As the yellow school bus heaved to a halt on the University of Texas campus, Angela Gatto rose into the aisle to give the backpack-clutching teenagers in the seats a pep talk she proudly said they didn't really need. "Y'all represented last time," the petite, blond teacher told her AP English students from Reagan High. "You have your intelligence, so show it in your conversation. I think you can blow some of these UT kids out of the water."
The students piled off the bus, the boys in baggy T-shirts and the girls in fitted hoodies, and headed to a second-year English class to spend an hour debating Harper's Magazine selections with UT students a couple of years older and college-life-wiser than they. The visit is part of a program called SPURS (Students Partnering for Undergraduate Rhetoric Success), a pilot program that brings students from high schools with low college-attendance rates into UT writing classes. "We're trying to develop rigorous bridging programs so students' skills are equalized at the university," said Janice Giddings, who runs the program through the UT Office of School Relations, which has a similar program in chemistry.
Currently, the only Austin school participating is Reagan, a school known more for violence and low academic performance than rigor and ambition. Only about a third of all Reagan graduates pursue higher education, and that's not factoring in the kids who don't graduate as of 2005, only 71% of the would-be class of 2003 had graduated. Reagan also has some of the lowest passing rates on standardized tests in the district: According to the most recent TEA data, 78% of 11th-graders passed their reading tests, and 54% passed math. In the sea of bad publicity that surrounds a school like Reagan, it can be easy to forget that motivated students with college plans also study in its classrooms. That's where SPURS aims to help, by providing college exposure that students in other parts of town take for granted.
"The best advantage of the SPURS program is making it concrete for students that they, too, can go to college," said Linda Ferreira-Buckley, director of the Rhetoric and Writing department at UT. "If you've not been on a college campus and don't have family members or friends who have been, it can seem like a foreign place that's inhospitable."
Most of Gatto's AP students have no doubt they'll go to college, but they also have their concerns. One is cultural: Reagan is nearly 100% black and Hispanic, while UT is only about 3.7% African-American and 14% Hispanic. Their campus visit emphasized UT's multicultural resources, but some weren't convinced. "I didn't see any diversity, but I'll just have to take their word for it," said Aaron Knight, who plans to study at a historically black college.
Whether they choose UT, A&M, or another institution, the Reagan students will have to be prepared for college work. As part of the program, the students receive peer editing from the college students on a project typical for a second-year rhetoric class: the proposal argument, in which they learn to define a problem and propose a solution.
The students found no shortage of problems at their school (not least of which is its tarnished reputation, a sore point for any Reagan student). The gripes ranged from simple problems like nasty school lunches to more challenging dilemmas like tense race relations between the school's black and Hispanic students. In one cluster of desks in the UT classroom, the college students reviewed competing proposals by the high schoolers to improve racial harmony. One group proposed a cultural pride and understanding day, where black students would be paired with Hispanics for a day of each others' music and food. "The major part of this event will be lunch," said the proposal. "We plan to have enchiladas, chicken, tacos, and more." The UT students suggested grammatical changes and questioned whether highlighting the students' differences might reinforce the stereotypes their proposal aims to address. Reagan student Mychal Gaddison took issue with the whole proposal.
"Nothing's going to come out of it," he said. "After diversity day, everything will just go back to normal." His proposal said racial mistrust is a problem that can't be "solved" by an event or a program: The best thing to do is provide opportunities for students to continually talk about it. Aaron Knight, his co-author, agreed. "Martin Luther King fought his whole life to stop it," Knight said. "The problem is still here."
Other students were more optimistic about their proposals' chances of success. One was Angelica Venecia, who wanted to address poor relations between students and some teachers. While Venecia praised Gatto as a whole, the class described her as a cool teacher who respects and challenges them the same isn't true for all teachers at Reagan. Venecia proposed a mediation process where teachers and students could work out problems and misunderstandings with mutual respect. "A lot of kids here have a lot to say about the quality of their education," she said. "I want to help Reagan become better."
After that, she'll go to college.
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