Turning Around a Failing High School: Again and Again

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?


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

9 responses to “Turning Around a Failing High School: Again and Again

  1. JB

    Larry, please clarify. Did you find the activities going on the the three non-typical classrooms to be better than the 11 typical classrooms, or not? if so, why? if not, why not? I would not be surprised to see teachers helping students learn how to write forumulas in a Chemistry classroom, including the very best ones. That’s a basic building block of Chemistry. How is that different from teaching students about alleles, which is an important concept in Biology? Were you trying to say that Reagan was improving but got cut off at the pass? or were you trying to say that improvement was minimal?

    • larrycuban

      Fair questions, Jane. I did not then, or do so now, have sufficient evidence to determine whether the three non-typical classes were “better” than 11 typical ones. The three I observed were different. I don’t even know if what I saw in those three lessons were typical of the teacher. All of this is to say that the narrow slice of Reagan high school lessons I saw on those two mornings was similar to what I have seen in other high schools undergoing a turnaround experience in its early months. That is all I was trying to say.

      Whether the subsequent state rating of “Academically Acceptable” was due to the kinds of teaching I saw, I cannot say. That the Austin Board and Superintendent had “repurposed” the school and imported another “turnaround” model for Reagan to maintain its “Academically Acceptable” rating is another instance of constant recycling of whole school reforms that occur in many urban districts.

  2. Cal

    I teach algebra, and easily a third of my students don’t want to be there and show it. They are disruptive, unpleasant, rude, never stop talking, throw things when I’m not looking, and do everything they can to make the classroom environment unpleasant.

    Over time, I coopt as many of them as I can. Some of them are quite good at math and can do the work. Once they find out I don’t count homework for much, they start to pay attention. Others learn that I will pass them if they work in class, pass tests with a 40% or higher average, and show continued progress (the D- policy), and this turns them around. And some never bother. They do no work, they sit in class and throw things or whatever.

    There’s usually a reason why teachers let students sleep. It’s not because they don’t care. I’d check in with a student who didn’t usually sleep, or one that had a chance at passing, and make them do some work.

    In many cases, schools “turn around” by aggressively using procedures to get rid of the kids who actively don’t want to be there. I don’t blame them. But it makes the whole thing a bit of a joke.

    On worksheets: Any handout is a “worksheet”. Most math teachers use handouts instead of having the kids write down problems because the participation rate is higher. I convert a huge amount of my textbook to handouts that lead the students through examples and then gives them several problems to work. It’s annoying when people refer to that whole process, which represents 2-3 hours of curriculum development, as a “worksheet”, with the implication that the teacher is phoning it in. (I’m not sure you’re doing that, but it’s a sore point).

    • larrycuban

      Hi Cal,
      Thanks for your straightforward description of managing and teaching your algebra classes. Insofar as “worksheets” are concerned, I do not make any judgments about quality or effectiveness when I see “worksheets.” It is the content of those worksheets and how they factor into the lesson, day after day, and the relationships between teacher and students that becomes important in judging how teachers teach and what students learn. Which is why in an earlier reply to Jane on this post, she asked me if the three non-typical classes I described were better than the typical ones–I said they were different, not better because I had seen a narrow slice of instruction in those classes. I appreciate the directness of your comments.

  3. Cal

    I don’t want to sound too cynical. I went into teaching to work with students who really strugggle in math, and I like to think I’m making a difference. And I feel for these kids. They don’t have the skills for algebra, they hate math anyway, they have no interest in going to college, and they see utterly no value in what they are being taught. If all that’s not enough, they are fed up with being forced into classes they don’t understand. If I hear one more smug person say “All they have to do is work”, I’m going to find a baseball bat. Your average blog readers have no clue what it’s like to really struggle to learn something, much less learn something they don’t care about.

    Few people understand how brutally difficult algebra is for the lower half of the ability spectrum. I am deeply sympathetic to it, and work hard for my successes.

    But ultimately, the kids who don’t want to be there and can’t be co-opted are a monumental drag on productivity and morale. When you read about parental happiness with charter schools that don’t do much for performance, remember that the parents are happy in part because their kids are away from “those kids”.

  4. Tiffany Thomas

    Hello Larry and Cal.
    I would like to first commend all educators who work in schools like Reagan. Those of you who even give the youth in your charge a second thought after the last bell of the day, I understand your struggle. Reagan High School is located in my community. I was born and raised here and now am rearing my own child right here. I see the struggles and issues of both the children who live here and the adults who attempt to teach here. I know these struggles first hand. As for Algebra, when you grow up in under served neighborhoods and must attend under served schools, you are not prepared for Algebra no matter what your learning ability. I have always been labeled, “gifted”. I have also attended schools on both sides of IH 35 and could hold my own with students of any socio-economic level. However, I was introduced to Algebra in eigth grade and struggled to pass. I know that this problem can be attributted to the inferior mathematical foundation that I received in early childhood. Today as an adult learner less than than twelve months away from a Bachelors Degree, I still struggle with Algebraic concpets. This is a subject that will never be easy for me. My point? By the time these children reach high school, they have experienced more failures, let downs, and problems than some of us will know throughout the duration of our lives. I am living proof that some can turn it around. I know that your days are long and your jobs are thankless. But for the sake of the small number of poor youth who will get it together, please do not grow weary in your quest to reach them.


    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much, Tiffany, for your connecting the post to your experience in growing up,going to Reagan high school, and now raising your child in the community. I wish you well in completing your BA degree.

  5. Hi Larry,
    As a teacher who worked at Reagan while you visited (2005-2010) and now supports the district as in instructional leader, I must correct a few inaccuracies in your blog. First, I wish that you would have included an actual photo of the high school. The picture you have posted is not John H. Reagan High School in Austin, Texas. Secondly, the school was never “repurposed”. Thirdly, the principal that you spoke of in 2007 is still there; there was not a change in leadership as you mentioned. Additionally, as one of original three SLC coordinators, specifically, M.A.S.H (Medical Arts, Sciences, and Health), we did not require students to wear their t-shirts (I’m curious as to what time of the year you came). I will also gladly point out that M.A.S.H began to initiate practices that increased attendance, achievement, and instructional practices; which then spread to the other SLCs the following two years. The campus struggled because there were various variables at play – high faculty/admin turnover, low-quality instructional practices, deficit thinking…the list goes on. I will close by saying that what you saw a Reagan when you visited in 2007 is unfortunately a problem at campuses across the United States. My role as an instructional leader provides me with the opportunity to see this first hand; and it is my hope that I can inculcate better pedagogical practices to teachers in my district.

    I just wanted to say I stumbled on to this as I am conducting a community profile for my Post-Master’s class and I decided that I would choose Reagan.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for comments. I erred in posting a photo of John H. Reagan high school in Houston. I have replaced the photo with one of Reagan high school in Austin. As for the principal who was there when I visited in December 2007, he was replaced a few weeks later. Anabel Garza (with the help of Edmund Oropez, an experienced principal at the District office assigned to Reagan) has done fine things at the school. The school was initially “repurposed” with “First Things First” in 2006-2007–a Gates funded project imposed on the school by the District. That was abandoned soon as threats of state-mandated closure mounted;community momentum–St. John’s Neighborhood Association–including alumni actions and the work of activist Allan Weeks led to another “repurposing” of the high school. See http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2008-10-31/696453/

      The question I asked at the end of the post, James, is the one that perhaps, if you have the time,would kindly take a moment to answer.

      Thanks again for pointing out my error on the photo. I wish you well in your work.

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