The History Behind LASA’s New Campus


Sophie Chau

All buildings have a history to them, and LASA is no exception. Since the 1980s, AISD had two different magnet schools called the Liberal Arts Academy (LAA) and Science Academy (SA). The two schools merged into one magnet program on the LBJ Early College High School (LBJ ECHS) campus in 2002, and LASA was created as a separate high school in 2007. With various campus moves, combining of schools, and altering of programs, LASA’s campus has a rich history that involves many schools and Austin Independent School District (AISD) decisions.

Just as these halls are filled with students, they are also filled with history. For example, LASA government and law teacher Ronny Risinger, who taught at LAA at the time, recalled a moment when a fire broke out in the boy’s restroom near the 300s hall.

“I ran to the office, and they didn’t have a fire extinguisher—this was a long time ago, now they’re doing a lot better obviously,” Risinger said. “I eventually put it out with just a trash can and water, and then I just went back to my classroom. Reflecting on that, I realized the only time I’ve ever seen a fire in the building, I actually didn’t pull the fire alarm, I just put it out and then went back to work. I lost a silk tie that day, but that was the only casualty.”

In 2017, AISD voters decided to pass a $1 billion bond that included funds for LASA’s move to another campus, splitting from their combined campus with LBJ ECHS. The district decided to place LASA at the former campus of Eastside Memorial High School (Eastside), where the LAA was also once held before it joined with the SA at LBJ ECHS. LASA and Eastside moved to their new respective campuses in 2021. 

But before this campus held either Eastside or the LAA, it hosted Johnston High School, which opened in 1960 when the campus was newly built. According to Johnston class of 1965 graduate Ricardo Mota, the school’s beginnings were off to a great start, especially because of their first principal, Gordon Bailey. His leadership was so effective that they eventually named a school after him, Bailey Middle School.

“The first principal Johnston ever had was called Papa Bailey because he was into everything,” Mota said. “There were times when students couldn’t get to school, and he would actually get in his own beat-up car and go pick the students up and bring them to school, and then drop them off in the afternoon. He was a great, great person.”

Johnston’s demographics were also notable. The school was created after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled that segregation within education was unconstitutional. As such, the school was able to have Hispanic, Black, and white students. According to Mota, within the school, all students were relatively accepting and integrated—but the world around them wasn’t.

“After [a football] game, the team stopped at a restaurant, and we went in there,” Mota said. “The coach got off first, and he asked if they could handle so many students. And the guy said yeah, but then he said that if we had any Black students, they were going to have to sit towards the back of the dining area. The coaches said, ‘No, we don’t do that where we come from.’ So, we all sat back there. We hung together. We stuck together. That was one of the first times that I had experienced that.”

As the years went by, the calls for integration increased. In 1980, AISD started a busing program to try and integrate the schools more. According to class of 1970 student and Johnston Alumni Association President Larry Amaro, busing changed the look of the building in addition to its demographics.

“The biggest changes came when the busing started,” Amaro said. “The school was remodeled at that time, the auditorium that you have in the back by the parking lot was built because of that—to attract new students. The band room was expanded, as well, to make it more attractive.” 

However, in 1986, the busing stopped, and the school became more segregated as a result. So, in 1987, AISD opened up the LAA as a magnet program to try and draw more students to the campus. According to social studies teacher Neil Loewenstern, who taught at the LAA, Johnston and the magnet program were relatively close.

“The friendships were very close across the school, and I think everybody felt pretty involved in and invested in the community as a whole,” Loewenstern said.

LAA students were able to participate in the vocational schools housed at Johnston. They also had combined traditions, like having car clubs come to the school, according to history teacher and former LAA student Kimberley Pettigrew.

“They would come through the courtyards and drive into where the courtyard for the cafeteria was,” Pettigrew said. “Then, there was a bakery here where the college center is now. So, people who came here could learn how to be a baker with HEB.”

Another important tradition was the communal lunch, where there would be a different section in each courtyard with food, music, and activities for students. Unfortunately, the tradition died out when the LAA merged with the SA in 2002, according to former LAA teacher and current LASA history teacher Maricruz Aguayo.

“We tried to take it to LBJ, but there weren’t spaces to accommodate that, and it died out pretty quickly,” Aguayo said.

The LAA’s split with Johnston and subsequent merge with the SA was caused in part by the fact that Johnston and the LAA had the same Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) number, which is a code given to each school to identify them in data reviews. This meant that LAA’s top 10% and Johnston’s top 10% were in the same pool, so there was less opportunity for Johnston’s students to be automatically admitted to schools like the University of Texas at Austin. However, even though the reasoning was sound, according to Pettigrew, the decision still felt rushed.

“It felt like a hostile takeover,” Pettigrew said. “It was a top-down decision from the superintendent at the time, Dr. Forgione. There were plenty of legitimate complaints from the neighborhood about how the situation worked. But it certainly, as a student, did not feel like our voices were taken into account. It was a sort of fait accompli.”

Around that time, there was turmoil surrounding the leadership on campus. According to Loewenstern, there were multiple principals within a relatively short period of time.

“It zapped a lot of positive energy out,” Loewenstern said. “Moving from principal after principal really was a blow to morale for teachers, and created inconsistency in the programs for students, as well.”

After the LAA split from Johnston, the school’s failing test scores were revealed. AISD decided to close and then reopen the school in 2008 under a new name, Eastside Memorial, to honor the multiple Johnston alumni whose lives were lost in the Vietnam war. In 2010, two other schools, Green Tech and Global Tech, were housed in the same campus alongside Eastside and International High School, a program that was opened up within Eastside to help new foreign residents.

“You had the Eastside campus, the International High School, and then you had Green Tech and Global Tech,” Aguayo said. “That’s where the G and the T come from for the annexes—because the schools were housed based on the annexes.”

Global Tech and Green Tech closed the next year, 2011. According to Amaro, the rapid closing and opening of schools threw the community through a rollercoaster of emotions.

“It is sad for the community to see,” Amaro said. “All those alumni and the families and businesses that supported the schools have lost those schools, and the alumni from those schools no longer pass by those schools. It’s a sad situation.”

In 2013, the alumni association unveiled a veteran’s memorial to commemorate the deaths of former Johnston students resulting from the Vietnam War. Amaro said many Johnston students, including Mota, who was injured while serving in the Navy in Vietnam, were drafted into the war or joined it.

“Unfortunately, some of them made one way trips because Johnston has the most students that went to Vietnam and got killed or died as a result of injuries related to Agent Orange,” Amaro said.

This year, LASA split from their once-shared campus with LBJ ECHS. According to AISD director of Bond Planning and Controls Drew Johnson, who helped facilitate LASA’s move, the decision on where to place the new campus was based on factors like location because of LASA’s unique position as a magnet school.

“LASA students come from all over the district, and the district pays for that transportation, so we want to be mindful of what those implications are,” Johnson said. “There were not a lot of solutions that passed a high level due diligence test. The Johnston solution ended up being one of very few that would have worked.”

Currently, AISD Future, who manages the bond, is finalizing a campus concept plan that will be out within the next year. This plan will include more specific and long-term goals for the LASA campus. In the meantime, principal Stacia Crescenzi said the school is working on creating a walking tour within the school that will showcase more of the history, among other additions.

“I’m hoping that we can have a big archway at a new front door, with our name on the front, Crescenzi said, “and that people can walk through that archway and say: ‘It’s our school.’”