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Talking Back to the Feds

"Teachers should be chasing us around," the Texas high school senior told the official from the U.S. Department of Education. "We shouldn't be chasing them. But that doesn't always happen here."

Students Arturo Garcia and Chris Conway listen to a U.S. Department of Education representative describe a grant program targeting low-performing schools like theirs, Reagan High School in East Austin. The money is tied to major overhauls and replacement of staff.

It took the man from the U.S. government a good while to get to the point, to fully explain his purpose.

He had come to Reagan High School in Austin to talk with students and teachers about a huge new pot of federal money that could mean grants of up to $2 million each for schools like Reagan, schools classified as being in the “bottom 5 percent” nationally. The federal grants, totaling nearly $4 billion over three years, are tied to drastic overhauls — even closures — of the low-performing schools they target. But that dynamic is still little understood by school districts. Which is why Alberto Retana, in charge of “outreach” about the program for the U.S. Department of Education, came to visit Reagan on Monday.

The gathering, in a classroom after school, started late and consisted of just two current students, one former student, two community activists and one teacher. But Retana was nonetheless determined to hear what the students had to say. And they had plenty. The conversation that ensued grew into an uncommonly intimate and unscripted discourse between a Washington education official and a handful of those on the ground level of a public education system that might be affected in profound ways by national policy.

Retana kicked off the session by asking: What are some of the things Reagan needs? What can the federal government do to help?

Well, books might help — books you can actually take home and read, instead of the class set. “They could at least assign us a book, so we can study at night or whenever we can,” said Arturo Garcia, a senior. “We have to study all the material in one year only during that class time.”  

Chris Conway, also a senior, agreed. He made an impassioned plea for one-on-one tutoring after school. “It took me, on my own, taking a book — not checking it out, but taking it — and going home and doing it on my own,” he said. “Teachers should be chasing us around. We shouldn’t be chasing them. But that doesn’t always happen here.”

A few moments later, recent graduate Jermiah Crawford laid out the bigger picture. Like many urban schools, he said, Reagan has been plagued over the years with high turnover of both teachers and administrators, along with low expectations and giveaway grades. “How are you going to have high morale when you have seven principals in five years?” he asked. “The curriculum at Reagan isn’t — what’s the word? — strenuous."

And yet the paradox in the students’ complaints was that they demonstrated an equally passionate, almost protective, pride in Reagan, whatever its test scores may show. When Retana asked them about what’s working at the school, they bragged on the departments of science, social studies and English — especially English. And they praised a new practice of teams of teachers writing a more rigorous curriculum, dispensed in six-week blocks.

“When they told me I had to write a 10-page research paper, with at least five sources and a introduction and a conclusion, I thought there was no way I could do it in six weeks,” Conway said. “But if you really throw yourself into it, you’re surprised at what you can do.”

“We’ve got so many amazing people here," Garcia added. "I don’t think people realize it.”

A few minutes later, Retana finally tiptoed up to the point of his visit. To get the federal money, he told the students, some of those “amazing” people might get booted from Reagan. The grants are tied to one of four drastic turnaround models: “The first one, the most controversial one, is to close the school and send students to a higher-performing school,” he told them.

A look of shock came over Conway's face.

The second model is the “restart” model, in which an outside charter operator or “EMO” (education management organization) takes over the school. The third model is “turnaround”: Fire the principal and half the staff. The fourth is “transformation,” where only the principal has to be fired and the academic program overhauled in federally dictated ways.

Silence fell over the room.

“Those are harsh,” a clearly perturbed Conway finally said. “For real, harsh.”

When Retana followed up with Conway, noting he "seemed a little bummed out," the student said simply, "I'm really at a loss for words right now."

Retana tried to explain. “They are harsh, but I have to say, what’s even more harsh is what’s been happening to kids and families at a lot of schools for years, where kids are dropping out, going to prison,” he said. “You can help figure out which model is for you — or maybe none of them are for you. But I feel like it's better for the community to get ahead of it and push for what they want.”

The Austin Independent School District knows that Hobson’s choice well: Either close or “repurpose,” which is somewhat like closing the school anyway, only to reopen it immediately with largely new staff and programs. Two schools that neighbor Reagan on the city’s relatively impoverished east side, the former Johnston High (now Eastside Memorial) and Pearce Middle, have both been threatened with closure under state rules that are similar to, though somewhat less harsh than, the new federal grant regulations. Both campuses were ultimately “repurposed” after a backlash from their communities against closure convinced state officials to compromise, but only after much of their staffs had been sent packing and their programs overhauled.

Eastside Memorial is now a conglomeration of several small, specialized schools operating under one roof. Pearce is still in the first year of repurposing, under a plan hurriedly thrown together after state Education Commissioner Robert Scott threatened to close the school in July — during the first week of the tenure of newly minted Austin ISD superintendent Meria Carstarphen. It’s yet unclear whether the efforts, coming after several failed rounds of reform, will produce lasting improvement at each school.

If the comments in the Reagan classroom are any guide, such drastic measures won’t necessarily go down easily in the communities of other campuses, even with the elixir of a massive federal grant to wash them down.

“Sounds a little scorched-earthy to me,” remarked teacher Elaine McGinty, whose business card reads “Raiders Forever,” in a not-so-subtle backlash against any notions of shutting the school down.

“We might have been on board with you about two years ago, when we had a principal that didn’t connect with us,” Garcia said. But the staff and students have rallied behind new principal Anabel Garza. “We’re definitely on the way to turning around.”

Retana told the group he understands their concerns. Reagan, he told them, won’t necessarily undergo a drastic overhaul; the decision on whether to apply for the grant money will fall to state and district officials. He had just come to listen, he said. “I don’t want to be the man from the government who says hello to everybody for five minutes and then turns around and says, ‘I’ve got to go,’” he said. He allowed that federal government programs for struggling schools have their flaws and promised to bring the students’ input back to Washington.

McGinty empathized.

“It’s the same for teachers,” she said. “You can’t be in this school without being complicit in some of the things that go on here that aren’t good.”

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