‘Saving the School’: The Race to Transform a High School on the Brink of Closure
This is the amount of time new principal Anabel Garza had to transform Reagan High in Austin, Texas, or see it close for good. Longtime Austin resident and former New York Times reporter Michael Brick spent the 2009-2010 school year inside the halls of Reagan and witnessed what goes in to reforming a high-poverty "academically unacceptable" public school on the brink of closure. He tells the powerful and surprising story in his new book, Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform.
Michael Brick spoke with TakePart about his year at Reagan, the school's inspiring educators, and what we all know too well: There's no easy way to reform a struggling high-poverty school.
TakePart: What inspired you to write a book about Reagan?
Michael: I’m certainly not an education expert or policy expert—and didn’t set out to become one doing this—but as a casual reader and parent following this news, I knew there were schools like Reagan High all across the country. As a writer, I saw this ticking clock. It became clear in the summer of 2009 that they had one year to raise scores, or else.
TakePart: What experiences and moments surprised you during your year at the school?
Michael: When [principal] Anabel [Garza] gets the star of the football and basketball team, the drum line, and Soul Troops together and takes them on a bus to go visit local middle schools... Reagan is in the position where they have to convince the kids in the middle schools that they should attend instead of abandoning the school for the charter school lottery.
Reagan is labeled as academically unacceptable, and the parents are getting letters from the district telling them they don’t have to go. They’re left with two kinds of kids: Kids who don’t have the resources to leave, and the ones that are loyal and too proud to leave because their family members went there. It’s those kids that Anabel and the teachers in the book are trying to use as the spark to rebuild a kind of public high school that you and I remember when we were in school.
TakePart: Do you think there are a lot of misconceptions about schools like Reagan that are often labeled as 'dropout factories'?
Michael: I think a lot of what people perceive about schools like Reagan is sadly accurate. The numbers are the numbers in terms of test scores and graduation rates. We ignore poverty rates, limited English proficiency, and new immigrants clustered in these schools. The biggest misconception is that these teachers are uniformly lazy, hiding behind their unions, and resistant to any form of change. I saw deep passion and caring...I don’t think [science teacher] Candace is the only teacher in America driving her students to doctor’s appointments. I think there are a lot of teachers like that, and we have painted the target on them in a way that’s going to make any form of progress impossible if we stay on that painted road.
TakePart: What do you think it takes for principals and teachers to help kids who struggle with poverty and problems at home succeed?
Michael: I saw the teachers, administrators, and coaches at Reagan High trying to do two jobs at once. One is this desperate scramble to tutor, raise test scores, and get the school out of the onus of academically unacceptable ratings. The teachers don’t have the time and resources to tutor every one of these students. They need their community to rally. In the year I was there, 2009-2010, Reagan attracted more than 600 volunteers who were helping to make this happen. Yes, they made the numbers, but at the same time, you have to lay the groundwork for re-creating what a public high schools is supposed to be—a place they want to come to because they're learning things, but also playing in a band, acting in a play, and connecting to other people.
TakePart: The book chronicled the 2009-2010 school year and what it took to keep Reagan's doors open. Where is Reagan High today?
Michael: It’s listed as academically acceptable, so parents won’t get that letter home saying to take their kids out. Through a partnership with the local community college, Reagan is an early-college high school. They offer their kids a chance to earn up to 60 college credits while in high school. It’s a huge thing when student debt is such a problem. The test scores are where they need to be to have an acceptable rating, but that’s still just acceptable. They’re still working with a disproportionate share of recent immigrants and special education students.
TakePart: What do you hope people who read your book take away from it?
Michael: It’s an inspiring story, but I also hope it makes people angry. You’re not going to walk away with "well here’s the answer, we need to do what Anabel did everywhere." Anabel shouldn’t have to do what Anabel does. Candice shouldn’t have to do what Candice does. [Coach] Derrick shouldn’t have to do what Derrick does. They shouldn’t have to show off and beg talented eighth graders to come to their school. What you get out of this book is a very human dramatic story that shows what the very best from a group of talented, passionate educators, who really care, can accomplish under the circumstances we put them in. That’s what should make you angry.
TakePart: What did you learn about public education while writing the book?
Michael: I knew so little and still do. I learned that it’s our country’s most pressing social, moral, and political issue.
Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com