A 'Do or Die' Year at Reagan
A Q&A with 'Saving the School' author Michael Brick
Austin Chronicle: There's a growing swath of books about the perceived problems in American education, and many of them are written for academic and policy wonks. There's also no shortage of troubled schools in East Austin. Why did you pick Reagan, and why did you take this real boots-on-the-ground approach to the story?
Michael Brick: I'm not a policy expert, and didn't have any intention to become one. I think from a pure storytelling point of view, I was looking at a ticking clock. I started really paying attention to Reagan in 2008, 2009, when there were protests in front of the Capitol. There was clearly some interest in trying to keep the place from being shut down. There was what appeared to be this David and Goliath struggle going on. At the point where the scores came back in the summer of 2009, and this was the fourth year the school was rated "academically unacceptable," the state education commissioner sent a pretty clear message that they had one year to bring the scores up or else. From a writer's perspective, just looking at the narrative, you thought: "OK, here's a do-or-die year. Just go find the characters and what's going on." The backdrop is obviously that public education has become the country's most pressing and sad social, political, and even moral problem. And here was all of that crystallized with a one-year ticking clock.
AC: What was the process of getting this kind of access to, not just the building, but the individuals and their lives?
MB: Just be cool. That's been my guiding principle as a reporter over the years. Quoting the Bible, "Treat people like you would want to be treated." Keep in mind that it's other people's lives and other people's stories you're looking to understand and translate their world through your own perspective. To me, that's always meant, just be up-front and tell people what you're doing. When I sat down to talk with any of the people who appear in this book, I told them my life story and why I was interested in their life story. Obviously that's not something you have time to do with every daily or Sunday feature you try to run down, but if you take the time to devote to it and really dig beneath the surface, you owe it to people to tell them what you're up to.
AC: Anabel [Garza, Reagan principal] is the obvious person to talk to, but you were really deeply embedded with people in a community that, to be generous about it, has a complicated relationship with the media and can be sensitive about another white guy coming in and telling them how to run the place. So what was the process of coming in?
MB: It takes really being there to learn, and I guess the best way to do it is to just walk through. When I first sat down with Anabel, I knew what they were facing, I knew a little about the national education politics behind it, I knew the school's history, but sitting down with her, it was cemented: OK, this is worth spending a couple of years on. She's just a dynamo. When you first sit down to talk to her, it's obvious that she's devoted her life to helping others, particularly kids. That's not in a saintly "sit down and pray" way. It's in a "run you over if you get in the way" way. The thing is, she lets anybody in, so it wasn't so hard for me to get in with Anabel, because that's one of the things to admire most about her. But once you're in the circle, there're certain expectations. If you don't live up to them, she lets you know and brings the consequences. It was clear that was the way she approached the kids and the people who worked with her and everyone at that school.
So I'm at the school through Anabel, and once there, there's a variety of people who are there for a variety of, all good and well-intentioned reasons, but for very different reasons. Anabel was brought in to working with kids in public schools because of a tragedy in her private life. Another main character in the book, Derrick Davis, the basketball coach, was brought to Reagan because of loyalty: This was his place; he'd grown up here. Another character, Candice Kaiser, the chemistry teacher that we follow in the book, is there for another and very clashing reason – the devout Christian faith that she's just exploring that year. They've all got kind of the same thing in mind, but not exactly the same thing.
AC: Candice is interesting because, outside of the classroom, the two big subplots that come out are Candice and her faith, and basketball captain JaQuarius "JQ" Daniels and the sports side. What made you go, "These are what I want to put in," and what were the things where you went, "Maybe I can get that in," but had to say no? After all, there's a lot of big personalities around East Austin schools that would be easy to write about.
