Monday, June 04, 2012

Highlanders Today

Under new principal, Fort Worth's Eastern Hills High School is making a comeback

Posted Sunday, May 20, 2012  (Credit Story & Photos – Ft. Worth Star Telegram)


FORT WORTH -- As second-year Principal Cherie Washington walks the hallways of Eastern Hills High School, bright red bullhorn in hand, students know she doesn't mess around.

"Forty-eight seconds ... 42 seconds," Washington counts down. "If that bell catches you, you're going to be mine."

As the students race to class, most toss a smile at her.

"Twenty-seven seconds."

The bell rings, classroom doors are shut and not a student is in sight.

For a school that has been struggling with poor academics, high faculty turnover and student fighting in recent years, the calm and order are a sign that Eastern Hills -- a once proud cornerstone of its east-side neighborhood -- is turning things around.

Test scores, while still far below the state average, are up. Students are participating in more extracurricular activities, and this spring, the school conducted its first National Honor Society induction ceremony in five years.

Senior Anthony Jones said he is proud of the progress.

"My freshman year there were fights and gangs.  When Ms. Washington came in, she got us in check the first day," Jones said.  "To me, having the honor society really means growth at the school. It is a sign that where I come from -- in my community -- we can have programs that actually represent students who are doing very well in school."

School district officials, however, know that there is still much work to be done.

'The No. 1 thing'

Eastern Hills is considered one of the lowest-achieving schools in Texas and is one of only a handful in the state to be rated academically unacceptable for five consecutive years. It has also failed to meet federal accountability standards for seven consecutive years. In the past, five years in a row of such a rating would have forced the state to close the school. But that law was changed in 2009 to allow schools more time to improve.

In 2010, 39 percent of Eastern Hills' students passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the lowest passing rate of any high school in Fort Worth and 10 percentage points lower than neighboring Dunbar High School.

That passing rate rose to 46 percent in 2011, though the state average is 76 percent.

"You can't get away from assessment because that's the No. 1 thing that everyone looks at," Washington said. "So we focus on that, but we also focus on taking the kids and moving them forward and watching them grow. We deal with kids who come two or three years behind and move them to grade level. We have bright kids that we need to challenge and get them ready to be successful in college. ... A rating doesn't define us."

Data analysis of state tests and district-administered benchmark tests is helping teachers zero in on which students need help and in what areas.

The school focuses on the 211 students on the bubble -- those who missed passing state tests by just a few questions. Those students are part of an "I promise" team that receives additional tutoring and support.

Each teacher's class roll includes student photographs, attendance information and a color-coded system to show whether a student is excelling, passing, on the bubble or failing.

Washington monitors data to see which teachers have few students passing and works to get them additional training and resources. And this year, the campus received $6 million from a federal grant program designed to help turn around the nation's bottom 5 percent of schools. Most of that money -- to be spent over three years -- pays for seven additional staffers, mentor programs and a planned academy for over-age students.

'The spark'

Many students and staff members say the most significant change at the school is Washington, Eastern Hills' fifth principal in six years.

One of the first things she did was restore a sense of civility. Before her arrival, students were constantly wandering the halls. Fights often spilled over into the parking lots of nearby businesses or down streets, prompting neighborhood complaints.

"It was too wild," junior Keyon Triggs said.

Science teacher Laura Parker said that besides the chaos, the constant changes created a barrier to learning.

"It was like we kept trying to re-turn the wheel," Parker said. "But now we have structure -- from keeping our classes running to how students dress to the expectation that they get to class on time. It's just a better environment overall for the kids."

Before arriving at Eastern Hills last year, Washington had been principal of nearby Meadowbrook Middle School. Meadowbrook is also struggling, having missed state accountability marks for several years. But with Washington on board, Meadowbrook earned an academically acceptable rating in 2009.

Nearly all current Eastern Hills students have a close connection to Washington because of her time at Meadowbrook or because they had attended Handley Middle School, where her husband was principal.

While students quickly responded favorably to Washington, teachers were more reluctant. Many were tired of getting a new set of directives with each new principal.

