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Reagan High Stands Up and Fights

Reagan High doesn't want to follow in Johnston's footsteps

By Kimberly Reeves, Fri., Oct. 31, 2008

Reagan High Stands Up and Fights
Photo by John Anderson

Two weeks ago, Rep. Dawnna Dukes stood in front of a crowd of about 200 in Reagan High School's cafeteria – as passionate and committed as she had ever been on the Texas House floor – and told the story of Confederate leader John H. Reagan.

It might seem odd, she told the group, that an African-American woman would fight to save a school named after someone who fought for slavery. But John H. Reagan wasn't what he appeared to be. Yes, he served in the cabinet of Confederate President Jeffer­son Davis, but he also was an able and visionary postmaster general and, eventually, an open supporter for the abolition of slavery and the rights of slaves to vote. Reagan faced anger and renunciation for his views but was eventually exonerated.

Just like its namesake, said Dukes, Reag­an High should not be written off simply because of what it appears to be. And it's never too late, she pointed out, to stand up and fight for what is right, regardless of the past.

"We all read a lot of things about Reagan High School in the newspaper, but that's not all there is to Reagan," Dukes told the group. "We have three members who are presently in the Legislature who are graduates, including one who is a senator. We have had a secretary of state and the mayor of Dallas come out of here and many others who were in high places of authority. They were graduates of Reagan, because we know what we are capable of doing at Reagan."

Nevertheless, Reagan High has lost some of its luster. Once known for its string of state championship football teams – when he was president, Richard Nixon called Reagan "the best team in America" – the school is now known as one of a handful in the state that faces potential closure because of low test scores, subpar attendance, and too many dropouts. It's probably no comfort to alumnae such as Dukes and Rep. Donna How­ard that the school's mantra is now, "Not another Johnston." Johnston is, of course, the crosstown high school that Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott closed last year under sanctions set out by the state's accountability system.

Reagan is not Johnston High School, but it is in trouble. Johnston (since renamed Eastside Memorial) was in a much deeper academic hole than Reagan, and even a last-minute flurry of efforts by Johnston faculty and parents couldn't stanch the years of transfers and the general inability to pick one community-supported direction for Johnston and then follow it. But Johnston and Reagan do have a lot of similarities. As community leader Allen Weeks and principal Anabel Garza have outlined in discussions about the campus, Reagan has suffered from high teacher turnover, a lack of clear lines of authority, inconsistent leadership, and too many competing education reform efforts, including a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed program called First Things First. It could be quipped, in the case of Johnston, that First Things First was really Too Little, Too Late.

The Austin Independent School District drove the turnaround plan for the final year at Johnston High. But in a fit of frustration, district officials have allowed Weeks and the St. Johns Neighborhood Association to enter the picture for Reagan. Weeks was part of the team that re-engaged the parent community of Webb Middle School and successfully turned the school around two years ago. His involvement with Reagan holds promise not only because he may be able to duplicate that success but because Webb, with its active parent population and engaged student body, is a feeder school for Reagan.

"Reagan has suffered from organizational issues for a long time," said Weeks, who has helped craft a 32-page community-driven plan for the school. "Like a lot of low-income schools in the district, they got a lot of scattered programs. And they had four principals in four years, so it was never really clear who was in charge."

The latest principal is Garza, a district veteran who came to Reagan from the Inter­na­tion­al High School on the former Johnston campus. In a frank discussion with parents at Reagan early in the school year, Garza noted some of the campus' challenges: all new counselors this year, a high number of teachers departing the campus, a lack of basic campus systems and procedures, and a need to address the English-language learners on the campus.

To avert closure, Weeks and his volunteers have created a 21-point community action plan intended to address critical needs at the school: improvements in teaching, attendance, mentoring/tutoring, and school climate and a focus on English-language learners, African-American students, pregnant teens, and the ninth grade, when kids tend to drop out. "The focus at Reagan is on getting the basic systems working. That's going to go a long way to getting things fixed, to stabilizing the school," Weeks said. "We know that scores have flatlined, that attendance has flatlined. So what we're going to propose is some real basic things to address the problems."

Case in point: Almost a quarter of Reag­an's students fall into the category of English-language learners. But Weeks noted that the school district has funded services for only 100 of the 250 students. The campus has only one English as a Second Language teacher and no program for ESL on campus. So one of the plan's proposals is to convene a task force for long-term and short-term strategies, with the goal of placing every non-English speaker in an appropriate setting by January.

Reagan is looking for volunteers to help implement its strategy. Anyone interested should see www.notwithouthonor.com.

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