The Future's So Bright ...

Following a Line of Short-Time Principals, Can Sal Cavazos Save Johnston High?

Future Johnston Principal Cavazos looks forward to his new challenge: Kids are where the fun is.
Future Johnston Principal Cavazos looks forward to his new challenge: "Kids are where the fun is." (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Salvador Cavazos, the baby-faced 37-year-old principal of Fulmore Middle School, is excited. His lanky frame is perched on the edge of his chair; his hands are clasped into fists, punching at the air as he makes his point, a look of shrewd conviction firmly planted on his face. "I believe the students, I look in their eyes and I believe in their dreams and hopes. They have the right and the obligation to graduate from high school -- they are a part of the leadership equation in our communities and in our nation," he says leaning perilously forward in his chair, his eyes fiery. "We don't lower our expectations for anybody. Responsible educators give the students the skills they need to meet the high expectations." Perhaps it is this passion (which is evident in any extended conversation with him) that won Cavazos the principal's job at the Eastside's collapsing Johnston High School -- named for Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston and often referred to as the "Pride of the Eastside."

Over the last decade the beleaguered high school has endured "a real run of bad luck," as one Johnston observer put it: Six principals have come and gone in the past seven years -- six in the past four years, if you count the interim administrators. "I hate it; it's there goes another principal at Johnston. Here's another," said 17-year-old Andreana Pérez, a Johnston junior. "We're just hoping this one will work." Pérez isn't alone. Cavazos retrieves a stack of letters from his office bookshelf and drops them on his desk. They're from students and parents in the school he officially will take over in May, some handwritten, all enumerating problems -- and there are many -- at Johnston. The letters are also full of support, and the hope that Cavazos can save the school from its many problems. One student writes that she is excited for Cavazos to come to the school and that she hopes he can "calm the storm at Johnston."

And Johnston has its share of problems: High dropout rates and unacceptable attendance figures that have earned the school a low-performance rating from the state two years running; lagging TAAS test scores; seemingly endless construction projects; years of neglect by the district. Then there are structural tensions created by the presence of the Liberal Arts Academy magnet housed on the Johnston campus -- an outside population of select, competitive, mostly white kids sharing facilities with a minority student body in a school in protracted crisis. The public got some sense of the tension between the magnet and its host school through recent press reports on the legal challenge to the ranking system the district uses to identify each school's top 10% of students -- a real problem when one campus is home to two student bodies. But to students, teachers, parents, and staff, the problems at Johnston are pervasive and persistent. And many in the Johnston community point to what might be called the campus Catch-22: Problems could be resolved, they said, if the school could retain a committed leader; but holding on to such a principal is tough because of the school's many problems. "They bring these people in here who say they'll stay, and then when they get here and they see how much needs to be done, what a difficult job it really is going to be, they don't want to do it," said one Johnston staff member who asked to remain anonymous. "We need a strong administration with some -- excuse me, but, with some balls, who will stand up and do something. It all boils down to this: Will he actually stay?"

The District 2 representative on the Austin Independent School District Board, Rudy Montoya, a Johnston High School graduate, admits the district has not done the best job supporting campus administrators in the past, but said the district administrators have renewed their commitment to Johnston's success and even assigned an experienced AISD principal as a mentor to Cavazos. "I will say, the district should've done a better job preparing folks," Montoya said. "We've learned our lessons, that we have to support him during this transition if we want to be successful. We will not leave [Johnston] alone, and we will not leave Cavazos alone." The district has a lot riding on Cavazos. And Cavazos, for his part, is already preparing for his transition to Johnston while working at Fulmore. He has hired a new athletic director, met with Johnston teachers, attended Campus Advisory Council meetings and Parent Teacher Association breakfasts. He says he intends to cure Johnston's woes, and even predicts that the school will become a shining star in the district.

"Overwhelmingly, [the students who have written to him] want someone to stay. They want the pride back in their school," Cavazos said, leaning back in his chair, one long leg crossed over the other. "They want someone who will stay, and I am going to stay at Johnston."