MB: Candice was someone I went looking for. After Anabel, I knew, OK, principal, she's leading the school and she's this really dynamic character who's the focus of this. Who else do we need to focus on? The test scores, as you know, in science and math are the two places that were going to be the most trouble for them, so I asked around the science department: Who's interesting, who's really good, possibly young and ambitious, and all signs pointed to Candice. When we sat down to talk, that was all there, plus the Christian thing. That was a wild card I wasn't expecting, but when you go into a big reporting project like this, if you're not surprised and you don't learn things you're not expecting to learn, you're not doing it right. Candice, for good reason, was concerned about how her Christianity and the role of Christian groups at the school were going to be portrayed. I felt like the only way to do it justice without being an apologist or being overly critical was to take a giant step back when Christianity comes in and really explore the role that it plays, not only at this school but the history of Christian groups in school. I went to a public high school in Dallas, and I'm Catholic, so I wasn't involved with these groups, but I'm also used to them being there. I've also lived in the Northeast for a good bit of my life, and I know people all over the country are going to react differently to, "There's these Christians talking to kids about Christ in the school?" if the full context of it isn't there. So I had to lay it all out.
Next, after Candice, Derrick Davis found me. As he told it, he figured I'm from the [Texas Education Agency], because I'm walking around the halls with a notebook, and he pulled me aside to say: "Hey, man, I just wanted to introduce myself and see what you're up to and what you're thinking about Reagan so far. I went to school here back in the day, I played on the basketball team, and now I'm here teaching, so this place means a lot to me. I want to know what you guys are thinking about it." So I said, well, I'm not actually with the TEA, I'm just writing a book about the school, and you just passed the audition for main character number three on the adult side.
From there, the sports, well, I shouldn't give myself too much credit. The basketball story just happened. I wasn't the only one watching it. It was amazing what went on in that season. I went for my first sit down interview with JQ, and it's different dealing with a PR person or an adult who works with reporters all the time versus a teenager. We walked out to the car for our first interview and I said, Before I ask you any questions, tell me what you know about what I'm doing here on campus. He said, "Well, I know you're Miss Kaiser's friend." Let me stop you right there. I am not Miss Kaiser's friend. I like her, I admire her, but she's a subject, and I'm a journalist. I went on to explain that and lay that relationship out, just because of an abundance of caution. It's what I said about treating people the way you would want them to treat you if they were asking for your life story.
I wish, in hindsight, I had figured out what was going on with the band before November, because that is an amazing success story. [Band instructor] Ormide Armstrong and what he's managed to pull off with that band at that school is just astonishing. They appear in the book, but I wish I'd noticed it earlier; I wish I'd had more time. I wish there was room for a fourth plotline in there. And I think that underscores the things that are important to make a public high school the center of the neighborhood. You can't just drill math all day.
AC: From a narrative point of view, a book needs big moments, but when you talk about the big rivalry match with LBJ, when you were there, how important did it feel?
MB: That was up with wedding, birth of my children, certainly in that top 10. Sometimes just being a witness to something astonishing that other people are doing can be as powerful as doing something yourself. The accomplishments aren't on par, but the feelings are. It gets back to the devotion of time. I've never been a person that's been good in my private life with following an entire baseball season. I know there's a lot of rewards to be had there if I can only watch an entire Rangers season one year, that I would experience it in a totally different way than if I turned it on every once in a while and could name Josh Hamilton and maybe three or four others. But to actually have seen everything that read up to that moment, and to understand what the significance of that layup is, it blew me away.
AC: There's always a temptation in this kind of writing to make everyone inspirational figures, but there's a moment when they're saying, "how do we deal with this one individual kid who we know we're not going to get over the line, so where do we put our energy?" How did you go through the process of saying, OK, here's where I have to be a little tougher on this stuff, and say it's less about the individual stories and more about the numbers game?
MB: If you want to make an impact with a work like this, you have to take these real people and show the world exactly what they're going through, how they're reacting to it, and why. I learned as much of the policy as I could and I hope as much as I needed to, so I could put what they were doing in full and accurate context. I don't want to set out to make them inspirational figures or criticize them. I think the journalistic role is to make the world understand, OK, here's how it works in the current system. Here's a group of people who, you can tell from their actions, are decent and smart and they care. Here's what they're up against, and here's how they're responding to it. That's because of these policies that are in place. Should we double down on these policies? Should we rethink these policies? That's up to you, the reader, to decide, but here's how it looks on the ground.