play it."


Austin-East has a long and somewhat convoluted history. The "Austin" half of its name derives from the old Austin High School, founded in 1879 as Knoxville's first high school for black students. It was named for Emily Austin, a white educator from Philadelphia who had been teaching black children in local grade schools. (According to local historian Robert Booker, she raised most of the money to open the school from friends and associates up north.) It had various homes over the next 89 years, on Central Street and Payne and Vine avenues, before merging with East High School in its current location in 1968. (East opened in 1951, along with West and Fulton, when the old Knoxville High School closed.) Alumni include artists Beauford and Joseph Delaney, poet Nikki Giovanni, football players Reggie McKenzie and Leroy Thompson, and NBA player and coach Elston Turner.

For most of the 1990s, the focus at Austin-East was on the school system's "desegregation plan," a term that was broadly and somewhat inaccurately applied to a whole set of school closings, consolidations, renovations, and new construction. Austin-East was designated as the high school component of a magnet program beginning at three elementary schools (Beaumont, Green, and Sarah Moore Greene), and continuing through Vine Middle School. To accommodate an expanded performing arts program, the school was slated for about $15 million of work, including a new auditorium and several dance/rehearsal rooms.

The magnet program included a full orchestra, film/TV production program, and expanded Advanced Placement offerings. It was conceived as a school-within-a-school, but it struggled to attract students. Like many magnet programs, it created a certain amount of dissonance within the building. "It brought in a lot of things that the school needed," says Gloria Deathridge, a Realtor and parent of two Austin-East graduates who was elected to Anderson's old school board seat last year. But, she says, there was a sense of exclusion for the non-magnet students. "I think they felt left out, and I think that caused a little bit of an issue and problems."

Today, Austin-East is a "magnet" mostly in name. The dance and African drumming classes are still vibrant, but they are part of the regular curriculum at the school. The number of students transferring into Austin-East is dwarfed by the dozens who transfer out to other Knox County schools. There are varying explanations for the decline of the magnet program. One, offered by Perry, is that other Knox schools started offering things like orchestra, diluting the appeal of Austin-East (which no longer even has an orchestra). There was also instability at the school's helm: Principal Henrietta Grant retired in 1999, and her successor, Marion Quinn, was there just a few years before moving to Central Office. His successor, Brian Hartsell, was in turn replaced by Perry in 2008. And Anderson notes that the magnet program lost its greatest champion when former Assistant Superintendent Sarah Simpson died in 2004.

Looming over all of that was the passage of No Child Left Behind. The federal law's requirements for testing of all students, and threats of sanctions for low scores and graduation rates, reshaped priorities for school systems across the country. At Austin-East, that took the form of ever-more-severe Department of Education designations, from "Targeted Assistance" in 2003, to "School Improvement" in 2004-05, and "Corrective Action" in 2006. By 2007, with a graduation rate hovering below 70 percent (the federal mandate is 90 percent), Austin-East was slated for "Restructuring." That meant the entire school was supposed to be somehow reconfigured. The first step came in April 2008, when the school system abruptly announced that Hartsell, who was popular with students, would be replaced by Perry, then the principal of Whittle Springs Middle School.

Students were stunned. About 70 of them staged a sit-in to protest the move. "I think things could have been done with a smoother transition than it was," says Beverly Holland, the president of Austin-East's Parent Teacher Student Organization. "You disrupt the school and you bring in someone else, and no one gave them an explanation. And they deserved it."

That was just the beginning of big changes. Perry came in with a mandate to raise standards and expectations. The school was to be broken into three "Small Learning Communities": a Focus school, for freshman, set apart on the third floor; an Impact program built around arts and humanities; and the Discovery school, with a technical/career orientation. And all staff members had to reapply for their jobs. Perry says he wanted people willing to demand more of students, and take responsibility for the results. "When a teacher came in and interviewed, the main thing I'm looking at is, are they going to blame the school, the community, the students?" he says. "Or are they going to say, I did some things in my teaching that I'm going to have to look at?"

In the first go-round, only about 55 percent of teachers were rehired, with new faces recruited for the remaining positions. With further turnover in the last few years, Perry estimates he has replaced about 60 percent of the faculty.

Along with the new teachers came new academic rigor. Lechon Cole remembers, "Freshman year it was like, if you came to school and you didn't want to do the work, you didn't do it. ... If you didn't push yourself, the teacher wasn't pushing you." The next year, that changed. Students were told more would be demanded of them, from how they dressed to whether they did their homework. "There was a lot of pushback that first year," says Wendy Cessna, a teacher in a new program at the school aimed at encouraging first-generation college students. "But we didn't back down, and they are adapting."

The flipside was an increased commitment to academic support for students who needed it. Cole says he was surprised when his sophomore English teacher told him she would stay after school to work with him. "That's when I really realized that she cared," he says.


The program Cessna works in is called AVID, which is one of those awkward edu-speak acronyms, for Advancement Via Individual Determination. It is a national model, used in 4,500 schools, but came to Knox County only recently. The idea is to identify early on students "in the middle," Cessna says, who might not make it into a four-year school without extra encouragement and attention. It is just one of several overlapping efforts at Austin-East now. There is also Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), the private non-profit group that has its own office at Austin-East and helps prepare students for college. (It offers a $1,000-a-year scholarship to students who complete summer programs on college campuses and graduate on time with at least a 2.5 grade-point average.) And next year the school is being added to the county's TAP (Teacher Advancement Program) roster. TAP brings in "master teachers" to help mentor struggling faculty, and provides extra pay to teachers who excel.