Pride of the Eastside

Getting administrators to stay at Johnston has been an impossible task at the school for some time now. Since Hector Montenegro -- a charismatic educator and one of the district's stars -- left to become superintendent at San Marcos five years ago, the revolving door at the Johnston principal's office has continued to spin. AISD brought in an "interim," then brought in a principal from San Antonio who wasn't a fit. Next was another interim from the district bullpen. Then came one attempt at promoting from within and one at recruiting from outside. These last two have been the most high-profile departures. Al Mindiz-Melton -- whom many students and parents felt was a true advocate for Johnston -- left last year after Austin police reports alleged that he was in possession of marijuana and had a sexual relationship with a male student. Mindiz-Melton had been on the job for a less than a year when he left, and district officials selected a more authoritarian type to replace him: Bastrop High principal James Richardson. When a flying Coke bottle hit Richardson on the head during lunch last September, he took a brief medical leave, then packed up and left.

To many students, it seemed as if Richardson was hardly there. But Mindiz-Melton, despite his very real problems, had been one of the district's stars before coming to Johnston, where students appreciated him. "Mr. Melton was a great principal. He knew my name, that's a big thing," said Johnston junior Pérez. "We would see him in the hall and we're looking at him like, 'He knows our names.'"

Students and parents hope that Cavazos will inspire as much enthusiasm as Melton did. "This is the kind of person we've been asking for for the last couple of years," said Sylvia Herrera, a member of the PTA, whose daughter Charisma is a Johnston senior: "I think that, certainly, he has a lot of assets coming into Johnston and everybody I've talked to feels very positive about him." Others are more skeptical, unable to forget the revolving door in the principal's office and a pattern of neglect by the district. "There's just no control and nobody seems to care, and it all falls back on downtown," said one school staffer, whose comments suggest that Cavazos has his work cut out for him. The same staffer repeats a claim that education advocates from the Eastside Coalition have made with increasing frequency: "If this were a white school they'd be all over these problems." Indeed, the idea that Johnston has been neglected because of its high ratio of minority and low-income students is not a new one, and it hasn't been lost on the students. "We get the bottom of the pit," said Pérez. "Honestly, I don't know why. Because we're mostly minorities?"

Under Cavazos, Fulmore Middle School more than doubled the number of computers for students.
Under Cavazos, Fulmore Middle School more than doubled the number of computers for students. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

After school boundaries were redrawn in 2000, Johnston was assigned a student body that is 77% Hispanic, 20% African-American, and, perhaps most importantly, 63% eligible for free or reduced-price lunch -- a gauge of the low income of students' families. According to AISD, only 2% of the students in the current neighborhood attendance area are Anglo. Last year, white students made up 15.3% of the entire student body, but almost all of those students were attending the Liberal Arts Academy magnet program, housed in the school since 1988. Currently, of approximately 1,700 total students at Johnston, 320 (about 19%, including both whites and minority students) are enrolled in the academy. Trustee Montoya -- who grew up in the Johnston neighborhood and whose father was a member of the school's third graduating class in 1963 -- admits the school has suffered from neglect over the years, but declines to blame it on the school's minority and low-income population. "People's perceptions are their reality and I can't change that," he said. Yet the reality accepted among most educators is that family income and economic class are important factors in educating children.

So it is no surprise that the high percentage of low-income families has added to the stresses at Johnston -- specifically to the dropout rate, which is the second highest in the district; last year it was officially reported to be 7%. (Reagan High's rate is 8%.) Johnston also has an acute attendance problem: Last year's 15% absenteeism is, again, one of the highest rates in the district. The average rate is 11.26%, and schools with larger middle-class populations, such as Anderson and Bowie, have absentee rates as low as 7%. Poor attendance often leads to poor student retention, and indeed, while Johnston's annual freshman class usually is between 500-600 students, last year the school only graduated 210. "Many students have to work, it's not a choice," said area superintendent Rosalinda Hernández. "And because they have to work, they often find the need to drop out." Cavazos and Hernández have been working on a master schedule that next year will accommodate working students, with a flexible daily schedule that will offer later starting times and some night classes. Cavazos believes this innovative scheduling will help address the dropout problem. Dolores Pérez, a Johnston parent and former Johnston student, agrees that there needs to be a specific program aimed at keeping students in school. "Nowadays it's not the school I had -- we just went to school," she said. "Now they're working and going to school. And for a lot of kids there's no choice. Family comes first, and there needs to be a support mechanism in place." Cavazos has also hired a new athletic director, in hopes of boosting the lagging participation in sports and encouraging school pride. (Academics and attendance are not the only problems at Johnston. The Johnston Rams football team, for example, has won just two games in the past four years.) For Cavazos, the approach should be comprehensive: "We are creating an organizational structure at all areas that supports student success in academics and extracurricular activities, and in the overall positive high school experience."

