Failing urban high schools have been called “blackboard jungles,” “social dynamite,” and now “dropout factories.” For nearly 15 years I taught history in such high schools in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. I have seen the successes that occur in such schools and, yes, the pathologies too. In late 2007, I visited Reagan High School in Austin, Texas, a school declared “Academically Unacceptable,” or failing in TEA-speak (Texas Education Authority).
In 2003, a male student had stabbed to death his ex-girlfriend, during the school day. The murder sent waves of fear and anger through the community and led to the swift appointment of a Community Safety Task Force. Neither the Task Force report, added school security, and “Academically Unacceptable” ratings, however, made Reagan attractive to new students or teachers.
In 2007, over 900 students were enrolled (67 percent were Mexican American of whom one out of three were English Language Learners, 30 percent were African American, 2 percent were white and 85 percent were poor). Daily attendance averaged 85 percent (state average was 95) and Reagan’s graduation rate was dismal: 60 percent graduated in 2006 (state average was 80).
Frequent principal turnover had also hurt the school. Between 1997-2007, five principals entered and left. When I visited, another principal had been at Reagan for a year. The majority of the 75 teachers had less than 5 years of experience (21 percent came to Reagan with no experience).
With a growing sense of desperation at the school, top Austin administrators pushed the national model of First Things First. After a full year of planning, the principal and staff had organized three small learning communities (SLCs) that began in September 2007. Here is what I observed and heard from teachers and students on the two mornings that I visited Reagan.
A few students were wearing T-shirts with their SLC’s color and logo; most were not. Security aides patrolled the corridors shooing students into classes. Some students had ID badges with their names, photo, and SLC on it. Motivational signs (“Hard Work Pays Off”) dotted walls of classroom buildings. One very large wooden sign posted the attendance goal of “95% and Better !!” with space for numbers to be inserted next to freshmen through senior classes.
Of the 14 classes I visited, I saw small classes (one had 8 with the largest 21; the average was 15 students). Most students were attentive to the teacher and worked on assigned tasks. In half of the classes, at least one or two students had their heads down on desks with their eyes closed. Some teachers said nothing; other teachers asked students to pay attention or, if they were feeling ill, to go to the nurse. In none of classes I observed (nor in corridors when classes changed) did I see any open conflict between teacher and students or among students.
Teachers collected homework from some but not most students. When students read aloud in class, it was obvious that many had trouble with the text or worksheet passage. In one class, the teacher worked individually with a gang member (obvious tattoos) who was trying hard to pass Algebra.
I saw lessons where the teacher had written the daily objective on the whiteboard, reviewed homework, distributed worksheets, and had question-and-answer exchanges with students. Nearly all of the lessons were geared to the state test. In one class, for example, the chemistry teacher reviewed with students how to write formulas since such items appeared on the test.
Three of the 14 teachers conducted lessons different from the norm: one social studies teacher had a 30-minute discussion based on text and supplementary readings about the use of gross domestic product as an economic indicator; a geometry teacher used 6 learning centers where students moved from one station to another to complete tasks that would be on the test; students used graphing calculators for some of the station tasks. In another class, the teacher had students teach each other concepts of genes and alleles—items on the state test.
None of the above classroom observations struck me as unusual in urban high schools I had taught in and observed over the past quarter-century. Nor did I see anything unusual in a school in the early stages of creating small learning communities, advisories, and block scheduling while under great pressure from district administrators and the TEA to raise test scores or close. Nor was it strange to see sleepy students in classes, gang tattoos, very small classes, and highly visible adults patrolling halls. All are common in big city high schools.What I observed briefly at Reagan is what one would reasonably expect to see in the first year of implementation of small learning communities in a school largely attended by mostly poor, minority students including a large segment of English Language Learners.
At the end of that year, Reagan was again “Academically Unacceptable.” No turnaround. Since then, however, many changes have occurred at Reagan.
In 2009, Reagan test scores finally passed muster and the high school became “Academically Acceptable.” However, the Board of Trustees and new superintendent had, by then, “repurposed” the high school. The First Things First model was abandoned. Another principal appeared. Reagan will become a redesigned Early College High School model in cooperation with Austin Community College. The saga of turning around a “dropout factory” continues but one question lingers: what is going on in classrooms?