"But the more she's been here, the more the staff believes that she's trying to get things done here," math teacher Miguel Garza said. Even state officials have taken notice of her efforts.

Jobob Aanenson, who was appointed by the Texas Education Agency to monitor Eastern Hills in recent years, said previous administrators didn't seem to have a clear vision for the school.

"She was the spark that school needed," Aanenson said.

Most importantly, the students see the difference.

Senior Kelly Morales said Eastern Hills didn't offer much in extracurricular activities or school events when she started as a freshman.

Now the school has jazz concerts, college expo days, community events and even a fashion show. Participation in sports has climbed as well. Garza, for example, began coaching girls soccer in the 2008-09 school year with 20 students on varsity. Now participation has almost doubled, and Eastern Hills has a junior varsity team.

"It feels like the teachers and everyone really cares now," Morales said.


Eastern Hills opened in 1959 and quickly became a landmark in the Meadowbrook neighborhood.

By the 1970s, it was known for its annual Miss Big E pageant, which raised thousands of dollars for the school. In 1987, it became the first Fort Worth school to offer academic sweaters. The school was a powerhouse of musical talent, with the Symphonic Band and Stage Band among five United States school bands to be invited by the Soviet government to play there in 1990.

Notable alumni include U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and Hook screenwriter James Hart. It's also the alma mater of R. Allen Stanford, a prominent ex-financier who is awaiting sentencing for defrauding investors of billions.

But over the years, the community lost its connection to the school as the neighborhood aged and demographics shifted.

Eastern Hills had long been a predominantly white school, but that began to change in the early 1990s. By 1995, more than half the students were African-American, and only about 36 percent were white. Now 56 percent of its 1,294 students are black, about a third are Hispanic and 6 percent are Anglo.

As the school began to struggle academically -- it was rated low-performing by the state in 1994-95 -- some neighborhood residents sent their children to private schools or bused them to other schools in the district, residents said.

Councilman Danny Scarth, who represents that area, said few residents took an interest in Eastern Hills other than to complain about fights, children loitering in the neighborhood, or trash from the campus blowing onto streets.

But in 2010, Tobi Jackson was elected to the Fort Worth school board, and she focused much of her energy on rebuilding the community's connection to the school.

"Tobi is just everywhere, at every neighborhood association going out and talking about Eastern Hills and getting the community back involved," Scarth said.

'Proud of my school'

 Jackson, an Eastern Hills graduate, said community support is key to re-establishing the school. She began partnering students with residents who shared a related field of interest.

She pushed school district officials to make improvements at the school, including renovating an old gym, which includes a rock climbing wall, archery area and donated exercise equipment, with the goal of opening it for neighborhood use.

Washington, meanwhile, had the idea to install picnic tables outside for students, rather than have them linger in the neighborhood, and allowing limited off-campus lunch privileges. Students must wear campus IDs at all times, which officials have said dramatically cut the number of fights, often started by rival gang members from other schools showing up in hallways.

Police records show that since 2010, reported crimes at the school and its immediate area have dropped.

There were 358 police calls to campus in 2009, for example, but 178 in 2011, records show.

Washington and other staffers frequently attend community meetings and neighborhood events, and this month, the school had the highest number of participants -- 485 -- for the district's seventh annual fitness walk.

While some remain skeptical as to how much Eastern Hills can change, LaWayne Hauser said the turnaround is stunning.

A retired teacher, Hauser visits the campus periodically.

"When you go to the school now, the students are very well-organized, polite and groomed and seem to be concentrating on what they are supposed to be concentrating on," Hauser said. "Before, well ... not as much."

Sophomore Glenda Maradiaga, who was among the 59 students recently inducted into the National Honor Society, said: "I'm really proud of my school. It feels like it's made a complete 180 and working its way back to the top."

Eva-Marie Ayala (FWST), 817-390-7700


Go Highlanders


cj said...

I'm struck by the "improvement" shown by only 178 police calls to the school in 2011. We had exactly 1 in my 3 years, and that was when we let the pig loose. So sad...

Gus said...

We didn't turn a pig loose, so unless the guy who tore up the track with his motorcycle one night warranted a call, I don't recall any police presence whatsoever during my 3-years there.