Advocacy at Work

Easily the most invisible high school campus in the district, Johnston sits just north of the Colorado River, in between the industrial strips along Airport Boulevard and Ed Bluestein. Tucked into the eastern edge of a working-class neighborhood of modest brick-front houses and duplexes, Johnston -- unlike Austin High School, which overlooks Town Lake, or even Fulmore Middle School, which backs up to South Congress -- is all but hidden from the public eye. Jets flying overhead and traffic racing down 183 create a haze of noise in the otherwise sleepy atmosphere of the old East Austin community.

The school itself is a low-slung, catacomb-like, brick warren of nondescript 1960s educational institutional architecture, surrounded by a network of athletic fields. Inside the front doors are new administrative offices and the new library, completed this school year with bond monies approved in 1995-96. The paint is still fresh and clean, unlike most of the school, which is a network of dreary hallways, old lockers, and worn classrooms. Exposed wiring clings to ceilings, and on a brisk January day the air is colder inside the building than outside. Students complain that heaters don't work and that there is really no air conditioning -- except in the new wing (also built with bond money), which houses many of the magnet classes. Spring and fall can be sweltering. Further, say students, the roof over the 40-year-old school leaks, so on rainy days the hallways are obstacle courses of water-collecting trash cans. District officials said the air conditioning, heating, roof repair, and exposed wiring should be taken care of by the start of school in September, with the remaining chunk of the $6.7 million in bond money allotted from the 1995-96 cycle.

Of course, students who just made it through nearly two years without a fully stocked library view this promise with some skepticism. During construction -- which Montoya said was held up by a contractor's underbidding -- library materials were housed in the small gym, and nearly half of the books were boxed up and unavailable to the students. "Sometimes, I think they have good intentions, but because of money or whatever ... I think they just have higher priorities on their list," said Katie Belknap, a senior in Johnston's Liberal Arts Academy. Johnston junior Andreana Pérez said the school's appearance is an outward sign of the neglect it has suffered as the result of a lack of attention from the district. "The [new] offices are beautiful, but they just put the icing over the burnt cake to make it look good," she said.

The campus also lags behind in technological advancements -- for example, it was only connected to the Internet in January -- and many of the classrooms that have computers either lack software or the phone connections to get online. "When we came, we said we wanted Internet access. And the district said ... 'We're going to have it in six months,'" said Johnston parent Pat Roeder, whose daughter is now a magnet senior. Roeder is also a member of the Campus Advisory Council, a group of parents, faculty, staff, and community members who meet with the school's administration to advise on school goals and budget priorities. "The six months came and went. And they said, 'it will be within six months.' And that came and went ..." Roeder said. "For all the money they've spent, they probably should've just built a new school. They could've done that much easier."

Cavazos agrees that the district has neglected Johnston, and to him the neglect is a symptom of the lack of continuous leadership at the school. "Because there's been nobody there to advocate for them and say this is not okay," Cavazos said. "[They need] an advocate to draw people's attention that it's not okay anymore." The lack of technology and resources at Johnston is "not acceptable," said Cavazos, who recently completed a complete upgrade of tech resources at Fulmore. When he first arrived at that Travis Heights middle school, there were about 100 computers for 800 students. "And that's a very liberal figure," Cavazos said. He worked with executives at private companies, coordinated grant writing and wrote grants, and working with his staff turned the lack of resources into an embarrassment of riches. G-Tech (which holds the Texas Lottery concession) donated 40 new computers and wired Fulmore's library for Internet access. A grant from Dell provided funds for computers -- and an additional teacher and a social worker for the school's at-risk math program. A federal grant provided some 40 additional computers for another computer lab.

"I'm confident that we'll work from where we are and improve from there," Cavazos said of his new assignment. But Johnston will be a greater challenge than Fulmore, which includes a mix of a minority population and students from Travis Heights -- a neighborhood so gentrified and upscale that its residents can be identified by their 78704 booster bumper stickers. There's no bumper sticker for Johnston's zip, and with district funding formulas set, Cavazos is already scrambling. He's met with representatives of chip-maker AMD to negotiate a grant that would provide computer and instructional resources to replicate Fulmore's at-risk math program -- which identifies the "neediest at-risk kids" and provides extra support. (Math scores are a Johnston TAAS test deficit.) Johnston is also poised to receive $4.5 million in federal grant money for a technology and media-focused "magnet." Unlike the district's existing magnet programs, which require student applications and teacher recommendations, access to Johnston's tech and media magnet will be much easier. "It will be open to all students," Cavazos said. "They will have to keep their grades up and their focus in place. They can get in, but the only way they can get out is to take themselves out."

