Spoiler alert: In Michael Brick's new book, Saving the School, the main character survives. That character is Reagan High School – but as anyone who was watching Austin education in 2010 knows, it was a close call.
Brick, a UT-Austin graduate turned New York Times reporter, heard a ticking clock, and it was the sound of the countdown to Reagan's execution. The Northeast Austin high school was in its fourth year daubed with the state's scarlet AU rating, for "academically unacceptable." Many of its best students had fled to LBJ or Austin High: Even its shining athletic light, basketball/football double threat and future Iowa State receiver JaQuarius "JQ" Daniels, had transferred to Reagan in part because, as Brick puts it, he knew a star shines brighter on a failing team. New Principal Anabel Garza, fresh from successes at Austin ISD's experimental campus-within-a-campus, the International High School, had one year to turn it all around.
Every day, Brick would hear the ticking clock and hear the horror stories about the school – failing grades, teen pregnancies, gangs. But he also knew about the old Reagan, the successful Reagan, the three-time state football champs Reagan, the Reagan through whose halls Ron Kirk had walked before becoming the first black mayor of Dallas, and the first black U.S. trade representative. As a UT student, Brick lived near what he still calls the airport – the old Mueller – and the St. John community that has looked to Reagan to educate its kids since 1965. His wife had been a Reagan Raider and a member of the yearbook committee. Now he and his family are back in East Austin, out in the same community around Cameron Road, with roots so deep that his wife has founded a scholarship fund for the school. When you're that close, he said, "that ticking clock was hard to ignore."
Garza didn't hear a countdown. She heard a pulse. The feisty but friendly principal – who still tears up thinking about the toughest times – just wanted to others to hear it. While some principals may have blanched at accepting an embedded reporter, for her Brick was just another face on a campus swarming with outsiders, volunteers, and Texas Education Agency overseers. That school year, in fact, freshly transferred from IHS, she was one of them. She said: "It's almost like asking, 'At what point did you come in on the patient?' I came in when there was a heartbeat, and when there's a heartbeat, you always have hope."
Yet the knives were out for Reagan. This was not a year of idle threats, but of grim realities. Scars in East Austin still run deep about how AISD closed old Anderson High in 1971. Two years before Garza took over at Reagan, nearby Johnston High had been shut down and turned into Eastside Memorial – the latest in a continuing series of closures, "repurposings," building-ups, and tearing-downs that have left the community battered and bruised. Pearce Middle School was under attack from the TEA. So, as Brick points out, it wasn't like there was a shortage of contenders for his book. But when it came to Reagan, "I had a feeling about it," he said. "I don't think I would have stuck around for a whole year to the extent that I did if it wasn't clear that something really exciting and important was happening here. I just kind of had a feeling things were heading in the right direction."
Most books about education fall into two categories: number-crunching academic tomes that try to dissect the seemingly unfathomable school accountability matrix, and flag-waving. Saving the School is neither. It's a day-by-day, class-by-class, game-by-game recounting of what could have been Reagan's last year. There are no wild experiments, no brave new worlds of education theory. Instead, it's Garza making tough decisions about how to use limited resources to fight within – and sometimes around – the accountability system. It's about Candice Kaiser, the devoutly religious chemistry teacher who tells the kids in her class every day that she loves them. It's basketball coach Derrick Davis – known as "Little Pee-Wee," after his father, roundball star "Pee-Wee" before him – instilling pride and humility in his team. And it's all the students and teachers and parents who knuckled down and fought for their school with good grades and improved graduation rates and staying out of trouble. What some may see as warts-and-all reporting, Garza sees as the simple truth. She said, "I keep telling our teachers, keep the real thing the real thing. If you are about kids, then there's nothing wrong with that. We can be a fish bowl and anybody can peer in. We have nothing to hide."
Two years later, Brick has his book, and – more importantly – Garza and her community still have their school. Building incrementally on what they achieved together in 2010, Reagan is now an early college prep academy, with Garza still at the helm. They will gather – including the Reagan High School Band – at BookPeople on Monday, Aug. 21, for Brick's book launch. For Brick, it will be a second graduation, complete with the school band. He said, "We're all going to sign books, and this may be a bit cheesy, but it's going to be like a yearbook signing."
But what's really important to him is that there was a happy ending for Reagan, with the lifting of the "academically unacceptable" status. He said: "Parents don't get that letter home every summer where they're warned, 'Hey, don't come here! If you have the means, flee!' So Anabel has the chance to get some of those kids she's trying to recruit in middle school. She has a good argument to say, 'It's time to come to Reagan.'"
Michael Brick, Anabel Garza, and the Reagan High School Band will be at BookPeople for a book launch party at 6:30pm Tuesday, Aug. 21. See www.bookpeople.com/event/michael-brick-saving-school for more details.
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