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East community greets proposed ninth grade academy with questions, skepticism

A plan that would send East High School students to nearby Manual High School for ninth grade got its first airing with the East community Tuesday night — and the reception was less than enthusiastic.

The meeting came after news Friday that no decision would be made on the plan until 2015, at least. The plan includes a tenth through 12th grade STEM-focused school that would bear Manual’s name, in addition to a comprehensive ninth grade academy that would include both Manual and East students. It was initially proposed in February, as part of call for proposals for the struggling Manual campus, and presented to the Manual community two weeks ago,

East’s principal Andy Mendelsberg faced a restive crowd as parents and community members questioned the transparency of the process and the promised benefits of the academy.

“You were just going to push [the plan] through,” one community member accused. Others called out the plan as an example of “corporate reform,” in part due to a grant that could help fund the STEM programming.

And some parents remained confused about what exactly the proposed model was.

“With all the communication and rumors flying around, can you share what the plan actually is?” one parent asked in the first minutes of the meeting to applause.

The confusion is natural, Mendelsberg said, as the plan is still in the initial stages. He emphasized that, with a year until any decision is made, there would be plenty of opportunity for parents, students and community members to provide input.

The most contentious questions revolved around what good the ninth grade academy would actually produce. Mendelsberg listed potential benefits, including the isolation of ninth graders from the potentially negative influence of older students; the ability to target students to catch them up in a more contained environment; and the reduction of overcrowding at East.

But some current students and alumni came forward to say that most influence from older students was positive and helped shape the school’s identity.

“You assume all freshmen can handle hanging out with other freshman,” said a junior named Nate who gave only his first name. He said he benefited from interacting with older students who had more experience and a wider perspective.

And others pointed out that the school’s achievement gap, which is the second largest in the district, raised questions about how well East could serve Manual’s students. Most of Manual’s students are Latino and African-American, and the school serves a predominantly low-income community.

“I’m not sure East knows yet how to reach all students,” a current East student said. The school needs to focus on making its high level courses more diverse and becoming more inclusive before it extends to another campus, she said.

And a central question lingered: how do we know this will work? Where’s the research to back it up?

“There are no guarantees,” said Greta Martinez, the district’s assistant superintendent. “All we can do is keep trying.”

Mendelsberg agreed, saying it was still an experimental model, with the research still pending. He called out schools in the District of Columbia and Florida that have experimented with the model, although others have backed away from it.

The district plans to hold meetings throughout the year to discuss the plan and other potential proposals for the Manual campus.

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