Katherine Banner, the school's curriculum principal, says TAP is about much more than the money. She pulls out a thick binder that outlines the program's comprehensive teacher evaluation system, which she says provides more extensive and objective feedback than educators have had in the past. "When I was a teacher, I would have loved to have something like TAP," Banner says. "It becomes a tremendous instrument for really looking at the teaching practices." Austin-East teachers had to consent to joining TAP; Banner says 91 percent of them voted in favor.

The reinvention of the school even reached down to the student government, which was reorganized as something called student Ambassadors. Students serve as role models and advocates, both to their classmates and the outside world. "It's given us more voice," Lechon Cole says. His classmate Sylvia Penner adds, "It provides reinforcement and encouragement for the underclassmen."

A random walk around the school turns up all kinds of things you might not have seen at Austin-East a few years ago. Next door to an AVID classroom, an English class is conducting a student-led Socratic dialogue on Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War fiction. In Tom Tucker's math class, students study formulas on the digital screen at the front of the room and use remote controls to buzz in an answer. The school's emphatic focus on language skills is carrying over even into areas like dance and gym class, which are now making writing assignments. In the library, students do research for a class project at a bank of computers. "I've been in other schools where the library was just not used," says librarian David Goff, who came to the school from Jefferson County three years ago. "I told Mr. Perry that what I wanted was for the library to be used. It's turned from just a place that stores materials to an active learning center."

And then there are the major test days. Under No Child Left Behind, schools are graded not just on how well students perform, but also on whether they take the tests at all. The student Ambassadors come to school early to work a phone bank, calling their peers and urging them to come to school. Staff members and administrators will patrol the neighborhood or drive to students' homes looking for anyone who doesn't show up. Perry remembers driving with Brice to the house of one student. The girl was surprised to see them, but agreed to ride back to school with them.

"She got in the truck and said, ‘Wow, the principal came to pick me up,'" Perry says. "I said, yeah, because we want y'all to be successful. Whatever it takes, we'll come get you. She said, ‘Boy, I've been in about three or four more schools in Knox County and they never had nobody come pick us up. Y'all must care about us a lot.' I said, that's true, we care about you, but now what you need to do is go and do the best you can do on this test so you can go ahead and graduate." On the way to school, he stopped and bought her breakfast. Perry says the girl is now on track to get her diploma.


But even with all that effort, there was no avoiding the turn of the screw that came last year. Because Austin-East was, at that point, in its seventh year of not meeting yearly progress marks, it faced the possibility of state takeover. It is not even clear what that would mean—the state could disband the school, make it into a charter program, and/or turn over its management to some outside contractor—but the prospect sent shockwaves through the community.

"It was scary," Deathridge says. "Everybody was kind of like, Okay, we don't want them to take over, what can we do?" Holland, the PTSO president, says she sometimes struggles to get 10 parents at a meeting. But when Central Office officials came to talk in August about the possibility of losing the school, she says, "the auditorium was full."

It was in some ways a familiar feeling for students and staff—Austin-East once again cast in a bad light—but many say it also fired them up. "It brought out the best in us," says senior Corey Hodge, one of the student Ambassadors. "It brought out this inner drive that had almost been asleep. I grew up in this community. Austin-East has always been my high school."

Misty Brown, an English teacher who is just finishing her first year both at Austin-East and in the profession, says of her students, "It's really driven them to prove someone wrong, which is fantastic." But, she adds, "Sometimes it also makes them feel like they're being stereotyped again." Still, she hears her students pushing each other, nagging each other to do their homework, to study for exams.

Holland's daughter graduated from the school in 2009 and got a full scholarship to the University of Memphis. Her son will graduate this year. He has been accepted by every college he applied to. For all the recent turmoil, she says, "I am excited about where the school's going. They are a very close-knit group of kids. They have dealt with their challenges and come out on top."

Jim McIntyre is watching all of this closely. He was hired as superintendent in 2008, when the reconstitution of Austin-East had already begun. He thinks he is seeing early signs of success. "If you look at some of the numbers," he says, "if you look at graduation rate, if you look at their writing scores over the last two years, if you look at making adequate yearly progress in English language arts that they hadn't made in six years, you begin to see some of the fruits of our labor."

McIntyre has gone out of his way to highlight the school, holding a kickoff rally to start the year there last fall, and calling a news conference in the school library in January to announce its academic progress on the State Report Card. And then, of course, there was the governor's visit last month.

"They realize that the county can't be successful if Austin-East is not successful," Perry says of McIntyre and his staff. "We get all the support we need from them. They hold me accountable. And I have to hold the people here at the school accountable. If we don't get the job done in the next two years, then we may have another leadership change here at the school."

For now, state control seems unlikely. As Anderson notes, the state has not even moved to take over much worse performing schools in Memphis. At the conclusion of Haslam's visit, which included a discussion with some A1E1 students, the governor seemed to give his blessing to the current efforts there. "It's always impressive to hear students who care passionately about their school," he told reporters, "and it's why local school control makes so much sense and makes such a difference."

The numbers will have to keep getting better. But if they do, Austin-East will remain Austin-East. For students like Cole, who will be attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga this fall, that would be a validation. "If we wanted this school to stay open, we had to do what we had to do." And, adds his classmate Tierra Chandler, "We did it. Nobody did it for us."