An Eastside Education tells the story of an Austin high school struggling to meet state standards. For years Eastside Memorial High School has been plagued by failing test scores and negative headlines. The story follows one semester as teachers, parents, administrators, and students fight to meet state accountability standards or watch their school be closed.
To see what it took to put the project together, we sat down with the KLRU minds behind the project, producer and writer Allison Sandza and videographer and editor Blair Waltman-Alexin.
Q: Where did the idea for the project come from?
A: KLRU was awarded a grant by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which made us an American Graduate station, which funded reporting on the dropout crisis in our region. So, we wanted to take a hyperlocal look at the dropout crisis in our region and we started talking about what schools we could use as a lens to talk about that issue, and we remembered Eastside Memorial. Everyone in Austin has heard about Eastside Memorial before. It’s had a lot of bad press for over 10 years. It hasn’t been able to meet state accountability, it’s been repurposed, renamed, all these different things, so we thought, “Hmm, let’s check in there.” We had recently met the dropout prevention specialist, or the graduation coach [at Eastside], and he mentioned to us just offhand that the dropout rate at Eastside had dropped from 6 percent to 1 percent in just a few years, so that kind of piqued our interest as well. We went over there, we started talking to them, and we realized there was so much more to the story, so we wanted to follow them for a whole semester and see what a school like Eastside was like for a whole semester. -A.S.
Q: What was it like spending an entire semester at Eastside?
A: It was interesting. It was very different from how you normally approach filming and producing a news-focused story, because if you’re doing a regular news piece on a school, you’re in a classroom for maybe 15 minutes, get a few shots, talk to a couple of people, and then that’s it, you kind of leave, you’re disassociated from the group, and there’s more distance between you and your subject. But with this, we were checking in with the principal all throughout the semester, checking in with the same teachers all throughout the semester, asking them, “How are things going? How do you feel like you’re doing with testing?” So you get a lot more involved than you normally do with a regular news story. Also, you’re trying so hard not to be obtrusive, but you have to be there so much more of the time. We spent a lot of time in one of the teacher’s English classes, so you’re hanging out for maybe, like, an hour, waiting for the class to end so you can interview her, and then you also want to get her teaching the class, so you’re trying to cover that as much as you can, but then also not distract the students, because they’re there to learn and you’re trying to not interfere with that, so it’s a little bit different. You’re trying to be there as much as you can, and also be invisible as much as you can. -B.W.
And so much of the story at Eastside relies on how they’re going to perform on the STAAR test, the state accountability exam, so much of the spring semester that we were there has to do with that test that happens in March and April. So it was interesting to be able to watch these students come back from winter break, you know, everyone’s still kind of on vacation mode, then buckle down, do mock testing, do the real test, deal with the emotional and physical exhaustion that goes into taking this five-hour exam, and then watch these administrators and the students and the teachers wait for test scores to come back. It was a really interesting thing to see, just the spectrum, and then you end with graduation, which again, is a celebratory thing, and people getting ready for vacation. I’m glad that we followed them during the spring semester, I think that was a really interesting thing to experience. -A.S.
Q: The media hasn’t been friendly to Eastside in recent years. What was your reception on campus from students and teachers who are concerned about bad press for their school?
A: It seemed like there was a little bit of unease, not everybody, but a few people. There would be a little bit of, you know, “What are you going to say about our school?” And I think that’s a well-deserved emotion for them to have, because they’ve had kind of a rough time in the media for several years, and you think, “Oh, someone else is going to come in and bash our kids, or our teachers, and we’re trying really hard.” Sometimes there would be a little bit of, “What are you doing?” And then we would explain what the project was, and then it was this very immediate, “Oh, okay, that’s cool,” and that seemed to kind of break the tension, once they understood it was a long-form project, that we wanted to talk about how much they’re fighting to stay open, and the history of the school, and it seemed like that put people at ease pretty quickly. -B.W.
I also thought it was interesting that you could tell that these kids had been on camera before, and that there had been cameras in their school before. I think if you went to some of the other high schools in the area, and maybe elsewhere in the state, maybe they would be waving at the camera, but these Eastside kids and their parents and the teachers have been through this before, and yes, there was that standoffishness because they wanted to know, is this another round of bad press that was on the way? But it was almost like they could get used to ignoring a camera in a classroom. It was sort of bizarre in that way, and sort of sad. -A.S.
Yeah, I was thinking about a couple of other shoots we’ve done at other high schools, and that does kind of seem to be a thing, you get this weird look from kids like, “Why are you here and what are you doing in my classroom?” And they’ll either get really nervous and giggly, or they’ll immediately just hide their face, but most of those kids at Eastside, they kind of had this familiarity with, “Oh, it’s a news crew in our school,” and then they just kind of go about their routine. -B.W.
Q: What did you learn from this project and what should the public take away from the story?
A: I think the biggest takeaway was how many people it takes to keep a school afloat and successful. Everyone thinks of teachers right away, they might think of the principal, but Eastside’s a school with support staff, with outside organizations that help them. Some parents are super involved, some parents aren’t involved at all because they work multiple jobs. But they also have proud alumni who come back to the school, and Eastside’s actually a really small school. It’s probably one of the smallest high schools, if not the smallest high school, in the district. It was a major takeaway, just how many people put their everything into keeping this school alive, you know, even their own money to help these kids be successful. It was pretty inspiring, actually. -A.S.
Yeah, I would say it almost kind of felt like there was this small gravitational pull toward the school, where you have kids that graduated that wanted to come back and help out or do what they could to support the school and show that it’s a school worth fighting for and that there are success stories there. And you had teachers that would stay late every night to work on stuff. There are teachers that help students pay for their prom dresses. It was that type of staff, where they could go home and chill out, but they’re spending their time at the school. You have community members at the school, you have some people in the area that volunteer in their free time to help out with different extracurricular activities because they want to. It just seemed like there’s this pull to do something there and there’s a pride people have in that community for that school that they want to hold it up and see it survive. -B.W.
And I think the takeaway from that is that if this school does get shuttered, it’s more than just students that’ll be relocated and teachers that will get relocated. It’s an entire community that really is fighting to keep it open. When they all used the word to tell us that if the school gets shut down it’ll be “devastating” to this community, I think even a cynical journalist would hear that and learn about the school while reporting on it all semester and say, “Yeah, I think you’re right. I think it would be devastating.” -A.S.
An Eastside Education is part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The American Graduate initiative seeks to establish a clearer understanding about why students drop out of high school and how drop out impacts our economy and society. An Eastside Education examines these issues up close by exploring how one school, in an at-risk community, is overcoming years of poor performance and trending toward success.
On Friday, June 26, KUT Austin’s Jennifer Stayton interviewed Allie and Blair about the project. Listen to the interview below.