The Trouble With Magnets

The district's "traditional" magnets present their own set of problems. The three specialized advanced academic programs -- the Liberal Arts Academy at Johnston, the Science Academy at LBJ High, and the humanities and math programs at Kealing Junior High -- were a last-ditch attempt to integrate the city's schools after busing initiatives ended in the mid-1980s. In theory, the magnet programs "integrate" the Eastside minority schools in a noncoercive manner, using specialized courses of study to attract students from across the district.

But the structure of the programs -- each is a school-within-a-school -- has created animosity among some parents and students, who complain that the model leaves kids in the regular academic programs with fewer resources and less rigorous academic programs. "I believe in the Liberal Arts Academy at Johnston," Cavazos said. "It is a specialized focus. Having the magnet at Johnston is good. The thing is, you don't fit Johnston into the magnet. You see what I mean? You fit the magnet with Johnston. You can't put the big thing into the little, and the focus has been on the magnet." Cavazos is even bothered by the terminology, which only adds to the inequity felt by parents and students. Cavazos prefers "magnet" or "specialized" program along with "comprehensive program," as opposed to "regular school" or "host school." (The word "host" does conjure up images of the person left to clean up all the trash after the big party.) Parents of Johnston's "comprehensive program" students agree with Cavazos. Or at the very least, they have real misgivings about using the magnet school to integrate their campus. "I knew individuals who attended Johnston when there was still busing ... and at that time you clearly had a school that was integrated," said parent Sylvia Herrera. "At least there was a good mix, so that curriculum was addressed across the board."

Community activists, including Calvary Baptist Church's Rev. Sterling Lands II -- president of the 600-member Eastside Social Action Coalition that has threatened to pull their kids out of public schools if the district does not provide a more equitable educational experience for minority children -- have said that if academic rigor were up to par across the district, the magnet programs would become obsolete. District officials insist that high academic achievement and a high demand on students is part of a districtwide program. And Liberal Arts Academy Director Dr. Paula Tyler says that magnet schools are not exclusively about high standards and increased demands on students. "That's not a bad idea, but it misconstrues the issue," Tyler said. "It's not that we assign more homework, it's that it's a different kind of program. I run a reading magnet where we are reading unedited Tolstoy and Salinger in the ninth grade. Do I think that this is what every kid needs in the ninth grade? I don't know that I think so." (For more on the Liberal Arts Academy curriculum, see "Putting Himself 'Out Here,'" p.36.)

Last year, Johnston graduated fewer than half of the freshmen who entered its halls four years before.
Last year, Johnston graduated fewer than half of the freshmen who entered its halls four years before. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

District superintendent Pat Forgione has appointed a Community Working Group to study the magnet program, and one question on the table is whether to house all three of the magnets in one, stand-alone school -- a model Tyler supports. "There are curriculum problems in asking bright kids in the ninth grade, do they want to go to a school with a strong liberal arts focus, but not as strong a math and science [curriculum], or do they want to go for math and science and not as strong a liberal arts program." Tyler says. She believes that housing all the magnets on one campus could correct this problem by providing more options to students. The working group is scheduled to make recommendations no later than November.

Yet there is another problem that pertains not so much to the magnet schools, but to the student bodies on the campuses that house the magnets -- a problem that raises questions about the district's intent in placing magnet schools on low-performing campuses. Roeder, the father of a senior at the Liberal Arts Academy, suggests that the specialized programs "mask" academic weakness in the comprehensive programs. District data on academic performance, which is reported to the Texas Education Agency, is not "disaggregated" -- in other words grades, attendance statistics, retention rates, and standardized test scores of magnet students are included with data on the larger student body. It is a practice that creates a rosier picture of the educational vitality of the three low-income, mostly minority campuses that house the magnet programs. "I've been asking for disaggregated data for five years and [the district] didn't want to do it," said Roeder. "Because they'll find, if they don't look at it with the academy data in there, they'll all be considered low-performing schools. They'll have to face the wrath of the Eastside community that says, 'See, you haven't been educating my kids.'" AISD officials say they have begun disaggregating data this year and the first, completely separated set of numbers are expected in September.

