Michael Brick’s “Saving the School” is a compelling, enlightening account of a school community rising to save itself in the unforgiving, data-driven, often nonsensical world bequeathed to public education by No Child Left Behind. Brick, a former New York Times writer, spent the 2009-10 school year chronicling the unrelenting efforts of Principal Anabel Garza, her staff and students to prevent Reagan High School in East Austin from being closed by the Texas Education Agency, which for four straight years had slapped Reagan with the label “academically unacceptable.” Without dramatic improvement in the scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills given in the spring of 2010, Reagan faced the prospect of being permanently closed and its students being shipped out of their neighborhood to other schools.
Raising test scores at Reagan was a daunting task. Like many schools across the country, including T.C. Williams in Alexandria, where I teach, Reagan had undergone enormous demographic changes over the past 25 years. In 1990, Reagan’s senior class was approximately 50 percent white, 30 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. Since then, many middle-class families, white and black, had fled the community as impoverished families from Mexico and Central America poured in. By 2009, Reagan’s student body was 71 percent Hispanic, 26 percent black and 3 percent white; 88 percent of those kids were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
(Penguin) - ‘Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform’ by Michael Brick
Unfortunately, there’s a myth today that the best schools are those with the highest test scores, which, given the correlation between test scores and home life, is simply saying that the good schools are those with kids from the right homes. The fact is that the best schools are those that take their students wherever they are academically and move them forward as far as possible. By that measure, Reagan may be one of the best schools in the country, regardless of what the Texas Education Agency might think of its test scores.
Education reform is full of vapid cliches, but the one that happens to be absolutely true is this: The principal is key. It is also true that being a principal of a high school is such an onerous, pressure-packed, time-consuming job that many common-sense educators who wish to have a life want no part of it. Of all the portraits Brick draws, that of Garza, a combination of Mother Teresa and Vince Lombardi, is the most captivating.
A 47-year-old widow, Garza often worked 16-hour days. As the critical 2009-10 school year began, before she could even start to think about raising test scores, she had to be able to meet the Texas “completion rate” requirement, which meant that by Sept. 25, she had to prove that 75 percent of the kids who entered Reagan as ninth-graders were still enrolled in the school and on track to graduate in four years. Even if 75 percent of each grade was still enrolled, the school could fail to meet the requirement if any one of the subgroups stipulated by No Child Left Behind — in Reagan’s demographic, African American, Hispanic, white, and economically disadvantaged — fell under 75 percent.