Meanwhile, another controversy that pits magnet students against host school students is wending its way through the United States District Court in Austin, where three Liberal Arts Academy students filed a suit contesting AISD's student ranking system at Johnston High. Rankings by grade average are newly important because they now determine the top 10% of each graduating class -- the students who will get automatic admission to state universities. The system challenged in court, which is the same system used at LBJ, splits the top 10% into two groups -- 5% for the magnet, 5% for the host. It was an attempt to equalize college access between two student bodies on one campus, but plaintiffs claim the system "infringes on their property interest to automatic admission."

AISD had previously used a dual-ranking system by which magnet students were ranked against the total school population, while students in the regular academic programs were ranked only against other host students. The result was an over-reporting of the number of students in the top 10% of the graduating class. According to court records, this district policy was adopted in 1996 because "many parents of host students complain that the presence of academy students diminishes college opportunities for their children." The court ruled that the apportioning system "remedied the problem of over-reporting, but did so by granting top 10% status to students whose GPAs were not in the numerical ... top 10% of the graduating class." In December, Judge James Nowlin ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and enjoined the district from using the split-ranking system. AISD is appealing. And Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, filed a bill that would allow the schools to return to the dual-ranking system. Part of the problem built into the structure is that grades for magnet classes are weighted more heavily than grades in regular academic classes. That is, an A in a magnet class provides a student with more grade points than an A in a regular academic class -- further increasing the likelihood that magnet students will land in the top 10%.

"It's bothered a lot of the kids," said LAA senior Belknap. "Everyone wants to be treated the same, but since we get more points for the magnet classes it isn't really fair. ... They're not trying to be an integrated school."

Integrating the Future

Sal Cavazos certainly has his work cut out for him. But he's confident he can turn Johnston's woes into triumphs. He is committed to raising the academic bar for all of Johnston's students: enrolling more students into the Recommended High School Plan and Distinguished Achievement Program (the vast majority of Johnston's regular students are enrolled in the minimum high school plan); convincing more students to take the SAT and ACT (only 46% of Johnston's class of 1999 took one of the college entrance exams, while almost all the Liberal Arts Academy students did); and encouraging more host students to enroll in honors, advanced placement, and magnet classes (only 23.9% of Johnston's class of 1999 opted for advanced courses, and school officials said very few neighborhood students ever take any of the magnet classes). "We have to have rigor and high expectations for all kids," he said. "I want the educational needs of all the students to be met. We need a strict program to bring the students up to grade level if they're not. But there are many that are, and we need to push them to go higher."

So far, the school's faculty are expressing guarded optimism. "I am encouraged by what I hear. I think there's promise if he'll stay, and that's an important point to make," said Johnston instructional coordinator Molly Guion. "But I have been impressed with his knowledge and the questions he asks. He's very intelligent and good at pulling the information that he needs from people."

Cavazos' track record and his steady ascent up the administrative ladder suggest that he is prepared for what is his most challenging assignment. Before signing on with AISD, he was principal of the small, 2A Rowe High School in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. And he was an assistant high school principal in McAllen, where he also taught government and English literature classes. He describes himself as a hallway kind of guy, and during an interview at Fulmore didn't seem entirely comfortable sitting behind his desk. "[The kids] have needs and it is important to know what's going on with them. They don't always come to the office to say what's going on; you need to go to them," he says, extending a finger toward the glass. "That's where the fun is anyway. Who wants to sit behind an office door all day? That's no fun."

A principal who works the halls and connects with students would make a lot of people at Johnston happy. "I know the administrators. ... They haven't listened to the kids, ever," said Johnston senior Belknap. "I've had friends who've tried to have adult conversations [with administrators] and they just get talked down to. If they'd listen, they could begin to build a healthy relationship." Parent Dolores Pérez agrees. "The students are not being heard. They need to listen to the kids," she said. "There's got to be a round table and an effort to turn the negative into the positive. That would turn the pride issues around."

Pride -- and a passion for learning -- are what Cavazos wants to instill in all his students. "I have great hopes for Johnston," Cavazos said. "But the thing is, one person can't do it, it's a team effort. That's what gets me going."

For more on Johnston High School, see the Arts feature Putting Himself 'Out Here.'

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